[Originally published 26 August 2008; Updated 13 January 2009]
“Oshii Mamoru’s Avalon is one of the most sophisticated and visually achieved movies ever made about intersecting levels of reality.”
[Plot synopsis: Ash is one of the greatest players of the game Avalon, a virtual battle simulation that has attracted many devotees and addicts all trying to reach its highest levels. Ash works solo, with memories of the days when she was part of a team whose leader was lost in the game. Hearing rumours that there is a more advanced level of the game that can be attained with potentially deadly consequences, Ash decides to become part of a new team.]
I dithered for some time over whether or not to use Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon on a film studies course, on a week devoted to cyberculture and virtual embodiment. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Is it a beautiful, enigmatic and elusive masterpiece that I just didn’t connect with, or is it a stodgy, pretentious mess with little substantive to say about the way we interact with virtual spaces and lives. If you don’t recognise the name of its director, Mamoru Oshii, you’ve probably heard of the anime classics he lists on his c.v., most notably Ghost in the Shell (1995) and its extraordinary sequel, Innocence (2004), which must surely rank as one of the most sublimely beautiful bits of animation ever crafted: take any frame, blow it up and frame it. It looks perfect throughout. Animation encourages that kind of carefully composed precision in its imagery – if you have time and tools to make something look exactly how you want it, why not take control of every element and make sure it is composed exactly how you want it? Paint over it if it goes wrong. Avalon is Oshii’s fourth live-action feature, but the first to get any kind of international recognition or release. Shot in Poland with an all-Polish cast (Oshii likes Polish cinema, apparently, but seems to have modelled his environments on a gloomy, post-war Eastern European template gleaned from movies rather than any kind of futuristic Warsaw), it contains many elements that are far from “live”. Soaking almost everything (food seems to come out quite colourful) in sepia tones adds to the vintage look (though it could also be that the US DVD has altered the colour of the film) and shows Oshii exerting an animator’s control over his images. CGI is used quite sparingly, and is closely integrated with the themes of the film. If the tendency with digital effects is towards excess, to show off with grand scale what can be done with a few pixels and mouse clicks, Avalon seems to go in the opposite direction. Its every move is economical. Rather than creating a virtual world that is radically different from the filmic real world, Oshii makes them visually similar. In the virtual world of the game, characters who are killed disintegrate into a shattered two-dimensional oblivion like stained-glass pictures, and in several shots (see below) Oshii fractures the illusion of the simulation by inserting these succinct perspectival tricks into the 3D world to immediately mark it out for what it is – a Plato’s cave of flat data experienced as actual space.
In an interview with Tony Rayns in Sight and Sound, Oshii stated:
I wanted to create characters in the same way that I do in animation. I did a lot of digital work on Ash’s face during the post-production, which went on longer than the actual shoot. I felt free to alter expressions to give me exactly what I wanted to see on screen.
So, let’s assume that you’re familiar with ideas of virtual reality, and that old science fiction chestnut that said virtual reality turns out to be more seductive, sensual and downright exciting than the glum, organic place where your skin and bones are situated. Avalon retraces these generic tropes, but it doesn’t seem like an insider’s view of the addictive rush of playing at being a superhero in an alternative reality: I feel as certain that Oshii is not a gamer as I am that Woody Allen doesn’t know any East End crooks. I never got a sense of why these characters were so obsessed with a game that offers actual deathly danger as opposed to the fantasy of danger, which is surely the point of video games: we play them to avoid the incursions of unpleasant realities into our lives, not because we want to risk our necks every minute of our spare time. And, of course, with her lithe physique and classy mid-1960s Anna Karina style, Ash just doesn’t look like someone who spends most of her time jacked into a games console. This piqued my suspicion that Oshii doesn’t care about the actual impact of technology in society. He hasn’t researched patterns of behaviour amongst people who spend a lot of time on the internet, and he hasn’t extrapolated his future world from the current state of things simulacrous. He treats the concept of virtual reality as a philosophical metaphor, a means to question our own solipsistic interactions with the world around us.
I should add that I watched this on a Region 1 DVD, brought to me by the good people at Miramax. Now, it’s OK that they’ve produced their own English language version. It’s not even a problem that they’ve added a Blade Runner style voice-over to some of the quiet scenes to make it a bit easier to follow what’s going on. It’s not a problem, because I’ll be switching over to the original Polish language track and turning on the English subtitles. Thanks for including both versions, Miramax, but would it have been too much trouble to offer English subtitles that don’t include the voice-over narration sequences?! That way, I won’t have to have inaninities like “Is this what they call reality?” popping up on my screen every time there’s a gap in the dialogue. It may not be entirely Miramax’s fault also (but let’s blame them anyway) that despite being made almost three years earlier, it didn’t get a release until 2002, meaning that it seemed to trail like an imitative latecomer behind The Matrix, Dark City, Existensz in a chain of popular movies about manufactured realities usurping, er… real ones. This is unfortunate, because it’s certainly an interesting film that haunts you in a way that films you can’t quite figure out often do. It’s a goal-orientated quest narrative in which a tightly-clad heroine seeks to reach a plateau of gaming achievement through skilful, choreographed violence, and in that sense it is quite conventional. It lingers in the mind because of the unnerving doubt that that goal might just be a fleeting, futile or vapourous one: you’re never sure what is at stake, what can be won, and any victory could be an empty one. This is the masterstroke of the movie, because it calls into question the value of the virtual reality that it might otherwise privilege, but at the same time it undercuts (deliberately) the potential for thrilling spectacle that its generic identity may have promised. For that reason, and because films which leave us uncertain are the ones we need to discuss, Avalon deserves its place on the syllabus.
Update: 13 January 2009
I was going to just incorporate these updated comments into the main body of the text, but I didn’t want to gloss over my initial responses. What follows are a few additional thoughts from a second viewing of the film. I may repeat or expand upon what I wrote above, but I want these revisions to demonstrate how repeat viewings can assist in the comprehension of complex or obtuse film texts.
Broadly speaking, a second viewing of Avalon irons out some of my earlier objections. Freed from the weight of expectation and bad marketing, which had originally set me up for a live-action anime or an arthouse Matrix, I could keep track of the patterns and plotting much more easily. I wasn’t quite as enfuriated by the Miramax subtitles this time, though even I could tell that the English subs were not always accurate translations of the Polish dialogue: they are transcriptions of the English dub track, which has obviously been restructured to match words to lip movements. But the subtitles for the absent voice-over die out after the first few scenes have set the groundwork of the plot.
I’m no closer to a definitive explanation of what it’s all about, except to say with certainty that uncertainty is what it’s all about. The game-world of Avalon has replaced real-world experience with a quest for experience points, though there is no explanation of who controls the game, and why they want people to keep playing without actually winning. Avalon, like the Matrix, is a system that relies on stability and continuity: transgression and weakness are punished, but excessive power (represented by rising too high on the game’s levels) is threatening to the system, and will be snuffed out or snuffed out – or it will lead to corruption of the player and subsumption into the system. we watch players taking their game very seriously, but there’s no guarantee that it is leading anywhere. It gives the illusion of progress, but by the end we might suspect that the game exists only to select those who can be made to perform missions in the service of keeping the system secure and unchallenged. Avalon is also segregated from what viewers would see as historical chronology; this is achieved not through an anfamiliar futurity, but by the depiction of environments peppered with mementos of the real world (trams, food, pets, cigarettes, clothes) that seem out of step with a futuristic vision. It evokes neither the future nor the past, but a collapsed historical circuit with no receding past and no clear sense of future goals. This semi-real place, seemingly in thrall to an indistinct system of power and control, which players only think they have volunteered for, is a broad allegorical space that permits viewers to insert any countercultural or anti-authoritarian reading they might choose.
I was again struck by the significance of food. Since the film is mostly a hyper-controlled, sepia world of pristine images, and thus rather distancing, the treatment of food as the last remaining point of sensuous contact with real-world experience leaps off the screen. The only scene where Ash really cracks some smiles or works up an enthusiastic sweat is when she prepares dinner for her dog. The camera throws us a series of extreme close-ups of delicious food. The rice sticks to her fingers, the meat glows red. It’s the closest we get to any eroticism in this non-contact world of virtual interaction. But when Ash watches Stunner eat, her disgust at the sight of someone else’s sensuality is conveyed in gross, lip-smacking detail. Yuck. There may be nothing more to this than a memorial to touch and sensation, but the apples may be a subtle link to the apples that supposedly grew on the Isle of Avalon in Arthurian legend (the name itself may come from the Celtic word for apple): Bishop points out when he enters Ash’s apartment that she is one of the few who can afford the luxuries of “real” food. Is that higher plane of reality, the access to food and haptic indulgence really what she wants to achieve by rising through the game to “Class Real”?
Other questions go unanswered:
- If players of Avalon get paid for their achievements in the game, who is paying them, and how have they benefitted from people playing?
- If the game is illegal, who is policing it? We never see anyone punished for playing.
- Is Class Real what we, the viewers, experience as our real world?
- Is the whole thing Ash’s hallucination, induced by an earlier trauma?
- Most importantly, where did the dog go?
After a second viewing, I’m converted. This is a beautiful, haunting film, not just because of any stubborn refusal to play at obviousness, but because of the way it infuses virtual reality with a sense of numbing aimlessness once it loses sight of the vivid reference points of reality for its users to come home to, and once they have none of the joy that comes from the disparities between a simulation and the sensual, enfleshed real that makes it legible as a spectacular fabrication.
[See more images from the film at my Flickr page, or in the slideshow below:]
Vodpod videos no longer available.
- Review at Midnight Eye.
- Nine Sisters. Website devoted to Avalon.
- Article on Mamoru Oshii by Richard Suchenski at Senses of Cinema.
- Ashley Hibbert’s comparison of Avalon and The Matrix: A Cold and Lonely Street.
- DVD Beaver’s review of the Blu-Ray edition.
- Avalon review and discussion at The Cyberpunk Review.
- Interview with Mamoru Oshii at Ex: The Online World of Anime and Manga.
- N. Katherine Hayles “Traumas of Code“, Critical Inquiry 33 (Autumn 2006), 136-157.
Hayles has quite an elaborate argument about how code mediates between human action and the intelligent machines that surround us and augment so many of our daily activities (like writing this blog, which I’m doing using a keyboard that communicates electronically with my laptop through codes which I don’t understand, but which I can see represented in a graphic format (words, boxes, windows, icons) that I do understand). She uses Avalon as one of her illustrative texts, and her interpretation of events is mostly in line with what I wrote above before reading it, though she expresses it far more eloquently:
Surrounded by code, immersed in code [Ash] experiences simulation as if it were life, investing in it all her emotional energy, and lives life as if it were a pale imitation of the virtual reality war game.
Hayles draws some nice parallels, the significance of which I hadn’t picked up on in my review: Ash vomiting after a traumatic flashback in the game is a “symmetrical inversion” of the sequence where she watches Stunner eat, and the meal she prepares for her dog is a food-based compensation for this, continuing the food motif and connecting it explicitly to that hound. The dog also reappears on the posters that lead Ash to the concert hall in Class Real, “underscoring his function as a signifier of the real.” Murphy and Ash have their confrontation while he sits on a World War I cannon, echoing the game which they used to share, but also cemented those iconographic links between Class Real and other levels of the game (or levels of reality, as we might interpret them).
While the final scene in Class Real seems to be leading the spectator to assume that Ash is now in the realest of worlds we know (i.e. the one in which we ourselves live and move and watch movies), especially when Murphy bleeds and suffers when shot:
At the next moment, however, this normalising interpretation is subverted, for at his death his body does not simply become inert but rather dissolves into the concentric rings used to signify the game death of advanced players. The double signifiers of his bleeding body and its disintegration into code create an unresolvable ambiguity about whether this world is a simulation or reality. Somehow it is both at once, and death functions simultaneously as the ultimate trauma and as a disjunction separating one round of game play from another. […] The conundrums of the final moments are unresolvable as long as we cling to the belief that the world of simulation, the world generated and maintained by code, is separate from the real world in which we live.