When you know you’ve made it as a nerd, and all the people you obliterate along the way
From Anime News Network:
“TOHO revealed on Saturday that Studio Khara’s new Shin Ultraman (New Ultraman) film has sold about 1,032,000 tickets and has earned about 1.54 billion yen (about US$12.04 million) as of Friday, its eighth day in theaters. TOHO is streaming a special promotional video to commemorate 1 million tickets sold.”
So, Shin Ultraman premiered not long ago and it’s Ultra-smashing up the box office (Ultra Smash being a signature Ultraman move). The review bytes I read reflect the response to the trailer, that it’s a lighter version of Shin Godzilla — that’s all I need. I’m no Ultra scholar, so I don’t know how much political commentary factored into the original. Perhaps with Hideaki Anno ceding the director role entirely to Shinji Higuchi this time, there you have it? Well, that’s not really what a director does. And besides, as I learned today, Anno had a much more important role to play: Ultraman.
This is what I do know about Ultraman, that Hideaki Anno played Ultraman a long time ago in a fan film, “Return of Ultraman.” Knowing how ultra a fan he is of Ultraman, I did wonder why he chose Shin Kamen Rider over this, and now I have my answer and it’s delightful.
I read a piece on the Duffer Brothers recently which noted their minimal public profile. “There’s a reason we’re behind the camera — that’s where we feel more comfortable,” they say. These are the guys who make Stranger Things, interviewed before the release of the new season. When I think of them, my brain then hyperlinks to the dreaded D&D of Game of Thrones, and I did watch a video about the disastrous production of that pilot. A story I knew, but it’s such a great one, how Game of Thrones introduced genre to American television and seemed to capture this perfect moment in time after the prestige of The Sopranos and the budget of Rome, and it changed the pop culture landscape. And then there’s the second story, the fall, and how these two guys allegedly failed upward and ruined everything for everyone forever. I liked their cameos on Always Sunny?
And finally, by happenstance, I randomed onto the Retronauts episode on Bioshock, which was as much a retrospective on that game as it was a referendum on Bioshock Infinite and the great fallen star of gaming Ken Levine. Goddamn, that is such a wild story, my own personal Game of Thrones meta. See, Bioshock also came out at the perfect time, and one of the best years in gaming: 2007 (it’s that, 1998 or 2017 — you pick). This is when Call of Duty 4 changed gaming, Halo 3 totally 100% finished the fight, Assassin’s Creed started and never stopped, and Mass Effect promised and later delivered no comments. Metroid Prime 3, Super Mario Galaxy, Uncharted: Drakes Fortune, The Orange Box, The Witcher, Rock Band, I mean, what the hell? But Bioshock was different. It was pitched as the thinking man’s shooter, taking place in an 1960s undersea dystopia called Rapture, masterminded by “Andrew Ryan,” a pointed stand-in for Ayn Rand’s gonzo Nazi philosophy objectivism. Here’s a game that would comment on objectivism by illustrating a world driven to madness by that sort of maximalist capitalism.
As the Retronauts crew quickly point out now over ten years later, that’s kind of where the critique stopped. And I’d always been curious about that, having only ever played Infinite. How does the verb of the game or the story finish that critique? Apparently insufficiently, but the gaming press of the era ate it up (to later regret it), ushering in a new wave of games criticism that shifted away from enthusiast press and toward academia. “Ludonarrative” was coined in a piece about Bioshock. It was for gamers what Cronenberg was for young Mark Kermode, the get-out-of-jail card to hold up and say “This one’s smart.” And like Cronenberg, you need an auteur, so the crown was laid upon Ken Levine’s head — the western answer to Hideo Kojima.
So I guess, whether or not I’m just trying to assemble a theme here, I’ve been thinking about when nerds make it. There are some nerds we like no matter what they do, see: Hideo Kojima. That guy’s no less douchey than CliffyB ever was, hanging out with Hollywood stars and saying sometimes indelicate things. I’ve started watching a playthrough of Metal Gear Solid 2 and I’m suspicious he doesn’t have the chops to back it all up. I’m sure he’s a great game designer, but as a writer, I see him as the big-picture guy because, man, there is so much inefficiency of exposition in that tanker mission. I felt anxious that we were still in a cutscene and I wasn’t even playing. (Like, I get it, it’s supposed to be this way, it’s avant garde; I need to finish the video). But Kojima’s survived a long time, and never got outshined by newer stars like Hidetaka Miyazaki (who likely has the chops but zero public profile) or a personal favorite of mine Harvey Smith.
What happens when the center of pop culture shifts the spotlight onto these unkempt weirdos who think about things like Dungeons & Dragons and art deco? It’s mostly negative, in light of how that game criticism eventually gave way to a culture war culminating in GamerGate. Sometimes you grow up and become a monster, terrorizing people into compressing data and assets into the neutron star of your vision before laying them all off, and sometimes you grow up to be Ultraman. And while Anno had his share of controversies, too, he’s one of those nerdgods whose antics can still put a smile on my face.