Ceci n'est pas une revue

    This isn't a review. For boring and stuffy reasons, I don't believe in reviewing fanfiction. I do however believe in passing on news of wonderful stories. So here we have Sunday by Team Bonet. I think it's a wonderful story. As for why I think it's a wonderful story-- well, that requires me to burble a bit about Shoujo Kakumei Utena- Utena la Fillette Revolutionnaire.

    I love this anime. It's mind-blowing. It's stylistic and surreal and brilliantly thought-out and brilliantly worked-out and multi-layered and deep and-- yeah, well. All that. It's the closest thing to a perfect anime that I've ever seen. And that's a problem.

    Perfection is fine if you're a passive consumer. I could watch Utena forever. I could talk about Utena forever. But there's no way I could write fanfiction about Utena because-- well, because-- well, because. It's perfect. There's nothing that needs to be explained. No, let me take that back. There's lots that needs to be explained, but explaining the ambiguities and mysteries of Utena is like telling the audience how the magic trick is done. It destroys the wonder.

    Utena is very like a dream. Rationally it may make no sense but emotionally and aesthetically it does. It's full of charged images that are never given a definitive explanation. They mean whatever you want them to mean. (Those shadow girls, that upside down castle, the gate that transforms from a headless bird of prey to a stone rose...) I said it was surreal. So it is. The student council meets on a balcony many storeys up in the air. Nonetheless, during one meeting the members are drowned out by the trains passing back and forth a few feet away from their table. Are the trains really there? Are they a symbol of something else? What do they mean? You aren't told. The closing wooden bars and the clanging of the railway crossing (so nostalgic- Tokyo is lousy with trainlines and hence with railway crossings) are just there, several storys up in the air. It's like a Magritte painting- that huge rock floating in
midair, the tuba bursting into flames. It suggests meanings without
specifying what they are. It presents metaphors as concrete realities.

    The series yaoi works the same way. It's canonically indicated-look, there's Touga lounging all over Akio's bed, fly undone, full of the lineaments of gratified desire, and talking about something totally unconnected to sex. But is he really there? Did it really happen? Is this Touga's fantasy? Is it Akio's? Is it perhaps a metaphor for the relationship between Akio and Touga (Akio is 'screwing' Touga in any sense you like)? For that matter, is Akio's overwhelming seductiveness in the series real or just a metaphor for how Akio conducts human relationships? Does Akio appear to be screwing everyone literally because Akio is really screwing everyone metaphorically? Or is Akio really Superslut Triumphant? Or is it both? 

    This is what I like about Utena. You see things but there's no guarantee that any of it's real. The whole series could be an extended metaphor. The whole school could be a dream happening in Akio's head, and his sister suggests at one point that it is. This after all is the anime where one character's obsession with the past creates an hallucination so real that all the other characters believe it too. They see it and feel it and talk about it as if it was an ordinary part of their lives: until the character ralizes it's a false memory. And then it vanishes and no-one remembers ever having known it at all.

    Well, how can you write fanfiction about something like this? Even the djka were stumped. They could do Utena gag; they could do by the numbers yaoi, or more likely, ecchi; but they couldn't keep the strangeness. English fanfic, when faced with a surrealistic series like Due South, simply ignores the surrealism and drags the characters down to earth. You get a real-life Mountie and a real-life Chicago cop having real-life adventures with no deaf wolves or paternal ghosts or sly playing about with Canadian stereotypes of what Canadians and Americans are all about. The essence of the series vanishes completely. With the hideous example of Due South fanfic in front of me, I'd resolutely ignored any Utena stories until Mimi recommended Sunday to me. 'It gets close to capturing the surrealism of the series,' she said. 'Not the zaniness of Alice down the rabbit hole, but the vague melancholy of Through the Looking Glass.'

   I'd have likened it to one of the quieter Magrittes, myself. Not the floating rock but the seeming ordinariness of Kingdom of Lights, that dark house lit by a street lamp- so everyday yet so unidentifiably disquieting. Or the odd mind-teasing quality of Ceci n'est pas une pipe- 'This is not a pipe,' written above the picture of a pipe. With the exception of one line (a lovely little timebomb that I'll confess went right past me at first reading) there's nothing weird about what happens in Sunday. It's Sunday. The various Utena characters have different reactions to it being Sunday. They arrange their Sunday activities, make phone calls to set up meetings and rendezvous, have brief interactions with each other in the midst of their basic solitude. It's all quite ordinary, except... Except. Like one of those sunlit squares in a de Chirico painting: you can't say exactly what's wrong with it, only that it's not right. It's not exactly the reality we know. Take those telephone calls. If you read stories visually, you start seeing the telephone wires crisscrossing the picture, and suddenly the story looks like an episode of the anime. Or the yaoi scene, which is exactly like the anime's yaoi (and boy is that a hard trick to pull off)- very immediate, very sensual, and simply not
about to tell you if it's actually happening or if you're just seeing it.

   And the characters remain the characters we know from the anime.
True, the English they talk isn't the English their Japanese turns into in my head- if you follow that particular thought process- but it's the English they'd speak if they were speaking English from the start. Here's Miki at one point, thinking about Sundays.

    Winter was different. It was snow lying packed at the corners of the academy grounds, the world buried under a perfect white, grey skies up ahead, numb fingers and shaking to push the dials on his stopwatch. Winter was coats and boots and too many scarfs and here let me help you with those because you've just stepped into your sixth puddle this morning and your feet are numb and your books keep slipping. He loved it. He could be partial to Sunday if it was Sunday in winter.

    That's Miki. That's his romantic chivalry and his nostalgia for childhood, both of which come from his attachment to his twin sister Kozue. And that's there too- or I think it is. But in a lovely touch, she's never referred to directly.

    The story is a stylistic tour de force. It never tips its hand. It tells you of ordinary happenings in straightforward English, it reports conversations in flat colloquial American, and it somehow conveys a total and ungraspable strangeness. It made me breathless in a way that no other English fanfic and very few doujinshi have ever managed to do. And it shows how Utena fanfiction can be written. In a word, it's brilliant. That's all I can say.

~ Jeanne Johnson

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