01 August 2008

Gotham and Tokyo

The Dark Knight, which is the latest movie in the Batman franchise, presents a Gotham as troubled as it can be without being post-apocolyptic. Families and hard working people live their lives there, but one is left wondering why they bother.

The Joker in the The Dark Knight is perhaps the most terrifying, ultra-violent villains known to the silver screen. His terrorism is on the scale of the cold mass violence that afflict New York City in Under Siege, but with the utter lack of larger cause of the villain in Speed. His elaborate schemes and attacks on individuals make Hannibal Lector seem like a dilettante. He undermines justice and secures power by targeting individual public servants and rival criminals more flagrantly than in The Godfather. The level of gory, personal, psychopathic violence he takes joy in, and the overall darkness of the film are unrivaled outside Frank Miller's Sin City. This Joker isn't interested in massive practical jokes that happen to hurt people; he loves violence and mayhem simply for the chaos and fear that they spawn.

Much of the violence takes place off screen, merely implied and without the visible gore of countless other movies, but this simply brings it to the very limits of our imagination, rather the dulling it. The intensity the film achieves with unconventional cinematic techniques rivals Saving Private Ryan and Platoon. The producers must have bribed the ratings board to get a PG-13 rather than an R rating for The Dark Knight, or perhaps this is simply proof that no level of violence alone can make a movie rated R.

The Gotham that spawned and suffers under such a villain is naturally enough exceedingly dark, gothic and troubled. The last Batman movie depicted a Gotham that approximated the despair of Detroit at its most troubled. This Gotham, which more closely resembles New York City, endures mayhem on a level comparable to contemporary Baghdad. This movie is too intense for corny jokes or melodrama. The romances are tragic. Our introspective hero is vulnerable, overwhelmed, morally conflicted and soon doubts himself. Evil doesn't triumph, of course; this is a superhero movie. But Superman is sometimes brought low by kryptonite that allows villains to do what they will and when that happens the people whom he protects suffer less than the people of Gotham do with Batman still in action.

Like the Iron Man recently portrayed by Robert Downey Jr., Batman is just a man with hangups, empowered by nothing more than the technology that a defense contracting tycoon's billions make possible. The Dark Knight makes several innovative and worthy contributions on this front as well. But, informed by the lessons of the post-9-11 era, The Dark Knight makes clear that technology can't solve problems by itself and that trying to maintain some sort of moral code while operating outside the law is frought with contradictions and poses a grave risk of being counterproductive. Our hero is chastened by the events the Joker puts in place.

Not every movie portray of the underside of the modern city has to be so devoid of hope, however. Satoshi Kon's 2003 anime film Tokyo Godfathers, a Japanese language movie with subtitles, while displaying more of the dirty laundry of Japan's largest city than most films, is a basically light hearted morality tale. It probably earns its PG-13 rating mostly as consequence of having a transvestite as a main character. It has the emotional punch and cartoon violence of the better Disney and Pixar animated films, but won't leave many children old enough to read English language subtitles with nightmares (there is also Spanish spoken in the film, but without subtitles as the character that hears it doesn't speak that language).

At the heart of the story is a cardboard box vagrant household made up of a broken drunk of a middle aged man, runaway teenage girl, and a flagrantly religious transvestite. [Ed., "homo" is the translation used in the subtitles, which is used self-referrentially by this character, but the anime portrayal is not of a real life-like transexual woman, or of a homosexual man, but of a very pure version of the "transvestite" stereotype.] All of them are resigned to their current state, from happier early days, we learn, out of personal shame for their own past actions. They try to do right by a newborn baby, abandoned in the trash on Christmas Eve, that they discover and redeem themselves in the process.

Beyond the melodramatic core story of the anime, it is worth seeing because this is a rare Japanese film directed at Japanese audiences available in the U.S., which is set in a contemporary Japan no more different from real life than your typical American Christmas special.

Individual snippets like the health care taken for granted, with a $300 charge for an ER visit and hospital stay redeemable should our vagrant produce a health insurance card, and the opening portrayal of a Christian Christmas service in an overwhelmingly non-Christian society are precious in and of themselves.

Even more striking, however, not just in this anime film, but also in manga in translation, and in webcomics set in Japan by knowledgable U.S. residents, is the prevasive sense of duty felt by everyone with the possible exception of young adult male scions of wealthy families. Everyone from vagrants, to taxi drivers, to gangsters, to a hit man's wife, to a baby stealer's husband, to neighborhood association gossips feels acts with an intense sense of civic obligation that overrides their personal self-interest. Those who don't act that way regret it and punish themselves.

No wonder the trains are safe at night in Tokyo.


Dex said...

i wrote a little something on the meta-reaction to the dark knight you might be interested in...

btw, andrew - i don't know if you ever saw the comment i left for you at the lab, but thanks. that note meant a lot.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Loved it and took note of its home (as you see in today's post); good to see that you're still blogging. I saw your comment. My invitation is always open.