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The first half of this review will talk briefly about the concept behind the short story, and the second half will focus more on the 2013 film.
I first came across the Secret Life of Walter Mitty in its original, short story form. Back in my last (and I do mean last) corporate job, Where They Thought I Worked (emphasis past tense), I consumed podcasts and audiobooks regularly.
Pardon the repetition. Those of you who’ve been with me for awhile likely know this already.
At any rate, among those stories consumed was the titular character’s secret life, and the story itself is delightful, albeit capped off with a less-than-happy ending. Written by James Thurber, a renowned short story writer who – much to the chagrin of everyone, I’m sure – I knew nothing about until having come across this short, which is considered to be his most famous story. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was first published in the New Yorker in 1939, and has since been adapted into two films – one in 1947, starring Danny Kaye and the other in 2013 with Ben Stiller in the titular role.
Both movies are very different from the original story, but that comes as no surprise. They don’t call it an adaptation for nothing, and besides, while the general premise is retained, I rather like the 2013 film more than the short story. Perhaps this is in part to the Hollywood-ized insertions of familiar tropes – such as a love interest, the loyal sidekick, a cast of completely new, original characters, and of course modern dialog and environment. It’s been reshaped to fit modern storytelling a bit more.
And in spite of these differences, I still thoroughly enjoyed the short story – having heard it as a Selected Short on the American National Public Radio (NPR) while sitting in my depressing cubicle a year ago. After hearing the story, a few months later I learned about the movie coming out, but did not get to see it until fairly recently.
In fact it was aboard my plane from Newark, NJ to Hong Kong, China in July of 2014 that I saw this movie, and by the gods, it felt so apropos to my own life that the other movies I watched during that nineteen-hour flight simply paled in comparison.
At least as far as emotional impact is concerned.
I recently watched it a second time, having long since gotten hold of the movie’s soundtrack and (rest assured) listened to it thoroughly. Much like A Tale Of Two Sisters and a variety of other movies I’ve seen only a few times but listened to dozens of times, the soundtrack serves to emphasize certain plot elements – sometimes even paint a new picture of the story’s events as I hear parts of music that I did not pick up while watching.
There must be a term for this. The concept of isolating music (or other sounds) from its media source, resulting in discovering new sections of tracks that were either drowned out by character dialog or sound effects, or simply cut out of the movie altogether.
I loved the movie, even more than I loved the short story. This is not only a result of its modernization through the rather well-executed direction and acting of Ben Stiller, but the underlying message. The premise of “a man who daydreams because his life involves nothing particularly mentionable nor noteworthy,” and taking it to another level, left a strong impression with me.
Let me tell you why.
[I suppose this is the part where I mention
moderate Spoiler Alert. I’ll be talking as though
you’ve seen it already.]
First, let’s go over some of the undertones. A strong aspect of this plot is that Walter Mitty’s company – Life Magazine – is being downsized and converted to an online operation, something that is a very real concern for anyone paying attention to the economy (you know, in real life). Our Villain in this story is a comically bearded individual representing the modern changes happening to the American economy. Young, business-minded individuals in suits who arrive on the scene to change things; out with the old, in with the new. “Beard-Guy” is a humorous stereotype of the new age of Millennials.
To make an omelet, one must first crack an egg. And of course in this case (as with many real-world cases), the egg-shell is usually former employees as more and more companies are converted to online operations, which means they’re increasingly automated and in need of a smaller staff.
Meanwhile, we have Walter Mitty (who is single in this film, which is noticeable difference from the source material, where he was married to a nagging woman), meets the Love Interest, a fellow employee at Life named Cheryl Melhoff. Bits and pieces of each character are revealed throughout the movie, and the more we learn, the more the characters interact, the more they seem to be a good match for each other in the eyes of the audience.
This movie is not a Rom-Com, but it has some threads in common. I’m not sure exactly how to classify this story; one would sooner be inclined to label it Adventure. At any rate, in an effort to complete his last task for Life – developing the Slide No. 25, the chosen cover-photo by Sean Connelly, Life Magazine’s most experienced (only?) freelance photographer. However, the slide is apparently missing, so Walter sets out to recover it by tracking down Sean himself – this takes him on an adventure from New York to Iceland, then Greenland, back to New York, and eventually to bloody ungoverned Afghanistan and the Himalayas.
Throughout the film, we learn that Walter is a hard worker; a good man who had set aside any real personal aspirations for simply working his ass off to keep his family (sister and mother) out of poverty.
It is difficult to dislike such a character, and at first I remember thinking that it was some sort of messiah-ism, or an expertly crafted “How can we make this character easily likable by everyone?” ploy, but in fact it’s integral to the plot. A few spoken sessions of exposition reveal this, but we as an audience also piece it together ourselves in small ways.
A deceptively powerful scene depicts Walter balancing his checkbook – this is extremely revealing of his character, and it made me realize that almost never have I actually seen characters do this in movies. More often they just go places and do things, and the film never takes into account the financial costs of their adventure.
Not to mention Walter, in his younger years, aspired to backpacking throughout Europe, among other things, and this opportunity – some thirty or forty years later – for traveling the world is nothing short of an adventure of a lifetime.
That is the major theme that struck me. The emphasis on travel.
Few stories out there will actually maintain a message of
“Travel is bad. You shouldn’t actually go anywhere.”
But few stories play on that theme as powerfully, or execute it as well, as this movie. Much like in Gravity with Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan, it isn’t necessarily about the events (or bad science…) that happen around the character, but how the events affect and change the character. During the Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, we witness Mitty’s growth.
That is what really makes a story.
Now, I obviously linger on this point for personal reasons. Choosing to travel – let alone the place itself I ended up deciding to hang my proverbial hat – remains one of the better decisions I’ve made in my life. Watching this movie while aboard a plane toward my destination felt like a complete affirmation of my choices.
And, like Walter Mitty, I am quite the daydreamer. I zone out a lot. This is Another Head Full Of Fantasy, after all. I still do from time to time, but, by the muses, it is not for want of adventure, that’s for sure. Also like Walter Mitty, I’ve changed, and grown.
Frequent readers of this blog would recognize my usual soapbox-styled rant on the emphasis of experience, so I won’t get into that so much. Suffice to say, simply (and not for the last time), that travel is good. It’s healthy. Not nearly enough Americans do (almost none of my friends back in my hometown did), and I thoroughly believe America’s isolation will leave a lasting impact in a less-than-positive way.
So we have ourselves a movie that not-so-subtly brings some awareness to our changing, increasingly digital world; that not-so-subtly underlines the benefits of traveling to other countries; and not-so-subtly brings us a well-written story that – while it includes some strong “only in the movies” coincidences – it all ties together quite nicely and satisfactorily.
I give this movie 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Go bloody see it.
Today’s track is from the movie, taking place right after the opening scenes. Composed by Theodore Shapiro, a composer the likes of whom did not know before, but am pleased to credit where credit’s due. The soundtrack is fitting – as most soundtracks tend to be – and it brings me joy to not only listen this piece, but share it with you folks.
This is not so much a review of the movie The Grudge as it’s about a topic sparked by its theme.
So The Grudge is a movie from 2004, based on a Japanese horror film of the same name (called “Ju-On” from 2002). I forget exactly when I first saw it, probably a year or two after, as I did not watch it in a theater, and I’m thoroughly glad I didn’t.
Once, I swore I would never watch that movie again. As of this writing, I only just saw it a second time, with someone new, who insisted we watch ‘the scariest movie I knew.’
The Grudge follows a number of tropes in common with the ever-popular title “The Ring” also from 2002 (“Ringu,” 1998, in Japan). In this humble writer’s opinion, the American versions are significantly scarier, as they retain the psychological horror aspect as found in the original Japanese versions, but with the added American flavor of jump-scare emphasis.
If you haven’t heard of any of these pieces, or are largely unfamiliar with the J-Horror genre of psychological horror movies, I don’t know how to prepare you better than to say: Beware. For many people around the world, this kind of stuff is really bloody frightening.
The common theme among nearly all of these sorts of movies – not only J-Horror, but K-Horror (Korean) as well, and throughout a much of East and South-East Asian cinema, is a paranormal manifestation the likes of which probably everyone in the world would recognize on sight.
I’m talking about what the Japanese call a yūrei, what the Koreans call a gwisin, what the Vietnamese call a ma. You know, ghosts. And, just like the word “ghost” in English can mean a number of things, these are all generic categories. What I’m talking about, though, is a specific type.
They’re quite iconic, and almost never pleasant. They’re most commonly spirits of dead folks who have been wronged, and are generally hateful of anyone or anything that interacts with them, or the places/objects they haunt. This, at least, is the common thread linking the majority of these films, and some of us can’t get enough of it.
I went through a phase once, a couple years back, where I watched I watched a Korean ghost movie almost every night – at least once every couple of days – over the course of a few months. This resulted in my seeing shadows in the corners of my eyes during the day for many months after the fact.
Oh yes, those were good times, working in a health food store only to whip your head around to make sure there wasn’t some pale, bloody phantasm creepily herky-jerky-ing its way down the vitamin aisle.
Most of the time it’s been nothing.
But there were some horrendous nightmares that come every now and then. Heck, I still get them sometimes – things I’d actually prefer not to describe at present – so yeah, on that note, let’s talk about why this stuff is awesome.
For one thing, I’ve actually grown braver about a multitude of things. Or perhaps a little desensitized – is there a difference? Certainly, the line between bravery and stupidity is notoriously thin, but then again so is the line between confidence and actual ability. At any rate, the point is that I’ve been able to explore topics and media that in the past I might have otherwise been averse to exploring. Fear is something that interests me, and not only with the Long-Haired Ghosts, but other creepy things, but with other things creepy and terrifying.
This has, in fact, benefited my writing as well as my outlook on life.
The Long-Haired Ghost is something I’ve found to be repulsive and inspiring. While not directly appearing in my fiction, it has, like I said, allowed me to discover other things – and write about other things – that one might normally find difficult to entertain, or write. On the other hand, situations, creatures, or scenes that might be considered horrific by many are fairly normal to me.
Re: desensitization/bravery. I feel that as a writer, this valuable.
Besides, seeing The Grudge for the second time did raise the hairs on my arms and back of my neck, but it wasn’t quite as scary.
My guest freaked out readily enough, though, so mission accomplished.
Today’s track is brought to you by A Tale of Two Sisters, a K-Horror that stands as one of my favorites. I’ve seen the movie twice – once, alone, during that phase earlier mentioned, and once with another person and it was significantly less scary…
The soundtrack is actually, in this humble writer’s opinion, much more delightful than the movie itself, though I’ll never forget the initial emotions evoked by my first viewing. Truth is, my mind paints a slightly different picture whenever I hear this music, and the picture in my head is better than the picture on film. Be that as it may, check out the soundtrack, if not the movie, and see what ideas appear upon the paper before you.
I’ve come to learn a dozen things about myself in this last month since landing in Viet Nam. Some things personal, some thing superficial, others intellectual and emotional, and even a few things practical.
Writing-wise, I now publicly confess that for the majority of the time since landing (and even a week or two before, as the excitement for the flight grew) was not spent putting down prose. Quite a bit has been dedicated to travelogue’ing, sure, and as important as that is, my fiction has lacked.
I haven’t had a short story idea in months. And we’re approaching the Writers of the Future 4th Quarter of 2014!
My novel project has slowed as well, and I tell myself (and my writing peers) that it’s mostly on account of life simply being too damned interesting to fantasize. That is a falsehood, though. It’s been laziness as well.
But I found a solution.
As a creature of habit and routine – most humans are, in fact, whether they know it or not – a daily or weekly plan often helps with keeping organized. This is no secret, but still I’ve come to understand that my ideal working environment may, in fact, not be at home.
Viet Nam has, among other things, cafes in abundance. With sweet, potent iced coffee readily available for $1 a cup, one finds it difficult to refrain from drinking too much. Two is usually enough before I have to run to the bathroom squealing. But the cafes themselves make for excellent work environments.
For one thing, there’s the (iced) coffee, which is refreshing in the heat, tasty in the sweet, and caffiene is good for every writing feat.
But there is something uniquely special about going to a place away from home with the specific goal of working. It works just as well as dedicated writing time, except for me (and many other people, I’ve read), a change of environment is generally conducive to creativity anyway. I’ve known artists in New York City who rent out studios, no doubt because working at home is out of the question due to space issues, but I wager there’s something in common here. There’s a psychological script at play when coming to a dedicate workspace:
“I came here to work, so I better make use of the time.”
This, of course, is the mental dialog of the occasionally lazy yet anxious mind of yours truly.
Turning off the WiFi connection helps, and is recommended – I don’t have a VPN setup (yet), and it’s generally considered a less-than-safe-thing to connect your laptop to any public network anyway. Phones and tablets are usually more secure on account of them being built for said purpose, but one cannot used Scrivener on a phone or tablet. The willful lacking of an internet connection naturally eliminates – or at least reduces – distraction; at least the self-induced variety.
Having strangers approach me, the only Westerner to ever set foot in that cafe (probably ever), and engage me in conversation tends to happen from time to time. It is a fun distraction, since through this method I’ve met a banker, a chemist, and a technical engineer. Combined, their English skills make for only the most basic of conversations feasible, and I recall one instance (with the engineer), where it took about an hour to express why he disliked the French and why he liked Americans. The short answer is because he reads history. But, after defacing my notebook with dozens of notes and sentence fragments from each of us to illustrate our points, I found myself being told of a history lesson regarding things I already knew.
Still, I admire folks whose practical ability of English is severely limited, yet they work up the courage to approach me anyway. Most simply don’t, or can’t.
Yet in spite of distractions such as this, one finds focus more thoroughly attained in a cafe than at home. Worse case scenario, I don my over-ear headphones and turn up the volume – headphones, I believe, are a universal cue for “Do not disturb.” Multiple soundtracks later I will have found thousands of words (of prose!) written.
Raw creative prose is among the most difficult things to write for me. Writing this blog post, for instance, is something quite different – it’s more a stream of consciousness, thoughts-put-on-paper kind of process. Weaving worlds and character interactions is something quite different, and I am overjoyed to find a small niche.
And, with cafes found every couple of shops apart – no really, they’re everywhere, my home is within walking distance of six or seven on one street alone – I have taken to taking my work with me to a variety of different places. It is as much an adventure exploring the stores and cafes as it is hopping on a motorbike and taking off in a random direction for an hour or two.
I’ve even found inspiration in the most unlikely of ways; in one cafe they had very low tables, and even lower chairs with simple cushions. I promptly fell in love with the furniture, and knowing the extent of my own skills, I paid thorough attention to their make, and decided I could make the chairs and tables myself. Perhaps there will be a post about that as well, as I have plans to construct (among other things) a garden, a bed frame, numerous shelves, and now, chairs and tables. With such ready access to cafés, and the reasons listed and unlisted for why I seem to be more productive in them than at home, one comes to question their prior aspirations of even bothering with home office furnishings.
Funny how this writing blog has (de?)evolved into ramblings about furniture.
Happy writing, dear readers.
Today’s track is a calm, nifty beat from an old favorite soundtrack of mine: K-Pax, by Edward Shearmur. It doesn’t take much for me to sit down and pay attention when the name Kevin Spacey is mentioned, but the movie itself I found to be strange and eccentric enough to keep in my memory well into a decade after first seeing it. The music, listened to countless times, has a very dreamy quality to it.
There very well could be my own personal attachment to it – i.e., enjoying the movie therefore hearing the tracks remind me of fun moments and good feelings – but on its own the soundtrack truly is unique. One could easily fall asleep to this and drift to another world.
In my time here in Viet Nam, I have been exposed to countless things applicable to writing a fantasy world. Between foods, animals, and just the simple alternative way of thinking and doing things, there is a wealth of inspiration to be found in any place far from home.
Let’s cut to the chase. Agent Orange; otherwise called Dioxin by locals here, was a chemical herbicide used during the American War. The history and lore behind dioxin is long, complicated, and disgusting. I will do my best to not get political here, as it’s very easy for a man to get passionate about this sort of thing.
Though the politics alone set the stage for a wealth of stories.
Suffice it to say that the use of this stuff is among the coldest, most inhumane and irresponsible things done by the U.S. government. And there’s quite a long list of inhumane and irresponsible things for which America is responsible; I say this as an American who reads.
Not an American-hating foreigner.
Originally used as a defoliant during Operating Ranch Hand (1962-1971), Agent Orange was intended to keep Viet Cong and local farmers alike from using the land, whether reduction of cover for guerrilla fighters or simply obliterating everyone’s food supply. The use of Agent Orange had devastating effects, leaving behind a residue, a legacy, that persists to this day.
Because of Agent Orange, and other chemicals used in that black mark of history known distantly to many Americans as the Vietnam War – an event that has been largely reduced among us to jokes about “Charlie in the trees,” or “digging an elaborate series of interconnected tunnels like the Viet Cong” (Fuck you, Mike Myers.) – people today still suffer.
A lot of them.
Drinkable water comes only in bottles, presumably imported from less toxic parts of the world. While my experience so far stretches only within Sai Gon, I think it is a safe assumption that one simply does not drink the water anywhere in this country.
Yet the Vietnamese are resilient. They carry on, they rebuild, and they make the best of what they have, which is more than I can say for what I and many people I’ve known have done.
Agent Orange succeeded in defoliating the land. It also succeeded in depopulating villages, not only from starvation and outright poisoning, but other, sinister long-term effects. Plants in sprayed areas no longer grew, and people in affected areas gave birth to stillborn or disfigured children – or simply could not have children anymore at all. I won’t share images of the physical effects had on people here. If you want to know, they are readily available.
This is truly a sad, sadistic thing.
And we as writers can derive inspiration from the darkest places.
In my mainline novel setting, there exists a substance that, to keep it simple, allows magic to be used in an otherwise magic-less environment. I call the stuff sujhurite, a word derived from the Korean word for crystal, and this substance in its rawest form is hazardous to handle. Close proximity to a sujhurite formation causes madness in some folks and, in a rare few, can cause the thoughts of an individual to take form in reality. Whatever they think of becomes true, manifesting before them; in other words, magic.
Usually it doesn’t go well for anyone involved, since the effects are unstable and most people lack the capacity to grasp what’s going on, and how to control it.
So sujhurite is dangerous enough as it is, but when refined and fashioned into idols, or ink (written on scrolls), it becomes much more controllable. Scrolls being more common; write a word in sujhurite ink and that word manifests from the reader’s mind. Example:
Don’t think of a pink elephant.
Once read, the scroll is consumed, it’s charge spent. Anyone familiar with games would recognize this mechanic in play. Sujhurite idols or statuettes, though, contain multiple charges, and are considered less stable than scrolls. Objects created with sujhurite with this purpose are known as dhirunes, and dhirunes have been weaponized to varying effect.
The use of a single dhirune on an otherwise magic-less world altered the course of history, a pinnacle moment in the novel.
But I am not satisfied with the risk of a dhirune simply being “Be careful, it could blow you out of your fucking boots if you drop it.” No, combustion or otherwise immediate effects are a risk, but that’s not the kind of thing I’m going for.
Enter Agent Orange. Sure, a dhirune blast will kill anyone in the immediate vicinity, but now there’re unforeseen aftereffects to their use. Those exposed to dhirunes suffer later in life, and within the blast zone there lingers a long-term effect on the environment.
Plants no longer grow. Nearby villages find their birthrate slowed or halted, and something’s wrong with those children who survive. Living creatures avoid these dead zones at all costs, and stumbling into one is nothing short of hazardous. A number of dhirune blast marks dot the landscape, and it is not until decades later that connections are made between the blasts themselves and long-term effects on the population.
I will essentially be adding traits of Agent Orange to a pre-existing situation in my work, in part to add depth, but also to spread awareness. After all, Viet Nam is not the only place effected by dioxin.
This concept solves a few setting/plot holes as well, some major some minor, and I shan’t get into them here. That’d be tedious. Suffice it to say that dioxin, and its effects, is but one of the multitude of inspiring (albeit dark, angering and depressing) things I’ve come to discover her in Viet Nam.
There are other things. Sexuality and marriage, language, customs and architecture based off the climate, even the mentality and attitude towards foreigners – or other Vietnamese – I find all of it fascinating.
But those will be for another time.
Today’s music selection is, as they tend to be, completely different.
Among a small pile of movies watched on the plane from Newark, NJ to Hong Kong, I saw The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. I believe this is a movie everyone should see, and I rather enjoyed the soundtrack. Hard to describe it in words other than great or good, but this one would vote that the movie is worth your time, and it was surprisingly applicable at the time of watching it.
This post will be bereft of distracting pictures. Words alone can only express the magnitude of what I have to share.
- – – – -
I had a profoundly emotional experience on July 25th, 2014, but it did not sink in until the end, after I got home.
As per the arranged plan, I met up with a local friend — let us call her Em, a standard term of endearment for a person (male or female) younger than you — one who has been a better friend than many I’ve had back in the States. She took a bus to me, rather than her motorbike, and I met her not far from my current residence. Shortly after, we took another bus to the Saigon Zoo – which in and of itself is a great place, for I’ve seen worse zoos and this one was pretty good. There we wandered about, talking or pointing at and taking pictures of the various animals. Sometimes we sat, continued to talk about all manner of topics, or even teach each other a little of our languages.
Eventually, Em’s friends arrived, as is the Vietnamese way. I had met one of them, Jane, a few nights prior, but the other lady was a new face. Everyone is quick to laugh and smile, and though I sat among the girls unable to understand 98% of what was being said to each other, I thoroughly enjoyed their company. Much could be gathered from their body language and gestures. Hanging around people speaking a language I didn’t understand is something I’ve not only gotten used to over the years, but have come to enjoy.
The friends left early to attend to a task, and we would see them again later that evening. My friend and I continued about the zoo for a while, until came the time we had to leave on account of needing to catch two consecutive buses to get back to her home. From central Saigon we went out to District 9, and while I do not know whether it is the poorest district, it’s along the outskirts and is certainly a poor place. Few foreigners go there.
Our bus careened down the busy streets, honking in the Vietnamese fashion of alerting everyone ahead of its approach, swerving around corners and barely stopping to take on more passengers. I remember thinking that it felt like a bus ride from hell, with that powerful horn blaring and lingering as people on the road calmly stepped aside to make way. Eventually our stop came, and much like getting aboard, the vehicle practically took off again before my feet even left the bottom step.
As Em led me to her home, along narrow streets and steel-sheet roofed shanties, I saw her neighborhood for the first time in daylight. I had been here one night, but only up to the front gate. In her home, her brother awaited, and we seated ourselves upon a bamboo mat on the floor. Angling their only electric fan towards me, cups of clean water were poured, and we sat talking for a short while. Eventually the call from the two friends from earlier would come and we would meet somewhere.
But as I sat in their single-room living space, I could not help but marvel at its simplicity. The ceiling stretched high, the walls mostly barren of décor, and what passed for a kitchen was made up mostly of a portable cooking stove and a mini-fridge. On a wall nearby there hung pots and pans and knives and cutting boards, but little in the manner of furniture or knick knacks found in a home as might be owned by frivolous Americans.
In the loft above us I guessed was their bedroom, a place the brother and sister no doubt shared, and down by the bathroom on ground level near the kitchen a spigot protruded from the wall. I wondered whether that was the shower, or at least their primary source of non-drinking water. All these things I observed without comment or judgment; merely curiosity.
This type of setting is not unusual for the area.
I wasted no time in expressing that it was an honor to be brought into their home, and in as best English as Em could muster, she translated small sentences between her brother and me. It took about three minutes for me to understand he was asking me my favorite soccer team (and no doubt to everyone’s chagrin, I apparently had none).
Thoroughly cooled by the fan, I found myself comfortable in their abode. The amenities were few, and it occurred to me that not only did the brother and sister share a motorbike – a staple thing for anyone, Vietnamese or otherwise, living in Saigon – but everything else as well. Things that Americans take for granted – like private living space and their own computer – were nowhere to be seen.
Em, positive and bubbly as ever, showed keen shyness in the appearance of her living space, and my own interest in their home did not go unnoticed. I, rather than feel anything along the lines of disgust or pity or whatever she might have been afraid a visitor might think, instead found myself filled with joy and pride.
I would express to Em in days to come.
As I sat, I felt a sense of respect well up inside me. One always hears about leaving the countryside to go the city to find a job, make a new life for themselves, but these people were really doing it. This brother and sister had left behind a farm in central Viet Nam, where an entirely different dialect of the language is spoken, to work and form a better life, here in the big city. Every night they returned home to a place that, like so many other things I’ve seen since coming to Viet Nam, bore the appearance of the practical.
I was reminded of clubhouses and sheds, the types of places children would have built in their backyards out of scrap materials. Fun places to play, but nowhere a privileged American would dare lay their head to rest.
From the inner city Expat area bustle to the outskirts of Saigon, the buildings, power lines, roads – everything was put together to be practical, and I derive comfort from that practicality, having always eschewed frivolity and extravagance. But seeing it all in such a short span was a lot to take in at once.
Once the other friends arrived, Em and I took off once more, bidding ‘tam biet’ to the brother and speeding away on motorbikes. The four of us had dinner at another street-side eatery not far off, and I consumed a bowl of noodles that, near as I can tell, is very similar to the other, differently-named noodle-soup dishes I’ve been having. It’s all delicious, and I retain my vegetarian inclinations whenever I can, but it’s impossible to turn down meals as a guest.
Strangely, eating as they eat is not difficult, even as someone whose practiced pretty strict vegetarianism for pretty much their entire life. I would not be the first to announce that the Vietnamese take pride in the quality of their food, so taste is certainly not an issue, and in fact the local cuisine is considered some of the healthiest in the world. But somehow…it’s different eating meat here then back in the States. In America, it felt wrong, guilt-ridden. Here, it seems…practical. Natural.
There’s nothing quite like eating at a restaurant, having the owner approach, and being asked to have your picture taken. Whether the man cherished the moment or sought to use my face for advertising, I couldn’t know for certain, but I was soon informed that I was the very first foreigner to ever eat in that place. When I agreed, many occupants of the restaurant rose up in cheers, followed by laughter as I blinked away the flash of the camera. Looking around, I found myself beset by dozens of eyes.
My friends remarked that I was a star there.
The night went on most enjoyably. As a group we moved to a nearby juice vendor on the sidewalk, the four of us talking, laughing, joking. The girls all acted like sisters. This would not be the first time I witnessed strong-bonded people sharing a good night with good food, big smiles and everything else that comes with being good friends. These are beautiful, smart and positive people, and they’re all working to build a better future.
They work hard, and know how to enjoy life. I could not say this applies to all Vietnamese, but it certainly doesn’t apply to a lot of Americans I’ve known. This small group of people I’ve come to befriend know what life is really about. Working hard, having a good time, and enjoying each other’s company.
Too many of us lose sight of that too easily in the West. It’s something that I’ve always felt was missing during my time in the States. American life almost never made sense to me, especially the corporate life. I had good friends and good times, but here, I’m meeting people who enjoy life, and aren’t seeking ways to avoid it. They face it, they laugh, and I find the enthusiasm infectious.
Here in Viet Nam, life has more of a purpose than I’ve ever known.
After being driven home, as I didn’t (yet) own a motorbike, I felt shame wash over me. Ahead of us loomed the immense apartment complex in which I lived, a landmark building stretching upward from a sea of slums. It looked as out of place as I did in the restaurant, and whenever I looked upon that building, I felt revulsion.
Speaking to my roommates about my experience, I learned they too were aware and compassionate. More on that later.
I truly enjoyed the company of these people, more than I could have ever expected. Even if they chatted among themselves in their native language, I took part in the evening’s events, and generally just relaxed and enjoyed listening to them speak.
What right did I have to live in a place like mine when my friends, who deserve so much more than me, remained in a place that Americans would call a slum?
I reached my 23rd floor room, glad to kick off my shoes and shed my backpack, and sought out the shower. My head swam with images of what I saw, the taste of the meal still in my mouth, the sound of their voices and the roar of motorbikes still in my ears. But most profoundly came this sensation that I struggle so hard to describe.
Where Em lived did not inspire pity, but it did put things into sharp perspective. This girl left her farmstead town at age eighteen to live in Saigon, by herself, went through several years of university, and continues to work six or seven days a week throughout most of the year. She told me for those first few years, scared and alone in the city, she spent many nights crying by herself in the night. Em now lives in such a home as would inspire the most devout of minimalists, and she makes it work.
Gods, she’s lead a life the likes of which I can only bow before.
I would later learn that while Em initially wanted to get a nicer place nearer to her job in the city center, she decided to stay put on account of her friends being nearby. Moving is within her means, I realized, it’s just that she’s happy where she is, near her vivacious, life-loving friends. Her job is but a short commute.
“Life is for laughing,” Em and I had agreed.
It’s people like her who truly have a Rich Life, not the business and money-minded folk in their tall buildings and luxurious apartments.
I found myself moved, inspired. Questioning myself and my purpose here.
For one, I felt that had no right to live where I did. I cannot continue living in a fancy (by my standards, anyway) 23rd floor apartment when there are slums and shanty homes surrounding it, literally across the street. I had already decided I wanted to downgrade, as I was uncomfortable as it was, but now… more than ever I feel like some kind of imposter. I did not come to Viet Nam “to live the good life.” I did not come here to be pampered and be served and entertained like so many expats come to experience.
There are wonderful expats here also, though. I’ve come to bond with a few more closely in so short a time than with friends I’ve left behind back in the States. Several have come to do good things and give back to the community. I recall a young German man who worked with disabled people in District 12, or the delightful Austrian lady who started Saigon’s skateboarding fever. But the majority of foreigners, whether expats or visitors, come to Viet Nam to entertain fantasies of living a “rich life.” And I don’t necessarily hate or judge them for that. It’s just that it’s not for me.
My roommates are among the better type. Kind and friendly and helpful, I related my experience to them, and they described my experience as being in shock. Perhaps so, but a secret dream of mine has been to live deep in an Asian community, and all the opportunities to do so are here, now. Furthermore, though, they understood my position, and my desire to change my living situation.
I came to mingle with the people, to discover romance and adventure in a far off land, and to write my stories.
But as for my fantasy writing…
In America, I wrote Fantasy because I always daydreamed about being somewhere else. I invented cultures and worlds and peoples, stories and adventures about people that never existed, no small part of me wishing that I was there, elsewhere in some fantasy realm. Since arriving in Viet Nam, I have questioned my goals, my plans, for I felt a shift within me; not only in perspective and self-understanding, but in purpose.
“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.”― Lloyd Alexander
I don’t feel the need to write fantasy like I used to. I don’t feel the urge to write of other worlds, of exotic places and peoples.
I’m living it.
Furthermore, if I write of my experience here, if I turn away from Fantasy and write about the people and culture of this fascinating place I’m in now, then I might make more of a difference. I might feel more fulfilled, knowing that my words are reaching the outside world and bringing awareness of this exotic, fascinating country.
But regardless of whether I’m writing or teaching…if I’m living in a high apartment, paying with money worth more simply because I was born somewhere else, it doesn’t feel right. Others do it; they come here to pay comparatively cheap rent and have a maid and indulge themselves, to ‘live the good life.’
But it’s not for me.
There, in my 23rd floor apartment shower, I honest-to-Zeus broke down in tears, overwhelmed by it all, and in part laughing at how movie-esque I must have looked. But it was not sadness; it was that same sense of pride I felt when visiting Em’s home. I could not help but feel an overwhelming sense of joy for her. She was working so hard to not only improve her situation, but to show foreigners like me the wonders and joys of her culture. And she did not let things that I, as a privileged westerner, might have had irritate, depress, discourage or anger me. She manages to remain positive, strong, prideful and driven.
I am awed by this type of person.
I had grown up in a privileged country, and while my family was by no means affluent, we were not impoverished either. We Americans are always told stories, hearing them as children, that there are people starving elsewhere in the world. But it’s so very easy to forget.
What I saw firsthand that day left a lasting impact on me, and even more so than back home, I actually felt ashamed to be American. To have known what, compared to the people here, is a life of complete luxury. Hearing stories is one thing. Seeing, feeling, is quite another.
There are kind, strong, smart people here who deserve so much better.
Even if everything were to change, if something terrible were to happen or I otherwise was forced to go back to the States, there’s no way I could return to my old life in America.
I considered myself a politically and economically aware individual. I tried my hardest to buy shoes that did not come from sweat shops, or fair-trade foods not covered in pesticides. I always tried to keep eco-friendly, cost-attentive and health-conscious.
Not to say those efforts are meaningless, but gods damn, they pale in comparison to someone who’s left their home to live by themselves in an environment where others barely (or simply don’t) even speak the same language, like when Em came to the South from Central Viet Nam. The dialects between North, South and Central are so different that folks can hardly understand one another.
In an unexpected way, though, I could relate.
As it stands, I realized I can no longer leave this country behind if I wanted to. A few days before drafting this essay, leaving was always an option, whether to another country or back to America. It remained as an option that I could do if I wanted.
But I can’t live here unless I make a difference, either. I can’t live a luxurious life guilt-free, and am in the process of downgrading to a much humbler living situation. I will live among the Vietnamese, not above them.
Perhaps I haven’t yet found the best venue, but I now know that I want to help. It’s not a matter of pity, it’s not a matter of seeing and thinking, “Hey, you know what they need? Some ‘rich’ white American to appear and save them.”
No, it’s that I see that I can make a difference, and that I can help. So, therefore, I must. Before, I saw an open road.
Now I see only one path.
If you haven’t read about why I went to Vietnam, you really ought to see my initial reasons here.
(Excerpts from the flight)
The thing about being the first of anything is that, by definition, it’s a pretty lonely endeavor.
I embark now upon a great metal bird, movies playing on the mini-screen in the seat before me. The flight is expected to last just under 16 hours, and we’ll apparently be flying over the north pole on the way to Hong Kong.
I will be the first Rebock to do any of these things.
7.5 hours left to go. I struggle to remain awake. Food arriving seconds after writing that helps. It’s technically almost midnight. Lots of movies…
Transferring through Hong Kong was a breeze compared to Singapore. It’s 6:00am of what, I think, is July 18th, and though the boarding of the final plane is in 15min, my watch, eerily accurate with the time of day, still seems to think that it’s the 16th.
Here in Changi Airport, Singapore, the last six hours have been arduous, increasingly spaced by long bouts of simple inactivity. I can’t really do anything, and can’t really sleep yet either. The process has been simply waiting, from one thing to the next; I should be at the hostel within four hours from now, where I expect to finally get some rest.
When checking in my luggage for the final flight, a fellow named Ozzy remarked that my carry-on baggage exceeded their weight limit by about double (this had not been a problem in the other airports). Seeing my U.S. residence though, he recognized Woodstock, but since he asked I informed him I was actually born in Connecticut. This, apparently, delighted him, as he had spent some time working in Bristol – a place I knew nothing about, but I played it up as though I did – and he henceforth decided we shared some form of comraderie. Ozzy then gave me leave to go around the crowd and didn’t charge extra for the carry-on.
Thanks to him, my otherwise problem-less transfers – regarding luggage anyway; at some point in Hong Kong they took a nail file that I forgot I even packed – remained hassle-free.
I’ll see if I can sleep on the final plane. I sit here in Singapore, surrounded by dark windows after 6:00am, with tired eyes, greasy hair, and with the makings of a beard. I sure must look the part of a weary traveler.
The day I finally disembarked the plane and took in my first breath of Vietnamese air, I became thoroughly aware of the humidity. And the fact that with each transfer, there were fewer and fewer westerners aboard the plane. I might have been one of four on the plane.
Jet-lagged and exhausted, I took the first taxi I saw to the hostel. The first driver did not know English very well, so he brought me to some place a bit further from the airport and handed me over to a more fluent individual – who then proceeded to take me to my hostel. Showing them the address with my tablet, getting there turned out to be easy, and as we drove through the streets, I witnessed first-hand the legendary motorbike frenzy.
Traffic in Saigon is like a living, breathing organism. It’s taken several days for me to put together the words to describe it, as it took me about that long to fully comprehend what, at first, seems like a dangerous, chaotic mess of vehicles and people.
The best way to describe the difference is that in America, and presumably in most other (Western?) countries, there are strict traffic laws in place. Most exist because there is a basic common human understanding that everyone else is unreliable. I can attest to this, having lived in New Jersey, and having passed through New York City more often than any country boy has a right to do. In those areas, I feel there’s this basic understanding that everyone on the road is an idiot, and will hit you if you cross the street. Everyone assumes you’re unaware, whether you’re a driver or a pedestrian, and in truth, most people aren’t; hence the lights, laws, crosswalks, turn signals and all that. It’s much easier to get complacent behind the wheel of an automobile.
In Saigon, it’s sort of the opposite. Horns honk constantly, alerting people around you where you are. Sometimes people use turn signals, and even if they do, the flashing light does not indicate which direction you’ll be turning anyway. Motorbikes weave around each other, around pedestrians, around four-wheeled vehicles who are otherwise locked in traffic or held back by street lights. There appears to be a general acceptance that everyone around you is aware. If you as a driver are not, then it’s your fault for not hearing the cacophony of horns honking, and you will suffer for it.
For the most part, one can cross a road of speeding motorbikes as long as you follow the golden rule: Don’t stop moving, and move predictably. Everyone will simply weave around you so long as you don’t jump in front of them.
With the beginnings of those thoughts just beginning to simmer in my brain, my taxi arrived at the hostel without incident, and after dragging my luggage through a miniscule alley and inside the building I found myself greeted by a Vietnamese girl who I can best and most respectfully describe as “travel size.” I booked a room, lugged my bags upstairs — the Little Hostess doing her best to carry one of my bags — and on the 3rd floor discovered the dorm-like room to contain a few other sleeping people. 10am, probably jet-lagged as well.
The AC blew on full blast, so after resting a while in that veritable meat-locker of a room, I decided I ought to not fall asleep so early in the day and ventured downstairs to the ground floor. Conversation with the Little Hostess turned out to be no difficult feat; she seemed as eager to speak as I was to ask questions, and her English was passable. I quickly learned that she was quick to teach me some of her language, and so I darted upstairs to retrieve a notebook. In a few hours, various bits of Vietnamese were demystified – having a live teacher works better than any book or recording.
I’ll write about the Vietnamese language in a separate post sometime. It’s a fascinating topic all its own.
Most of that day is a jet-lagged blur. I honestly cannot remember much except that I was there. Apparently I arrived early enough to partake in some of the breakfast food provided by the hostel – baguettes, bananas and sweet coffee. I decided to go out and explore a block or two radius, and it wasn’t long before I was hailed by a motorbike driver. A xe ôm, a motorbike taxi. I decided why the hell not, was given a helmet, and hopped on the back. It took about 10 minutes for me to become comfortable enough to ride without clinging to Old Nine Fingers for dear life.
Word from the wise: Never get on the back of those things without establishing a price first.
When I got back, I described my experience riding, much to the laughter of those working at the hostel (re-enacting the feeling of holding onto a tiny old man for safety has a way of making anyone smile). The remainder of the day was spent drinking tea and forcing myself to stay awake. I don’t remember the exact order in which I met people in the beginning, but over the course of my days at the hostel, other travelers came and went, including a German, two Aussies, a Swede, and a lady from China. Americans are comparatively rare here.
I woke up ridiculously early on account of the jet lag, lay in bed waiting for 8am, the time when breakfast was made available for us. When I got down, I found the same fare available, and gladly drank the sweet coffee prepared. Chatting up the Little Hostess, I soon discovered that she had prepared some rudimentary Vietnamese lessons for me on a sheet of paper, and we practiced numbers, some basic phrases, and a few other things. The first things taught were Bao nhiêu? (How much does it cost?) and Mắc quá! (Too expensive!), as foreigners are routinely overcharged for everything. It’s pretty much normal, and the Little Hostess informed me that while yes, there are in fact many good Vietnamese people, there’re a lot of bad ones too, and most of them are right here in this neighborhood.
I asked her more than once if what we were doing was a bother, whether I would get her in trouble for apparently not working at the desk an arm’s length away. Turns out no, as far as I know. Pretty awesome job.
Having befriended a Toothache Aussie the previous day, the two of us went around the block to get something for lunch. Whatever it was I ate, it tasted delightful – some spicy vegetarian noodle thing with a couple of vegetables the likes of which I could not identify (except for the bitter melon. That one’s hard to forget).
Later, having gotten in touch with potential roommates, I decided I would attempt to go and hail a motorbike taxi on my own terms and make the trek to go and see the place. The day waned, though, and as I stood at the edge of the street, I felt suddenly timid and hesitant. I knew nothing of where I was really going except an address and a general idea on Google Maps, though that helped little. The place was far, across the Saigon River in District 2, and I had no idea how I’d be getting back. As the sky darkened, I figured it better to try the following day.
Having exchanged numbers sometime earlier, I texted the Little Hostess, who had expressed I could reach her any time if I needed help with something. Asking how, exactly, to hail a cab/xe ôm, she instead volunteered to take me the place herself the next day, after she finished her shift at the hostel. Overwhelmed, I could not argue – a free ride to somewhere I did not know with someone I could trust?
Count me in.
Early the next morning, while watching some silly Youtube videos before heading downstairs to breakfast, a new traveler appeared. Dropping off her bags, she descended back downstairs again, and not long after it neared 8:00am, so I soon headed down for breakfast.
There I met the Chatty Swede who, like most of the other travelers, had made their way to Vietnam from Thailand and Cambodia, and would continue their way north toward the city of Hanoi, and then west again to Laos. Hitting it off with her, she invited me to come along to Bến Thành Market, a major tourist destination.
Getting there was not difficult. The Chatty Swede knew the rough direction, yet confessed after we got started that she had a terrible sense of direction. Having partially traveled the way we went just the previous day in order to acquire a local phone, I at least helped with getting back, but not until after we came upon the legendary market itself.
To understand Bến Thành, one must imagine the tight quarters of a warehouse, organized in such a way as that each vender has about 10-15 cubic feet of space – or much less – and they pack as much of their wares in there as you can possibly imagine. It is a labyrinthine cloister of madness, filled with people intent on getting your attention and selling you something.
Basically a nightmare for someone like me, who despises radio ads and television commercials with a vehemence such as you have never seen. I had a strong bout of sensory overload in that place, between the lights, the sounds, the crowds, and colors, the enclosed space.
But it was bloody fascinating. I had seen its like in South Korea, once.
On the way back to the hostel, the Chatty Swede and I only got moderately lost. Fortunately, we made it back without incident and in good time, as we needed to get back before 5:00pm so I could catch my ride. We arrived at four, and I spent the remaining hour trying to rest. At the appointed time, I descended the stairs again to meet with the Little Hostess.
Sitting behind her comfortably and respectfully, the two of us sped off on her motorbike, weaving through traffic and around all manner of obstacles on the road. Women drive motorbikes just as much as men in Saigon, as it’s essentially the way to get around, though one never sees a man riding behind a woman. Though she was not bothered by it, the Little Hostess pointed it out earlier, to which I replied “If you’re okay, I’m okay.” So on we went. I get the feeling it was more about protecting me from embarrassment than anything else. After all, I looked out of place no matter where I went, so why not on the back of a bike?
She understood the area and direction to which we were headed, but on the way we had to ask for directions two or three times. Eventually we found the apartment complex, and I found myself smitten by the view from the balcony. Everything else seemed in order, so I agreed to move in the next day.
The Little Hostess then, as per her earlier suggestion, brought me to a small eatery near where she lived, as apparently the apartment complex stands only about 20 minutes away from her neighborhood. At the little restaurant, she would introduce me to one of her favorite foods – a spicy noodle soup; not phở, but something different. I remember insisting that I pay for the meal out of simple courtesy, and that plan went all well and good until I realized, when we got there, that there would be no chance this little place would accept credit cards or American cash. She paid – which she tried to do in the first place – and the food was very delicious (ngon quá!). Some of the spices in there would have me tossing a little in bed later that evening, though, but it was worth it.
Afterward, the Little Hostess brought me to a cafe, where I met her younger brother and another friend, and they fed me some sugared coffee. Eventually she brought me back to the hostel again, sometime after 8:30-9:00pm.
Night-driving in Saigon is nothing short of spectacular. The Little Hostess proved to be a safe and reliable driver, not that I had any doubt, but even at night she, like the other six million drivers, took to the streets like a seasoned verteran. Motorbikes here are like horses to Mongolians and kayaks to the Inuit. They’re just part of life.
After laying down in my cot, I was soon accosted by the Chatty Swede beside me, and we caught each other up on our day since the market adventure.
We left moderately early, catching a local bus to Đầm Sen Park. The Chattey Swede, who was much more travel-seasoned than myself, had no idea where to go after we got on the bus, and so the adventure began.
A pleasant ride later, we made it, and for the equivalent of $9.00, we paid entry and began exploring.
Đầm Sen deserves an essay all its own. As an amusement park, there were dozens of things to see and do, and the experience was most memorable, but more on account of the company than the rides. Between getting caught in the rain by the crocodile pen, seeing arapaima in some ponds, and taking part in a number of rides, the place kept us occupied for the first half of the day.
For the first time, I experienced bumper cars, a seatless toilet, and strangers asking for a picture. Turns out they meant not that I hold the camera and take a picture of them, but rather that we, the Chatty Swede and I with our fair skin and blond hair, pose beside them and have pictures taken of us.
I have no doubt that the Chatty Swede and I were perceived as a couple in their eyes, and apparently westerners are as much a tourist attraction as the rides. I think I saw one other there at the park.
Not to mention while riding the mechanical bulls – first time riding one of those, too – the Chatty Swede and I outlasted everyone else. We both sensed that the operator had turned up the intensity in an attempt to throw us off. But we were determined, and held on for longer than I could know. For days to follow, my arms remained stiff from the exertion, and so bent on staying atop those things were we that spectators whipped out their phones and cameras to record our triumph. Eventually the operator powered down the machines, and the Chatty Swede and I continued around the park with sore arms and legs.
Sore, but utterly victorious.
We got stares wherever we went, and in one park “ride,” a large warehouse kept cold and filled with ice sculptures, the effect of sticking out in the crowd was emphasized. A hooked conveyer belt dispensed warm coats for people as they pass into the giant ice box, and with the weather being hot and humid outside (having already rained a few times), I looked forward to the relief. And, once inside, I found the temperature to be quite agreeable. To my surprise, the Chatty Swede shivered and felt the cold right away. I walked feeling no need to put up the hood or button up the jacket.
It felt like a normal spring day in my home country. Surrounded by shivering south-east Asians, many of whom probably have never seen snow in their entire lives, I felt like some frost-hardened northern viking. People stared at me like I was a superhero/villain.
Unlike in Korea or Japan, where often you’ll find rides, train stations, signs, etc. written in the local tongue as well as English, or at least another nearby country’s language, here they don’t bother. Everything’s in Vietnamese except for “toilet,” “entrance” and “exit.” Not to mention a lot of the symbols on the map were just plain misleading and inaccurate. Navigating the place alone made quite an adventure out of the trip.
Throughout the park, as well as Bến Thành Market, the Chatty Swede forced me to make rapid exchange calculations from the local Vietnamese Dong to U.S. Dollars for whatever things that might need to be bought or rented. It turned out to be excellent practice, and I’ve almost got the numbers down.
After a bus ride home, we parted ways on the street just outside the hostel, she with a task she wanted to do, and I to pack my bags. That night, I found myself within the confines of a new apartment, and while the situation is not quite permanent, not yet, it makes for a decent home-base as I make the transition into a more permanent location.
It was the final week before my big move. The majority of my time during this time was concerned with tying up loose ends and seeing various persons “for the last time.”
On one of these days, a day was devoted to spending time with an old buddy of mine, and in true geek fashion, we sought out a new anime to watch on Netflix.
“Hmm,” said my friend, sitting at the dining table with a laptop in front of him. “What’s this? Sword Art Online, have you seen that one?”
“No,” I replied, an arm’s length away in the kitchen, fumbling with what would amount to our meal of the day. “Saw the title and cover but haven’t tried it yet.”
“It’s got four stars. Want to check it out?”
“Four stars, eh?” I said, doubtful. “Fine, why not?”
We watched the first episode, found ourselves hesitantly intrigued by the premise. We established that we would give the second episode a chance, and then the third. My buddy and I looked at one another, mutual understanding passing between us.
“I have an idea,” said he.
We promptly left the apartment to run out and acquire a monstrous bottle of cheap sake, returning to eagerly resume an anime series that, to both of our surprise and delight, turned out to be pretty damn good.
There are some spoilers to be had here, but mostly for the sake of sharing impressions.
A little backstory on my experience with anime. I’m no otaku, so I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on this subject. I consumed a lot of anime and JRPGs in my younger days, but when it came to it, I’ve had people look at me and say, “You’re not an otaku, Jesse. You’re just a nerd.”
Just thought I’d share.
Anyway, I haven’t had the patience to really sit and watch an anime series in some time. Most anime I come across follows the same tropy storylines filled with recognizeably cookie-cutter archetypal characters – and I won’t say that Sword Art Online is bereft of this. Let’s just say that it takes something particular to really catch my attention. SAO did so, mostly on account of the Gaming and Fantasy theme they have going on, but we found ourselves surprisingly engaged by some of the subplots and ideas explored.
If you’re yet unfamiliar with Sword Art Online, the story begins with with the official launch of a Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (VRMMORPG). Think World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic – the difference being a piece of hardware simply called NerveGear, which echoes of the Occulis Rift. It’s essentially the kind of game that people like me used to dream about existing. No doubt millions of other gamers as well, no doubt the target audience for this series.
Then there’s that plot element where users (about 10,000 on that first launch day) discover that if they die in game, the NerveGear will fry their brains, killing them in reality. The only way out of the game is beat it, so the race is on. At which point my comrade and I exchanged glances once again, coming to an agreement that getting stuck in such a fantasy realm probably wouldn’t be so bad.
There was, in fact, a large body of players who became so accustomed to living in the game world – after the first 2,200 or so deaths in the first month – that they resigned themselves to never escaping. It became the new normal, while their bodies remained hooked up to NerveGear and IVs in (presumably) hospital beds. For the first half of the series, no one has gotten out and no external messages have penetrated the server.
Now, normally I’d be hesitant to invest in an anime like this, simply on account of the main character being a 14-year-old, which in writer speech means the target demographic is a younger audience. This series is undeniably shōnen, a term for manga/anime that can be best summarized by wikipedia:
…a popular demographic of Japanese comics, and often features a teenage cast as well as a combat based plot while exploring themes of protecting those you care about, understanding each other and developing friendship/comradery.
Sword Art Online does not fall short on any of these terms, and while I find nothing inherently wrong with these things, I’m just generally not attracted to such stories. Yet there were surprisingly dark moments scattered throughout the series – suicides, characters you find yourself liking getting killed off early, and a pretty damn despicable villain.
Bottom line is that if you aren’t, or weren’t, a gamer, much of this anime will likely be uninteresting. I’ve heard how the premise is really not all that different from another series known as .hack, so originality goes out the window. On the other hand, it’s often easy to forget the characters interacting with each other are all avatars, and maybe it was the sake talking, but the touching moments hit me right in the feels.
That and I am a self-confessed sap and hopeless romantic, so that factors in too.
This is not a story about the mind-bending exploration of A.I. or the realm of the digital, as seen in Ghost In The Shell or Lain, nor is this about epic adventures in a fantasy realm a la Record of Lodoss War.
They do, however, explore a number of interesting online-gaming themes. Falling perfectly in line with the shōnen genre, we are faced with the question of: “Are the feelings I develop for someone online real?”
The idea of what kind of person you play in an online game reflects your true colors is revisited several times. I found one of the most interesting mini-plots to be a murder mystery. There’s this real-world married couple, and the wife is killed in-game — meaning of course her real-world body died as a result. It’s eventually revealed that the husband had her killed because, outside the game, she was “…the perfect wife. Pretty. Submissive.” But in-game, unbound by the restrictions of conventional life, she was able to blossom. She was strong, brave, independent. The husband hated it, seeing it as though the woman he had loved had died, replaced by something else.
Well done, series. The fact that this opinion was pretty much regarded with disgust by the other characters is pretty progressive, especially for Japan.
We watched the entirety of the series in two days, which is something I ordinarily wouldn’t do, let alone mention in public, except that the experience, shared with an old comrade, made it worthwhile. The idea of binge-watching anything is strange to me still, since it screams “consumer.” I rather prefer get into binge writing or binge editing.
Sword Art Online isn’t mind-blowing, isn’t amazing, isn’t the best anime ever — in fact I’ve read that it’s rather overrated. Perhaps so. But I liked it, and I found myself amazed, at myself, for the range of emotions the story provoked out of me.
That, says I, is what makes a good story.
…And then the second half of the series rolled around, and the experience started going downhill.
Basically, it felt like the series (25 episodes) was actually two separate seasons. Halfway through, the hero defeats the game, and SAO users are set free. But there’s a new VRMMORPG out there in which the love interest is still trapped, so it falls to the hero to dive back in and get her out for reasons. This time around, the new world is fairy-based; players can fly, they still use NerveGear, but there`s no stakes this time around. In-game death doesn’t mean real-world death anymore; the only thing keeping us in the audience rooting for the main character is so he can Save The Imprisoned Girl and defeat the Big Bad holding her there.
I suppose the most interesting stuff coming out of the second half was actually the real-world ramifications of Sword Art Online. The world (as in, mostly Japan) found itself beset by a small population of peculiar people whose bodies and minds were shaped by their 2.5 year long period trapped in a digital fantasy realm. Some users were small children, and a few years could mean 1/3 or 1/4 of their lives. Formative years.
Adjustment, or readjustment, to the real world would be akin to PTSD in many people. This would have made a more interesting story, but no — instead the second half of the series focuses mainly on the awkward one-sided romantic feelings that the hero’s adopted sister (who is his cousin) develops for him. Thankfully the developers did not take this in an even more uncomfortable direction, if one were to take that factor out, then there’s suddenly almost nothing left to half or a quarter of a series.
The ending left a sour taste of disappointment in my mouth, especially since things started off so great. Apparently there’s a Season 2, but I think I’ll be skipping that. The music wasn’t half bad, either; I confess having had the first 15 seconds of the opening theme as an earworm.
All in all, though, I feel a familiar feeling when something I enjoy ends. At the end of a great book, or game, or movie or show, there lingers a sense of emptiness. That sounds a lot more dramatic than it actually is, but personally I hate unfinal endings.
The most satisfying endings to an anime, you ask? Not counting Studio Ghibli or other standalone anime: Samurai Champloo, Evangelion (as in, The End of Evangelion), and Death Note (though it took forever for it to end) left me happy.
If you’re into games, fantasy, teenagers going berserk with oversized weapons and the all-too-frequent awkwardness that comes with over-animated young adults, then you’ll likely dig this series. I was really invested for awhile, and despite my willingness to set aside my usual causes for hesitation, the series fell through.
Two out of Five stars. Overrated.