Posts tagged samurai
On March 31st, 10 years ago, a film called The Matrix hit movie theatres and took the film industry/pop culture world by storm. It lead to copy-cats in content, style, and in technology (The Matrix‘s ‘Bullet-cam’ became the ‘effect to do’ for the first several years of the 21st century in action movies)
It was lauded for its originality, but really, it was a combination of a plethora of influences and cultural properties which helped/help define a generation (Gen X, as the creators, Andy and Larry Wachowski). It was Hong Kong cinema made in the US, it was a live-action anime, it was pop-philosophy and comparative religion, it was cyberpunk and a blockbuster film all rolled up into one.
It also launched one of the more successful transmedia properties of the last decade, as indicated by its use as an example in Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture chapter “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling)” (Jenkins 2006).
The Matrix universe has grown from one cultural work to include three films, a collection of animated shorts (The Animatrix), several video games (Enter The Matrix, The Matrix: The Path of Neo), including a MMO (The Matrix Online), comic books (The Matrix Comics), and a variety of merchandising tie-ins.
As Jenkins says,
The Wachowski Bros. played the transmedia game very well, putting out the original film to stimulate interest, offering up a few Web comics to sustain the hard-core fan’s hunger for more information, launching the anime in anticipation of the second film, releasing the video game alongside it to surf the publicity, bringing the whole cycle to conclusion with The Matrix Revolutions, then turning the whole mythology over to the players of the massively multiplayer online game. Each step along the way built on what has come before, while offering new points of entry. (Jenkins, 2006).
In the hands of fans
An intrinsic part of successful transmedia storytelling is the creation of a setting that is generative of many stories. The premise of the Matrix allows for a nearly limitless number of stories to be told in a number of genres (A Detective Story is much more in line with the look and feel of Film Noir, whereas “Program” is steeped in samurai action (Chanbara). Since the Matrix itself is a programmed shared universe, it can be modified to fit different desires and perspectives. Why is it that Detective’s Ash world looked so different than Neo’s world? It’s not difficult to read in the possibility that there are/were a number of servers, with different settings (a noir world, a cyberpunk world, etc.) But even without having to fill in the gaps of the setting by making these readings, there are many different places for a number of stories. This allows for fan creativity to enter into the picture, another essential part of a vibrant transmedia property.
The Wachowskis/WB can lay out the official path of transmedia cultural flow between games and films and comics, but if transmedia storytelling universes are maps, there is space beside the roads and outside the buildings in addition to those official pathways and locations. There is always room for fan-fiction, other games, fan art, vidding, and much more.
I remember playing a home-brewed Matrix table-top roleplaying game the summer of 1999, a game designed by friends so that we could tap into the awesomeness of the Matrix setting, even drawn in as limited a fashion as it was when the only data point was the original film. The mythology/setting of the Matrix had proven compelling enough to lead us to make our own ways to interact with the Matrix universe on our own terms, when not provided with an official outlet. A smart transmedia author/creator will encourage this informal/unofficial play/interaction, as it inevitably leads fans/customers back to the official parts, the ones that convert into sales.
Benefits of the transmedia approach
Unofficial transmedia play is free advertising. It keeps fans thinking about the property and shows/develops their level of involvement and investment. The more you play in the world of the matrix, the more it can matter, and so the more you will continue to play, and the more you will reach out to others to join you.
The Matrix universe was far from the first transmedia storytelling venture. George Lucas’ Star Wars had become comics, video games, action figures, trivia games, board games, memorabilia and more decades before The Matrix. However, The Wachowskis & Co. did utilize new media technologies and digital cultural socialization to further its popularity with a strong online presence. The Matrix Comics were first shared online, and preview videos of the Animatrix were available exclusively on the web before the DVD release.
A transmedia approach also allows a cultural property to become a franchise, with film, television, comics, video games, and other media to be tied in, allowing a tv show to reach out to video gamers and to comics readers, building its fan base with every new node in the transmedia map.
Other properties since have followed the transmedia model, but we can remember The Matrix property as one of the most commercially successful examples in recent memory. While opinions on the 2nd and 3rd films vary wildly, it is hard to deny the economic success and cultural impact of the Matrix property, and much of that is due to a transmedia storytelling and marketing approach.
The western and samurai film genres have long been intertwined. Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo have been re-worked as The Magnificent Seven, Fistful of Dollars, and there are many more in the same vein.
Therefore, a parodic homage to the film Django is far from unprecedented. Sukiyaki Western Django is a Japanese version of the Italian Spaghetti Western, directed by Takashi Miike, best known in the USA for films such as Ichi the Killer and Audition. Sukiyaki is a common, simple Japanese dish that is easily comparable to spaghetti. Therefore, where an Italian western is a spaghetti western, a Japanese one is a Sukiyaki Western.
Sukiyaki Western Django employs the Nameless/Man With No Name character as a drifter who wanders into a town in Nevada. The town has been driven into the ground by a conflict between the Heike and Genji clans, who are both searching for the legendary treasure the town is supposed to contain. The Heike wear red, the Genji white–the Red/White connection is equated to the War of the Roses, including Taira no Kiyomori (of the Heike), who insists people call him Henry (as in Henry V from Shakespeare). The gold rush is also an opportunity for the two clans to reprise their famous conflict from the Genpei war, which is depicted in the Heike no Monogatari (Tale of the Heike). The characters in the film refer to this older conflict, as well as directly alluding to Yojimbo, where a nameless warrior (who gives an obvious pseudonym) sells his services to both of two warring clans and pits them against one another.
The town of ‘Nevada’ (written in Kanji) is a bizarrely seamless fusion of Old West and Old Japan, with raised rooves and rickety wooden houses. The sign/gate above Nevada looks like a torii if you squint, but it’s alongside actual torii in the town. The members of the Heike and Genji clans predominantly use guns, but Minamoto no Yoshitsune, named for the legendary Minamoto hero, is always seen with a katana.
A number of the bizarre things in the film are more easily understood when a media scholar combines genre studies with an East Asian Studies degree (which I conveniently have). The scene where Yoshitsune shoots Kiyomori/Henry from afar evokes the legendary archery prowess of the pre-samurai bushi, who would fight duels with their long bows at great distance. The katana was really the second iconic weapon of the samurai, just the one that has become more recognized and fetishized post-facto.
One of the characters, Bloody Benten, is a violent version of the Fortune (goddess) Benten (Sarasvati in Buddhism/Hinduism). Benten is the patroness of ‘everything that flows’ — oration, music, etc. As Bloody Benten, she is more associated with flowing blood rather than flowing words. Benten is also associated with fortune/riches (again relevant in the film).
Quentin Tarantino plays the Token White Guy in the film (the other Caucasian character is a one-line part as a servant of one of the characters, reversing the older stereotypical role of the Chinaman/Oriental assistant), despite that all of the characters are speaking in English. Tarantino’s character also violently breaks the fourth wall in referring to the naming of one of the characters (Akira). Tarantino’s character says that he was always just an old-school anime otaku — Akira being named for the manga/film, but also alluding to Akira Kurosawa. The opening scene of the film and Tarantino’s other scenes with him at his normal age rather than being in a clockwork chair and covered in makeup to evoke the old-looking-superpowered-children in Akira are all shot on a soundstage with a painted background and a cardboard/something sun held up by clearly visible string.
Sukiyaki Western Django is probably too dense, too post-modern and intertextual for most audiences, and is a failure on that level. Intertexuality should never come at the cost of understandability, and Miike cannot expect viewers to all already know the following texts: Heike no Monogatari, Django, Yojimbo, Fistful of Dollars, Akira, etc. as well as having a genre knowledge of westerns, samurai dramas and Japanese history/culture, the War of the Roses and Shakespeare. Without the touchstone knowledge, the film is confusing at best, an incomprehensible bizarre mess at worst. However, if you know more than half/three-quarters of the above references and some others to go with them, you might enjoy it for the gloriously bizarre mish-mash that it is.