Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I Love Shin chan

My relationship to art has a lot to do with my relationship -- a rather intense one -- to shame and guilt. I sometimes, often, feel both, am sometimes crippled by them. Sometimes I'm tempted to conclude that most people find them as troubling as I do, and that this is why most (bad) popular art seems constructed primarily to insulate audience and artist alike from any feelings of doubt or self-loathing. Novels so often seem to explain why things are the way they are, with the implication that the way things are is, if not okay, then at least no one's fault, or at least not your fault or mine. Film often does the same, but just as often fails even to acknowledge that anything is wrong: good deeds are rewarded, bad deeds are punished, and the ending is, if not genuinely a utopia, then a gesture toward one, or some other small transcendence. Literary short fiction, meanwhile, continuously evokes white liberal guilt with one specter or another, only to excise it in a small, symbolic moment of intense catharsis (whether by symbolic self-destruction or self-affirmation). These are generalizations, but they're based on general experience.

Of course, I like to defuse guilt as much as anybody. It's important. But I think that art manages guilt and shame best when it speaks honestly -- that a good story can be clarifying, rather than only comforting, by helping us to accept what we should accept in ourselves, leaving us to worry over only the things that need worry us: and hopefully, with the energy to actually do something.

Like any comedy, The Simpsons lives or dies on its jokes. For the last few years it's been dying more than living. But what made it a great show (when it was still any good) was its comfort with shame. Homer is a bad husband and a bad father, and he's confronted with this fact often. He's ugly and stupid. Bart is a trouble-maker and Lisa, for all that she gets right, sometimes forgets to be decent to other people. And of course this is why we love them. And they love each other in spite of it all. And we love them for that most of all. A lot of people hated The Simpsons when it first came out, without watching it, because when you hear these characters described in the abstract you don't want to watch them live. People made them sound shameless. But that's not it: rather, the show lets us watch them manage their shame at who they are and what they do. It helps us feel close to them.

Shin chan is much like what The Simpsons used to be. The jokes (at least as translated -- more on that in a moment) are sometimes cruder and more cruel, with references to child- and wife-beating, molestation, and, most often, bodily functions -- a subject that, in spite of their reputation, The Simpsons almost always avoided. Shin, the main character, is a five-year-old boy with no social graces. He talks frequently about his poop, and generally makes a spectacle of his body. His trademark move is the "ass-dance," and he likes to show off Mr. Elephant (his little penis, a surprisingly common sight on the show, and one that Adult Swim was smart enough not to censor). The rest of the characters usually respond with intense embarrassment, which is also apparently how Japan feels about poor little Shin. He makes them blush.

You might describe Shin as shameless, but it would be more accurate, I think, to say that Shin is someone still in the process of learning shame. You see him blush fairly regularly, and his emerging self-consciousness occasionally expresses itself as an awareness of the effects he has on other people. He usually finds this funny, but you can see that he'll one day be more or less like the rest of us -- if maybe a little more healthy. The other characters seem to need him: he provides a space in which they can be themselves, in which they can remember what it felt like not to struggle so with guilt. While Shin is never an especially convincing character himself, his family -- especially his father, Hiro, and his mother, Mitzi -- seem uncommonly persuasive as simulations of human beings. I've become especially fond of Mitzi in recent viewings: her irritation with her children is genuine and funny in a way most televised familial bickering never is, and her affectionate jostling with Hiro feels right to me as well. The show's broad strokes and scatological humor often provide a sympathetic view of the anxieties associated with womanhood and motherhood: her struggles to feed the family economically, her continuing efforts to save money for a totally unnecessary boob job, and the episode where the siren song of irregular tampons for irregular women proves too much to resist: "That's me," she says, just before her bike rolls backwards, downhill, at top speed. 

The arc of the first season (to the extent that there is an arc: each episode is generally divided into three loosely-related vignettes) deals primarily with Shin's accidental destruction of their home and the family's temporary move into a crappy, cramped apartment to wait out the repairs. This serves as a stress on the family, but what's remarkable is that for all their constant criticism of Shin, when he actually messes up badly (catastrophically, even) they immediately pull together: they love Shin just as surely as ever, and, as they prove in the tiny apartment, they love each other too. It's heartwarming without ever tipping into sentimentality. And their acceptance of each other -- as well as their more reluctant acceptance of themselves -- might even be called therapeutic. The delightfully lumpy animation -- never unaccomplished or ugly -- shares this affection. And watching it, I feel a little bit better about myself, for a while, too. The shame recedes. I find the energy to live, and live better.

The good news is, you can totally watch Shin chan if you want to. You can watch it on YouTube, on Netflix, on Hulu, on the Funimation website, wherever you like it. (Netflix is best if you've got it.) And you should! It's the funnest.

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