asiascape vistas

Techno-Culture, New Politics, and Philosophy in East Asia

Asiascape Vistas is a forum for discussion about the many and various dimensions of cyberculture found in or originating from East Asia. Its focus is on the interplay between these media and questions of politics & philosophy. Contributions are from the academic collective responsible for the core project, but other contributions will also be considered by that collective.
If you wish to contribute to Asiacape Vistas, please send an email using the form on the contact page.

Final Fantasy: Advent Children & Character Camera

Final Fantasy: Advent Children is a sequel to the 1990s role-playing video game Final Fantasy VII, though it is less a sequel in the sense that it continues the story VII (which it does), and more that it is a return to a previous work, a film akin to the nostalgia of meeting up with an old friend. Final Fantasy VII was an enormously influential game. It showed off the power of the then-cutting-edge PlayStation video game console with its elaborate 3-D graphics, and through those visuals it was one of the first (if not thefirst) Role Playing Game to expand to a much wider audience. For many people, Final Fantasy VII was their first great game, the first to move them to tears, to engross them in its story, to make them fall in love with its characters. Having never played Final Fantasy VII for any extended period of time, I was not one of those people, but I knew quite a few who practically grew up on Final Fantasy VII. In many cases, they saw and still do see Final Fantasy VIIas the epitome of not only the Final Fantasy franchise itself, but of storytelling in video games in general.

Still, despite my lack of personal experience with the original game, I had decided to watch Final Fantasy: Advent Childrenbecause just by being around so many people who played and loved Final Fantasy VII, I knew a lot about it. This viewing for the Vistas blog is not my first time seeing it either. But upon the second viewing of the film, I noticed a detail that had escaped me the last time around. As the film opened and the credits began to roll, I saw “Director: Tetsuya Nomura,” and upon being conscious of his enormous influence on this movie, I could not ignore it.

Tetsuya Nomura had worked on Final Fantasy VII, but it wasn’t in the capacity of director or producer. Nomura was the character designer, and Advent Children feels like a movie directed by a character designer. Not only are each of the characters themselves re-designed with greater attention to detail and updated fashions—compare the heroes of the story with the plain designs of the children around them—but the shots are framed in a way that glorifies some aspect of the characters in them. The movie often lingers on the characters for extended periods, most noticeably in the slow-motion sequences during action scenes, as if the overall shot itself is less important than the character in it, or perhaps, in terms of Advent Children, that the character isthe shot.

I do not believe that Nomura could not have possibly done otherwise, or that all character designers-turned-directors will create the same type of movie. However, I do believe that Nomura’s past with Final Fantasy VII as a character designer influenced Advent Children’s visuals profoundly, and that he would have had to make a much more conscious effort to go against his artistic instincts. I think that Nomura had his own nostalgia for the characters, or that he understood well the number of people who saw Advent Children as a fated reunion. As someone who was not part of that nostalgia but knew its effects, perhaps this is how such a movie comes across for me.

Though I never did play it myself, Final Fantasy VII actually still did influence my life in a certain sense. I remember when the game first came out back in the late 1990s, when discussions about it raged across the video game-loving section of the internet, back when people used the term “Information Super-Highway” seriously. Some fans who self-identified as “gamers,” including those who had enthusiastically followed the Final Fantasy since the beginning, saw Final Fantasy VII as the advent of the “new school” of gamers, the end of the golden age, where the doors of the RPG kingdom and video games in general had been flung open. For years, this was my image of how Final Fantasy VII was perceived. Then one day, I saw a post on a video game forum decrying the state of the Final Fantasyfranchise and the role-playing genre. In it, the poster wishes a return to the great, “old-school” RPGs like Final Fantasy VII. I had actually seen a video game go from new-fangled tool of the whippersnapper to a symbol of the old days. In that respect, Final Fantasy: Advent Children says a lot about where video games have gone in the years since.

Is Final Fantasy Fantasy or SF?

written by Mari Nakamura

Final Fantasy VII Advent Children (2005) is a Japanese computer-animated film. When I saw the film recently, I kept asking myself if it is a fantasy or science fiction (SF). It has both characteristics of fantasy and SF: magic and dragons appear, but advanced technologies also exist in the film. It reminds me of Fredric Jameson’s discussion over fantasy and SF.
In his Archaeologies of the Future(2005), Jameson points out that the structural differences between fantasy and SF. According to Jameson, fantasy has, as a genre, stronger medieval features such as the culture of the peasantry and a Christian nostalgia. It is also characterized by the ethical binary of good and evil, and the fundamental role to magic. Quoting Darko Suvin’s influential conception of SF as “cognitive estrangement,” which emphasizes the commitment of the SF text to scientific reason, Jameson suggests that SF has a long tradition of critical emphasis on verisimilitude from Aristotle on. Yet, he also argues that modern fantasy have some affinities with SF; fantasy have critical and even demystificatory power. He notes that in modern fantasy (e.g., Le Guin’s The Earthsea series) magic, a fundamental motif of fantasy, and its role “may be read, not as some facile plot device…but rather as a figure of the enlargement of human powers and their passage to the limit, their actualization of everything latent and virtual in the stunted human organism of the present” (Jameson 2005: 66).
Although Jameson does not mention any non-Western fantasy and SF in his book, it seems that we can also apply his arguments to Final Fantasy VII. Here, two readings are possible. Firstly, we can see the film as a fantasy: the story revolves around the antagonism between good and evil; some symbolic scenes have Christian characters. For instance, the protagonist Cloud lives in the ruined church; overcoming the sense of guilt, Cloud decides to fight against the evil to save his people; Cloud cures seriously infected children in the church in a climax after he defeats the enemy Sephiroth. Here, the magical feature, Lifestream, the planet’s life force, plays an important role. It can be both good and evil depending on who uses it: Sephiroth attempted to use Lifestream to control the planet, while Cloud use it as a cure. Secondly, we can read the film as SF if we see Lifestream as the novum*. People have been used Lifestream, the technological innovation, in gene engineering and energy generation from age to age; this innovation is surely different from our world. The story has critical element too. The power struggle over Lifestream, the disaster and mysterious disease caused by Lifestream make me think of dark side of technological developments we are facing today, such as energy war, danger and threat.
So is Final Fantasy VII fantasy or SF? Perhaps, it can be both and it depends on how we treat some features such as Lifestream as the magic or the novum. In any case, it has some critical elements.
*Novum is “the primary element in a work of science fiction by which the work is shown to exist in a different world than that of the reader.” (Prucher 2007)

Jameson, Fredric (2005), Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Verso.
Prucher, Jeff (ed.) (2007), Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, Oxford University Press.

A Final Fantasy

The anime film Final Fantasy VII Advent Children is a demonstration of what computer-animated imagery is capable of today. The detail of the animation, movement and gestures (ok, not all gestures) is astonishing. In a sense, Advent Children expresses the superhumanity of its characters through its speed (assuming that the scenes are still fluent and coherent if played in slow motion), where the movie The Matrix chose the opposite approach by introducing “bullet-time” (slow motion). To be honest, the action scenes were beyond my sensual capacities, making the attempt to grasp the details a pretty exhausting experience.
To this extent, Advent Children shares some commonality with what Walter Benjamin (1936) called “shock effect of the film” in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. He used the term to describe the interruption of any associative process due to mere speed of changing images in movies. Benjamin considered this shock effect to be an equivalent to the peril of his time, and even argued that it helps people to get used to the permanent and growing danger that surrounds them.
Couldn’t it be that movies like Advent Children demand a new kind of literacy from their audience? While for Benjamin, the movies of his time prevented the viewers from contemplating their content, Advent Children seems to suggest to abandon any hope of sensually perceiving its content fully in the first place. Maybe the experience is more relaxing if we don’t try to decode the fast movement. Instead, we might have to encode the complex action, meaning to perceive a high speed battle as singular algorithmic event and concentrate on its result, 0 or 1, win or loose and its connection to the next event or unit. In this sense, it resembles the genre of role-playing games, in which its model, Final Fantasy VII, is located. Even the development of the protagonist of the movie is expressed in terms of the character development in video games, namely increased fighting skills.
Such literacy would not only target the content, but also the visual representation of the movie. In this respect, Advent Children reminded me of my own experience and observations of the first-person-shooter Quake III Arena. Here, the player can configure and adjust her graphics in order to change the information sent to her screen. Referring to Retaux and Rouchier (2002), Jesper Juul (2005: 139-140) for example illustrates how the player can reduce graphical detail (see figure 1).

Figure 1: High (top) and low (bottom) graphical detail in Quake II Arena. Source: Juul 2005, p.140.

If my memory of the modification Quake III Rocket Arena isn’t mistaken, the players can further manipulate their camera to depict a wider angle, thereby increasing the range of vision. This leads to a distorted view that has something of a fisheye-lens, in exchange for more information on the screen. According to Juul, this is not only done in order to improve performance, but also shows that “[e]xperienced players shift their focus from the fictional world of the game to the game as a set of rules. […] Skilled players know that the textures on the wall are not relevant to the playing of the game.”
In a similar way, Advent Children seems to demand from its viewers to develop “functional viewing strategies” – including a new kind of configured visualization. Maybe it shows one (distant but possible) future of movie experience. Parallel to the individual configurations allowed in Quake III, a new kind of individualized movie could allow the viewer to decide, how much information she would like to get. Although still very much related to varying internet connection speed, video streaming often facilitates a choice of high and low quality (resolution). In a sense, this already is a first step in the direction of individualized visualization. Does Advent Children point in the direction of such a final fantasy of computer-aided viewing? Would we want it to?