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Writing vlog for the week follows up on plans, tries to set new ones. We’ll see how things go this time around.
Goals met? Goals set. That’s the grind in today’s writing vlog.
Talking a little about a new essay I added to my lineup, along with the weekly update.
Perspectives, narrative choices and prose in this week’s writing vlog!
There’s a longstanding tradition in the visual arts of trying to represent the invisible. Naoki Urosawa draws the feet and legs of people walking to represent a sense of purpose or determination. Bill Waterson drew uneven, exclamation mark-styled lines around his characters to represent excitement, surprise or anger. Superman is depicted like a strongman flexing every muscle at once to represent his power and resolute nature. These visual representations have been borrowed by many other visual artists in other mediums precisely because they are effective in their chosen goals.
There is one area where these attempts to depict the invisible haven’t really found traction. Many illustrators have tried to depict music and its effect on those who hear it but so far there isn’t any one standout way to do it. One artist who has portrayed music with some success is Kazuya Machida, the author and artist of The Shiori Experience.
The basic premise of The Shiori Experience is quite comedic. Shiori is a school music teacher who used to idolize her older brother, who was lead guitarist in a garage band. When Shiori’s brother tries to fund the production of his own album but gets ripped off his family is left in debt and he flees overseas to America to try and make his guitar legend there. Shiori gives up her love of rock and roll because her family turns on the medium. She still loves the guitar but she loves her family to the point she won’t push them by putting her love of rock and roll in front of them constantly. Until one night, at midnight on her 27th birthday, she meets the ghost of Jimi Hendrix at a crossroads. Jimi haunts Shiori and imbues her with some of his legendary guitar skill. In exchange, she must become a musical legend before her 27th year ends or she will join the 27 Club – the group of musicians who had the potential to change music forever but died at the age of 27.
Jimi himself is a card carrying member of the club, of course. He hasn’t given up on creating new music so he’s returned to the mortal realm to find someone willing to make a deal with him. Shiori didn’t make a deal with him but he’s there for some reason and that means she has 365 days to become a rock legend or she’s doomed. There’s a lot of odd couple vibes to The Shiori Experience on top of the usual trials of a person reigniting their passion for a skill they let fall by the wayside for years. It’s a fun tale, although heavily reliant on tropes.
But it’s the depiction of music on the comic page that really interests me. Manga has a long standing tradition of using visual metaphors in moments of strong emotional impact – crashing waves behind triumphant warriors, blooming flowers wreathing the objects of romantic affection, that kind of thing. Some of that is used in The Shiori Experience. For example, when a guitarist haunted by the ghost of Kurt Corbain meets Shiori and Hendrix the four of them engage in a guitar duel at an underground rock venue where their clashing riffs are depicted as waves crashing into each other.
While this is very well trod ground in action manga, The Shiori Experience puts a new spin on it. The change from depicting a simple battle to a struggle between entertainers lets Machida recontextualize the metaphor. He does this by showing the waves sweeping the audience away.
Many comics and manga try to show the input of music on the audience by illustrating their emotional reaction to it through expression or perhaps actions like dancing or crying. Machida shows the audience becoming a part of the metaphor. As the music surges between the dueling guitarists the audience swirls back and forth on the dance floor, caught in the maelstrom. It’s a brilliant use of established conventions in a new context to powerful effect.
Machida’s use of visual storytelling doesn’t end there. When Shiori takes her band to a battle of the bands each song in their set is given a full, 38-40 page chapter to show us the impact of the band’s performance on the audience. It’s a very bold move, relying on purely visual storytelling to emphasize relationships between the performers and the audience. Two of the songs in Shiori’s set are classic rock songs, Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and The Monkee’s “Daydream Believer.” The other two are ‘original’ songs composed by Shiori and her band, songs we’ve never heard and have no canonical lyrics established in the manga. They exist only in our heads. Machida uses different approaches for each.
The real songs are used to establish the rapport between the audience and the band, with the lyrics and the reactions to them showing how everyone in the venue is reacting in the same way. The only words in the chapters are the song lyrics – we get the rest entirely through expressions, motions and reactions. The two ‘original’ songs have no written words in their respective chapters at all. To get his point across in these chapters Machida relies even harder on visual language from action manga.
The opening number uses what I call ‘team building’ metaphors, with the band member known as Prince (and clearly based on that Prince) leading the band in a song he composed to show off each of their strong points. As each one comes in we see the band building in a visual pyramid with the crowd surging towards the stage, reminiscent of tokusatsu costumed performers creating a dynamic pose as they make their entrances. If you’re not familiar with this style of Japanese storytelling, a small part of it has been imported under the brand Power Rangers. The language here is pretty simple: Shiori’s band is building to a high point.
At the other end of the set, they perform “Jack In,” their other ‘original’ song. During this song Machida appropriates the visuals of ‘special attacks’ as often seen in battle manga. The audio input jack is a recurring visual metaphor in The Shiori Experience, used to symbolize the connection between Hendrix and Shiori, then later Shiori and her bandmates. But at this juncture we see audio jacks streaking from the stage and jacking into the heads and hearts of the audience as the music connects with them.
This song is all about Shiori’s band versus the other bands they’re competing against. As the song builds to the climax of their set these audio jacks connect with the opposing band members in the audience, showing the moments they win over each of their rivals. Some are hit by the jacks right away, some even actively run into their paths while some drift around the venue until a particular moment in the music connects with then. One actively fights off connecting with the song, grabbing the jack sent his way and holding it in his hand until he relents and jacks in himself. Machida uses these metaphors because he doesn’t want this sequence to just be about the song or its effect on the audience. He wants to show the conflict between Shiori and her rivals, so he steals visuals from stories about physical conflict but adds just enough context to make it clear these are metaphors.
It’s difficult to show something intangible in a visual medium. The Shiori Experience isn’t creating a definitive series of metaphors for music on the comic page like Superman or Waterson did. However Machida is innovating and working on the problem in ways few other artists are and that’s a great reason for anyone interested in visual storytelling to give it a look.
Thoughts on how to adjust when things don’t go to plan in this week’s writing vlog:
Believe it or not there is a story which you can tell about characters in any time period, of any social stand, in any place in the world, about people in just about any stage of life. This might sound like a bit of a stretch but believe me, it’s true. I know it’s true because it has been done. I don’t say this in the way Joseph Campbell talks about the Hero with a Thousand Faces. I’m talking about an actual story, with a prescribed set of events, that authors have read and then deliberately copied and adapted to narratives of their own.
This story is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
There was a time where no TV show was complete until it had a Christmas Carol episode. Everything from The Flintstones to The Jetsons to The Muppets has tackled this basic narrative at least once. Something about Dickens’ basic narrative has such a broad appeal and universal applicability that English speaking culture developed a fascination with trying to retell the narrative that lasted all the way up to the end of the 20th century. What are the lessons we can draw from this?
Well, first that simple motivations are the best. Ebenezer Scrooge was not driven by any kind of deep trauma or some kind of overly complex theory of society. He suffered abuse as a child, yes, but nothing outside the normal human experience. He had good friends, a sense of morality and goals beyond securing his own position. Unfortunately he gets distracted by very simple, understandable human motivations: a desire to increase his own wealth and standing. Stubborn pride. A desire to avoid falling back into a previous state that was terrible for him.
These are very easy motivations to understand. Everyone has felt them at some point in their lives and, even if the exact situations Scrooge experiences haven’t happened to you, you can probably translate the basic sense of Scrooges experience to your own life. Some kind of disappointment from your family, friends you grow distant from and goals you get overly fascinated by. It’s very easy to start down the path to Scrooge, that’s part of what makes him a great character.
The themes of A Christmas Carol are equally universal. Loneliness and obsession are things everyone have suffered and redemption from the shackles they put on us is something we’ve all fought against to some extent. It’s very tempting to lapse into some analysis of class dynamics or recovery from trauma when looking at Scrooge’s story. However these things are too specific, too bound in one time period or lifetime to allow the creation of a universal story. Dickens could and did write about themes of social status (it’s very prevalent in his work, actually) and traumatic events but comparing his work that touches on those issues to A Christmas Carol it really doesn’t look like that was what he was going for. He was examining the potential human cost for much more mundane, immediate decisions based in human nature, not class or trauma.
The format of the story also allowed Dickens to explore these very human themes and motives to their very utmost. Scrooge doesn’t just explore his past, he sees where his actions ultimately lead him if he will not change. He will die alone and get buried, unmourned. Seeing these results through the eyes of a ghostly vision, brought by ghosts who have proven trustworthy in every aspect of life they’ve revealed to Scrooge before, removes some of the subjectivity from the situation.
That’s not always a good thing to do in fiction but in A Christmas Carol the whole point is to show us an 18th century intervention where a person is slapped out of their obsessions to see where they stand in reality. The motif of supernatural visitations accomplishes that. And it doesn’t remove all of the ambiguity from the situation. Even now, it’s hard to say for sure that Scrooge actually saw ghosts and not a dream brought on by guilty conscience. Or undercooked potato. Whatever the source of the visions, the truth of the situation is found through the outcomes. Scrooge does turn his life around and it is better for him.
It’s these simple themes and motivations, explored to the fullest extent, that makes Scrooge’s story so powerful and easy to apply to other characters regardless of time, place or society. Granted, a certain part of the enduring appeal of Dickens’ landmark story is his masterful prose. Neither can his piercing insight into human nature pass on to another author who is trying to transmute A Christmas Carol into a new form. The genius of Dickens was in large part in his execution of his stories.
But he also knew how to tap into the universals of the human experience and nowhere do we see that more clearly than in A Christmas Carol. That is what has made Scrooge’s story so enduring, to the point we are still talking about it almost two hundred years later. There are not many stories this broad, this applicable and this compelling. Nor are universal stories the only good kinds of stories that exist. But when an author tells a story that everyone wants to retell in their own way they’ve tapped into something profound. And that’s something every author should try to understand, for their own edification if nothing else.
Today’s writing vlog is a day late, due to my being forgetful. Apologies! Just a few notes on where I’m at in writing and how I feel about it this week:
This weeks writing vlog: Essay update, and ruminations on essay writing.