Look up “unique” in the dictionary and you’ll see Cosmology of Kyoto. Only if you use a special dictionary, though. One that has “unique” defined as Cosmology of Kyoto.
Released in 1993, it was sold as a game and is probably more accurately considered a work of interactive art. It’s moody, confusing, dark, and stylized. You could put it in a class with Dark Seed, Bad Mojo, and Haruhiko Shono’s collective work; games that aren’t remembered with much love, but are absolutely remembered.
How did it achieve such rapid (if fleeting) fame? Via a technique I call “through the Mac-door”.
The Macintosh was losing favour as a game development platform by 1993. Due to a dwindling market share and Apple’s apathy towards gaming, it had essentially become a dumping ground for “edutainment” dribble and ports of obsolete PC titles. The occasional original Mac game (even if was a “””game””” wrapped in numerous air quotes) would generate buzz because of sheer novelty, and without fail some marketing genius would conclude that the hype meant the game was amazing and needed to be rushed to DOS, Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Amiga, and your kitchen toaster right goddamn now, usually with tragic results. If shitty games were AIDS, the Macintosh was a HIV infected needle in DOS’s perineum. But odd games entered the DOS ecosystem through the Mac, too. Games seemingly made in a fever dream or on drugs.
Cosmology of Kyoto takes you on a morbid journey through the Japanese middle ages. Heian-era Japan is now mostly associated with court writers like Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon, but Cosmology is set in the streets and gutters, with supernatural monsters posing an omnipresent threat.
Before you can play, you create a character. You can choose between “Single” or “Married” and between “Male” or “Female” (you can already tell it’s not modern Japan because there’s no “Trap” or “Catgirl”). Then you also change your facial features, although I didn’t have much luck in making myself not look like a dyspeptic Vladimir Putin. You’re also naked, but fear not: there’s a dead corpse whose clothes you can rob. Improvise, adapt, overcome.
You wander around the land, interacting with stuff using a classic “hotspot” based point-and-click interface. You talk to Buddhist monks, samurai, common folk, children, and demons. I died pretty fast: a pissed-off samurai cut off my head, and my soul went to hell.
Another aside: adventure games at this time were split between the Sierra style (the wrong option means death, encouraging the player to plan their actions carefully) and the LucasArts style (you can’t die, encouraging the player to experiment and do as many things as possible).
Cosmology charts a third path: you can die, but if you play your cards right you can escape hell and be reincarnated back into the main game. Which you’ll want to, because hell’s no joke. The game goes full ero-guro on the player here as only the Japanese can: the guy who was eating handfuls of his own brains through a hole in his head stuck with me.
By now, Cosmology’s true purpose is clear: shilling for Buddhism. I’ve seen people claim online that the game has no point, or cannot be finished. Neither is true. You win Cosmology of Kyoto by discovering the source of the demon infestation (I think at the Imperial Palace), and gaining enough karma that you break the cycle of death and rebirth. Kind acts like donating money to beggars increase your karma. Swordfighting and stealing things decreases it. If you have too much negative karma, when you escape hell, you’re reincarnated as a dog. This simple emulation of Buddhist spirituality makes it comparable with western RPGs such as Ultima IV.
There’s a wealth of historical depth to Cosmology. The game comes with a full encyclopedia of Japanese history and folklore, and the map is a grid-perfect recreation of Heian-kyo. I guess Cosmology is a kind of backdoor “edutainment” title, fulfilling the Macware stereotype. Maybe this is another reason for its surprising (if short lived) popularity: it’s a cultural experience. A tech support experience, too. As with many classic adventure games, the hardest puzzle in 2020 is getting it to install and run.
Is it worth playing? I don’t know. I think these sorts of weird-ass games are more fun to be aware of than to actually dive into. You don’t need to go to hell: just knowing that it exists is enough.
Imagine there’s a wall, right in front of you. It has always been there. You can’t walk or see through it. Other people pass through easily. The wall only exists for you.
My wall is hip hop. The condition amusia stops people from enjoying music. I may have selective amusia for hip hop. It’s not that I dislike it or find it annoying; my brain doesn’t recognise it as music. Listening to Lil Uzi Vert’s much-hyped Eternal Atake felt like reading Egyptian hieroglyphics and seeing birds and snakes and ears of grain: I have understanding, but it’s of the wrong sort and won’t let me decode the language. I have ample exposure to hip-hop: I’ve been listening to it unwillingly through car windows and gym PAs and TV shows for nearly thirty years. I should get it by now, and the fact that I still don’t makes me feel disabled.
I don’t have opinions on this album, I have questions, many of them stupid.
1) What’s the appeal of listening to someone else brag about owning things? Rap aficionados always defend this as rags-to-riches storytelling, but most rap isn’t about striving to be rich, it’s about simply being rich. The first song (and the second, and the third) reduces to”I drive a cool car”. So what? Where’s the struggle? Uzi could have gotten that Mercedes-Benz from his dad, for all I know.
2) Why do all rappers now have “Lil” in their name? My understanding is that the ubiquitous rap cognomen was once “Big” (Big Daddy Kane, the Notorious BIG, Big Boi) and now it’s “Little” (Lil Yachty, Lil Peep, Lil Peep). When did this shift occur? Is Biggie Smalls the transitional fossil?
3) Why are so many of these “Lil” rappers actually…not Lil? Lil Yachty is 1.8m tall. Lil Peep was 1.85 m tall. Lil Uzi Vert is just 1.63m, but he’s built like an NPC bodybuilder. Are they “Lil” in the sense of being young and hungry? What will they do when they turn 40 or 50? Don’t they think they’ll live that long?
4) Should these albums come with a glossary for idiot white people? At one point Uzi says “Man, she asked for some racks” and I thought his girlfriend was asking for breast implants in the weirdest way possible. Actually, a rack is a thousand dollars.
5) Why are the most memorable parts of rap always borrowed from things that aren’t rap? The “hit” of Eternal Atake is “That Way”, which samples the vocal hook of “I Want it That Way”. I won’t say Uzi just steals the chorus of a Backstreet Boys song – he interpolates it in a fairly creative way – but it’s still not exactly is. Samples can enhance a song, but when the only interesting thing about a song is its samples, shouldn’t you just listen to the original track?
6) Is this what growing old feels like? The years becoming a slow-acting acid that melts away my eyes and ears and nose, gradually destroying any connection to current culture? Locking me inside my head, until all I can do is look inwards? The older I become, the more I remember the past. And the more time I spend in the present, the less time it spends in me.
Like many classic metal albums, Bonded by Blood‘s legend is bigger than the album itself. The shadow of Exodus’s debut looms massively down the years, and the modern listener might be surprised – even disappointed – by the smallness of the album that cast it.
Exodus (along with Overkill) is often cited as “true” thrash metal, back from the days when men were men and FUCKIN’ POSERS MAAAAN hadn’t invaded the scene with their mainstream influences and melodies and coherent songwriting et cetera. Thrash metal can be awesome, but it can also be snobbish and insular, and strangely proud of its own smallness. In 1990 Exodus released a cassette entitled “Four Albums And Still No Ballad”. Is that a thing worth bragging about? Particularly when you couldn’t write an interesting ballad if your life depended on it?
Released in 1985, Bonded by Blood was actually recorded in August 1984 under the title A Lesson in Violence. The album was famously delayed for nearly a year through circumstances such as label shenanigans and a totally inappropriate cover designed by a hippie friend of guitarist Gary Holt (although that same guy also designed the Exodus logo, so maybe hippies are more brutal than is commonly believed). While the album languished, the Bay Area was flooded by bootleg recordings of the album. One wonders if Holt ever bragged to Lars Ulrich that he was fighting music piracy before it was cool.
Bonded by Blood is about riffs. It has no time for anything that’s not a riff. It demonstrated Gary Holt’s prowess as a rhythm guitarist, almost to the expense of the rest of the music. It’s the canonical example of thrash metal songwriting, where you get your best guitarist to improvise riffs for an hour, takes the five best ones, and presto, that’s a song. There’s just not a lot of thought given to anything that doesn’t have six strings.
The title track features a bruising yet intricate main riff, reminiscent of THAT part in “Fight Fire with Fire”, where even when you think you understand what’s happening on the fretboard you probably don’t. But chorus is boring and shapeless, with the guitars and drums and vocals all doing three different things. The band themselves seem to think “Bonded by Blood”‘s chorus is underwhelming: when they re-recorded the song with Rob Dukes in 2012 they added a bunch of extra drum fills to try and make it more interesting. The exact same problem occurs over and over.
The band doesn’t really “get” songwriting. They repeat vocal patterns from song to song (“Bonded by Blood” has the same verse as “Exodus”), Tom Hunting ride the same punk rock d-beat for half the album, and when they hit paydirt with a certified classic like “Strike of the Beast” and “A Lesson in Violence”, it seems almost accidental. The riffs are amazing, but they need to be. They’ll all the album has.
Paul Baloff sings on this album. It was the only studio LP he recorded in his life, and it made him a legend. I wish he lived up to the hype.
He sings like a drunk man pisses, squealing and yelping and cackling and generally flinging his voice all around the place. Maybe he’s not Darkwing Duck, but his voice has a definite cartoon character quality. You know when the villain sings his “I am evil” song? That’s Baloff. He’s hilarious and sounds like he’s having the time of his life, but the album would be much better with an actual performance on it.
So the vocals aren’t so hot, and the recorded-in-the-toilet quality vocals do Baloff no favors. Even the album’s best cuts rely on speed and power to overwhelm their shortcomings, and the bad songs could literally be modern pizza thrash shit if they were 10-15% stupider.
Forget 1985, what was happening in 1984?
Slayer’s transcendental heaviness on “Chemical Warfare”. Metal Church and Metallica’s sophistication. Bathory and Celtic Frost stepping outside the confines of thrash entirely and forging a new, blackened path. Next to those bands and albums and moments, Bonded by Blood is well-executed but a little stunted: a 40 minute exposition of Gary Holt’s right hand. The Bay Area sound was already burning itself out, and incorporating new sonic influences out of sheer necessity. Baloff was wrong, and the posers were right: thrash metal ultimately had to evolve or die.
I enjoy many parts of Bonded by Blood, but the popular perception of it as a paragon of metalness that we’ve all strayed from seems a little wrong. This is a powerful but limited album in a powerful but limited style. Where do you go from here, now that you’ve stretched Bay Area thrash to its limits? What does Bonded by Blood 2, 3, 4 etc sound like? How many times can you bang your head against the stage?
One sign you that you had overbearing egotist parents is that you have “Junior” after your name. Maybe a similar rule applies to rock bands that are titled “[Frontman’s Name] Group”.
Michael Schenker is known for his guitar skills, as well as his turbulent personality. He’s fortunate that he had most of his crack-ups in the days before social media: otherwise he’d be the heavy metal Kanye West: 30% musician, 70% source of amusement.
We’re talking stints in rehab, near homelessness, hunger strikes, feuds with with singers and producers and journalists and his own brother, cancelled tours, and a long list of other bizarre behavior.
Wikipedia advises me that forty-one musicians have played in Michael Schenker Group and have since quit or been fired. Schenker would probably fire himself from his own solo project, were such a thing were possible.
But he’s definitely brilliant. I listened to power metal for years, and one thing I’d always heard was that the style’s guitar playing owes a lot to Schenker. This is correct. There’s a straight line between most of what Schenker plays on this album and Helloween, and in the case of “On and On” – with its harmonized bends and cod-Bach synthesizer lines – it’s not even a line, it’s a dot.
This is one of the best-produced 80s albums I’ve heard, particularly the deep, thudding character of the drums. MSG has a real sense of precision and space in its mix, with everything built on top of each other like layers on a cake. It’s like you can throw a fishing line into the album and find where the vox are, where the guitars are, where the drums are, etc. Listening to MSG is a seriously good time before you even appreciate the notes.
“Ready to Rock” is an okay-ish cock rock anthem. “Attack of the Mad Axeman” seems like more of the same…but then Schenker pulls a drag-chute on the song and turns it into something adventurous and fascinating. His shredding over the final 32 or so bars…you are listening to power metal, at least five years before. Seriously revolutionary stuff.
“On and On” continues down this path, trading ethereal keys for smoldering wah pedal soloing. I’m struggling to think of more hard rock/heavy metal from 1981 that sounds like this. The Michael Schenker Group was an odd band: they didn’t sound out of place on MTV, but on a compositional level they had a quality that nobody else really possessed. Some quality of uncaring naffness and unfocused coolness.
“Let Sleeping Dogs Lie” and “I Want More” are forgettable. “Never Trust a Stranger” is the power ballad, and sounds like Elton John covered by Aerosmith. “Looking for Love” is a burning and agitated uptempo track with some great hooks and guitar moments. The final track is pretty good too, except for when the music drops away and they let Gary Bardem sing unaccompanied. He’s one of those guys who sounds great, but only if he’s located somewhere in a pile of 200 watt Marshall stacks.
Here’s a question: how many people live in Australia? About twenty-five million?
That’s right, but also wrong. Twenty-five million people don’t live in Australia; they live in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Darwin, Adelaide, and Perth.
Leave the coastal enclaves and Australia quickly becomes indistinguishable from Mordor: arid bush, thinly grassed plains, and wastelands of sand and dirt. We have ten deserts in total – two hundred years after white settlers made landfall they were still discovering new ones – and they’re every colour you can name. The Simpson Desert is blood-red. The Tanami Desert is orange. The Painted Desert (which contains mica) is white streaked through brown. I am comforted by the fact that although Australians might run out of water, oil, coal, and food, we will never run out of deserts.
Only fourteen percent of Australians live in remote areas…but these remote areas are virtually the entire country. This has engendered a decades-long cultural dialog about who’s the “real” Australians – the masses packed into coastal sanctuaries engineered to look like their European countries of origin, or the minority who actually live in Australia.
Wake in Fright is a particularly nightmarish depiction of life in the Australian outback. The main character is a schoolteacher, posted out to some flyspeck town, who has just received his Christmas pay packet. He obviously intends to return to Sydney, citydwellers view the outback like astronauts view the vacuum of space – fun to visit, but you don’t stay past the airlock a second longer than you have to.
En-route, he stops by the slightly larger flyspeck town of Bundanyabba (modelled after the real town of Broken Hill). Everyone – police, bartenders, miners – is superficially friendly in a way that’s scary, as though they’re all wearing masks. The town has secrets hidden in plain sight: moral depravity, suicide, and sexual corruption. Past nightfall the schoolteacher decides to go gambling, and loses all of his money. He is now dependent on the town’s generosity to survive…and the masks start to slip.
Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wake in Fright it was written in the 1960s, and achieved international fame through a movie. There the similarities stop. Picnic was oneiric and hallucinatory, Wake is blunt and stark. Hanging thrusts you maddeningly far away from itself, In draws you close. Rock is dainty and ladylike, Fright is like watching a blood and shit covered tapeworm being drawn from a cat’s asshole.
It’s a really vile book. There’s a scene in the middle as unpleasant as anything I can recall reading, and unlike something like American Psycho it achieves this feat while remaining believable. Even descriptions of harmless events seem coated in filth and poison. Riding a train and eating breakfast at a hotel are seen through an authorial lens that captures the dust-cauled sunlight and focuses it on filth, dirt, and unpleasantness. There’s exactly one moment where Kenneth Cook blurs the camera and stops us from seeing the action on the page (perhaps out of fear of censorship). But even here, he leaves enough clues that the motivated reader understands what’s going on.
Alcohol is the grease of the story, allowing the action to move. Everyone drinks all the time in Bundanyabba, and refusing to drink is an insult. Several times the protagonist tries to plead off the beers forced on him, and the nice bloke offering them turns into a spitting viper. You have to be an alcoholic in the ‘Yabba. To be otherwise is to violate a sacred pact.
This “get drunk or else” attitude is an authentic one. My father used to listen to Australian country musician Slim Dusty, who wrote dozens if not hundreds of songs about drinking, such as “You’ve Gotta Drink the Froth to Get the Beer”, “Love to Have a Beer With Duncan”, “My Pal Alcohol,” and (most famously) “A Pub With No Beer”. “The maid’s gone all cranky, and the cook’s acting queer / What a terrible place, is a pub with no beer.” Karl Marx famously described religion as “the opiate of the masses”. In rural Australia, the opiate of the masses is an actual opiate.
The outback doesn’t come off looking very good in Wake in Fright. It would be considered racist if the characters were brown or black people (see Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali, and Billy Hayes’ Midnight Express). To what extent it’s modeled on reality isn’t for me to say – I’m not sure that Broken Hill was ever the antipodean Gomorrah that Bundanyabba is. But there’s romantic depictions of outback life (“Waltzing Matilda”) that seem equally alien to me, based on my brief exposure to outback towns. Maybe the truth is somewhere in between. And it may be my privilege as a citydweller that I never have to learn it.
The Argument, Grant Hart’s final solo album, was released in 2013, four years before his death.
Who is Grant Hart? If you know him at all, it’s probably as “the less famous guy from Hüsker Dü”. There are worse obituaries, but if you ask a group of children who they want to be when they grow up, few will say “the less famous guy from Hüsker Dü”. Not many will say “the more famous guy from Hüsker Dü” for that matter, either.
Hart deserved better than he got. Overshadowed both by Bob Mould’s pyroclastic distorted guitar chords and forceful personality, it was easy to see him as a lesser talent. But one day I took stock of my ten favorite Hüsker Dü songs, and about seven of them were written by Hart. From “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” to “She Floated Away” to his solo albums, he was a genuinely brilliant pop songwriter.
And he was weird. Bob Mould would never and could never have made The Argument.
It’s a 20-song adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, based on a treatment by William S Burroughs. It sounds (and is) cheaply made, consisting of noisy guitars, synth loops, and found sounds apparently recorded around Hart’s house (such as a barking dog). Seldom has such ambition been realised through such humble material. Hart has created a tableaux of the Original Sin out of carpet fluff, dryer lint, and spilled breakfast cereal.
There’s not a trace of hardcore punk to be seen, and little alternative rock. It’s just Grant Hart’s stripped-back and heartfelt (Hartfelt?) songwriting, which always seemed to exist beyond influences. Sometimes the cheapness of the album works against it: “Morningstar”, for instance, features a loud programmed drum loop. It’s distracting, and all I can focus on. But far more often than not an entrancing mood appear. “Awake, Arise” is dire, and builds up like a thundercloud. It’s followed by “If We Have The Will”, a military march of painted toy soldiers written in 9/8 time. “Sin” goes heavy on the blues.
By the time “Letting Me Out”, “Is the Sky the Limit?”, and “So Far From Heaven” roll around, the album is (metaphorically) on fire. None of these songs contain a single dull or uninspired moment. “War in Heaven” is woven from agonizing jagging synths and samples. “Underneath the Apple Tree” is focused around lyrical storytelling – Grant Hart’s devil is far more avuncular and likeable than the Rolling Stones’ or Marilyn Manson’s. The six minute title track is boring and can be skipped. But the album ends on a high note, the energetic and frantic “Run For the Wilderness”.
One of Hart’s goals for the adaptation was to remove explicit references to religion – a blind listener might not even make the Paradise Lost connection. Lyrically, the story jumps around a bit and is kind of out of order. I think he might have taken inspiration from CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters – you think you’re reading the demonic missives in chronological sequence, but the celestial method of dating need not overlap with that of mundanity.
But mostly, Hart hasn’t recreated the world of Milton, or Burroughs, or even Moses, but has created a self-referential cosmos that’s entirely his own. Obsessive, detailed, and tuneful: The Argument could be a concept album about its creator’s mind. Grant Hart is gone, but will not be forgotten. Hüsker Dü. Do you recall?
A doorstop-sized work of historical fiction from 14th century China. At eight hundred pages, nearly a million words, and a thousand named characters, it has broken hardier men than you. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of those Mount Everest type books – can you possibly finish it?
It’s also the world’s first videogame. Explanation incoming.
Sometimes art has content that suggests it belongs to a different medium. For example, the first film directors had a background in theater, and the movies they produced are often stunningly derivative of stage plays.
Watch a film from the 1920s and you’ll see lengthy static shots, minimalist editing, flat and declamatory acting, etc. Only in the middle period of Hollywood’s golden age did the techniques and approaches of film qua film emerge. Early films didn’t leave the vaudeville behind: they’re well made, but…they’re not exactly movies.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is like that, but instead of being a play disguised as a movie, it’s a videogame disguised as a book.
More specifically, a strategy game. It reminds me of a six hour Age of Empires II game fought between skilled and stubborn adversaries amidst a mounting pile of energy drink cans. Battles without end. Thousands of men thrown into a woodchipper, often gaining nothing, or winning a victory that gets reversed minutes later. Numberless acts of heroism, which you see from God’s perspective and soon don’t even notice.
It’s about the fall of the Han dynasty and the three kingdoms (Wu, Wei and Shu) that ascended in the aftermath, trying to fill the power vacuum. They do this through a complex and Machiavellian mix of marriage, wizardry, and battles so bloody that it seems the population of medieval China gets slaughtered three times over.
The famous opening line “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been” was not written by Luo Guanzhong, but was added centuries later. Nonetheless, it sums up his text: cyclical periods of destruction and renewal. Events are either meaningless or all-meaningful, depending on your perspective. There’s nods to “empty boat” style Taoist philosophy at times. The soil drinks blood. The soil then produces trees. The trees are used to make axes. The axes…
It’s hard to describe Romance without making it sound like the dullest book ever. It’s not. Nor is it the second dullest book. It’s actually interesting, once you crack the “code”.
The worst way to read it is like a traditional novel. Forget rising and falling action, dramatic climaxes, etc. Romance of the Three Kingdom’s intense moments come out of nowhere like monsoons, blow the lives of characters to pieces, and then end. Also, large parts are based on history, which is under no obligation to be satisfying to anyone. A better way is to view it like a growing plant: continually evolving in a way that’s no more and no less sensible than real history or the life of the reader.
And it’s thrilling. Despite the nihilism of the whole, you’ll still feel tense when Cao Cao fails in his plot to assassinate Dong Zhuo, and cheer at cunning method Zhou Yu uses to overcome an enemy fleet. Certain moments (such as the Battle at the Red Cliff) are as cinematic as Game of Thrones. And there are passages that would fascinate anyone with an interest in cultural anthropology and medical history. For example, the great hero Liu Bei’s reaction when he sees weapons inside his bridal apartment.
The bridegroom turned pale. Bridal apartments lined with weapons of war and waiting maids armed! But the housekeeper of the lady said, “Do not be frightened, O Honorable One! My lady has always had a taste for warlike things, and her maids have all been taught fencing as a pastime. That is all it is.”
“Not the sort of thing a wife should ever look at,” said Liu Bei. “It makes me feel cold, and you may have them removed for a time.”
Lady Sun laughed, saying, “Afraid of a few weapons after half a life time spent in slaughter!”
One wonders at what Luo Guanzhong is trying to depict here. Is Liu Bei suffering from what we today call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
The biggest challenging to climbing Mt Romance is the colossal cast of characters. To reach the end, you need to develop a sixth sense as to which characters are important to the plot and which ones will never be seen again. A lot of the characters have similar names. It can be hard to separate Zhang Fei from Zhang He. Maybe I’m a racist colonial paleface who thinks all Chinese names sound the same. But maybe not – Luo Guanzhong seems to be winking to the reader at times, such as in this (humorous?) scene where a woman vows to only marry a man with the same name as hers:
“Why did you trouble your sister-in-law to present wine to me, brother?” asked Zhao Yun.
“There is a reason,” said the host smiling. “I pray you let me tell you. My brother died three years ago and left her a widow. But this cannot be regarded as the end of the story. I have often advised her to marry again, but she said she would only do so if three conditions were satisfied in one man’s person. The suitor must be famous for literary grace and warlike exploits, secondly, handsome and highly esteemed and, thirdly, of the same name as our own. Now where in all the world was such a combination likely to be found? Yet here are you, brother, dignified, handsome, and prepossessing, a man whose name is known all over the wide world and of the desired name. You exactly fulfill my sister’s ambitions. If you do not find her too plain, I should like her to marry you and I will provide a dowry. What think you of such an alliance, such a bond of relationship?”
Romance of the Three Kingdoms might also be an early example of the Draco in Leather Pants phenomenon. The antagonist of the tale is clearly meant to be Cao Cao of the Wei kingdom, but he’s probably the strongest and most interesting character in the story, and a lot of people seem to view him in a positive light. Tumblr, of course, has an active community of Cao Cao stans.
But Romance isn’t a character study, it’s a videogame. The market seems to back this idea up. Usually classic works of literature attract a slew of movie adaptations, and maybe a single throwaway text adventure game made in 1984 by Infocom. But according to Wikipedia, Romance of the Three Kingdoms has been adapted to film eight times, to television twenty-four times, and as a game fifty seven (!) times. The book keeps rejecting its paper and clothing itself in binary. There might be three kingdoms, but ROTTK truly belongs in the realm of ones and zeros.
“I don’t like sand. It’s coarse, and rough, and irritating, and it gets everywhere,” – Albert Camus
Western horror relies on convention – Bram Stoker’s vampires, Shirley Jackson’s haunted houses, and Romero’s zombies. By contrast, Japanese horror more often relies on free-standing symbols and images – Kôji Suzuki’s rings of light, Junji Ito’s spirals, and Shinya Tsukamoto’s metal sculptures.
Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses. Art rooted in convention is easier to understand: the audience automatically comprehends Slasher Movie #23532 in light of Slasher Movie #23531 (or the last one they remember). But it’s boring, and makes you a slave to the past: modern horror film is consequently a cesspool of spooky dolls and cars that won’t start and ghosts in mirrors and clanging ADR. By contrast, Japanese horror (at its best) achieves a monolithic starkness: I gave up looking for things like Suehiro Maruo’s Paranoia Star because I couldn’t find any.
The Woman in the Dunes is an eerie psychological novel about…sand.
An amateur entomologist is seeking a new kind of insect in rural Japan. He ends up trapped in a deep pit of sand. He has food and water and even female companionship (although she seems odd), but no way of escaping. This is not an accident. Someone just out of sight has planned this fate for him. He has a little shack that he spends hours each day sweeping clear of sand (uselessly; the wind blows it straight back in). He can’t contact anyone from the outside world. They’ll declare him dead and maybe they’ll be right to. His horizons are made of sand.
The Woman in the Dunes might not be a horror novel, as I don’t think Kobo Abe was trying to frighten. Kafka’s a better comparison. Nonetheless, I’m now aware of “ammophobia” – fear of sand. More specifically: fear of sinking into sand, swallowing sand, having sand grains between your toes, and so on. Just as Uzumaki left me uncomfortably aware of spiral shapes, I put this book down and was plagued by thoughts of sand.
It’s creepy stuff. Silken, fluid, deadly. Viewed under a microscope, sand is beautiful, but it’s inhospitable to human life, and defiant of mankind’s attempts to control it. You can sculpt a castle of sand on the beach, but the next day, it will be gone. But won’t the house you live in be gone someday, too? All of mankind’s buildings, on a long enough timescale, will become sand.
This is sort of how Kobo Abe’s protagonist rationalises his fate. The outside world is just temporarily rearranged sand and dust, so there’s no reason to want to go back. Being trapped in a hole is probably a privilege; he gets to see the truth. Ozymandias’s kingdom wasn’t overtaken by sand, it was sand.
There’s a livestreamer called Dellor who plays Fortnite and other videogames. He has a PO box, and if you mail him a package he’ll open it on stream. Occasionally, he receives sand. I’m not sure if a single person is behind this, or if it’s a shared joke among his fans. He’ll rip open an envelope, and sand will spray across his apartment. He gets keyboards with sand packed in between the letters. Once someone sent him an airsoft pistol with sand stuffed into the barrel. This annoys him, because (as the narrator of The Woman in the Dunes could confirm) sand is extremely hard to remove. No matter how much you vaccuum a carpet, in six months you’ll walk over it barefoot and feel the bite of a silica tooth: a reminder of our fundamental lack of control.
Western horror can be likened to a vine, which can be followed back to its root no matter where it goes, and J-horror to a series of mushrooms, which sprout out of the ground with no visible connection to each other. Or perhaps particles of sand. The Woman in the Dunes exemplifies the J-horror approach, even if it might not be J-horror. It has one idea. One single idea. It could have been written even if no other book had ever been published. It does not want to be the first book in the series, or to answer questions raised by another book, or to get adapted into a movie.
The Woman in the Dunes doesn’t even want to be entertaining (and frequently, it isn’t). It exists to exist. No matter what momentary order we impose on sand, in the end, it has no purpose other than to be sand.
This movie isn’t good at all.
It’s barely even a movie: it’s like a long episode of Batman: The Animated Series feat. an occasional boob plus a soundtrack of angsty, edgy mallcore. Music was shit-awful in the year 2000, and if you need a reminder, the first Slipknot album is shorter by thirty minutes, so listen to that instead.
What connection does it share to the original Heavy Metal? The title.
Instead of being an anthology, it contains a single bad story based on a graphic novel by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman. The plot (narrated by someone who was definitely making dramatic hand gestures in the vocal booth), involves the Arakacians producing an elixir of immortality and a secret key lost in space and a villainous asteroid miner and a tertiary villain who’s a dinosaur and an xtreme grrl heroine and a second xtreme grrl heroine and a plucky comic relief character who later becomes a sidekick and is replaced by a different plucky comic relief and a plot MacGuffin and Guy DeBord and Roland Barthes and asdf
The film is overloaded with detail and characters, which is usually what happens when you shove a 170 page graphic novel into a VHS player while muttering “fit, damn you. Fit.” The screenplay couldn’t have more holes if it was made of swiss cheese. Where does Tyler get the weapons he uses for the raid on Eden? Why do none of those futuristic space-guns appear in the final showdown, which is fought with spears and swords? Why does becoming evil cause your hair to grow twenty inches?
Action girl #1 is played by Julia Strain. She has boobs. She beats the shit out of people who look at her boobs. What more characterisation do you need? Tyler himself looks like Ruber from 1998’s dose of box office strychnine Quest for Camelot, and exemplifies the problem I have with almost all “crazy” cartoon villains (such as Batman’s Joker): he turns sane and calculating whenever the plot requires him to be. The result is a mechanical artifice of a film where you can feel the interference of the writer on every frame. Why do characters do anything in Heavy Metal 2000? Because Kevin Eastman wanted them to do it.
“Calculating” applies to the film in general. There’s none of the sense of liberty and freedom of the original – it’s a steely-eyed gambler, looking to pull out a cheap score.
Look no further than the film’s SHOCKING ADULT CONTENT…which isn’t integrated in any way to the story! 95% of the film is a bland Saturday morning cartoon, then we get a pointless splash of violence and nudity, then the movie becomes a Saturday morning cartoon again. This is obviously intentional: they set up the movie so they could quickly chop all objectionable content and get a PG-13 rating. The quislings.
The animation is TV quality. Suffice to say that 90s cartoons looked as shitty as 90s music sounded: Heavy Metal 2000 is dark, lacks contrast, and has the palette of an Excedrin headache. Enjoy your browns, grays, and khaki greens. This is like playing Quake, right down to the underwhelming final boss.
This underscores the biggest offense Heavy Metal 2000 commits: it isn’t fun. Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi once said something (aside from “I thought she was 18, your honor”) that I find profound: animation’s strength is that it creates visuals that would be impossible with live action. If you animate visuals that are even more drab and bland than real life, you’re ignoring the possibilities of the medium. Heavy Metal 2000 doesn’t just ignore the possibilities, it hoists the black flag and directly repudiate them. What an ugly fucking film.
Heavy Metal was only barely successful. Heavy Metal 2000 went direct-to-video, and should have gone direct-to-landfill. It killed off attempts to bring Metal Hurlant to life for nearly another 20 years, before an anthology called Love, Death & Robots appeared on Netflix. I haven’t seen it and probably won’t: it’ll likely be a pandering joke full of references to Twitter and trans issues, with a villain called “Tonaald D’rump” or some shit. Heavy Metal is a nostalgic look at the past. As such, it’s best left in the past. The world did not and still does not need another Heavy Metal.
Drop a stone in a pond. Ripples will spread out. Cultural events are similar, but sometimes the ripples occur before the stone falls. Facebook, iPhones, and The Lord of the Rings are stones. Myspace, Blackberries, and The Hobbit are ripples. Although important in their own right, they had the misfortune to occur before a similar (but much bigger) thing, and have been swallowed by it within the public mind.
Cassette tapes (and the culture surrounding them) were ripples: the stone would would fall twenty years later. They were ugly plastic rectangles containing about ninety meters of magnetic tape. Music recorded on them usually sounded hissy and noisy (this itself became an aesthetic), but the tapes were so cheap that it was now possible for the average child to copy music. People would tape songs off the radio (complete with hacky DJ voices and commercials), as well as make illegal bootlegs of live bands. This led to a full-blown kulturkampf between tapers and record labels in the 1980s, culminating in the BPI’s often-parodied “Home Taping Is Killing Music” slogan.
While some labels fought cassette tapes, others embraced them. C81 (a compilation cassette released by NME at the start of the tape boom) is an example of the latter, containing twenty-four tracks of British and American “indie” music circa 1981. I’m sure that all the bands involved were branded as sellouts until their dying day.
The tracklisting is as schizophrenic and scattered as any fourteen year old’s mixtape: legends like Pere Ubu and Scritti Politti exist alongside bizarre “art” projects like Furious Pig that apparently did nothing notable except appear on C81. It’s both ethnically and musically diverse, with selections of funk, ska, reggae, dub and so on. Also, whoever put this together clearly wanted to fuck Lora Logic, because she’s on here twice.
As with many compilations, it sprays and it prays. “You won’t like everything, but you’ll probably like something.” I enjoyed the apocalyptic mini-epic “The Seven Thousand Names of Wah!”, the histrionic but understated “Shouting Out Loud”, the Scritti Politti song, and “Parallel Lines”, which is a thesis on everything punk should be: taught, fraught, and small.
But the best piece of music C81 has to offer is Cabaret Voltaire’s “Raising the Count”, which initiates the listener into a kind of electronic Satanic ritual: a black mass powered by 200 watts. The song is as destructively repetitive as a pneumatic drill rammed through your basilar membrane. You will either turn it off in confusion, or get sucked into a hypnogogic state. Cabaret Voltaire had existed for most of a decade by the time C81 came out, and would continue to release music for about twelve more years (although I find their later techno/house music to be less interesting than their early experimental work).
So, good music, and good capture of a particular moment in British musical history. C81 is now most easily acquired in digital form, which was the next evolutionary stage of tape culture. Cassette tapes were ripples, and digital piracy was the stone, doing everything cassettes had done (including killing the music business) about two orders of magnitude more successfully. The record industry profiting off tape trading seems gruesomely poetic in retrospect. It’s as though Louis XVI, before the French Revolution, had invested royal money in guillotines.