Personal Effects (2021)
By Robert Jensen
Robert A. Jensen’s Personal Effects: What Recovering the Dead Teaches Me About Caring for the Living speaks candidly and graphically about his experience as commander of the 54th Quartermaster Company-Mortuary Affairs, and as the current Chair of Kenyon International Emergency Services; and, about what his job is during a tragedy’s aftermath. In his introduction, he speaks about the Swissair Flight 111 crash and the recovery efforts. What he is tasked to do is find items that are “reminders of lives lived” as well as “glimpses of the people we knew, how they lived and how they died”; but he is quick to say his real purpose is “to help the living.” He continues: “I can’t offer them closure, but I do offer them a way to manage their recovery and create the best chance for them to transition from what was normal to what will be, for them, the new normal.” Throughout, numerous anecdotes prove Jensen’s claim, including stories stemming from the world’s most devastating, newsworthy, and fatal natural and unnatural disasters: the Oklahoma City federal building bombing; Haiti’s 1994 earthquake; the Lockerbie, Scotland Pan Am crash; the Manchester, England suicide bombing, among countless others.
One memorable story is presented in a chapter entitled “Picking Up the Pieces.” Jensen focuses on Alaska Airlines Flight 261, killing 88 people, but buried in the middle is a conversation about a Middle-Eastern plane crash and a victim’s stoic wife. He writes: “She was in a state of emotional paralysis, so some of the people tasked with guiding her through this terrible moment in her life thought she was cold and didn’t care. But that wasn’t the case at all. No remains of her husband had been recovered, and therefore she was struggling to believe he was actually dead. But he was dead.” Jensen states the “no body, no death” response is common, and he is often tasked to be the bearer of bad news; however, whenever he can, he will attempt to find the body. Regularly, these bodies are dismembered, so it takes months/years to identify them. In this case, however, Jensen, “got lucky: when everything was untangled, it was a single body, all parts joined together by skin or sinew, with specific identifying figures.” He picked up the wife and drove her to the airport to see her husband’s casket; she “started to cry. She was taking her husband home.” For someone to do this, to put together a body so family members can find some comfort, they must have love.
Personal Effects is not just a series of horrific stories, but it is also a sobering look at what death can be. Jensen states that death is meant to undo meaning—it could be a logistical and expensive nightmare. Human life has value; it is hard to process, and when it happens unnaturally, a special series of hoops have to be jumped through to ensure that victims’ belongings and bodies get collected properly and sent back to family. And yet, death, whether it happens to one or one hundred, becomes a reason for human beings to show solidarity during a time of grief and pain. Jensen’s work displays this while also being true to his experience as a man who ultimately gives the living some peace and the dead some dignity: “Because beyond ensuring that a body has a name, dignity is one of the only things you can actually offer the dead. Everything else has already been taken away from them. What you are trying to do is work as quickly and safely as possible so you can get the body home to the family, so they can begin to make the transition from their old reality to a new one.” What Robert A. Jensen does for a living is search for the dead, but he also shows us that love for one another does not always have to be just joyous affection; sometimes true love takes the sacrifice of one’s own physical and mental well-being to be achieved.
— Dr. Douglas C. MacLeod, Jr.
State University New York Cobleskill
You're Pretty Gay (2021)
By Drew Pisarra
The collection You’re Pretty Gay by Drew Pisarra was published on June 25, 2021. Pisarra’s second collection of short fiction makes for a captivating set of pieces as the work takes the reader through several aspects of adulthood through a particular queer lens. Consisting of about 15 pieces and 86 pages, the collection remains engaging the entire time and makes for a great piece to read in any order at any time. Each work consists of a darker tone of realistic experiences and fears with a side of dry humor encapsulated in a world of its own that easily draws readers in allowing them a look into the events described.
With talks of a multitude of emotions and expectations of the environment and the settings presented, the book evokes just as much back from the reader who becomes immersed in it. It welcomes the reader with a creative style that pushes them into a new mindset to view things from. Along with that, each story provides a new set of events to potentially connect to. Whether it be the questioning of your sexuality, familial interactions, bullying, and more. The visualization of internal strife and trying to find a place in a world you feel an inherent disconnect from is done quite well throughout.
The use of internal monologue and vivid language makes for some striking storytelling that makes each short story feel larger than the space it encapsulates. Through all of this, there are some interesting narrative choices that seem designed to confuse the reader as much as the narrator of the piece is, and if that is something you have difficulty reading through, those stories may not necessarily be your choice to read. He also works to create quite the strange world that often shakes apart the long-held conceptions and may mess with the mind as they get more stylistically odd.
There is much to the narrative Pisarra has created with pieces like “What Bugs Me,” “The Child Criminal,” and “The Blow” invoking memories and mindsets of childhood and high school while “Fickle” and “Flashes of the Future” draw them into early adulthood. Whichever piece you read can offer an insight into sensations like fear, triumph, and internal struggles that many can relate to on some level.
Pisarra has a way of creatively warping the expectations defined by the world and exposing the reader to perceptions and insights that are often pushed far outside of the social periphery. His descriptions of trying to understand sexuality and his breaking of heteronormativity are interesting, and his discussions of familial relationships easily invite a new perception of those who consume it.
Overall, Pisarra creates a series of stories that, with the use of creative and colorful language and technique, immerse the reader into a multitude of worlds that tug at their minds and expectations. It leads to targeting the reader's memories, emotions, and life experiences, placing them into a series of other worlds that twist their views and make them see things from a new perspective. This is a great read that can honestly be picked up and read from any point.
— Essence Saunders
California State University, Stanislaus
Doom at Your Service (2021)
Directed by Kwon Young-Il
Kwon Young-Il's 2021 Fantasy-Romance, Doom at Your Service immerses its audience in a seemingly impossible romance between a terminally-ill woman and the entity known as Myeol-Mang, or Doom. Despite checking the box for most romance tropes, Doom at Your Service delves deeper, showcasing both the brighter moments of being in love and the pain loving someone can sometimes cause, which creates a surprising level of reality in a world where the fantastic exists.
The drama starts on a somewhat unromantic note as Dong-Kyung, faced with the knowledge that she can either live for about three months without treatment or live another year with treatment, experiences a nightmarish day. She drunkenly pleads, "Just bring Doom to this world!" which intrigues Myeol-Mang. He offers her a deal: she has one hundred days to live, during which time he can stave off any pain she might feel, but in return, she must ask him to destroy the world. Breaking the contract results in the person she loves most at that moment dying in her stead. To protect her aunt, brother, and best friend, Dong-Kyung vows to love Myeol-Mang so that he dies instead, failing to consider that once in love, she will regret this choice. Thus begins a star-crossed love in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
The two leads, played by Park Bo-Young and Seo In-Guk, carry the drama with their on-screen chemistry. Seo In-Guk manages to portray Myeol-Mang as a roguish, yet jaded, individual seeking to destroy human life because he has become alienated from and bitter toward humanity. His character's many smiles are easily distinguishable as true happiness or self-deprecation. As he interacts with Dong-Kyung, his behavior becomes gentler and more considerate. Park Bo-Young's Dong-Kyung is similarly expressive, often using her eyes to convey her emotion and managing to convey various scenes of crying or screaming in pain in ways that appear realistic.
Doom at Your Service also follows a secondary romance in the form of a love triangle between Na Ji-Na, Dong-Kyung's best friend, Cha Joo-Ik, Dong-Kyung's senior at work, and Lee Hyun-Kyu, Ji-Na's ex-boyfriend and Joo-Ik's best friend. While this romance appears less compelling and emotional when compared to Dong-Kyung and Myeol-Mang's star-crossed love, it serves as a complement to the main couple. Rooted in reality, viewers witness the struggle to let go of the past for Ji-Na who is suddenly faced with the ex-boyfriend she never got over, as well as his friend who stole her first kiss. At the same time, viewers witness the struggle between friends with conflicting interests as Joo-Ik and Hyun-Kyu attempt to maintain their friendship despite pursuing the same woman. The simple complexity of their story is less devastating than the leads, which allows the audience to take a short break from heavier emotions.
One of this drama's strengths lies in its masterful use of music to heighten already emotionally-charged scenes. All of the main songs from the original soundtrack, performed by top artists, such as Ailee's "Breaking Down" and Tomorrow x Together's "Love Sight," occur during poignant moments between Dong-Kyung and Myeol-Mang. The scenes themselves generate a powerful emotional impact by either panning across the two leads or by providing a montage of flashbacks, highlighting significant moments. "Breaking Down" plays during scenes where Dong-Kyung and Myeol-Mang fight the connection between them, and "Love Sight" plays during scenes where the two acknowledge their feelings for each other. While one might expect the repetition of a handful of songs to grow boring, the songs frequently appear in different arrangements, sometimes with an echo effect, sometimes as an instrumental, and sometimes as the original, which keeps the soundtrack feeling fresh and impactful.
Similar to the soundtrack, the drama also makes exceptional use of symbolism. Myeol-Mang is frequently described as a butterfly in the "garden" of humanity, always on the outside. The Deity, portrayed as a young woman with a heart condition, serves as the gardener tasked with caring for the flowers in the garden. She carries around a pot, trying to grow her own flower. As Myeol-Mang learns to love and becomes more desperate to save Dong-Kyung, the flower sprouts and grows. At the same time, there are scenes where viewers see a dying butterfly that seems weaker the stronger the budding flower becomes. Myeol-Mang is the butterfly, but his ultimate goal is the flower, representative of humanity.
As masterfully created as Doom at Your Service is, it does have potential discrepancies. The Deity is a potentially problematic character, serving as a sort of deus ex machina to provide a happy ending. Her powers seem inconsistent as she separates the leads from each other's fates but forgets simple things like deleting phone contacts and images. Yet, by the end of the drama, she is capable of altering images and memories to plug Myeol-Mang into society as "Sa-Ram," his new name, which coincidentally means "human." However, it is possible the "oversights" she makes earlier in the drama are intentional on her part and, rather than an error, a clever move by the writers.
Although not perfect, Doom at Your Service is a creative, complex fantasy-romance that shows both the selfless and selfish sides of love. The various types of love portrayed have something for everyone. Fantasy-Romance lovers will enjoy watching the journey of love between Dong-Kyung and Myeol-Mang as they experience a rollercoaster of emotions.
— Jessica Charest
California State University, Stanislaus
Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson
A24 has been behind some of the best films of the decade—Moonlight, Lady Bird, Minari. But the company has also gained a reputation for psychologically rich horror like The Witch and Hereditary. The company’s recent release, Valdimar Jóhannsson’s directorial debut Lamb, is a folklore-tinged film that doesn’t neatly fit into either category. Winner of the Prize of Originality in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard competition, Lamb derives much of its appeal—along with its frustrations—from its gleeful disregard for conventional categories like genre and species.
Lamb stars Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason as a childless couple running a remote sheep farm in Iceland. Cinematographer Eli Arenson’s work is stunning, and the indigo-tinged shots of hoary sheep and icy landscapes contribute much to the film’s slowly creeping sense of dread. But these visions are ancillary to the narrative, which is built on scenes of isolated farm life punctuated by moments of sheer absurdity. When one of their ewes gives birth to a hybrid human-sheep baby, María (Rapace) and Ingvar (Guðnason) immediately adopt her and name her Ada, in memory of a child they lost. Jóhannsson hints at Ada’s unique form long before the reveal, but the film’s slow build cannot adequately prepare audiences for the visual impact of Ada, whose body comprises a lamb’s head and arms with human legs and buttocks.
To a certain extent, Lamb is a tale grounded in motherhood. Overwhelmed by grief, María’s nearly wordless interactions with her husband Ingvar (Guðnason) mirror those with the sheep she tends. It is only when Ada arrives that she returns to life. In one intimate scene, María weaves a crown of flowers and lovingly places it on Ada’s head. Yet as tenderly as she feels towards Ada, her sentiments do not extend to Ada’s birth mother, who relentlessly follows her and calls to Ada from outside their home. Angered by the nameless ewe’s persistence, María shoots her point-blank.
María’s actions lend insight into the nature of her and Ingvar’s relationship with Ada. Despite their attachment to Ada, she—like her fellow sheep—exists to serve their needs, to comfort them. María never stops to question if she is the better mother for Ada. She simply assumes that any half-human creature would choose to live among humans. And to be fair, who wouldn’t, if the only other option was to spend life captive and among companions who will ultimately be sent to slaughter?
Despite its loose classification as a horror film, Lamb eschews the tropes common to the genre’s treatment of human-animal hybrids. Unlike the nightmarish science fiction of The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Fly, no mad scientists are involved; hybridity is a function of nature. Nor is Ada a monster in the tradition of werewolves and wendigos, as Lamb largely denies the primal fears about our animal natures that have made horror films so compelling. In doing so, it reflects beliefs about the wildlife that underlie popular trends like Tiger King and Burmese pythons: “Wild animals aren't really wild, they make great pets!”
Lamb similarly resists psychological interpretation. Despite Jóhannsson’s slow reveal of Ada, there is little to suggest that Ada’s hybridity is a projection of María's grief, that Ada is a lamb María and Ingvar simply treat as a human. Jóhannsson has taken great pains to craft Ada from an amalgamation of child actors, sheep, puppetry, and CGI. Shots of Ada riding a tractor, walking upright—her hooves peeping out from her jacket sleeves—and otherwise interacting with her fully human counterparts occur with such frequency throughout the film that it is impossible to see her as anything but as who and what María sees. Despite the surreal and often comic nature of these moments, they remind us that the “logic” of Lamb is not far removed from the very real phenomena of emotional support pigs and turkeys.
Lamb ultimately reflects our own illogically bifurcated feelings about animals writ large. It is easy to love another when engaging on our own terms—and even more so when that other is a cute and cuddly herbivore. Focus on the assistance animals, zoo ambassadors, and wildlife rescues, and not only will speciesism appear to be going the way of other isms, but loving others will seem to offer the key to making us better humans. If only it were so simple.
There is a chilling scene where Ada stares at a photograph of a large flock of sheep. The camera lingers on her, lingering over the image. At that moment we fully apprehend her isolation and horror. While it is effortless to love the one, it is difficult even to care about the many. Lamb doesn't aspire to critique neoliberalism or animal agriculture, but it does include a twist, warning that our callous disregard for our animal others will not pass without a reckoning.
— Jacqueline Sadashige
Love and Monsters (2020)
Directed by Michael Matthews
Who’d have thought the apocalypse could be so . . . green? Most fictional dystopias or disaster movies on celluloid are often expected to—or at least try to invoke—a color palette reverting to the bleak, muted shades of a doomed existence—one that is expected to follow a catastrophe. Love and Monsters by director Michael Matthews radically departs from such genre codes, and the result is strangely soothing. Many ingredients go into making this concoction—gloriously macabre monsters (obviously), nature in its absolute wildest ecologies, diverse colonies of survivors, talking robots, and the steady undercurrent of self-deprecating humor much needed to literally navigate the routes of a perilous journey—but the standalone aspect among all would be a classical quest for love. At its heart, Love and Monsters is a rather simple yet quite daunting tale on what it means to love, and what companionship means in disaster ecologies where the limits of both nature and human bonds turn unpredictable.
The story follows one Joel Dawson of Fairfield, California—an adolescent boy seemingly in the early throes of love with high school sweetheart Aimee—both completely oblivious of the unforeseen military consequences of blowing an Earthbound asteroid to bits. Cut to seven years later, the world’s quite a different landscape, and quieter too. Cutting through the silence is mostly the ominous chitter of creepy-crawlies now fearlessly roaming about the planet, camouflaged in plain sight—and the radio correspondence shared between colonies through an open frequency through which Joel and Aimee are both miraculously able to reconnect. Things aren’t looking up for Joel who is evidently bottling up a lot of emotions within, like any teenage-turned-adult processing the near-end-of-the-world would. The only way he can maintain a semblance of normalcy in such ultra-solitary times is by reliving his last memories of Aimee and a faint hope that they still might stand a chance as lovers. It is not until Joel’s own colony suffers a breach and a casualty that he decides to leave the relative safety and comfort of his bunker/home and sets out on a minimum seven-day journey to break his lover’s hiatus.
The question “How far would you go for love?” is an overcooked staple in the lovers’ discourse. Turns out, venturing too far with mutated giants as literal roadblocks on love’s warpath turn that question a lot more interesting. In a near Lovecraftian fantasy, the biological horrors of an apocalypse strangely turn into a paean of coexistence, not triggered by bloodlust but a basic, primal urge to adapt and survive amidst wreckage largely wrought by human incompetence. A greater part of the narrative is thus sustained by an awareness of this commitment: that maintaining bonds are much harder than forging them in moments of euphoria—heightening the nominal difference between ‘companions’ and ‘allies’—both, two distinct kinds of otherizing, warranting two distinct approaches towards love, one would presume. In a particularly poignant moment in the movie, we see an abandoned dog, who finds a companion in Joel, genuinely puzzled about whom to follow: the people he befriends along the way who now must depart, or Joel himself. And he makes a decision. But for those few moments’ worth of hesitation, we’re made to realize—ever so eloquently—that for all the choices we make in the name of love, the confusion inherent in those choices never truly leaves us.
Intersecting with the narrative components of scenic wilderness and occasional (mis)adventures are central questions of trauma, grief, and loneliness—how the prospect of catharsis becomes insurmountable within a crowd, even if such crowds have your best interests at heart. Solitude becomes at once the anguish and the answer. Technology—the beating heart of loneliness for millennials and boomers alike—often uncannily prefigures discourses on emotional intimacy and Doomsday in neoliberal theocracies, and it’s almost political how Michael Matthews reminds us of its redeeming qualities; where technology, instead of leading astray, may actually guide us forward, help us reconnect with our grief in a manner that catharsis is possible.
Although Dylan O’Brien, as the protagonist Joel, delivers a memorable performance of a dystopian lovelorn Braveheart, Jessica Henwick as Aimee—a relatively estranged character and sharing less screen time than O’Brien—equally sails through. Part of what makes Aimee intriguing is the lack of information about her persona or struggles that are revealed, which is why the climactic moment of two old lovers finally meeting suggests a script beneath, cautiously invisible. What is refreshing is how this apparent ‘mystery’ about Aimee tests the chemistry of an old friendship whereby two very different, hardcore characters negotiate the aftermath of not merely an apocalypse, but an inevitability all partners dread—separation. Does absence make the heart fonder or falter? Do grand romantic gestures always bring about that significant other’s elation which the heart so desperately seeks? Is agreeing to literally walk that extra mile the litmus test of fidelity? Probably yes. Maybe not. You see, the reason love and monsters work so well together is that, at the core, they’re fundamentally volatile concepts. You never quite know what to expect of the other, and by extension, yourself. But I guess that’s good news on the post-apocalyptic front because, in a dystopia, you don’t survive by being a stickler for rules. You improvise.
— Anuja Dutta
The Last Duel (2021)
Directed by Ridley Scott
The Last Duel is a film by Ridley Scott that chronicles France’s last judiciary duel in 1386. The duel took place between Jean de Carrogues and Jacques Le Gris after the former’s wife accused the latter of rape. The film’s screenplay was adapted from the book The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France by Eric Jager. The Last Duel premiered in September of 2021 and stars Matt Damon as Carrogues, Adam Driver as Le Gris, and Jodie Comer as Marguerite Carrogues. The film examines the events leading up to the duel by telling the same story from three different vantage points of the characters Carrogues, Le Gris, and Marguerite. While the film is based on the duel between the two men it is also a compelling examination of a society that valued a man’s honor more than a woman’s life.
The film begins with the story from Carrogues’s perspective as he chronicles his relationship with Le Gris leading up to the duel between them. His portion of the story paints him as a hero who is devoted to the crown and his military career. In Carrogues’s account, Le Gris is a social climber who is rewarded with all that belonged to Carrogues. His father’s captainship, part of his wife’s dowry, and eventually Marguerite, are all taken by Le Gris. Carrogues’s outlook on life is exemplified by the dark lighting and downcast settings. Le Gris’s take is starkly different with scenes of brighter lighting and upbeat music. Le Gris believed Carrogues to be his friend who in time became bitter over his success. Interestingly in both of these takes on the story, Marguerite is hardly a footnote. In Carrogues’s account, despite professing his love, he seems to treat her like property. Even his choice to duel Le Gris is entirely selfish with Carrogues even failing to inform his wife of the deadly consequences for her if he were to lose. In Le Gris’s account, Marguerite is a challenge similar to his professional ambitions. He vehemently pursues Marguerite despite her continual protestations. Both Carrogues and Le Gris claim to love Marguerite yet neither seems interested in knowing her. Damon is excellent in this part as he portrays a man with equal parts hero and victim complexes, neither of which seem to have much humanity. Driver matches Damon’s performance crafting a character that is so self-absorbed he cannot fathom rejection. While Damon and Driver both deliver in this film, they are ultimately overshadowed by Jodie Comer’s performance.
Comer’s portrayal of Marguerite is indicative of her incredible range as an actress. In each version of events, Comer brings her character to life a little more. Comer starts the film with an aloof Marguerite who is merely a piece of furniture in her husband’s life. During Le Gris’s chapter, she has a bit more depth as a woman aware of her undesirable situation. When Marguerite’s chapter finally comes, Comer brings her character to life fully. Comer’s Marguerite is smart, sophisticated, and brave while struggling in a society that punishes her for those characteristics. Marguerite understands that, despite their declarations, neither man loves her. In fact, they may even be incapable of love when they only see her as something to dominate and own. As Marguerite comes to these realizations, Comer performs in a nuanced manner that shines brighter than the yelling and screaming of her counterparts. This is exemplified during the heartbreaking moment her trauma is sidelined by her own husband who cares more about his honor than her well-being. Marguerite’s chapter closes out the story as it comes full circle bringing all three versions of events clashing together at the duel.
The film ending duel is a brutal mess that drags on for so long it becomes uncomfortable, but it seems fitting since the movie seems to relish in the uncomfortable. Director Ridley Scott makes it a point that the film was not made for audience enjoyment, rather this film intends to provoke. While on the surface the film seems to be an examination of the duel, the film is ultimately a social commentary on the realities of how traumatic pursuing justice can be for victims of sexual violence. While the movie was set in 1386, the lengths Marguerite must go to for vindication feel devastatingly relevant. Her pursuit of justice is quickly taken and used as a power grab between men. She is then questioned at every turn and even those that believe her seem incapable of empathizing with her. Due in part to the well-rounded performances of the cast and the unique storytelling technique, the film leaves a mark much more lasting than the titular duel. As The Last Duel concludes, the gruesome duel ends up being only a footnote in the story about a woman whose trauma was placed on display for the world in the pursuit of justice that feels entirely unjust. The Last Duel is a film worth watching, especially as a reminder of just how far society has come and how far we still have to go when it comes to justice against sexual violence.
— Autumn Andersen
California State University, Stanislaus
Wonder Egg Priority (2021)
Directed by Shin Wakabayashi
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus described the encounter with absurdity—the intolerable “why” in our life—as a moment we must choose between “suicide” and “recovery.” Wonder Egg Priority is an animated television series about this question of “why” passed down from people who do not “recover” from this encounter. Its story centers on four middle-school girls in contemporary Japan who are contacted by two mannequin-like creatures, Acca and Ura-Acca, for a peculiar deal: buy the “Wonder Eggs” from them, descend into a dream world at night and break the eggs, destroy the Wonder Killers inside, and therefore revive a person who died from suicide.
The protagonists’ motivation to enter the Egg World varies. For Ai, it is to understand why her only friend who protected her from bullies in school jumped from the rooftop. For Rika, it is to seek a new life after quitting her job as an idol due to a fan’s suicide. For Momoe, it is to move beyond the guilt over the death of a female classmate who confessed to her. For Neiru, it is to search for her identity after her sister stabbed her and jumped off a bridge. While the protagonists’ Egg Worlds mirror the place where the people they intend to save died—for example, Ai’s world is a replica of her school—each egg also contains a person they need to protect from the Wonder Killers, which embody someone or something linked to the person’s suicide. The inhabitants of the Egg World may actively assist the protagonists in their fight, or question these unexpected saviors’ motivations. They will then vanish after their Wonder Killers are vanquished.
The aesthetics of Wonder Egg Priority resonates with the “magical girl” (mahō shōjo) genre. While the protagonists do not go through elaborate transformation when they enter the Egg World, they gain the supernatural ability to convert everyday items like pens and box cutters into magical weapons. The series also echoes the trend of magical girl anime to juxtapose fantastic combat with unsettling elements like graphic violence and psychological trauma. Both Ai and Neiru have been hospitalized for the wound they received in the Egg World, and after the precarious adventure at night, they still have to face their respective challenges at day. Fortunately, they do not fight alone. The protagonists form friendships as the story progresses, and together they rest, play, heal, and ponder the meaning of life and death.
While the series mostly manages to balance its choreography of fantastic combat with real-world struggles, it also risks presenting a few “bad people” embodied by Wonder Killers as the sole culprit of people’s suicide, thus sidelining structural factors and individual agency. A plot twist in Episode 11 exacerbates this issue. According to Ura-Acca, he and Acca once created a cyborg AI named Frill and treated her like their daughter, but Frill became jealous after Acca married and subsequently murdered his wife. In revenge, Acca locked Frill in the cellar. Years later, when Acca’s daughter died of suicide, Ura-Acca blamed “the temptation of death” Frill spread and destroyed Frill’s body. Believing that Frill still exists and her power targets only adolescent girls, he and Acca create Wonder Eggs and recruit the protagonists as “warriors of Eros” to haunt down Frill and revive Acca’s daughter. By scapegoating a cyborg AI, the series, therefore, leaves the complex issues underlying suicide, along with Acca and Ura-Acca’s violence against Frill, entirely unquestioned.
It nonetheless remains possible to read the series against its narrative, especially the opposition between love and suicide, by viewing Acca and Ura-Acca’s Frankensteinian tragedy as a result of their refusal to love Frill and recognize her humanity. In contrast, the protagonists continue to grow by learning to love others and themselves. For instance, Momoe, who often finds others misgendering her based on her appearance and wonders if she is not “girlish” enough, meets a transgender boy and is inspired by his confidence. She then learns to value herself for her ability to protect the inhabitants of the Egg World from their abusers. In another case, Ai meets herself from a parallel universe where she suffers bullying alone. Realizing that she can now protect herself and choose a different fate, Ai affirms her growth in the Egg World. Thus, not only does the existence of a transgender person in the Egg World challenge Acca and Ura-Acca’s narrow-minded focus on girls, but the depth of interaction between the protagonists and these inhabitants exceeds their scheme to simply emulate and manipulate others’ death.
As critic Kumiko Saito argued, magical girl anime often faces two questions: the tension between magic as liberating empowerment and as a momentary escape from womanhood on the one hand, and men’s appropriation of magical girls’ affective labor on the other hand. In Wonder Egg Priority, the true magic is perhaps less the protagonists’ ability to slay a three-story-tall Wonder Killer than the power of love manifested by the inhabitants of the Egg World. As a girl Ai meets in Episode 2 intimates, although Ai could not become her friend when she was alive, she wants Ai to “think of her from time to time.” The transient Egg World thus promises an alliance breaching the boundary between life and death, and turning the protagonists’ fight into an act of ethical mourning. This mourning might not shatter any structure, but it probably anticipates a love that makes sure no death remains unmourned.
— Leo Chu
University of Cambridge
By Emmy the Great
April/月音 is the fourth studio album by Emmy the Great, (Emma-Lee Moss’ artistic name), released October 9, 2020. She wrote and recorded it in 2018 in Hong Kong, before the anti-Extradition Law protests in June 2019, and before the pandemic struck in 2020. However, this album has become an unyielding beacon of light in dark times. Its empathetic lyrics and warm melodies carry a feeling of hope, building on themes of spring, renewal, identity, simplicity, and love—Moss presents an album about things falling into place. April/月音 is a precious call to take notice, to understand the implicit meaning in our transient surroundings, and most importantly, in the connections between people.
The importance of the collective for the construction of identity is constantly being emphasized through the act of storytelling, especially in songs like “Chang-E.” “You once told me about the moon / And the first men to walk on her,” Moss sings, as she herself tells us the story of the Chinese Mid-Autumn festival. The climbing, hopeful chords of the song, underlined by a clicking sound as she walks, “A thousand steps onto the temple,” open at the chorus to leave way to a minimal arrangement of brass, drums, and strings, which feels tenuous and comforting, moon-bathed. “Okinawa/Ubud” reveals, in soft whispers and melodic tilts, the fact that, “Our parents dreamed of escape / Now all their dreams are ours,” underlining this sense of interconnectedness. Moss builds an atmosphere of reverence, confiding in us the stories that she has been given.
The mixture of Cantopop instrumentals and patterns with warm folk rhythms, as well as the constant blending of English and Cantonese lyrics, brings up simultaneously themes of uprootedness and of communality, as announced by the duality of the songs and album’s titles. April/月音 delves into Moss’ identities, which are, as she sings in “Dandelions/Liminal,” “Scattered all over the place.” This song is a beautiful ode to resilience, and it embraces precisely the changing nature of modern life in general and of the last years of Hong Kong history in particular, as things head up to chaos. However, life continues to happen: “And in our silent times we wonder / The end is coming, is it soon? / But then we dance a little more / They’re playing music in the store / Can you believe it’s almost June?” The narrator is warm as a friend, recognizing the listener’s fear of uncertainty, and offering the advice of adaptability, of gratitude, of leniency: “Don’t give me anything except your time.”
This last idea, the narrator as a friend, is one of the most distinctive messages that Moss’ lyrics deliver: love is found in every small action done and every thought had for the other person. The major chords of “Chang-E” and the lyrics, “While I’m gone look after yourself / I don't want to hear reports that you are lonely,” accompany the listener, who feels seen and cared for. Moss recognizes the potential of reconnecting in “Dandelions/Liminal:” “A little note / to say you live in town.” She also understands the importance of establishing boundaries with the past, as in “Heart Sutra,” a song about determination and self-love. “And I'm gonna walk out of here / All open and clear / I'm not gonna keep on coming back.”
It is in “Writer” in which themes of connection, hope, identity, and love are best intertwined. “Writer” is a most accomplished song in terms of lyricism and melody, an act of storytelling in and of itself, in which the narrator evaluates her past, present, and potential future. It succeeds in truly encapsulating the mood of the record: layered, building upstream, honest in its acknowledgement of pain and optimistic about a shared future. The lyrics, “But I’m a writer now and everything is sunny,” sung at the height of the song, carried by supporting vocals and power chords, transmit an ecstatic joy that bleeds through the whole album. The love discussed in “Writer” and all of April/月音 is a heightened sense of love that overcomes hardships and never disappears, inhabiting memories, as well as one that lies in the future’s potential for new connections: “Well here’s something that you could say / Why don’t you start with your name?”
April/月音 centers itself around the importance of community, of having someone and something to love, and through its narrative voice the album offers to be that source of connection for us, as begged in “Mary:” “Oh Mary, would you let me love you?” And we let her love us for a little while; we let the album reveal our own potential for love. This record embodies the simplicity and inherent importance of life happening. It’s a chant for community, permission for feeling bereft, and a reassurance: we have ourselves; we have each other; we have a home; life will go on.
— Laura García
Complutense University of Madrid, Spain