Ready Player One, isekai anime, and the value of cross-cultural criticism

[By now, I think I am beating this dead horse mostly to annoy my friends, but hey, I need something to do in the office between class periods!]

As a capstone on my mad hate-bender over Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One, I figured that I ought to watch the movie adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg. It was… fine. I can’t say that I enjoyed it, but I didn’t hate it in the same way that I did the novel. Maybe that means Spielberg et al. deserve praise for achieving a rare “the movie was better than the book” moment. At the same time though, thrice 1/10 is only 3/10, so be damned with praise, I suppose (sorry, statistics pedants of the world, for using multiplication on an interval scale!)

The film corrected many of my biggest problems with the book especially because as a movie, it literally had no choice but to “show, not tell.” Instead of using Cline’s uselessly vague descriptors like “80s dance moves” the movie had to actually put the stupid dance on the screen for the audience to see. Even the awful pop-culture references, which were so annoying and lazy and unavoidable in the novel, mostly drifted away into the ignorable background because the animators crammed so many icons into the OASIS that focusing on any one of them became impossible (an upgrade from unavoidable to ignorable? damned with praise again!).

However, at 2 hours and 19 minutes, the movie dragged on for far too long through CGI cutscene after CGI cutscene. That excessive length might explain my lack of substantive commentary because after about 90 minutes, I started to zone out while twiddling on my phone and counting down every 10 minutes for the movie to end. Whatever. I am finally feeling a little fatigue discussing the franchise and don’t have anything special to say that professional critics haven’t so I’ll stop there with the movie.

I am more interested in seeing if I can make any meaningful comparison between Ready Player One and video-game setting anime. Initially, that was maybe my implicit goal. I grabbed the book as a self-conscious break from a month-long isekai binge thinking I could write about it. But, as much as I tried, I couldn’t force a comparison. This is not for lack of similarities. If Ready Player One’s virtual-world self-insert power fantasy had been published as a light novel, it would have cleanly landed in the isekai genre. Plenty of cynical forum posts have already noted how Ready Player One resembles a Western version of Sword Art Online. They fit together almost perfectly.

Instead though, I gave up on making a direct comparison because I stumbled across a much more interesting one. The works themselves did not differ much, but my cross-cultural styles of consumption did. As an insider in Cline’s nerd culture, I found myself far more critical of every little fault in the book: some lazy minority tokenizing here, a transphobic line there, and bad prose everywhere. Criticizing Ready Player One was easy like… uh… bullseyeing womp rats with my T-16 (what useless pop-culture reference would Cline use here?). By contrast, I lack that same cultural and critical context with foreign media. Despite the great similarities between Ready Player One and the isekai genre, the Japanese works genuinely challenged my analytical skills and resulted in far greater self-reflection.

When reading about anime, I sometimes see fans defend or dismiss the medium’s weirder sides with quasi-anthropological appeals to cultural relativism. Some loyalist will inevitably exclaim “It’s just their (sub)culture!” after a show like Hyakuren Haou to Seiyaku Valkyria (Holy Valkyria) parades a loli bait, little sister, child slave across the screen for the self-insert MC to pretend-to-not lust over while he builds an authoritarian state. Please though, re-read that sentence. I don’t think anyone would defend such a sexist, authoritarian, and pedophilic show unless they had some dogmatic commitment to cultural relativism in absolute, academic terms (or I don’t know, fetishized the emphasis-on-Junior Anti-Sex League from 1984) Given the extreme nature of Holy Valkyria even by the standards the ecchi harem genre, I feel no qualms condemning it. (Before moving on, let me be clear about the subculture part: Holy Valkyria is fringe nonsense that does not reflect mainstream Japanese culture.)

However, I run into trouble when I encounter edge cases that give me a niggling of unease without provoking obvious outrage. It is easy to bash Holy Valkyria for it’s unapologetic engagement with pedophilia and slavery. But how should I approach something like How Not to Summon a Demon Lord (Demon Lord), which plays a similar premise as satire? Could Demon Lord’s defend its use of slavery as a means to mock less self-aware shows that really deserve it like Holy Valkyria? I ultimately concluded “no,” but I could see how a reasonable person might disagree given different (sub)cultural values.

By contrast, I found myself much less willing to forgive Ready Player One for problems nowhere near so disgusting as Holy Valkyria or Demon Lord’s flirtation with slavery. Ready Player One is a product of my culture and more specifically, my broad subculture of geeks and nerds that play fantasy video games and watch campy sci-fi movies and have some inexplicable fascination with a certain island nation in northeast Asia. Ernest Cline is my people. I have access to the full cultural context of his writing and have a strong sense of the toxic nerdom he celebrates. For example, when Ready Player One engages in a bit of lazy stereotyping with its depiction of its two Japanese characters, I can criticize it without hesitation. I know the dog whistles of orientalism as they appear in western otaku/weeaboo circles (I seppuku for great honor!) and American culture in general. I don’t need a Ph.D. in Asian Studies to call out the novel’s racism.

Even on less thematically substantive issues of basic quality, my cultural grounding in the English language makes it impossible to take Ready Player One seriously. Reading the novel, I so often wanted to throw the book across the room for all of its obvious flaws and gagged whenever the movie quoted from the novel. Fluent English readers, please consider such atrocious lines of prose as the following:

…it was also, by far, the coolest contact card I had ever seen.
“This is, by far, the coolest contact card I have ever seen,” I said.

Was Cline making a joke with that repetition or did the editor skip a page? No matter how hard I tried to ignore it, Clines awful writing left a bad taste in my mouth that colored even simple analyses like plot summaries. Between my two posts, it became embarrassingly difficult to resist the urge to descend into a self-indulgent, long-form rant just to bash the thing for the crime of using English so poorly.

Meanwhile, if a low-quality Japanese work stumbles across some awful bit of dialogue that would make any fluent user of the language recoil, I have no way of noticing. Whether dubbed or subbed, the translation filter likely moderates some of the poor writing in many anime. Of course, this works against high-quality pieces as well. To step out of the anime world for a moment, when literary critics praise Yukio Mishima as one of the most skilled Japanese writers of the post-war era, I have no comment. I only read him in translation, how should I know! In a counter-intuitive way then, my lack of language skill perhaps makes the experience of consuming anime smoother, both by disguising the bad and weakening the truly excellent. In other words, I can criticize Holy Valkyria and Demon Lord for their themes but I cannot do the same for their prose.

That may sound trivial, but it has significant implications. Though foreign works handicap me with a lack of linguistic or cultural understanding, they also free me from my own cultural context. My criticism of Ready Player One was swift and automatic because within my subculture, racism and toxic nerd culture are easy targets. I did not need to think terribly hard about the book to engage in serious analysis. More importantly, I did not need to self-reflect on any of my values. Anything I had to say in my posts, I already knew before writing.

By contrast, Demon Lord and Holy Valkyria really sharpened my analytical skills. I had to approach them in an unfamiliar context and do the difficult work of trying to understand them on their own terms, whether by creating unofficial translations of the titles or considering how my Japanese students consume similar works. Regardless of the objective correctness of my conclusions, both shows triggered some genuine, introspective growth. For example, the uneasiness I felt watching Demon Lord helped me to define the limits of my personal moral tolerance for satire going “too far.” Even the dreadful Holy Valkyria prompted me to write over 3500 words on the first episode alone in an attempt to unpack what the heck I had just seen. I probably learned more about myself from that 23 minute piece of garbage than I did from three weeks working through Ready Player One’s novel and movie.

Anime, and foreign media more generally, isn’t somehow magically better than similar American offerings. I disliked both Demon Lord and Holy Valkyria and I doubt anyone would consider either of them high literature. But unlike the tried tripe that was Ready Player One, they pushed me out of my media-consumer comfort zone and really made me think. Of course, a high quality, culturally significant Western work could do the same. But that is the interesting part: such high quality works are relatively rare. Meanwhile, I managed to achieve a similar introspective result with bottom-of-the-barrel pulp nonsense by hopping over to a different culture. For that, the sheer novelty of anime has real value, regardless of quality.

What an unexpected benefit of cross-cultural consumption! One I had never considered before writing this post. See? It may be working!

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