Six Ways of Looking at the Mirror

6 September 2018

Content warning: mentions of transphobia


1. Listening

It used to be that your favourite Moonlight Sonata was Kempff’s.

Most pianists punch you in the face with the monstrous power and fire of the third movement. Kempff, though, somehow finds his characteristic elegance and grace inside that most ferocious of openings.

In the same way, most play the first movement delicately, but Kempff’s first movement smoulders with something sinister, some promise of the finale to come.

Anyway, you don’t like Kempff so much now. You prefer the piece when played by a machine. The machine produces a steady drumming no; Kempff plays with an unwavering yes. Machines foreground mistakes not made, Kempff searches for elegance and grace: two different types of perfection. It’s sorrow versus joy, retrospection versus progress, isolation versus communion.

You can’t hear the notes of the song properly anymore. When you first step into a forest, the waterfall sounds like a heartbeat; when you’ve camped there for a month, you forget it’s even there. Like water, Moonlight Sonata becomes whatever you want it to be. As you listen, your thoughts turn to how heavy your head is, and how sluggish your fingers, how comfortable your seat—how pretty those tree leaves swaying in the gentle wind—how lovely to see where the sky just meets the horizon, where the blue and white become a soft turquoise — and it’s only when the song ends that you realise you were (weren’t?) listening to it at all.


2. Plurality

Bleach shoves Ichigo Kurosaki into the role of hero, and he’s the most clichéd, bland, unimaginative hero you’ve met.

He also happens to be your favourite character.

Clever but not knowledgeable, brave but not perfect, kind but not selfless: that’s not a character, it’s a list of stock traits. But Ichigo isn’t Ichigo, not when he lives on in the memory, anyway—he sticks in your mind in those moments he’s about to die, his shrieking Hollow half gleefully seizing control over him.

Murderous, reckless, smirking Ichigo, with snow white hair and ravenous yellow eyes, who kills without compunction and fights without morals, who looks like he’s about to stick his sword through the page and impale you in the chest.

It’s not easy to understand Hollow Ichigo, is it? That’s okay. Misunderstanding tastes like the colour of thought. No one knows why Hollow Ichigo looks so different in Chapter 352 compared to Chapter 164; no one knows why he’s so delighted to talk to Byakuya and so silent with Ulquiorra; no one knows if he loves or hates himself.

All that matters is that they are both Ichigo. That’s the only way to realise someone for whom spirit is more important than body. Spirit means breath, and the breath mingles, fuses, dances, with other breaths, with itself.


3. Beauty

Hero looks like the most beautiful thing you’ve seen.

That’s not easy for something released 16 years ago. You’re also pretty sure you can only watch it online in 240p.

In the film, things do not happen as they should, they happen to make the piece more beautiful. When Flying Snow dies, she gives a graceful twirl. When she fights Moon, the tree leaves turn from auburn to red. It’s contrived such that each tale should be depicted with a new colour scheme, and it’s also contrived that Broken Sword should write a two-character poem as his only rhetoric.

But no matter which tale, it’s the love story that tattoos itself, all on its own energy, over each of them.

Is beauty the same as love? You used to know this answer, but now you’re not sure. You used to know ugliness meant fragmentation, splintering, isolation; you thought beauty was their absence. You’re finding it harder and harder to find that difference. When you knew beauty, poetry came easily to you. When you’ve forgotten it, when you think poetry has an obligation to be more beautiful than silence, you can’t write at all.

Hero offers one more idea on beauty. Broken Sword is the deadliest fighter in the story. He loses every battle he fights.


4. Form

Broken Sword looks like he could have studied with Feng Qingyang, the wisest swordsman in The Smiling Proud Wanderer.

Form in formlessness: not blade work but philosophy. First you shape your spirit into a sword, and then you let go, to carry no sword (violence, anger) at all. If you don’t fight, you can never lose.

Feng Qingyang’s sword style focuses on forgetting over learning, on trickery over honour, on no technique over memorising technique. You feel dishonest when you describe it, though. It’s more of a non-style, a nothingness; Feng Qingyang only appears once in the work.

His absent breath infects the whole of Smiling. The character nicknamed the Gentleman turns out to be the most wicked person in the story, the orthodox Sects in the Five Mountains turn out to be crueller than their enemies the Demonic Sect, the protagonist eventually marries the daughter of the chief of the Demonic Sect. In the artist’s other works, monks are painted with no reverence; in Smiling, you subvert the subversion, and the only real moral characters are monks.

Formlessness has never been quite your thing. To be blasted in the face with full freedom is terrifying. You like pattern and imitation, you don’t like singing on stage alone. Your micro-rebellions, those moments where you raise your small voice, where you shout after the echo—they look very far from real formlessness.


5. Divinity

To you, the final villain of Bleach looks like Ichigo’s third spirit, and not just because it’s literal.

Yhwach wields power over fate. If he wants things done, they are done—instantly, on the page, without cause. Yhwach wants to break Ichigo’s sword, so it is broken. He wants to kill Ichibe, so he is killed.

At the same time, Ichigo is a subject of fate. Things are done to him from the very beginning: the Hollow is planted inside him, Rukia stabs him to give him powers, he is born to important people, he meets fighters of just enough strength to push him higher.

In the end, still, Ichigo kills his foe. You used to think this was the victory of free will over fate, but now you’re not sure.

Isn’t it fate that the hero should defeat the villain? Isn’t it predetermined, the moment he stepped out on the first page, that this is Ichigo’s story, Ichigo’s victory?

Observing fate is ennui, a living death. The last brilliant explosion at the end of the string throws alight all that came before it. Essence appears after existence has been snuffed out. Was Yhwach destined to die the instant his powers were conceived, or were his powers conceived the moment he died?

In the end, all you know is that you love Ichigo much more than Yhwach. That’s probably the closest you’ll get to unshackling yourself from the form of fate. For whatever reason, the thought makes you cheerful rather than sad.


6. Revolt

The Smiling Proud Wanderer suffers from a failure in the formlessness.

Dong Fang Bubai is the most powerful character in the work. They defeat four of the best martial artists in the story at once, and they only need tiny hairpins as their weapons.

Dong Fang Bubai castrated themself for this power. In the novel, they fall in love with a man who mocks and disrespects them, and they cater to their lover’s every whim. Despite Dong Fang Bubai’s martial prowess, they have no power whatsoever. It’s the most sickeningly transphobic depiction in art. Dong Fang Bubai doesn’t even get to be queer in the original work—they don’t get to be anything, except a cruel twist of the pen from a cisgender writer.

In modern TV adaptations, Dong Fang Bubai breaks out of this prison, often being played by a famous female actor as co-lead. On screen, Dong Fang Bubai exudes, becomes synonymous with, power.

No one owns a story quite like this. The aura of Voldemort coupled with a smack of personality: on screen, Dong Fang Bubai spends more time on eyeliner and lipstick than fighting. It looks funny until they flick a hairpin through the throat of an enemy (sometimes an ally).

Dong Fang Bubai isn’t a role model. They don’t represent anything. If anything, they symbolise sex appeal. They’re certainly always played by the most beautiful actor in the cast.

For the viewer, sex is often associated with heat, desire, meaning, purpose. For Dong Fang Bubai, sex is cold, precise, controlled, about entrapping victims, about exerting the spirit. For Dong Fang Bubai’s body, the objectifying gaze doesn’t exist, not when those eyes are always scared of sustaining a pin flying through the pupil.

When you pit Dong Fang Bubai against the viewer, against their creator, against their actor, it’s obvious who wins. Dong Fang Bubai isn’t the most powerful character in the work for nothing.

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