Sunday, May 21, 2017

The "Once Upon a Time" Legacy.

‘Tis the best of TV seasons, ‘tis the worst of TV seasons.  Some fairy tale TV shows are lost, some begin again.

Years ago, we experienced a little boom of TV shows inspired by fairy tales and other fantasy.  The stand-outs were ABC’s Once Upon a Time and NBC’s Grimm.  Though, of the two, it was Once Upon a Time that really pulled in the big numbers and drew in a great number of fans (known online as “Oncers”).  Now, with the end of the show’s sixth season, the show is headed for a restart of sorts as various actors from the show have chosen not to return for Season 7.  As for Grimm, the show has simply ended.

Now, I was not the biggest fan of Once Upon a Time.  I watched the show for a while but gave up midway through the third season.  However, our fairy tale blogging friend InkGypsy commented on how no one was commenting on Once Upon a Time’s “semi-finale” and the show’s influence on her one of her blogs.  Now, after having watched the finale and the musical episode that preceded it as well as having a nice Twitter chat with both InkGypsy and fairy tale scholar R.C. DoRosario, I’m going to screw my courage to the sticking place and actually talk about Once Upon a Time and speculate on the impact it will have on how people handle fairy tales.

Once Upon a Time was, and probably still is, a frustrating show for those who already know a good deal about fairy tales and literature.  For one thing, the show billed itself as being about fairy tales but it pretty soon revealed itself to be about Disney movies.  Or rather, Disney movies and a few other stories that were easily recognizable like “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood”.  And sometimes it wasn’t even that.  Sometimes it was just based on what people thought they remembered about famous movies based on famous characters.  For example, at one point they introduced the character of Victor Frankenstein (not a fairy tale, I know.  The show actually even admits to that).  But in the second episode that focuses on the character, they show that he has an assistant named Igor.  Igor the assistant isn’t even a character in the movie or the book.  The movie has an assistant named Fritz and some of the sequels have a criminal named Ygor who manipulates the monster but the combination of the name Igor and the position of assistant is the result of the mass human consciousness combining all that together.  It’s a strange example using a character that barely appears but it kind of sums up the show.  It wasn’t a show about fairy tales or literature.  It was a show about household name characters and what people thought they knew about them, and then throwing some sort of twist or monkey wrench into the works regarding them (I’ll get to the “twists” later).  This was especially troubling for those in the know when the showrunners would say things about how they felt they were running out of stories to work with (there are so many stories they haven't used!).

But let’s get beyond that stuff.  The grumpiness of fairy tale fans and fairy tale scholars.  It’s easy to see that stuff as nitpicking.  The truth is that the show was not without problems at the time I stopped watching it.  Actual, story types of problems.  I stopped watching Once Upon a Time right after they finished their “Wicked Witch of the West” arc and right before they brought in the characters from Disney’s Frozen.  It would be easy to say the Frozen characters were the last straw, seeing as I don’t like that movie.  But like I said, there were problems.  Up to that point, the show often felt like it was on a treadmill.  It was moving alright, but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere.  For example, the infamous Peter Pan arc was notorious for its meandering.  I’ve gone on record as saying I didn’t like OUaT’s take on Peter Pan, but it would have been a whole lot easier to take if that season didn’t focus so much on people wandering around Neverland.  That’s not all.  The show had one of the longest, most drawn-out versions of the “Snow White” story I’ve ever seen.  The minute a curse on Storybrooke was lifted, a new but still familiar curse immediately seemed to fall on it.  And the writers seemed to go out of their way to invent reasons for Regina to hate Emma Swan and Mary Margaret/Snow White.  Once Upon a Time engaged in the illusion of change without using quite enough illusion.  And it doesn’t seem to have stopped.  The beginning of the next season seems very familiar.  Don’t watch the video if you don’t want the end of the season finale spoiled.

But the truth is that this show will have an impact on how people view fairy tales and other stories.  And thinking back to some of my discussions with Oncers online, it’s likely going to be with the show’s twists on the stories.  I’m not going to lie, this one might be aggravating to fairy tale folks as well.  If you’ve been into fairy tales for a while, these twists and subversions probably won’t seem very novel.  It’s stuff like “What if Peter Pan was a bad guy and Captain Hook was a good guy?” or “What if we gender-swapped Jack and the Beanstalk?” or “What if [insert character] was also [insert other character]”.  Most of these were already out there either in books and comic books or just as thought experiments or writing prompts for storytellers and authors.  There were a couple that caught me by surprise.  Prince Charming taking the place of his evil twin who died was rather surprising.  So was Little Red Riding Hood actually being the Big Bad Wolf.  But here’s the thing, to most people these ideas were brand new.  Most of the audience hadn’t even thought about fairy tales since they were kids and hadn’t ever thought about subverting them.  What the show did was provide a signal boost to ideas that were already there but were restricted to what was essentially a subculture.  It was something that was there since the beginning.  The idea of fairy tale characters being exiled to the real world and interacting with each other there was new to a lot of people, but comic book readers had been reading Fables for years.  Some had even accused the show of being a Fables rip-off.  Probably because ABC had previously tried to make a Fables show that had never gotten off the ground.  And the truth is, it’s not the first time anything like this has happened.  There are always ideas and concepts that are big in a subculture but don’t reach the mainstream public until they’re put through certain channels.  I mean, who here remembers when the mainstream finally realized that superheroes could be a fun and diverse genre?  Or when people were suddenly crazy about epic fantasy?  The question might be what the next idea that’ll be brought to the mainstream would be and how to go about bringing it to them.

The show will continue for at least one more season.  Who knows if it will last with such big changes ahead?  Other shows haven’t.

Now, the other show that premiered that same year was Grimm.  Grimm was a show about a police officer who could see and hunt creatures called Wesen, which were all tied into folklore and story in some way.  The contrast in how the two shows dealt with their fairy tale material was practically night and day.  Once Upon a Time pretty much announced its fairy tale material like: “HEY, LOOK!  IT’S THAT STORY YOU KNOW FROM THAT MOVIE!”  It was always right on the surface and it was always something familiar to a lot of people.  Grimm, on the other hand, played with a lot of more obscure stuff and always kind of wove it into layers and layers of the show’s own mythology.  Sometimes it was so obscure and so woven in that you might have trouble identifying what exactly they were referencing.
I also stopped watching Grimm before it ended, but it was mainly an issue of character.  The main character of Nick Burkhardt was never really anything special.  He wasn’t particularly quirky or complex but he grew on you as a regular guy in an extraordinary situation.  However, before the final season started his situation changed dramatically.  His girlfriend Juliette turned into a crazy witch and was then killed.  Then, he moved into a warehouse with Adalind, a villainess who had more-or-less raped Nick (well, slept with him under false pretenses at least) and the child they had conceived.  Adalind was even being played up as a love interest.  While it might seem strange that losing a regular house and the side character of Juliette would make me lose interest, it kind of served to remove a lot of the grounding a relatability that was there with Nick.  The show was pretty good up until that point.  I kind of respect how much it did its own thing.

It’s kind of strange how these two shows existed with no real middle ground in regards to how they handled the folk and fairy tale material they were drawing from.  One show was very up front and familiar.  The other was obscure and didn’t really bother trying to clue in the audience to what it was working with.  I keep hoping we’ll see something come along that treads that middle ground.  Something that plays with more obscure material but is willing to clue in the audience.  I don’t think we’ll ever see it, at least not on regular network TV.  I just think anything that really puts the cause of informing viewers about obscure folk stories on the same level as providing entertainment would probably be seen more as “educational television”.  So, if anything, PBS or BBC would probably be the most likely placed to see something like that.

But what do other folks think?  What do you think the legacy of Once Upon a Time might be?  Same question for Grimm.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Once Upon a Pixel: Folklore and Myth in Super Mario Bros.

Hey, everybody!  It’s been a little while.  Between work and other hobbies, folklore research and posting got waylaid a little bit.  Speaking of other hobbies, I have been on a huge retro gaming kick lately.  Now, rather than let that waylay me any further, I thought I’d try to use it.  Now, here in my seldom used column “Once Upon a Pixel”, I’m going to try and pinpoint some of the mythical and folkloric inspirations in video games.  And where better to start than with almost everyone’s favorite Nintendo icon: Super Mario?

Ah, good old Super Mario Bros.  It was a major staple of my gaming youth.  It’s also one of the most consistently replayable video games out there.  Mario wasn’t always the Mario we know today, though.  He first appeared as Jumpman in the game Donkey Kong, in which he was a carpenter who had to save his girlfriend Pauline from a giant ape.  He was then spun off into the game Mario Bros. in which he gained a brother named Luigi and was turned into a plumber to fit the underground world of the game.  However, it was when Super Mario Bros. launched in which Mario and Luigi were given their own fantasy world of the Mushroom Kingdom to play in that things took off and folklore influences came into play.  Almost every fantasy world has some basis in either the real world or mythology or both.  The Mushroom Kingdom is no different.

(Note, because I try to be careful about image copyrights and Nintendo is known to be fiercely protective of their copyrights, this post will not use any images from the games and will instead link to outside sources for that).

The Mushroom Kingdom, Pipes and Vines
One of the common things you’ll find in a lot of mythological sources is a tendency to move between worlds by either going up or going down.  Whether it’s moving among the branches of the world tree in Norse mythology, travelling up to the top of Olympus or down into the Underworld in Greco-Roman myth or just travelling to another world by going down into a well in the Brothers Grimm story “Mother Holle”.  And you will find very few games that utilize this idea quite as much as Super Mario Bros.

Now, when it comes to going down, it’s easy to point out how Mario does it.  With the Mushroom Kingdom’s ever present pipes.  The pipes here are our equivalent to the well from “Mother Holle” or the rabbit hole from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  The connection is probably most easily seen when it’s used for the Warp Zone in Level 1-2.

But how do Mario and Luigi travel upward? 

That’s right, they do it with vines!  When I was young, I even had the tendency of referring to these as “beanstalks” because they reminded me of my favorite fairy tale.  And true to form, they often took Mario and Luigi to a place above the clouds.

That’s how it often plays out in the games, but the connection between the pipes and the rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland is probably best supported by the opening of the (non-canon) cartoon The Super Mario Bros. Super Show which shows the Mario Bros. travelling to the Mushroom Kingdom from the “Real World” (notably Brooklyn) via a shower drain.

(Yes, I know it’s cheesy)

The Koopa Clan
Since the Mario series was originally created in Japan, it seems pretty easy to assume that some Asian folklore would definitely have undercurrent in the series.  And the easiest place to see it is with the Koopa, the turtle-like enemies from the Mario Bros. series.

The Koopa first appeared in the game Mario Bros. as Shell Creepers (at least in America.  I’m not sure what they were called in Japan).  Now, having enemies that are evil turtles may seem a little strange.  However, Japanese folklore has a monster that frequently resembles a turtle.  That would be the kappa.  Kappas are creatures that have, beaks, webbed feet and turtle shells, as well as an indentation on their head that must always remain wet.  Their known for pulling pranks that range from the rude (looking up women’s skirts) to the sinister (drowning people).  They can be appeased by being offered cucumbers.  Now, other than resembling turtles and very frequently being up to no good, there doesn’t seem to be much similarity between the Koopa and the kappa.  However, the similarity between the two names doesn’t seem like something that was coincidental.  So, the question is this: Were the Koopa originally created to resemble kappa or did Nintendo notice after the fact and then decide to give them the name as a little nod to their homegrown folklore.
Now, while the Koopa Troopas may be modeled after the kappa, their king may be modeled after a Chinese celestial beast!

Despite often troubled history between the two nations, Chinese culture has always had a big impact on Japanese culture.  In Chinese culture, there are four celestial beasts that correspond with the four directions.  There is the Azure Dragon to the East, the Vermilion Bird of the South, the White Tiger to the West and the Black Turtle of the North.  Many mythological beasts are combinations of these four animals.  One of them is the Longgui or dragon turtle.  The creature is often depicted as a beast with the body of a turtle and the head of a dragon.  This is a combination that, you have to admit, kind of looks like Bowser.
The thing is that the Longgui is usually depicted as a positive force that symbolizes courage, determination, longevity, fertility, power and success.  Bowser is usually not such a positive force.  Though, you could argue that he’s still associated with power (especially if you’ve played Super Smash Bros.).

The Tanooki Suit
This one’s kind of an obvious one, but at some point I had to mention the presence of flying, shape-shifting raccoons in Super Mario Bros. 3.

It was always a bit of a puzzler when I was a kid (though we didn’t dwell on it if the game was fun).  In Super Mario Bros. 3, there were three power-ups that gave you a raccoon ears and tail and the ability to fly.  There was the Super Leaf, which gave you the ears and tail of a raccoon and let you fly if you got a running start.  There was the P-Wing, which gave you the ears and tail and let you fly regardless of hum much you ran.  Then there was the Tanooki Suit which dressed you head-to-toe like a raccoon, still required you to run for flight but also allowed you to turn into a statue.

You see, those raccoons weren’t raccoons.  They were tanuki, or raccoon dogs (the name “Tanooki Suit” was only a giveaway if you knew the language).  Raccoon dogs are animals native to Japan.  However, in Japanese folklore, they (as well as foxes and cats) are often given supernatural powers.  The tanuki in Japanese folklore is often depicted as a mischevious trickster.  It’s also depicted as a creature capable of any number of magical feats, one of which is shape-shifting.  One of the ways that the tanuki is shown to shape-shift is by placing a magic leaf on its head (like the Super Leaf in Super Mario Bros. 3).  Though the more supernatural tanuki started as a mischevious monster, he has since evolved in Japanese culture to a creature that’s sometimes shows good traits like paying back debts and encouraging generosity.
One major difference between the Super Mario Bros. 3 tanuki and the tanuki from Japanese folklore is that the power in the Super Mario 3 version seems to be particularly concentrated in the tail.  The power in the Japanese tanuki is mainly concentrated in . . . well . . . in the scrotum.  It’s complicated and actually has more to do with being a symbol of financial prosperity than fertility like you might think.  I’m just going to provide a link for future reading.

Thwomps, Thwimps and Whomps
This is another yokai one, as well as one associated with different enemy characters.  Starting in Super Mario Bros. 3, there was an enemy called the Thwomp which resembled a great block that would fall from the ceiling.  This villain would be used to either crush Mario or block his path.  In later games, they added Thwimps which were much, much smaller and would move in an arc to stop Mario.  Then, Super Mario 64, the Whomps were added.  These creatures were like walls that would block Mario and then try to fall on him.  They could only be defeated by being struck on one specific spot on their back.

All three of these baddies, especially the Whomps, have their prototype in a Japanese mythical creature called the nurikabe.  The nurikabe is a monster that takes the form of a wall to block or misdirect travelers.  Going around a nurikabe is supposed to be pointless because it can extend itself indefinitely.  The only way to get past the nurikabe is to strike it on a specific spot, just like the Whomps.
That’s all I’ve got for now, but before I end this I thought I’d point out one of the sources that was indispensible in writing this post.  They’re the videos of a youtuber called Gaijin Goombah.  He makes all sorts of videos about video games and culture.  Look, here’s one about the folklore connections to the coin ship from Super Mario Bros. 3.

Until next time, keep chasing that happily ever after.