Millennium Actress (Sennen Joyû)

Without a doubt, and for reasons that will soon become clear, Satoshi Kon’s 2001 masterpiece is one of my favourite animated films. The story is relatively simple: we watch a film journalist, Genya Tachibana, and his unnamed cameraman interview the famous retired actress Chiyoko Fujiwara about her life whilst a series of earthquakes shake the building. The interview concludes when the actress collapses and is rushed to hospital. Before that, she has recounted something extraordinary. As a young girl in the 1930s, Chiyoko saved the life of a Japanese revolutionary on the run from the police by sheltering him in the storehouse of a shop. In the brief time they spend together, the future actress falls desperately in love with the revolutionary, who is also a painter, and leaves behind him a portrait of her on a wall and a key to the box he carries, which contains, in his words, “the most important thing in the world”. The man then leaves, and Chiyoko despairs of ever seeing him again, so she decides to become an actress, which will allow her to travel the country and continue her search.

The rest of the tale concerns the films of Chiyoko Fujiwara, many of which devotion to a lost love so that when the young woman acts reality and fiction coincide. Unsurprisingly (if you were an eighteenth-century theatre critic like John Hill), such performance based on true emotion captures the hearts of everyone and Chiyoko fast becomes a star. Yet she never gives up her quest: thrown in jail by some policemen, she catches a glimpse of a man who might be her painter in another room; receiving news much later whilst filming in the midst of another earthquake that her true love was from Hokkaido, she rushes north but finds no trace of him.

There’s much to say about this film, especially its way of dancing between fact and fiction. What I want to bring out here now, though, is how the whole piece is structured by desire. We’ve already heard of Chiyoko’s impossible love, but it soon becomes clear that the journalist, Tachibana, is also in love. Tachibana at first begins to appear in Chiyoko’s reminiscences of her films; he then also surfaces in her memories of life in the studio, as a lowly intern: each time, it becomes more and more evident that he is obsessed with her, selflessly devoting his efforts to help her own goals even if their realisation would put an end to all his dreams. At the beginnning of his interview with Chiyoko, Tachibana hands her the painter’s key, which she lost thirty years ago, only for him, devoted still, to return it to her.

Desire is layered over desire, and impossible love furthers impossible love. In the final scene, Chiyoko, dying on her hospitable bed, blurs into her role as a spacewoman, departing (as ever) in search of someone. At the moment she does so, she says something like, “in reality, I always preferred the chase”: Tachibana is distraught, but the film ends with Chiyoko, as an astronaut, serenely entering warp speed.

Tachibana’s responses made me think of a very peculiar passage in an eighteenth-century art of acting. In it, the author (John Hill, who keeps cropping up at the moment) is trying to distinguish between different kinds of theatrical illusion. His point is that the illusion only ever really works when there is a true emotion behind it, but the argument he deploys involves comparing the disinterested audience (who need true emotion from the actors to be deceived) and the infatuated suitor of an actress (who is easily tricked by her faking of affection). I’ll finish by quoting the passage in question, but it does raise one interesting question about this film: was Chiyoko such a great actress, not because she was mixing reality and fiction, but because we, like Tachibana, had fallen under the spell, become infatuated and so lost the ability to separate out the true?

Here’s the Hill:

It will be natural to set up the common arts of women in private life, against this general necessity of feeling upon the stage. If an actress, it will be said, can feign a passion for the man who supports her, of which she feels nothing, why cannot she dissemble with us as well upon the stage? Certainly there are some who do this in private, and why may not they deceive a disintereseted audience, who can impose upon the man that devotes his life and fortune to them? For that reason, because an audience is disinterested. The lover is desirous to believe the lady is fond of him; and therefore he is easily made ot receive the pretence of such a fondness: but an audience are unbiased; they look with eyes of impartiality; they will not allow what does not exist; and will exclaim against that pretence for robbing them of their shillings, which the lover would receive as the price of his whole fortune. The lover is willing, and the audience are also willing to be deluded; but when the passion of the one makes everything pass upon him, the others, having their eyes open, expect some colour or resemblance in what they are to receive for the present as reality.

I’m sorry if that’s a bit long: having just typed it up, it strikes me that Millennium Actresss is a powerful riposte to Hill. Chiyoko is in love (so her performance has a foundation in reality) but Tachibana is also infatuated (so, for example, helps Chiyoko recreate the scenes of her youth, even when she is too elderly to perform them well). The question, then, is whether the audience sees through the journalist’s eyes or not.

The Game

Warning: spoilers

I watched Ender’s Game last night, and, with only a vague memory of the novel by Orson Scott Card on which it is based, was newly struck by all the moral questions raised by the story. One or two of them – as with most things these days – seemed to connect with a few of the larger themes of my PhD, so I decided to write this post.

Ender’s Game tells the story of Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin, who is part of a cohort of children being trained to lead the Earth’s fleet of spaceships against the Formic menace. Fifty years ago, the Formic (a race, as their name indicates, of ant-like aliens) attacked earth but were repulsed thanks to the heroics of one Mazer Rackham. Now mankind, fearing a return of their fast-rebuilding enemy, is launching a final attack on the Formic homeworld in order to protect the future of the Earth. The plot can be divided into two sections: those moments spent in ‘battle school’ orbiting earth where Ender and the other children learn basic military strategy and Ender marks himself out as a leader; and, then, after some hesitation, Ender’s journey to ‘command school’, not far from the Formic homeworld, where he leads a team through simulated attacks against the aliens.

The twist of the story, however, is that, following Ender’s triumph in the last simulation when he fires a superweapon that erases all life from the planet below, all these simulated combats were in fact real battles. Ender’s game was actually reality, and, eager to show his strategic daring, the child prodigy has both committed genocide and sacrificed many thousands of human lives to do so. Despite knowing that this twist was coming, it still shocked me, while the film’s coda – in which Ender discovers one last Formic and promises to protect the creature – does little to assuage the horror.

This got me thinking. Right at the beginning of the film, and during an important interlude between ‘battle school’ and ‘command school’, Ender explains his tactical brilliance in the following terms:

In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.

What is so terrible about the ruse of claiming that Ender is playing a simulation, therefore, is that it prevents any meaningful contact between the child and his enemy, no matter how much he feels connected to him. The coda tries to redress this, and makes us realise that Ender was indeed slowly building up a rapport with the aliens all along, but this only confirms the ugly logic of it all. The sentiment that when you understand someone well enough to defeat him, you also love him should – one feels – be an argument for pacifism, for restraint based on sympathy. What the imposition of false make-believe has done is to remove that restraint so that the child ends up killing the enemy he has begun to understand and love.

Behind all this, there is the shape of an argument one often hears about video games and other immersive entertainments: that they create arenas of suspended morality, and so corrupt those who spend time in them. This brings me to the PhD, and an antitheatrical argument that has circulated for eons, which runs along similar lines, namely that the theatre exposes its audiences to experiences and ideas that they would never otherwise have had. If some of these ideas are dangerous, then the theatre, for all the safety of theatrical illusion, can still have a corrupting influence on those who watch or, perhaps even more so, on those who act out, night after night, the blinding of Gloucester, the murder of Banquo or any other such scene.

Against this, there is an argument that the theatre promotes sympathy and connection, stretches the emotional fibre of an audience (and an actor) forced to confront extreme situations, and so makes them stronger. What, I suppose, therefore, is ultimately so disturbing about Ender’s Game is how the simulation is used to close down the possibility of emotional development. The suggestion that it is all make-believe makes it easier to do something terrible. The game, the play, for a moment at least, suspended morality as much as it suspended disbelief.

BONUS: Coda on Shakespeare

This has just made me think of Hamlet. Does Laertes need the fencing match in order to kill Hamlet? The standard reading is that Laertes is furious and would attack the prince anywhere, but is restrained by Claudius into making it look like a fencing accident with the use of a sharpened, poisoned rapier. That said, could it not be that the structure, the game, of such a match helps Laertes to commit murder? After all, he has only to convince himself that it is, as it appears, no different from all the sportive bouts we know he has been having as part of his education in France. This would mean that, like Hamlet, Laertes too needs help to kill. Further, it would fit with other moments in the play. After all, even Hamlet, a bit earlier in the plot, seems to have tried to turn fiction to the real-life end of strengthening his resolve by staging the Murder of Gonzago to ascertain Claudius’s guilt…

The Doppelganger

I want to tell you today about a fear, common, I suspect, to every PhD student at one time or another. It is the worry that somewhere, out there in another university, another country, another continent, there is someone doing the same research as you. Your doppelganger.

It may be even worse than this. It may be that there is no-one doing the same thing as you right now, but rather that there once was someone, even someone famous, who has already done all this work, read all this material, written all the articles many years ago. In short, that it is in fact you who are the doppelganger, the tardy shadow to a successful academic.

There are many resources that trade on the fear of this academic double. Who has not used Google Scholar or their university library catalogue with apprehension, fearing to see another’s name attached to a book or article, whose title indicates that what you thought unique to yourself has been thought (and published) by another? In France, you can even use to discover the subject of current theses, and so – one worries – meet the doppelganger who is truly your mirror image. In Britain, and of course elsewhere, one can also review the dissertations of past PhD students, and so – perhaps most terrifyingly of all – find a student just like yourself, who walked the same road as you, reading the same books, thinking the same thoughts, and failed: their ideas (which must be yours too) found unpublishable, their work and approach (yours too) unemployable.

There is limitless material here, and it is no great challenge to spin nightmares from three basic positions the doppelganger might occupy. Your double might have preceded you, either with success or without; or your double is your contemporary, your competitor. In my case, it is the first of these variants that is most applicable (as far as I’m aware). You see, I know of one scholar, a man called Peter Holland who, after doing (like me) his thesis at Cambridge, has gone on to lead a distinguished career with a professorship first at Birmingham and now at Notre Dame. His interests – Shakespeare, acting, editing, performance theory, the Renaissance and the eighteenth century – all closely match mine, and it is rare indeed that I ever write something without finding he has a relevant article. Compare my thoughts on Johnson, for example, and his article on ‘Editing for Performance’.

I must admit, though, that I’m not kept awake at night with nightmares about Peter Holland. This is in part because of something my supervisor, a veteran of many anxious PhD students, said to me early on in this doctorate. No two people, said he, can ever write the same thing. Just by virtue of it being me who is writing this thesis, it will be my own. For better or for worse, my particular set of experiences, talents and opportunities will separate me – to a greater or lesser degree – from any doppelganger, past or present. All that matters is that I do the best I possibly can, and try and learn from those who have gone ahead.

Put like this, it all seems obvious, but the fear should still be acknowledged. That no two people are alike, and so, for all the coincidences, will never write the same depends upon the idea that academic writing, at least for the humanities, is something personal. Is our worry about doppelgangers a sign that this belief in the personal is under threat? If it is, one might point to the increased capacity for search and communication that we have as researchers these days: it allows us to work with greater efficiency, true, but also reminds us that we are never alone, indeed often little more than an impersonalised entry on a page of search results. Another, related, reason might be that funding pressures for discrete and measurable outputs is pushing the arts closer to the sciences, bringing with it the scientific malaise of having your work invalidated by another. Who, after all, has not heard of a mathematics PhD who dropped out after a student at another university found the proof he was being funded to achieve?

Enough of fears, be they of the doppelganger or, perhaps more worryingly, of an eroding belief in the personal qualities of research. I’ll finish instead with a fourth kind of doppelganger, one I deliberately excluded from my summary: not the past, nor the present, but the double who is yet to come. I’ve been doing a great deal of teaching these last few weeks, and it has brought the truth home to me that so much of what I do has its clearest value when I communicate it to another. I strongly doubt that any of my students will go on to become a version of myself, but I may now think from time to time of some hypothetical PhD student, many years from now, looking at my take on things that he or she is interested in, at first despairing that all has been said but then recalling that one response does not preclude others, for if it did, what would literature be?