Monday, September 8, 2014

Genre Genre Genre..

I have found myself fixated in a number of places at the moment, the great television viewing season is pretty much at a pause as we wait for Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead etc to return to our screens. My consumption of late, when not watching stuff I already have watched, has focused towards stuff from Japan and the current run of Marvel films. Why I ask myself?
We live currently in many ways in a post-genre world, the threads of genre fiction that I have previously discussed here spread and diversified out over the late 19th and early 20th century are in some ways heading back to a big crunch. Genre mashing is a popular thing, a Superhero film is not always a Superhero film any more. In many ways this is a return to the mean rather than a revolutionary concept, Sci-Fi and Fantasy were not separate genres for much of the 20th century. Genre mashes have existed, well for as long as Genre fiction has so far as I can tell.
But there is something all together different about modern Hollywood's handling of Genre, and I'm not sure what it is down to. Is it just bad writing? Neoliberalism attempting to homogenise genre? Is Genre dead?
It can be parsed a little by looking at what works and what hasn't, what projects have succeeded and what haven't. I reviewed Guardians of the Galaxy recently, a movie that has not only seen incredible commercial success but a huge cult following online for characters only nerds like me would have known of two years ago. It's a very good movie, don't get me wrong, but it isn't a great movie.. Why is it the second coming of the Marvel Franchise then? Because Genre. Because it is possibly the most straight up Sci-Fi adventure film to hit the screen in an age. Because we are fatigued by the Op-Art that is the Transformers films, by the soulless Star Wars re-editions and prequels and by a terrible series of sequels, reboots and rehashes. Back in the days of VHS we could at least turn to the direct to video schlock market, but no more. The position that was once gleefully occupied by passionately (often terribly) made indie films is now taken up but groups like The Asylum who churn out dozens of mediocre "mock busters" and films like "Sharknado". Films that do not fail due to a lack of budget or ability from otherwise passionate film makers, but films that are purposefully made to be cheap and bad.
Genre mashes are not a bad thing, they work when written well. (Cowboy Bebop) But I think what we tend to see as Genre mashes today are more switching aesthetics than actual mashes. The aesthetics of Genre have long been mixed up with Genre itself; this is the reason some people don't believe me when I tell them that Kurosawa made westerns. Genre is a story structure and a set of story focuses, it is not "does the hero wield a six-shooter or a katana?". (And if it is where does that leave "The Samurai"?) What we call a Genre mashup now days is usually a genre wearing another genres clothing, very few of them really intertwine the structure of two genres. (Firefly looks like a western and is actually one in a few episodes but is mostly a Space opera in western clothing) Steampunk is an example of this, it isn't much of a genre in it's own right but a set of aesthetics applied to other genres. (Usually Sci-Fi, U-Chronia or Horror), Cyberpunk the same.

So my point is that sometimes it is nice to break the rules, but if your grasp on the rules is incomplete you are likely to just make a mess. Marvel have done a marvellous job making Superhero films that capture the genre in a way that many others do not, they are fast and fun and whilst simple for the most part are able to slide in some nice if not shallow social criticisms. (Ironman and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are the best examples) It is also why we have an explosion in young adult novel adaptations, as they often have very good holds on their genre and style. (Look at what happens when the film companies meddle with them too much, you get "The Golden Compass") Japan does very good pure Genre and mixed Genre shows, some even spawning their own Genres. (Neon Genesis Evangelion skirts between Transhumanist Scifi , Literary fiction and Surrealist Drama) They have been doing this for a very long time and do so with much less attachment to western trends. Most of their genres are born out of western comics, cartoons and literature imported post World War 2, but left in a strange cultural space between east and west something wondrous grows. Europe is the same, until recently trends in Sci-Fi in France or Germany were very different from trends in the US or UK, genre mixing was much more common with the Genres resembling their early 20th century versions up until the 1990s.
The ironic thing of course was, anime like Neon Genesis and Cowboy Bebop were in some part born of creators who believed that their medium was stagnating right at the same time the west was discovering the vibrancy of Japanese animation. The need to create new genres in a realm where genre is a much more rigidly enforced concept than in the West is at the heart of the total genre rewrite that Neon Genesis represented. This reason, much like with Guardian's success is also why we in the west respond to anime in the way we do. Very often it has a genre purity and simplicity that appeals to we who live in a world of four Michael Bay Transformers movies. (What are they? Sci-fi? Action? Adventure? Max Headroom style experiment in nano second advertising?) A friend of mine who is Japanese often bemoans lists of best/worst anime written by westerners because they are generally out of touch with what Japanese fans actually like. The visual novel School Days (スクールデイズ Sukūru Deizu?)often appears on worst lists of anime/manga written by western fans, but was very popular in Japan was the example given to me. (Primarily due to it's grizzly and brutal killings of it's characters)

Where does that leave us? Well besides me rambling.. It leaves us in a place I think that is slowly rediscovering the joy of Genres, the fact we have expectations when we watch stories (Based on Genre constructs in most cases) and sometimes we actually like them to be met.