Love, Death and Robots: Good Hunting

good hunting4Sometimes a story hits all the right marks and manages to say something even when the basis isn’t that deep.  What we really have here is a revenge story; revenge against cruelty and tyranny. It revs the engines and has something to say even if we have to look at the background to find it.  

On a personal level, there is something very satisfying about revenge stories, especially when the revenge is against a heinous crime.  I very rarely hold a grudge, but most things done against me are minor and a couple words resolve those issues.  What happens to Yan, one of our two main characters, is terrible and no “few words” will resolve this.

Good Hunting starts with Liang, a young boy, and his father as they hunt shapeshifting fox spirits (Huli jing) who supposedly seduce men.  When the boy encounters a young cub, they start to talk before they both witness his father murdering its mother.  His father was unaware of the discussion that went on between Liang and the cub, Yan.  Some years later, his father dies and never learns of the friendship that had developed between the two.  And then we follow them through the years…

The Good

good hunting1Visually, an episode about Japan needed to have the right animation and this episode had a style I’d become familiar with through a number of anime series I’ve watched. 

Another real victory for the episode is the very nature of the friendship that develops between Yan and Liang.  Yan sees Liang’s father cut the head off her mother but never holds that against Liang.  The basis of the friendship seems to be based on mutual respect despite what another person did to her family.  Yan never “seduces” Liang and he never demands anything of her, unlike the rest of the world.

The plot also deals with industrialization but it leads away from the world we know and into a decidedly steampunk one.  Visually it’s captivating, holding true to all that we love of Victoriana and Steampunk including the automata that Liang learns to work with.  The message that “magic is draining from the world” is melancholic, but well placed as it shows that technology replaces “magic”.  (Recall Clarke’s law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.)  Has the magic truly gone, or has it been altered into a new “magic”?  Based on the ending of the episode, where technology restores Yan to her former power, one has to think twice before writing off magic altogether.

The Bad

good hunting2While the language can get ugly including racial slurs towards Liang and the sexually explicit towards Yan, I think that’s in keeping with the tone of the episode.  What I felt was less necessary was the erection visible on the first man in bed, or the repulsively monstrous nudity of the governor as he brutalizes Yan.  Could the same thing have been achieved without these images?  Perhaps, but where it teeters on the edge of “the bad” is that it actually helps to make the victory that much sweeter.  Sometimes, it’s the negative that can bring out the positive and this is a prime example of the bad being, perhaps, not as bad than in other episodes. In reflection on say, Sucker of Souls, which did nothing to bring about a sense of a righteous victory at the end, this uses every word and crude moment to bring the viewer into Yan’s world.  

Perhaps the only real “bad” thing here, since the language and the nudity served an actual purpose, is the portrayal of the bad guys as British men.  Liang’s father is hunting something based on a belief that he’s doing the right thing.  The Englishmen who brutalize woman, treat them as objects of sex, and belittle foreigners are all uniformly white men.  I don’t think this sort of evil is reserved to one culture and it comes off almost as a commentary; one that not only doesn’t need to be made, but actually takes away from the evil all people are capable of.  The thing that needs to be stated is exactly that all people are capable of doing bad things.  (And equally, all are capable of doing great good as well!)

The Ugly

good hunting3I finished the episode and found one thing preying on my mind about Liang.  Does he fail Yan in a much more basic way?  He’s clearly her friend but she struggles in the world because she lost her ability to shapeshift and all she has, as she says, is her beauty and she uses that to make a living.  Could Liang have opened his heart more than just as a friend and would that have saved her the horror of what she goes through?  Is there perhaps a message about unconscious bias that keeps Liang from ever viewing her as someone to love, more than just a friend?  Perhaps, a bias based on the way his father treated Yan’s kind?  Are we guilty of the same sort of thing?   Can we truly outgrow the negative judgments of our upbringing?

I was also questioning Yan as a Ship of Theseus and found that fascinating.  (This is a thought experiment that asks if you replace every plank on a ship until none of the original is left, is it still the same ship?  And at what point did it change?)  Yan has her body replaced with machine parts by the governor leaving only her face and brain intact.  Liang helps her and rebuilds her as, effectively, a transformer who can go back into her fox form at will.  But when did Yan stop being Yan?  Did she?  Was her consciousness all that kept her whole?  After her ordeal, I’m sure she’s not the same person she was before going under the knife.  How true is this of all of us?  I am definitely not the man I was 20 years ago.  

The Game

We are presented with a heart, a gear and the face of a fox.  Sure, the gear makes sense as Yan is augmented to be mostly machine.  The fox makes sense because of her nature; a nature she gets to go back to in the end.  But I can’t abide the heart.  I don’t think Liang loves Yan, or perhaps it’s the love of a friend but I don’t know how often the heart is used to represent that.  There are countless friendships from Sherlock and Watson to Lance and Andy (Detectorists) that love one another as friends, but barring “slash” or “ship” fiction, I would not categorize them with a heart between their names.  And I would never use a heart to represent the lust that clearly drives a good deal of the story.  But, it’s part of the game and gives us something to think about at least.

The Verdict:

I really enjoyed this episode despite the horror of what was portrayed.  I think having the “good guys” win against vile people is what won me over.  However, a part of me dislikes that I enjoyed it so much because revenge isn’t a good emotion.  Considering this is fantasy, I can accept it better in myself than if it were real.  The animation helps too, as it further separates it from our reality, but I almost wish I didn’t like the story as much as I did.  I always enjoy when two beings of different species become friends, but I would have loved it had they become more.  That would have earned the episode its heart icon!  ML

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