Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Fifth World Movies: Origin

Plenty of people have pointed out the thematic and aesthetic similarities between Origin: Spirits of the Past, and another Fifth World-inspiring movie, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, some even going so far as to call it a "rip-off." I think that stretches too far, unless Nausicaä has a monopoly now on all post-apocalyptic ecotopian anime now. In some ways, Nausicaä seems like a much superior film, but I can't help but admire Origin's ambition. It tries to do a lot, and I think it does accomplish it—though it does require you to meet its challenge and really think about its themes. Otherwise, they seem a lot like plot holes.

Origin begins centuries after a civilization-destroying apocalypse, in which a genetic engineering experiment goes out of control. The plants shatter a good part of the moon, and rain down on earth, creating a sentient Forest that can move quickly and violently. While the human survivors begin to rebuild their lives, two characters that awaken from a cryogenic sleep have a harder time adapting to the new life, and seek out ESTOC, a device that will "return everything to normal," (and by "normal," they seem to mean that brief anomaly of civilized life)—by vaporizing all life with volcanic eruptions, and allowing life to start anew.

The protagonist of the story, a boy named Agito, follows in his father's footsteps by becoming "enhanced": tapping into the Forest's power to become a bit of an eco-superhero. You get a few scenes reminiscent of anime like Dragonball Z as Agito shows off his powers, but it comes with a price. Agito's father ended up becoming a tree, losing his personality completely to "the Forest consciousness." In his quest to save his girlfriend (the last of the two characters from the past to awaken), Agito risks using his power to such an extreme that he might follow in his father's footsteps in that, too, but in a matter of days, rather than decades.

Ultimately, the film ends with (what I personally felt as) a powerful statement about human kinship with a more-than-human world. But certainly, that takes a unique perspective. Like I said, the film can certainly seem challenging, and what I consider its strengths, to some, seem more like plot holes. As one Amazon reviewer put it, "The problem is, the plot makes no sense: presumably the whole living-in-harmony-with-Forest thing is symbolic of living in harmony with nature. But since the Forest was mutated by humans, wrecked the world, genetically altered the survivors and keeps civilization in a stagnant stranglehold, it's about as unnatural as you can get. And the alleged bad guys just want to switch the world back to its pre-mutant-plant state when man and nature were in balance... meaning that the Designated Anti-Nature Bad Guy is actually the Pro-Nature Good Guy."

This argument rests on an assumption that I'd consider extremely pernicious, but we've all heard it so many times that I think few of us would recognize it. William Cronon certainly would, though. I actually saw someone tweet a link to his 2005 essay, "The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature," just earlier this week. In fact, if by "wilderness," we mean "some place where humans don't have an impact," then no wilderness has existed for thousands of years. But of course, that distinction only makes sense if you first accept that humans have a unique uniqueness in the world. Otherwise, humans belong to "nature," and Origin deals with shifting from an ecology where humans dominate to an ecology where humans participate.

Those themes resonate through The Fifth World, too. Origin does it with really captivating, fluid animation, and some beautiful, haunting music. I often listen to Kokia's "Cyouwa Oto" to "get in the mood" for working on The Fifth World. Like so many others, Origin presents a much harsher future than The Fifth World, but it still presents some very evocative images and sounds, along with resonant themes, that it can still help inspire you with the right tone.


Jer said...

Don't get me wrong, I get the whole "movies as inspiration" bit, but, seriously, what about music? When you work on 5W, what do you listen to? Do you ever listen to a song and find yourself automatically turning your mind to 5W?

Jer said...

D'oh! Sorry, I guess you actually did say that!

Josh W said...

My understanding is very close to yours:

Imagine a man who camps by the side of the river, and he looks out at night and sees in the darkness the light of a tent, on the far side of the water. He tuts to himself about a human being polluting the natural environment by his presence, spoiling the wilderness. On the far side of the water, the other camper things the same thing looking back.

Human beings and nature can never be in balance as if they were opposing forces, only if they produce a mutually beneficial relationship.

We have moved from the earth as something to take value from by our actions, an exploitable frontier, to understanding it as something that has natural value before we act. The answer is not to destroy action but to see what we can add, how we can by our action supplement rather than replace that natural value.

"Carbon neutral" or "zero energy" is not enough, we need to benefit the world so that it becomes something greater it could never be without us here. The city, the quintessential human habitat, can it be made a place open to nature?

More strongly, can we merge the city and the rainforest, in a way that strengthens both?

I know your game focuses on the village as the true balanced human community, and that is probably best considering the complexity load on setting creation otherwise, but I reckon that same thinking can lead to a very different direction, providing that forest/city aspiration is actually possible.

Hmm actually, perhaps when this game is done I will be able to mod it to fit the mindset of living in archology-type cities!

Jason Godesky said...

Josh, actually, I LOVE the idea of using this game to explore what a really sustainable city might look like! Though personally, I'd really want to press on what a really sustainable city might look like. You called the city "the quintessential human habitat," but I disagree. Bees and ants make cities, and they make them work. Humans only recently started experimenting with cities, and we have yet to create one that doesn't drive us insane, to say nothing of destroying our ecological foundation. That said, I just last night made a few tweets about festivals and cities. I think I'll need to write something about this subject soon on my other blog, geared more towards the deep ecology/rewilding/bioregionalism end of things (as opposed to this blog, where I work out game ideas), called Toby's People. Synopsis of my thoughts at the moment: Paleolithic festivals took the "flash mob" approach to "city life," "city life" does not mean the same thing as "life in cities," and in the future, we can get the things we value from cities from festivals without the bad parts about cities that we get from, well, cities.

That said, I want this game to serve as a way to share different dreams about the future, so if you can dream of a sustainable city—one that not only strengthens the ecology rather than depletes it, but also fits into the psychological and social needs of a human animal that can only barely handle a society with much more than 150 people or so—I'd love to see it!

Jason Godesky said...

And prairie dogs! I can't believe I forgot prairie dogs. Some animals do seem very well adapted to cities. But humans don't. We seem very well adapted to bands. Cities, as the link above details, make us a little bit crazy.

Josh W said...

Hmm, to be honest, "the city" is a big part of my personal understanding, not least because I love my city, and here my ambivalence with online self-revelation hits square into the success of my grounding within my locality! As a result of this trade-off some of this may be inappropriately general:

In my experience, though someone can hold only a small number of people, the very same empathy you mention in the context of hunting allows us to switch that community. I have confidence in other words in our ability as people to achieve a multi-layered identity, existing simultaneously in communities over the internet and in person, or rather shifting between them and mixing them into each other. It is this ability to become modal that hopefully allows the city to exist in a sane way!

The ability to be multi-cultural, to layer ways of thinking and networks of relationships on top of each other gives us immense power as problem solvers, and that can be our gift to the rest of the natural world. Can we find a density that achieves this while keeping us healthy and happy? I hope so.

Now this is in all honesty too utopian, without including what others may consider the supernatural. In the Christian tradition "the city" is central to the peacemaking of the entire natural system, it is a place from which peace flows (a little different to now aye?). My interest is in a humanity that "gardens" in a way that is far above what we have done before, instead of moving from our own crisis to crisis, and stomping our effects onto the surrounding landscape, or moulding it into a humanised falsehood of itself, we instead enable the world to be more complex and stable than it ever was before, providing a guide to the flowering of it's own self-directed complexity, towards a greater use of the entropic gradient of solar energy, and to who knows what else.

Basically I hope that I, and other people, can be a gift to this earth by forming a part of an extra-human pattern that includes the desires of millions of people human or not, my desire for an ecological city is a subset of that.

Now I could rattle on like a poet, but some conversations are better done through other means! You'll notice I've included none of the mundane stuff like "no unsolicited adverts" and "subtle use of local energy" or "integrating building fabric and habitat" or whatever else, because if it takes this long to say a wink of my intuitions, how long will it take to explain it formalised into the traditional language of engineering! I'm sure you know the feeling.

Josh W said...

Just had a look at the site, slightly overawed at the level of specificity! I'm only at the start of constructing my ambitions, so it's lovely to see someone a bit ahead of me making such progress. I'll probably pop some comments on there too when I have something useful to say! But likely less synoptic.