Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out.out

Out.

Out.

It’s what our protagonists — four women working the nightshift at a boxed lunch factory — seek most. Not an escape from the extraordinary circumstances they eventually find themselves in, but the merciless daily grind. No money. Dependent relatives. Depression. Shit jobs. An oppressive and sexist society that prescribes its worse roles for women.

So when one of the women strangles her abusive husband, the other three casually agree to help almost without thinking. It either takes them out of the funk they’re mired in or provides the means they desperately need to get out.

This book is rough. Desperation is its most common tenor, enhanced greatly by the sticky August air and the constant black-circled exhaustion of the late night factory shift. Few of the characters are particularly likeable and while the protagonists generally don’t “deserve” the things that happen to them, they certainly did their share in putting themselves in bad positions. Not that there was much choice. Sexual violence is an undercurrent running throughout. Nearly all the men have some kind of vice or perversion that stalks them almost like a demon, always seeking to wrest control.

While ostensibly a crime novel, horror is the genre that fits best. A creeping horror that turns descriptions of grocery store aisles into nightmares.

Pink slices of ham. Red shoulder of beef shot through with whitish sinews. Pale pink pork. Fine-grained ground beef, red, pink, and white. Dark red chicken gizzards outlined in yellowish fat.

The novel’s great weakness is that the ending is miserable nonsense. It is balanced on attaining some sort of empathy with an absolutely monstrous antagonist. You know when you see a villain proclaim to hero “You’re exactly like me/we’re the same/whatever”, and about 95% of the time this is completey ridiculous and they’re either nothing alike or they’re superficially similar but the villain has done dramatically worse things? Yeah, that. Except worse given the way the sexual violence and acceptance of it undermines much of the main text beforehand.

Bloodborne

Bloodborne

The nightly hunt has begun. You’re a hunter; and a hunter hunts. That’s all you need to know. Amongst the streets of Yharnam, teeming with inhuman beasts, lying scoundrels, and soon to be much worse, you must remain vigilant and inventive if you’re to survive until morning, if it ever comes.

This game is fantastic. Forget superlatives, it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played. After I finished the Dark Souls II remaster, I felt like the series, while not stale, did need to start to innovate. From Software swapped the setting from faux-medieval ruin to faux-victorian ruin, sped the game up tremendously, and spun their best narrative-via-atmosphere yet. It’s a host of minor and medium size adjustments that makes the scheme fresh again. It was rewarding, immersive, and I’ve seen many forms of media riff on H.P Lovecraft but extremely rarely as well as Bloodborne. The Shadow over Innsmouth tribute is gets it without being derivative.

The city of Yharnam is famous for its speciality science slash religion of blood ministration. Through something termed ‘blood healing’, humans can imbibe blood (the source of which becomes known during the course of the game) to heal wounds and gain special properties. Or devolve into mindless beasts as it so happens. You, the hunter, journeys to this world, ready to hunt and untangle its mysteries. This is From’s most focused narrative yet. While it’s still highly ambiguous and distant from any kind of straightforward plot, it’s much easier to get a sense of the world, of its history and just what the hell is going on. It’s rarely vague for the sake of being vague and invites exploration and theorizing.  

But of course, this is a less a game of direct narrative and more one of atmosphere. It’s creepy and unsettling often. This can range from giant bosses that are hideous to behold to more low-key scares; there’s a guy behind a locked door who keeps asking for a password. After you finally locate the password and knock on the door, as soon as you open it all you’re greeted with is a long dead corpse perched on a stool. The sound design is excellent — there’s one skeletal boss who is literally screaming at you the entire time and it’s the sort of things where you want to laugh and shudder at the same time.

Mechanically, the hunter controls like a speedier and smoother version of a Dark Souls character. But the major differences come in your available armament. First of all, there’s no shields, just a joke version that proclaims that shields ‘engender passivity’ and should be avoided. So if you never learned how to dodge in the previous games (or never played them), and chose to hide behind your shield, now’s the time to learn. Next, your character has a gun. A gun that does much lower damage than melee and cannot function as a primary source of damage (unless you specialize heavily in a gun-specific stat) but they can be used to parry enemies if you shoot them while they’re attacking you. Lastly, instead of a host of different kinds of medieval weaponry with slightly modified movesets, Bloodborne has a much smaller list of weapons, but they’re almost entirely unique. And each weapon, termed a ‘trick weapon’ in the game’s lore, can be transformed into a different weapon. For instance, the saw-cleaver is a simple cleaver and upon transforming the hunter flips out the blade in the opposite direction and it’s a long-range saw. There’s also a cane with a whip inside of it. Yeah. Or, Ludwig’s Holy Blade is a simple sword until the hunter attaches it to its sheath and swings the entire thing as a massive, ornate greatsword.

The gameplay isn’t perfect. The camera is suspiciously poor at times and enemies seem capable of clipping their weapons through walls and pillars in a way that they couldn’t in the other Souls games. The potion system that does not reset on death is also a step backward. But these are trifling. There’s just something immensely satisfying about learning how to control your hunter, perfect your weapon handling and use your acquired knowledge and skill to learn and take down successively terrifying bosses. 

The Spooking Orb #1: Primer

Prepare your Jack O’Lantern, it’s Halloween week! Welcome to The Spooking Orb: All week, I will be blogging about scary things — mostly movies, but games & books as well.

Primer

Primer stars two guys in identical white collared shirts trying to build something in their garage. It’s unclear exactly what it is. An electrical invention that involves complex physics and energy-based jargon. Something they plan to sell, or at least get VC funding and mass produce. Of course what they eventually do succeed in building — The Box — does not function as they intended it to, or indeed function like anything else anyone has ever built before.

This is Star/Director/Editor/Composer/Everything Shane Carruth’s first movie. Later on, in Upstream Color, he’ll end up splicing fast moving, occasionally unintelligible dialogue into some sense of language. Individual sentences disappear but the context persists. I had never seen this before. In Primer, he performs another cool and innovative feat with language: Protagonists Aaron and Abe spend the entire first half of the film babbling. The film jumpcuts between the two of them pitching technical ideas to the other and flipping ambiguous switches and turning up dials. We understand the words they are using, but since we have no idea what they are trying to build in the garage or, at least if you’re me, no in-depth knowledge of electrical engineering, nothing they’re saying coheres into an actual method or goal. Instead, again, we merely get the sense of what they building.

The second half of the movie is the reveal of what their invention actually does. The Box is born. This movie was made on a shoestring budget so Carruth settled for a ducktaped, plasticky coffin that makes whirring, booming, industrial noises. It resides in a storage locker, just snug enough for a human to crawl inside. It’s frankly sinister.

At this point, briefly, I could smugly claim “I understand exactly what is happening in this movie.”. Then of course the sci-fi-paradox consequences of The Box take effect and space & time & narrative break down (well, for the latter, breaks down more than it had already). The delicate workings of The Box require a lot of concerned chatter between Aaron and Abe: “Is the box still running?” “When did you set it for?” “Don’t get out the box too early, I told you.” Picture these with an accompanying man nervously running his hands through his hair. These utterances make a little more sense than Act 1 technobabble. Not that much. There’s A->B diagrams at least.

It should be no surprise that the conclusion of the movie does not fully explain the plot, but there’s enough there to theorize just what happened (best recommended watching with a netflix partner to discuss after). I think if you watched the movie enough and plotted out the arching and re-arching plot strings, going backwards and forwards through time, you could probably come up with something coherent.

But these movies aren’t really to be understood. They’re to be sensed/experienced. Let the language and cuts and washed out filters and concentric narrative threads wash over you. You still can’t help but wonder where it’s all going, but also know that you won’t ever fully comprehend. I understand I am in a distinct minority in loving this guy’s movies; he’s only been able to make two in ten years after all. But as I’ve mentioned maybe dozens of times on this blog, I like to watch/read/experience skilled, ambitious creators try something new.

Show me something I’ve never seen before.