Bi-Weekly Update: Porco Rosso, Dawn of War: Dark Crusade, The Juggler’s Tale, The Shack

Quick note before we begin–my steampunk YA novel The Machinist is fast approaching publication! The agent asked me to give him some blurbs and a final version of the MS. We should have a cover finalized soon. More details to follow.

What I’m Watching: Porco Rosso

Hayao Miyazaki is, to put it lightly, a big name in the animation world. Every animation nerd has a list of their favorite Ghibli movies, and Porco Rosso is one of mine. Possibly part of this is my desire to be contrary and not give a “typical” answer like Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle and instead go for the eccentric goofy flick intended as in-flight entertainment for middle-aged businessmen.

Porco Rosso translates to “The Crimson Pig”, and is maybe the most unabashed expression of Miyazaki’s love for airplanes. It is a world full of seaplanes, a pulp adventure of derring-do. My father said it reminded him most of the Tintin adventure series, but one could also make comparisons to Steve Canyon or Terry and The Pirates with the titular pig being a bounty hunter pilot in a brilliant red plane.

In retrospect, Tintin was oddly talented at an awful lot of things.

This isn’t a case of a world populated by animals–Porco was originally human, we are told, and was changed into a pig via a mysterious curse. The movie gets all the mileage it can out of the “pig” puns, with Porco reflecting that he’s a fascist pig, that all middle-aged mens are pigs, that he’s being pig-headed.

A review I watched made the claim that the movie is excellent apart from the “pig” device, which they said added nothing to the narrative and turned what could have been a pure pulp adventure into a goofy fantasy. I could not disagree more strongly. In fact, I feel that to turn Porco into a human would rob the movie of its appeal. Porco would be less relatable, less sympathetic, less universal. Part of this is the well-known impact of cartoon-ier, simpler figures seeming more universal, more like the viewer themselves. But also there is a strange way in which Porco’s curse seems like something we the viewer can identify with (or at least I the viewer can).

The key is in the line “all middle-aged men are pigs.” Miyazaki originally made the movie for Tokyo Air and is on record (supposedly, can’t find the source) saying, “”a movie which tired businessmen on international flights can enjoy even with their minds dulled due to lack of oxygen,” It’s not a stretch, then, to consider that much of the movie can be taken for the mid-life crisis of a middle-aged businessman.

Porco, as the movie opens, is successful, famous even, a recognized professional in a stable life. His way of life, though, is under attack from changes in the world around him. Women and hotshot young foreigners are invading his world, replacing him, and his best is no longer good enough. He is tired and breaking down. His entire way of life is disappearing. Bounty hunting is a young man’s game, and Porco knows he’s no longer a young man.

His leading reaction to Fio is not one of attraction, but of exhaustion. Though at first dismissive of her, he grows to respect her ability, but also to realize she has a lot more energy than he does.

Porco is a pig because he views himself as a pig–partly because of survivor’s guilt he suffers as the last of his squadron (another key line is “the good ones always die”), but also because middle-aged men often feel fat, ugly, unloved. He cannot believe that the beautiful Gina would love him. And arguably, everyone feels this on some level. (At least I do, and it gives me comfort to believe this is a common insecurity). Porco being a pig is precisely what makes the movie so resonant.

There’s also the point that a more cartoony figure actually feels more like an everyman.

Porco Rosso is a most unusual film–a fairy tale for the middle-aged, where the old and unloved are given a second chance at love and relevance. I’m not sure there is much more to say about it, except that it’s one of my favorites.

What I’m Playing: Dawn of War Dark Crusade

I’m a bit ashamed of how long it took me to work out that the Warhammer 40K series from Games Workshop was not meant to be taken seriously. I mean, they have giant metal fists designed entirely to punch things in the face. This is not a super-serious sci-fi world.

And don’t bother with the “it makes sense in context” because all the context in the world would simply be an excuse for “big fist that punches people in the face.”

It’s satirical, a sci-fi universe that is over-the-top in explosions, battles, and the general terribleness of everyone involved. “Grimdark” is the phrase used to describe the game’s setting of a universe of universally terrible armies of terrible groups battling each other over terrible worlds, often leaving nothing but smoking craters to claim victory over.

I sometimes wonder whether anyone ever really gets satire. I mean sure, I’m clueless, but even I could tell that things like the Imperium of Man’s attitude of “All aliens must DIE!” was meant to show that they were pretty messed up themselves. Apparently there are players in the fandom who are actually in total agreement with the Imperium’s genetic engineering and penchant for executions. They’ve got a bit of a Neo-Nazi problem (which, to be fair, the Marines wear Iron Crosses everywhere). Games Workshop, that owns the franchise, even issued a statement titled (somewhat hilariously)  “The Imperium is Driven by Hate. Warhammer is Not

I’ve never actually played the tabletop version of the game. Some of my college friends do, and a teacher I knew in Texas mentioned playing it a few times. I got a guidebook because I thought the art style looked cool, which is what also led me to get the video game version, Dawn of War, and the later expansion packs, including Dark Crusade.

It’s fun and effective, with solid tactical gameplay based around capturing and defending different strategic points on the map. The tech trees and units available to each faction are appropriately balanced (after all, they are adapting a successful tabletop franchise), and the ability to personalize with specific units as well as custom color schemes gives you a personal stake in your army. Matches are balanced, and there’s a selection of unique map challenges to mix up all the deathmatch maps.

The story, as it stands, is very bare-bones, which is about what you’d expect of a narrative that has to accomodate absolutely every separate faction in the game. It consists entirely of different leaders expressing their goals for the planet you’re fighting over, with some limited interactions between them (which I guess in some ways is not dissimilar from most wars). The Imperial Guard ending is the one I feel most satisfied with–it’s one of the few ones where the planet actually prospers, post war. I do like playing with the Space Marines better, though.

Dark Crusade is an expansion only in that it adds two new factions–the robo-zombie Necrons and the “Greater Good” alien collective known as the Tau. I like the Tau, who are possibly the closest thing the universe has to “good guys,” and also get a lot of really cool-looking robots. The Necrons by contrast I find boring and weird. Their design is unimaginative–they’re literally just robot skeletons–and a lot of their vehicles and units just aren’t that interesting. It feels like the game designers were trying for something interesting and just… missed it.

Still just in terms of gameplay, in terms of capturing points on a map and sending troops to outflank your opponent, Dawn of War is a fun game, and Dark Crusade an enjoyable expansion.

What I’m (Also) Playing: The Juggler’s Tale

There’s a whole group of simplistic platformers that feature virtually no combat and simply evasion and navigation of a challenging environment. They tend to have very simple stories and a single gimmick to set themselves apart–perhaps also a distinctive artistic style. They’re small little “artiste” style games.

I picked up my copy of The Juggler’s Tale in a recent “Humble Bundle“, an internet deal that, if you’re not familiar with, you ought to be–it allows you to get a bunch of games/software for very little, and the proceeds go to charity. I got like six games (including Toem, which I talked about before) for 20 bucks. The downside is that you often get a… mixed bag of games. Juggler’s Tale was part of the “Visual Delight”, which I picked up because I can be a real sucker for colorful indie games (part of what I loved about Spiritfarer).

So far it’s been a disappointing bundle. Toem, like I said before, was pretty decent, but Cityscaper, the game I bought the bundle for, lost its appeal after a while, and Pierre the Maze Detective was just simply boring. Haven’t played the rest yet, but Juggler’s Tale repeats the theme of being just sort of mediocre without much to recommend it.

The style, frankly, was pretty forgettable (especially disappointing since the gimmick could have been used to make some really WILD settings and characters) and the story was predictably simplistic. The main twist was (a) the use of the puppet’s “strings” as a impediment/mechanic, and (b) the meta-narrative of the puppet rebelling against the puppeter (why the game is called the juggler’s tale I can’t imagine, since the person operating a puppet would be a puppeteer(EDIT: In retrospect, the obvious answer is that because the PUPPET is supposed to be a juggler in the context of the puppeteer’s story)).

A meta narrative like that can be pretty cool, but it would have been more interesting if pulling off the strings meant you, the player, were no longer able to control the puppet, or that the puppet became an limp pile of wood, unable to stand upright. Instead, you have better control over the puppet “Abby” than before.

A better execution of a meta narrative like this would be XCOM: The Bureau, where your player avatar actively rebels against you and rips the “strings” (psychic alien tentacles, but same difference) so that you can’t control him anymore and need to choose a new avatar. THAT was a cool bit.

Rest of the game was pretty repetitive and grind-y, but that part was cool.

What I’m Reading: The Shack

Okay, now let me explain.

I’m reading this in part as a favor to a friend who recommended this book. I’m a firm believer that there’s always something positive in any work that you can derive. For instance, as ridiculous Dawn of War is, it does convey a sort of ancient warrior ethos, while also showing (if you pay attention) the ultimate hollowness of such an ethos. Porco Rosso is unrelentingly goofy, but it shows the insecurities that plague men in middle age, and has its own charm in expressing the satisfaction of a job well done

That being said, it’s harder to derive spiritual benefit the more specific the spiritualism is, and The Shack is very explicit–and very sentimental–about its spiritualism. A lot can be summed up about this book by simply saying that God is called “Papa,” and appears as an African-American woman (Not African. African American.)

Not too different from this, honestly.

Theological issues aside, The Shack is just fundamentally badly written. (To be fair, a lot of Christian Lit is, as is true of any niche genre) The writing is extremely amateurish, full of showing instead of telling, and nearly solid exposition. It’s very “Mac cooks with God the Father and talks about creation, Mac walks on water with Jesus and talks about miracles, Mac goes out boating and talks with the Holy Spirit about feeling God’s presence.” There’s usually like two paragraphs of action before it goes back into Mack basically agreeing or offering tired counterarguments to whatever theological notion God is spouting off. Which, I mean, fair, it’d be a bit ridiculous if average father was able to out-argue eternal God of the universe, but it makes for an very boring, pompous conversation. CS Lewis, maybe, could pull off this sort of thing, like he did in Perelandra, but only because CS Lewis had an amazing talent for making the most abstract concepts simple and original.

Also, CS Lewis dropped actual truth bombs, not just vague feel-good-isms like “it’s all about relationships and sharing life!” or “Emotions are the colors of the soul.”

So what is valuable here? Messed-up and twisted as the book is, it still clearly resonated with a lot of people. Why?

The point about God’s triune nature being the basis of the relational nature of reality is compelling, at least, and goes a way toward explaining why a perfect cosmic being would go the trouble of creating beings in their own image. The image of Jesus and Mack walking on water across a still lake is a beautiful one. So is the congregation of glowing people. And the talk about how God loving each Christian in a different way just as a parent loves each child in a different way is compelling and gave me a new perspective on the concept.

And to its credit, the book at least admits that bad things happen to good people, a concept that distressingly few Christians seem to understand, despite there being literally a book of the Bible about that very point.

Prosperity theology is a lot more prevalent than I think we like to admit. Even among people who know it to be heresy, people like to believe that if you’re good, good things will happen to you.

But the very book IN the Bible about the concept of bad stuff happening to good people has very little in common with The Shack. There, when God DOES show up, he spends very little time feeding Job scones and a lot more time going: “I’m God and I’m more ancient and powerful than you can process; don’t even try with me.” He doesn’t even show up as a human.

God really really doesn’t mess around in the Bible

In fact, it sums up a lot of my gripes that God simply doesn’t do stuff like this. Hit people with hardship, sure, explain why, absolutely never. It’s even a pretty big point that humans have no right to question the hardships they’re hit with. God never appears as any sort of human OTHER than Jesus, so presenting God as three PEOPLE (especially the Holy Spirit, who practically by definition is not incarnate) is just flawed from the get-go. Jesus in the Bible spends very little time talking about skipping stones and the fun involved in fishing. Nowhere in the Bible does God crack jokes about how you don’t feel like eating once you’re done cooking. I mean I suppose there’s no reason why he couldn’t, but the simple fact is that he doesn’t. Why would an all-powerful incarnate God feel the need to crack jokes in the first place?

The Shack, when it gets down to it, is light on scripture. Big on philosophy–some of the points are derived from pretty basic theological concepts like the trinity–but very little is based on scriptural images or characterizations–certainly not of any actual words of scripture. And in some parts in actual conflict with things said directly in Scripture, like when “Papa” says “There’s nothing in me about condemnation.”

Like, literally there is, and the most cursory examination of Scripture would have told you that.

2 Peter 2:3

In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.

James 5:12

But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.

 “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love personal greetings in the marketplaces, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, 47 who [a]devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers. These will receive all the more condemnation.”

Luke 20: 46-47

God condemns people. He does it a lot. There’s a part of the Bible where God throws several families into the earth and crushes them. Jesus literally talks about how people will be banished into eternal fire. (Does the supposed seminarian Mack bring this up? No.)

The Shack is a very human-centric theology, a God that is all about making people feel good about themselves without any sort of behavioral change (which, again, a very basic perusal of Scripture would have told you is important), a God that is really just about getting people together. It’s a God that, frankly, is pretty hollow and doesn’t really offer anything additional to the human experience, except maybe carpentry-based therapy,

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