Retrospective: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Welcome back to the Hannibal Lecter retrospective! In today’s post we’ll be going over The Big One, The Silence of the Lambs. I mentioned in my review of Manhunter that that film felt dated, in part because it came before this landmark follow-up. Does Silence hold up better? Read on to find out…

I love this poster. It doesn’t give you any information about the film itself, it only gives you the title, a chilling mood and some symbolism to go off of, leaving your imagination to fill in the blanks. Also, if you look closely enough, you can see that the Death’s-head Moth’s skull has been replaced with a photograph of naked women arranged in the shape of a skull by Salvador Dali, further hinting at the film’s themes.

PRODUCTION
Sometime after completing Red Dragon, Thomas Harris began work on his next novel, which he decided would revolve around a strong female character. While not initially conceived as a sequel to Red Dragon, Harris’ female lead was almost instantly drawn to Lecter and the story developed out from there. The Silence of the Lambs was published in 1988 and was another success for Harris, winning him accolades and once again drawing the attentions of Hollywood. In 1987, prior to the novel’s release, prestige production company Orion Pictures (which were coming off a string of Best Picture winners, Dances With Wolves, Platoon and Amadeus) and Gene Hackman secured the rights to adapt the novel, despite Harris’ disappointment with Manhunter. However, they also had to negotiate to Dino De Laurentiis to get the rights to use the name “Hannibal Lector”, since he still owned these (which makes the fact that they spelled it “Lecktor” in Manhunter even more baffling). Disillusioned due to Manhunter‘s failures, De Laurentiis lent the rights to Orion and Hackman for free. Perhaps due to Manhunter‘s underwhelming reception, The Silence of the Lambs would be produced as its own stand-alone film, with references to the events of Manhunter/Red Dragon which were present in the book being omitted. Hackman was initially set to direct and star in the film, but halfway through the first draft of the script he dropped out and the studio had to step in to finance the film and find a replacement director. The job went to Roger Corman alum Jonathan Demme.

Jodie Foster had expressed great interest in the role of Clarice Starling, but was initially turned down by Demme, who approached Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan and Laura Dern instead. However, when these choices didn’t work out, Foster secured the role. For Hannibal Lecter, Demme originally considered casting Sean Connery, but he turned the role down (a pattern for Connery, who might be the most comically stupid actor in Hollywood for turning down projects he doesn’t understand). The role instead went to Anthony Hopkins. The role of Buffalo Bill went to Ted Levine, who was largely unknown at the time, having played mostly bit parts up until that point.

The FBI cooperated with the production, providing consultation with the actors and even allowing the crew to film at the FBI Academy in Quantico. Hopkins drew inspiration for his iteration of Lecter from studying criminal case files, visiting prisons and presiding during several court cases. Meanwhile, Ted Levine focused on Buffalo Bill’s queerness, visiting gay and trans bars and taking as much inspiration from David Bowie as he did from murderers like Ed Gein and Gary Heidnik. This led to the book and the film receiving criticism and protests from feminist, gay and trans activists over the portrayal of Buffalo Bill, who was viewed as demonizing gay and trans people, a reputation which still sours appraisal of the film to this day. In spite of the controversy, The Silence of the Lambs proved to be wildly successful, grossing $272.2 million on a $19 million budget and winning a number of accolades including sweeping the “big five” at the Oscars (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Adapted Screenplay), only the third film in history to do so.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
Clarice Starling, a student at the FBI Academy, is recruited by Jack Crawford to interview the imprisoned Hannibal Lecter – outwardly, to try to profile his behaviour, but secretly because they suspect that he may have insight on a serial killer who has been kidnapping, murdering and skinning women. Hannibal finds Clarice intriguing, but tires of her questioning. However, when a fellow prisoner flings his semen at Clarice, Hannibal decides that he will give her a lead. This leads Clarice to an abandoned storage locker, where she discovers the severed head of one of Hannibal’s former patients, a man named Benjamin Raspail. Lecter reveals that he believes that Buffalo Bill murdered Raspail many years prior and that he will help to try to catch Bill if they will move him to a more accommodating institution.

While this is occurring, Bill kidnaps his latest victim, who happens to be the daughter of the state senator. Knowing that time is short for this latest victim, Jack and Clarice craft a deal with Lecter for his cooperation, with him demanding insight into Clarice’s childhood before he will accept the deal. However, it is soon discovered that Clarice betrayed his trust as the deal was entirely falsified. A new deal is made between the institution’s overseer Dr. Chilton and Lecter, which is agreed upon with the senator herself. However, Clarice realizes that the information Lecter gave her was misleading and confronts him at a holding cell in a Tennessee courthouse for more information. After providing more details about her childhood, including a traumatic event where she tried to save the spring lambs from being slaughtered, Lecter tells Clarice that everything she needs to know to solve the case is included in the case files. Clarice is escorted out of the building and soon after Lecter escapes by killing his two guards and then cutting one of their faces off, disguising himself as an injured officer as the paramedics rush him out of the crime scene.

Meanwhile, Clarice studies the case file in greater detail and realizes that Buffalo Bill must have known his first victim, which gives her a new lead to start from. After tracking down this lead she realizes that Bill is skinning the women because he’s using them to make a woman suit. Clarice begins tracking down acquaintances of the first victim and comes across Buffalo Bill himself. Quickly realizing that he is the killer, she confronts him and discovers that the senator’s daughter is still alive, trapped inside a well. After a tense chase, Clarice shoots Bill to death and the case is closed. Later, at her FBI graduation ceremony, Clarice receives a phone call from Lecter to congratulate her before he tells her that he’s “having an old friend for dinner” and hangs up, stalking an anxious Dr. Chilton into a crowd…

REVIEW
I’ve grown a lot in the decade since I last saw The Silence of the Lambs and watching it again has given me a newfound appreciation for just how overtly feminist this movie is. (What’s that, we’re talking about feminism on IC2S? Shocker!) Like, if this film came out today, completely unaltered, you’d have chuds whining about how it’s unrealistic, agenda-pushing propaganda. Conversely, it feels very timely for its release year of 1991, when films were still grappling with the idea of women having careers. The film isn’t even subtle about it, within the first couple minutes we get a shot of Clarice walking into an elevator at the FBI Academy surrounded by men who are all nearly twice her height and size, visually symbolizing her upward struggle. We also see several instances of Clarice being hit on and objectified by the men around her when she’s just trying to do her job – when she meets Dr. Chilton, when she tries to do research on the Death’s-head moth and when she is doing her morning jog and all the male recruits check her out after she passes. Oh, and that’s not even mentioning the fucking sexual assault prisoner Miggs subjects her to and the sexually explicit taunts Hannibal directs her way. Clarice always brushes these encounters off, but it’s obvious that they all make her uncomfortable at the very least and undermine her attempts to be taken seriously as an FBI agent on the basis of nothing more than her sex. This theme is woven throughout the film’s narrative, as Buffalo Bill is also exclusively preying on women, making their lives even more difficult and dangerous. Similarly, it is later discovered that Bill is, himself, trying to become a woman while Clarice is trying to shed the prejudice that comes with her gender (I’ve seen some critics say that she wishes she was a man, but I personally don’t get this sense, she just wishes that men wouldn’t objectify her). Clarice even delivers a haunting line near the middle of the film which is straight-up a declaration of the film’s message: “If he sees her as a person and not just an object, it’s harder to tear her up.” Clarice knows the feeling of being objectified by men constantly, but she is determined to achieve her goals in spite of these prejudices and prove that everyone is underestimating her capabilities. All the problems I had with Will Graham in Manhunter? They don’t apply here. Clarice is a fantastic emotional core to the film and she’s played wonderfully by Jodie Foster, who plays up Clarice’s strength, determination and desperation flawlessly. My only slight criticism about her character would be that Clarice’s goals stem, in part, from the well-worn female protagonist daddy issues trope (her father was her hero, a cop who died when she was young). This isn’t a major issue, but it might have been nice if the character’s motivation was just a tad bit more original.

If Clarice is the emotional core of the film, then Hannibal Lecter is the spellbinding agent of chaos, the true antagonist of the piece. Hopkins’ portrayal is truly electrifying. Whereas Cox played the character as a smug dickhead, Hopkins instead aims instead for a more theatrical portrayal, an irresistible mixture of charming and dangerous. His introduction has to be one of the greatest in film history, with Jack Crawford and Dr. Chilton both hyping up just how overwhelmingly dangerous he is to mind and body alike for nearly five straight minutes before we get to meet him. Lecter himself seems to follow a pattern with his playthings – he starts out charming, asking questions politely, reeling the subject in to make them interested. Then he says something shocking or repulsive just to see how the person reacts. In Clarice’s case, she stands her ground and even goes along with Lecter, in the senator’s case she becomes insulted and leaves him. However, Lecter then reels them back in again with a promise of something that they want. In Clarice’s case, he dangles the promise of helping her solve the Buffalo Bill case, making her career and some clues on Bill’s whereabouts, while in the senator’s case he provides details on Bill’s appearance. It’s a pattern that always sees Lecter in control, even though he’s in shackles for nearly the entire film. In spite of this, he does display moments of sympathy and honour, such as when he first agrees to help Clarice after she is sexually assaulted by Miggs. In retaliation, Hannibal convinces Miggs to kill himself in retribution, even though it results in him having all of his privileges stripped away. One particular detail that I found fascinating is Hannibal’s eyes. He spends the entire movie staring like a predator, fixated intently on the things that he wants. Initially we only really see him with Clarice, so it’s not particularly notable when he spends all their time together staring at her. However, later when he is being transported to meet with the senator, he spends most of his time staring forward, blankly… that is, until he sees something he wants, a pen which he plans to use in an escape attempt. Whenever this pen is on screen, Hannibal’s eyes dart to it and he stares with intensity at it. It’s a detail which makes his interactions with Clarice even more interesting. Like the other men in the film, Hannibal is fixated on Clarice’s body but there seems to be more to it than just simple lust. Clarice and Hannibal play off each other with fantastic chemistry, making for two phenomenal leads to the film.

Rounding out the main cast is Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill and… well, this is where the only substantial complaints I have about this film lie. Before I get into this analysis though, I just want to make it clear that I’m going to refer to Buffalo Bill as a man here, mainly because the film tells us that he isn’t transgender and that it seems to be the actual intent that he is not (as opposed to, say, Ace Ventura which portrays a trans woman but then acts like she’s a man). I definitely feel like there are issues here, but based on what we’re given I feel like this is the reading we’re supposed to come away with. Anyway, with that said, the portrayal of Buffalo Bill is fucking problematic. On its surface, the idea of having a character kill women because he wants to become one is ripe for reading as transphobic. I’m actually kind of impressed that Thomas Harris was aware of this and tried to go to great pains to avoid this interpretation, working a couple scenes into the novel of characters explaining that Bill is not a trans person, but rather has so much self loathing that he wants to become someone as far away from himself as possible. The film struggles even more with this, only including one scene where Hannibal states that Buffalo Bill isn’t really a trans person, which isn’t exactly the most reliable source. That said, considering that Harris was aware that this was an issue, it prompts two questions:

  1. If you know that this character is going to read as problematic, why are you bothering to include the problematic parts?
  2. If you’re insisting on going forward with it, why not get consultations from trans figures to ensure that you make it as respectful as possible?

Harris may have at tried to cut off any potential criticisms, but it didn’t seem to work because the popular perception became that Buffalo Bill was a villainous trans character and the explanations were forgotten. It also doesn’t help that the film tries to leave Bill’s queerness ambiguous, but Ted Levine plays the character so stereotypically gay (he’s got a goddamn bichon frise named Precious for Christsakes) and we’re clearly meant to find his “otherness” to be a monstrous aspect of the character. Levine is quoted saying “I think [Bill] at one point thought that he might be a rock star in the mode of a David Bowie, those guys who were really masculine but feminine at the same time”, denoting that we’re meant to be disturbed by Bill’s androgyny. The infamous “tucking” scene is also indicative of this (and, notably, was improvised by Levine), only really existing to make us think how strange and fucked up queer people are. I feel like the film might have gotten away with its explanations that Bill wasn’t really trans and avoided backlash from the LGBTQ community, but the tucking scene and the unambiguous queer coding push it way too far, especially at a time when positive queer representation was in a noticeable dearth. Buffalo Bill’s entrance a half hour into the film is truly chilling, with him preying on his victim’s sympathy to lure her into his clutches, it’s just too bad that he turns into an offensive stereotype from there. Luckily, his screentime is fairly limited, but it’s unfortunate that his portrayal is a permanent black stain on this film.

While the characters are the beating heart of The Silence of the Lambs, they’re greatly aided by a top-tier screenplay and direction. The films story is tense, exciting and lean, giving the audience the clues to solve the mystery on their own while not wasting a moment of screentime. Aiding this is Jonathan Demme’s expert direction, which allows the actors to get the most out of their performances. I noticed that Demme frames his characters in closeups and extreme closeups constantly throughout the film, giving us more insight into the characters’ unspoken emotions during all of the tense exchanges of dialogue. It’s a simple technique, but it’s utilized masterfully throughout the film to convey more than is said and helps to get around some of the issues translating a book to screen. There are all sorts of great moments utilizing these closeups, most notably during any scene with Hannibal and Clarice, but I was particularly impressed during the scene where Clarice inspects the body of one of Bill’s victims. The body itself isn’t shown, except in bits and pieces, and the focus is instead on Clarice’s face as she records the details. A lesser film may have revelled in the chance for some squeamish gore, but The Silence of the Lambs places the focus squarely on Clarice and all of the emotions that she clearly has just roiling beyond the surface, since this is what’s truly important in this scene. Demme also pulls out some truly thrilling sequences, such as Lecter’s grand escape (I can still remember the first time I saw it, piecing together what happened as I watched and being amazed when the big reveal was made) and the voyeuristic and claustrophobic night vision sequence at the end of the film. All-in-all, it’s little wonder that the film swept the Oscars, because nearly everything here is top notch.

I’ve always regarded The Silence of the Lambs highly, but I was curious to see how it would hold up nearly a decade after I last saw it and with a more critical eye directed towards the film’s representation issues. While I have to say that I’m disappointed by the problematic LGBTQ representation, if you’re able to look past this issue, everything else about the film is engrossing. I was also particularly impressed by the film’s feminist themes, which I hadn’t appreciated in previous viewings of the film. There really isn’t much more to say, The Silence of the Lambs is still a great, if flawed, film and definitely my favourite movie in the franchise.

9/10

Be sure to tune in again soon when we look at the next entry in the franchise, Hannibal!

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Death Note is Kind of Trash

I wasn’t really into anime when I was growing up. I watched localized successes like Sailor MoonPokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! and checked out an issue of Shonen Jump once, but in general I was turned off of anime and manga by obsessive weebs. However, in the last few years I’ve been trying to get more cultured and have been checking out some of the big names in anime. One of these big names that I was sure I would like is Death Note. I mean, the whole premise it’s right up my alley: a notebook which kills anyone whose name is written in it? A cat and mouse game between the holder of the book and the detective hunting him down? A creepy demon monster following the protagonist around? Sign me the hell up. Hell, I was so certain that I was going to enjoy Death Note that I picked up the Blu-Ray set so I could enjoy it all at my leisure. I don’t tend to buy Blu-Rays blindly, but when I do it tends to work out splendidly for me (see: John Wick, The Raid, The Conjuring, etc). It has probably been two years since then and over the course of a few days I finally decided to sit down and watch Death Note in its entirety.

…and it kind of sucks. Like, I kind of want to just give away my Blu-Ray copy now, I disliked it that much.

It’s actually was surprising for me. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Death Note, some people going so far as to say that it’s one of the absolute best animes, so figured it would be a slam-dunk for me. Don’t get me wrong – the first 10ish episodes are quite enthralling as Light learns how to use the Death Note, L tries to discover Kira’s identity, and Light tries (poorly) to cover his tracks. However, it quickly starts to go down hill with only occasional moments of excitement. Hell, my disappointment was so surprising to me that I had to look up other reactions to the series to see if I was totally alone in my assessment. From what I’ve seen, most fans of Death Note will admit that the series drops in quality around episode 25 (some even agreed with me, that around episodes 10-15, the series’ quality definitely begins to decline). Considering that Death Note is a 37 episode-long anime, even if you think it’s good overall it seems like the popular opinion is that ~1/3 of the series is not great. And, if you agree with me that the series drops off quickly, it’s closer to 2/3 of the episodes being pretty shitty. Again, considering this has a good reputation, I feel like I need to explain exactly why I disliked it so much. And, in case it isn’t obvious, spoilers incoming.

First of all, let’s talk about those first 10 episodes that I did like and why they worked well. The premise of Death Note is fascinating – Light Yagami finds a notebook which will kill anyone whose name is written in it. The rules of the Death Note are also quite intricate and restrictive, crafting plenty of tension throughout the narrative (particularly the detail that the user can sell half of their remaining lifetime in order to see their prospective targets’ real names). This set-up naturally causes the viewer to think about what they would do if they had the Death Note and how they would use it. It also helps to make Light interesting because he has a very particular way that he intends to use the note to make a statement as “Kira”, the self-proclaimed god of justice, while also coming up with clever precautions to avoid ever being caught with the book. However, when the detective L enters the picture, the ease with which he is able to quickly narrow down the scope of the investigation is fascinating, largely because of the way it is written. L’s deductions in this early part of the series are based on clear evidence, and it’s easy to see how L could come to the conclusions he does – he’s just noticing details that other people would easily overlook. Furthermore, his hunches and evidence are often confirmed because of mistakes that Light makes. This makes for a thrilling cat-and-mouse game in the early episodes, as L tries to narrow down his list of Kira suspects, while Light desperately tries to cover his tracks and tie up any loose ends.

This tension begins to break around the time when L decides to confirm his suspicions and confront Light in-person. While at first this is interesting, and in order to keep the plot going it was kind of inevitable, the narrative really starts to slow down and become far less interesting at this point. It turns out that Light and L just aren’t very interesting characters in their own right. Their opposed philosophies are interesting to see clash, but when they have to interact with one another we see that there isn’t a lot to either of them. Even worse, their interactions are painfully repetitive – we see the same kind of scenes of L putting Light into a loaded situation, and then having Light debate about how best to respond without putting suspicion on himself, over and over and over. These moments also solidify that Light isn’t nearly as smart as the show wants us to believe. Sure, he’s clever, but waaaay too clever for his own good. Instead of trying to counter L head-on and remain as aloof as possible, if he’d just consistently act naturally and stop trying to thwart the surveillance on him, he wouldn’t be drawing suspicion on himself. Hell, the fact that he has FBI agents killed after they spy on him was just an idiotic move – it makes it obvious that Kira was indeed one of the people being watched, narrowing down the suspect list significantly. They suspected that Kira had access to police records, but why not deflect that suspicion, rather than confirm it? For that matter, why doesn’t Light engineer scenarios to deflect suspicion onto other people? All that Light ever does is thwart L enough that he can’t definitively say that Light is Kira, which just makes him look even more suspicious when it happens over and over again.

The slowing of the tension is bad enough but it’s around this same time when Death Note really starts to go down hill with the introduction of Misa Amane. In theory, the introduction of Misa could have been brilliant – most importantly, she has a second Death Note, which opens up the potential scale of the narrative immensely. Furthermore, she’s a Kira copycat who wants to meet Light, the shinigami Rem is in love with her, and she’s made the shinigami eyes deal so she can see peoples’ real names. Unfortunately, the writers of Death Note haaaaate her and her introduction has very little actual bearing on moving the plot forward. Misa is portrayed as being a complete idiot who is a constant burden and liability for Light. She’s completely devoted to Light, insisting that they should be a couple and does whatever he tells her to, despite the obvious fact that he doesn’t care about her at all. She’s also a professional model, which seems to have been done for little more reason than to make her seem more desirable for Light, to justify how she can be dumb and successful and to have the characters fawn over her. The thing is, the show tells us that Misa is an idiot, but I didn’t always believe that she was. She actually manages to outmanoeuvre Light and the police on occasion, in part because they underestimate her, which made me wonder if we are meant to think that she was actually far more clever than people give her credit for… but no, these moments are few and far between, and whenever they do happen, they are almost immediately followed-up by something that shows that they really do think she’s a complete moron.

I will give the show some credit, Death Note mostly shirks away from the ridiculous levels of fan service which are so common in anime. However, it’s not like you can’t have fan service and well-written female characters at the same time, and in Death Note the female characters are written horrendously. There’s the aforementioned Misa, who is literally treated as an expendable pawn by Light. She spends the entire series unwaveringly devoted to Light, never realizing that he’s manipulating her, even when he cheats on her (instead, she gets jealous and takes out her frustrations on the other woman). It would be one thing if the narrative made it obvious that the way Light treats Misa is awful, kind of like how it clearly disproves of his use of the Death Note. However, it never makes any sort of commentary on their abusive relationship, and the fact that the narrative constantly reinforces that Misa is just a dumb person only good for manipulation is troubling, especially when it also reinforces that Light is brilliant despite the boneheaded mistakes he walks into.

Other than Misa, there are a handful of female characters with any sort of importance to the narrative. First of all is Sayu, Light’s sister. She appears very briefly as a young girl during the first few episodes, but when she suddenly appears grown up later in the series it seems like she might be getting a more prominent role going forward. How exciting! …except, no, you didn’t think that the writers would give a female character an important role, would you? No, they just wanted to remind us she exists and make her intriguing so that way they could have the mafia kidnap her, have her be traumatized to insanity and then be left broken as she disappears from the story for the rest of the series! Holy shit! The other prominent female character is the “other woman” that I mentioned earlier, Kiyomi Takada. She appears early on in the series as a love interest for Light and he actually seems to be legitimately interested in her too, unlike Misa. Later in the series, she returns and becomes Light’s new love interest and closest follower. However, she’s jealous of Light’s relationship with Misa, which causes her to confront Misa and argue about who most deserves Light’s affections (considering that this is probably the only scene in the series involving two female characters talking to one another, that’s a hard Bechdel fail). However, it turns out that Light has been playing Takada hard, because he uses his close relationship with her to get her to kill his enemies and then commit suicide in order to deflect suspicion off himself! That’s… brutal, holy crap. The narrative definitely does not condone this, but the fact that this is just another female character manipulated, abused and then written out is not a great sign. It’s a pattern which, even more than the goth aesthetics and morbid subject matter, makes Death Note feel like it was written by and for teenage edge lords, because it’s the only role which women are able to fit into apparently.

Now, to be fair, there are two female characters in Death Note that I would be remiss to neglect mentioning. One is Rem, a shinigami who loves Misa and who tries to protect her from Light’s Machiavellian scheming. She’s actually pretty interesting, but disappears for a large chunk of the story and is ultimately manipulated into committing murder-suicide by Light in order to protect Misa. Perhaps my favourite character in the whole series though is Naomi Misora, a former FBI agent whose fiance is killed by Kira. Misora is so interesting because she’s just a regular person who makes the obvious deduction that Light’s attempts to cover his tracks are suspicious, causing her to realize that he is likely Kira. I’d argue that the single best episode in the whole series revolves around Light chatting with Misora and desperately trying to figure out her real name so that he can kill her before she reports her knowledge to L. It’s such an intense episode and Misora’s character is just so well-written that when she is finally tricked into committing suicide, it’s heartbreaking. Again, this is yet another female character manipulated and violently written out of the narrative. It would probably be palatable if Misora and Rem were the only female characters treated this way, or if there were other female characters with some importance to the plot who got to play a role in the story, but as it is it’s pretty easy to accuse Death Note of being misogynist (or, at the very least, having poor representation for women).

While the female characters get treated the worst, pretty much every character is wasted in Death Note. When L dies, he gets replaced with Near, who is like a carbon copy L but with even less personality and screen time, and who seems to just know things because it’s more convenient for the writers than showing how he deduced it. He’s also harried by Mello, an angry teenager who wants to prove himself a better detective than Near… which he does by basically becoming a poorly-fleshed-out gangster. Then there’s Mikami, who gets a terrifyingly evil and fascinating introduction which suggests that he could become even more of a dangerous fanatic than Light himself, but the narrative completely loses interest in exploring his character almost immediately. Most crucially, I didn’t even find Light or L particularly compelling. Like I said earlier, their philosophies are far more interesting than the characters’ actual personalities, which never really change substantially unless the writers force them to. Hell, I was calling bullshit when Light loses his memories of the Death Note and suddenly is fighting to stop Kira – he simply lost his memory of the book, are you telling me that he no longer agrees with his own philosophies and thinks that Kira is doing good? That was a bit of narrative convenience which did not make sense and was clearly just done to force Light and L to work together (again, revealing how little personality the pair have together for several episodes).

On a similar vein, there is so much wasted narrative potential in Death Note. It would have been so easy to deflect the perception of misogyny in the series with some more clever writing. For example, take Misa Amane: the narrative really runs out of things for Misa to do about 20 episodes in, meaning that she spends about half of the series doing absolutely nothing, because they wouldn’t just let her character grow or change any. Would it have been so bad for her to realize that Light was manipulating her and then throw his plans into disarray? It would have been way more engaging than having Light go head-to-head with Near, which just comes across as a boring retread of his relationship with L. Or what about Misa’s shinigami eyes? She ends up taking the deal twice, quartering her total lifespan. You’d think that this would have some sort of big narrative consequence, like suddenly dying at an inopportune moment when Light really needs her… but, nope, she makes the deal and it literally never comes up again. Hell, the elaborate uses of the Death Note aren’t really explored all that much. Early on we get some clever ways to use the Death Note, such as when Light tricks Raye Penber into killing himself and the FBI agents, or when he kills criminals every hour for 24 hours to send a message to L. However, the series very quickly moves away from exploring the Death Note, shunting it to the background in favour of trying to deduce Kira’s identity while we’re told killings are continuing. Perhaps the most clever idea here is that Light plants fake rules in the Death Note to confuse investigators and throw them off his scent, but this also just means that the Death Note itself goes missing for several episodes while the body count rises uneventfully. Even later on when Light takes on an even more extreme disciple, Teru Mikami, he is only concerned with writing as many names as possible, rather than dealing out sadistic punishments for them.

Hell, even ignoring all the wasted narrative potential, the narrative we get itself is just underwhelming. After those first ten episodes, here are maybe three or four interesting plot points, stretched thin between a gulf of uninteresting filler plot. These moments are: the way that Light resumes his role as Kira after wiping his memory of the Death Note, L’s death, the death of Light’s father, and Light’s brutal betrayal of Kiyomi Takada. Again, that’s four interesting moments spread out over the course of the last 27 episodes of the series, which is just way too much filler in-between. Hell, I didn’t even care for the ending all that much either. By the ending, Light’s convoluted plans have just gotten ridiculous, so it might have been fitting for him to be brought down by something deceptively simple, or to assume he had control of the situation and implicate himself. I mean, he practically announces that he’s Kira to the police when he believes that Mikami is on the other side of the door, so if the police had intercepted Mikami prior to this moment and even replaced him with an imposter, Light would have screwed himself over due to his arrogance. Instead, Light is foiled because it turns out that his new rival, Near, is even more of a convoluted thinker. While it is kind of nice to see Light visibly devolve into a whining brat at the end, the way that they brought it about was just lazy, in my opinion. By ending it this way the writers just confirm that they really do believe that Light is as smart as he thinks he is, but Near’s just smarter, so he’s the only one who could actually bring down Kira. Considering that Naomi Misora nearly had him dead-to-rights only a few episodes in, this clearly should not have been the conclusion we’re meant to draw from the narrative.

This also brings me to a weird aspect of the story. Light declares early in the series that he’s going to use the Death Note to bring justice to the world and establish himself as its new god. It’s a dark goal, but you could see it for a chaotic good character. However, he then quickly uses it to kill people who oppose him, including a criminal who he thought was L and the FBI agents who are observing him, revealing that he is an egotistical hypocrite who believes he’s solely qualified to decide what is just. As a result, you’d think that L and the police would then be the moral foil to this idea, pitting the law against Kira’s sense of justice. However, maybe I just don’t know Japanese law, but L uses some extremely shady, extra-judicial means to try to prove his case. First, he puts several cameras and microphones all through the Yagami house, including the bedrooms (this also results in spying on Light’s mother and little sister). Later he arrests Misa, blindfolds her and then isolates her so that she can’t have access to anyone (including a lawyer) for more than a month, effectively torturing her in order to get a confession. He does the same with Light, although at least in Light’s case he volunteered to be put through this torture first, so… that makes it okay, I guess? (Hell, the fact that he’s so desperate to prove his innocence that he’s willing to be put through torture is a pretty big red flag that Light has something to hide.) Oh, and then when they have absolutely nothing to go on, L bluffs that he’s going to execute Light and Misa, then allows Light’s father to kidnap them both and then threaten to commit murder-suicide in a last desperate bid to get a confession! HOLY SHIT!!! Yeah… so, again, I don’t know Japanese law, but I’m pretty sure that at least some of that is straight-up illegal, which goes against the whole concept of a moral and ethical high ground that the police have in this universe. Instead, it just turns into Kira’s justice versus L’s nebulous justice, with the police stuck working with the one who claims to be on their side.

So, as you can see, I really did not like Death Note. It’s a great premise which is squandered on poor execution, and I don’t understand how people can be so forgiving of it. I mean, just take a look at Code Geass: it’s clearly inspired by Death Note, taking a similar premise, structure and tone, but it follows-through on the narrative potential far better. This is primarily because the writing and characters are so much stronger… so I guess what I’m saying is that you should watch Code Geass instead because Death Note is kind of trash.

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Oh Look, Another Manufactured Dead or Alive Controversy

When last we checked in with the Dead or Alive franchise, anti-SJW types were stirring up a controversy about how Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 wasn’t being released outside of Japan and this was all feminists’ faults (despite no one actually giving a shit about Dead or Alive Xtreme 3, the fact that this was 100% Tecmo-Koei’s decision, and that PlayAsia was clearly co-opting their outrage in order to make money). Fast-forward almost 3 years and now there’s a new controversy brewing about Dead or Alive 6. Sigh, what now? Are those special snowflake, easily #triggered SJWs complaining about the series’ trademark objectification of women and gratuitous jiggle physics?

Oh wait. No, it’s the anti-SJWs who are complaining again. And this time, it might be even more stupid situation than the last non-troversy was.

So, what could get people so riled up about Dead or Alive 6? Well, it all boils down to one simple statement that game director Yohei Shimbori made when the game was announced: female sexualization was going to be toned down and breast physics would be more realistic. Predictably, fanboys are threatening to boycott the game now just based on this statement alone. For example, One Angry Gamer is livid about the sheer mention of toning down and that the game is using a different engine than DOA5 and Xtreme 3Meanwhile over on Sankaku Complex, a Japanese hentai and porn news site (link is NSFW, obviously), there has been plenty of butthurt whining that SJWs have “ruined” the game before we’ve even gotten a chance to really see it in full. Perhaps even more predictably, some players are claiming that they’re going to buy Soulcalibur VI instead because it is leaning harder than ever into the fan service (for what it’s worth, I was planning on buying SC6 because I really enjoy the the gameplay of that series, until I saw how embarrassing the fan service was this time around). The reaction to this one little change really shows you how much value these “fans” put into the actual mechanics of their favourite fighting games.

Some of the funnier/stupid comments on Sankaku Complex.

Beyond that though, there’s more to why this is such a clear non-troversy. For example, read the following statement made by Yosuke Hayashi:

“We’ve always had the sex factor in the game; in the past, the female characters had to have big breasts, they had to have scanty dress. […] We’re trying to focus on the real women that surround us; the voice of a female, the mannerisms. We are being realistic about it. We want to show something that’s more high class, that adult males of our generation could look at a woman [character] and be impressed with her as a woman, not just as a pin-up. That’s what we wanted to tell our fans.”

That sounds like the sort of thing which would really rile up the anti-SJW types… except that this was said 6 years ago about Dead or Alive 5, and in terms of the sheer volume of swimsuits and new fetish-bait characters, that game ended up being the most sexualized game in the franchise (outside of the Xtreme spin-offs). Compared to this, everything said about Dead or Alive 6 has been pretty tame thus far.

This isn’t even taking into account the deluge of DLC which is sure to find its way into DOA6. DOA5 and (to a slightly lesser extent) DOAX3 both made bank off of their sexy costume packs, which would cost players literally over $1000 to purchase everything. Since DLC game into vogue last generation, fighting games have basically turned into costume factories and I can’t possibly see DOA6 passing this opportunity up. However, does this mean that all of the sexy costumes have been shunted off behind a paywall as some players are saying? Shimbori even made a point of changing series lead Kasumi’s sexy robes in favour of a more functional body suit, so are we no longer getting bikinis as default costumes? Well… it’s too early to say for certain, but somehow I doubt it. For one thing, take a look at Kasumi’s DOA6 costume and tell me that that isn’t sexy in its own right, even without having to show off skin. But not only that, the reveal trailer itself made it pretty clear that the game isn’t going to neuter the sexiness. Just look at Helena:

Camera pan to cleavage shot? Check. Panties visible? Check. Outfit that makes more sense for stripping rather than fighting? Check. Now, this is obviously just one character, but we haven’t seen what the more overtly-sexualized characters, such as Tina and Christie, are going to look like, nor have we seen whether the two most popular fetish-bait characters, Honoka and Marie Rose, will make the cut. In any case though, I do feel like the outrage that anti-SJW types have worked themselves into is premature right now at best, or downright ridiculous at worst. I’ve dragged Sankaku Complex into this article because, quite frankly, their coverage and pearl-clutching in this non-troversy has been hilarious. When Hitomi and Lei Fang were teased in fully-clothed silhouettes, they decried that “the developers [are] clearly sticking to their socjus agenda of preserving the purity of fictional video game girls”, which is particularly funny because they’re clearly wearing costumes of theirs from DOA5 and because the franchise has always had this weird sense of hands-off purity and innocent to (most of) its characters, emphasizing a voyeuristic take on sexuality rather than an active owning of it (which, honestly, is the main issue with DOA’s take on sexiness in the past).

Beautiful.

As for the breast physics, the One Angry Gamer article about claims that they aren’t even present in the current build of the game, but from what Shimbori has said, “we are trying to achieve some natural movement, so when you move, things move naturally. That’s our intention.”… so, the boob physics are going to be like the physics present in Xtreme 3 then? Yes, it does sound like they’re cutting out the exaggerated physics options which most games in the series have had… but oh well. That’s really all I can say about that, I’ve never understood the appeal of laughably exaggerated jiggle physics, especially when the game is going to aim for more natural movement similar to DOAX3.

The toning down of the sexier aspects of the franchise also coincides with a design shift towards esports and more brutal fighting. DOA has always prided itself on being the best-looking fighter on the market, which you can really see when you put it up next to Soulcalibur VI for example. Past games would dirty-up the fighters, but only to a certain point – for example, DOA5 made a big point about introducing dynamic sweat and dirt systems as the fight progressed which coincided with an art style shift, from more of an exaggerated anime aesthetic to one that looks much more natural. However, DOA6 is now building upon that more realistic aesthetic, introducing cuts and bruising which looks, quite frankly, painful. It has been stated that “the shift to more realistic graphics […] is thanks to the new engine. Characters visibly take damage during fights, with bruised faces and blood making combat feel more visceral in the process. Shimbori also said that they are thinking about adding in an option to disable those details for players less interested in violence.”

This right here feels like a fulcrum in this issue that is being overlooked by the more reactionary fans of the series. Let’s say that they kept this battle damage in and continued to play up the sexiness. Suddenly, we’d have a game which overtly sexualizes assault against women… hell, even with the toning down that they’re doing, I’m not entirely certain that it’ll be enough to make this not feel uncomfortable. Speaking as someone who enjoys this series, I’m actually questioning whether the move away from always having their fighters look “beautiful” is going to be worth it (especially if they start adding in the sexier outfits later on), but I’m willing to wait and see for now.

Other than the pervy, voyeuristic aspects that the Xtreme games really push, I don’t have a problem with the sexiness in the DOA franchise. It’s mostly harmless and the series has been tucked into its own corner for quite some time where it doesn’t really influence the industry much. However, that right there is something that Tecmo-Koei is clearly trying to escape – you can see how the excessive fan service since at least the release of Xtreme Beach Volleyball has made the series more and more niche with each entry. Clearly, something had to give if they wanted to try to broaden their audience. We’ll see if they manage to pull it off and come up with something worth supporting on its own mechanical merits.

Oh, and in the meantime, we get to laugh at people claiming that Dead or Alive now sexualizes the men more than the women (because men fighting without shirts is the exact same as women fighting without shirts of course).

95% of the comments section is people whining about SJWs to a chorus of upvotes, and then these guys pop in, say the objective truth and get downvoted, naturally.

Never change internet, never change.

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Let the Past Die

Solo: A Star Wars Story is out this week and for the first time since 2008’s Clone Wars animated movie, it seems like Star Wars fans could just not give a shit. Some of this can come down to the divisive reaction to The Last Jedi – for my part, I really liked it and feel like it will be looked upon very fondly in the future, but the fury with which many people have derided it makes any sort of dialogue on it very tiring. Some of the antipathy can also come down to the perception that, at least anecdotally, no one really seems to want a Han Solo origin film, nor do they really want Star Wars spin-off films. I also feel like Disney’s annualizing of the Star Wars franchise is dangerous to the franchise’s long-term health. Star Wars used to be a big event every 3 years (or more!), but we now are getting a new one every year. It’s hard to say that that doesn’t dampen the hype somewhat and if this is going to continue indefinitely, then who knows whether the franchise’s popularity will burn out in time.

Now, to be fair, this is probably all down to perception – Solo is still expected to break records (EDIT: well so much for that) (ANOTHER EDIT: OH SHIT**), which suggests that your average Star Wars fan is part of that silent majority who don’t participate in public dialogue. Similarly, I unfortunately can’t find the link anymore but I saw a poll on starwars.com recently where The Last Jedi was actually voted 2nd best in the series after Empire, followed thereafter by Revenge of the Sith (!!!), suggesting that the popular opinion is actually way more favourable to The Last Jedi that the Internet would have you believe (on a similar note, I’m not surprised that Revenge of the Sith is so well-regarded either, since it would be seen as the big, epic culmination of the series for many people when they were growing up).

I’ve been wanting to write about Star Wars and The Last Jedi for quite a while now, but what finally prompted me to write up a post was this rallying cry I’m seeing in the, shall we say, dark side of the fandom which calls for Disney to fire executive producer Kathleen Kennedy. This, to me, is just such a strange situation. I mean, how many executive producers get blamed for franchise woes? Hell, how many could your average movie fan be even expected to name? I mean, Steven Spielberg doesn’t get shit for Transformers, nor does Christopher Nolan get shit for the DCEU. So what is the difference here?
I feel like the answer to this has to be Youtube, right? I mean, where else is this common narrative that there’s a single architect who is destroying Star Wars from the inside going to be originating from? Just look at the most popular results that show up when you search her name on Youtube:

It’s either news, or overwhelmingly negative. Kathleen Kennedy is pushing a PC/SJW agenda. Kathleen Kennedy needs to go. Kathleen Kennedy is destroying Star Wars. On and on and on. I checked the Star Wars Reddit, which also tends to be a bastion for negative sentiments like this that could brew up, but it seemed pretty quiet on the Kennedy front and was actually less fractured than I was expecting on the whole. Obviously, I can’t prove that Youtube is the big influencer when it comes to the brewing anti-Kathleen Kennedy sentiment, but it seems incredibly likely. There are other sources as well of course, such as clickbait news sites (including this one which calls for Kennedy’s firing and says that Star Wars is in trouble because of a 71% tomatometer for Solo*, and claims that every Star Wars film Disney has made has gotten progressively worse, which is demonstrably false if you look at the audience scores, especially when compared to the prequel trilogy). That still leaves a question unanswered though – why does Kathleen Kennedy get all the flack while Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg, among other producers of discontented high-profile franchises, get off scott-free? Hell, if you really think that the Star Wars franchise is getting worse with each film, why not rage against Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote The Force Awakens and Solo: A Star Wars Story? Well, let me lay out my theory…

One of the big complaints about Kennedy and The Last Jedi is that they have been forcing politics into Star Wars, an assertion which is, in my opinion, frankly absurd. I mean, how is The Last Jedi any more political than any other Star Wars film? Decrying rich people, keeping the spark of revolution alive… these are certainly political statements, but they’re hardly pointed at any specific modern context, nor is are they more pronounced than what has come before in Star Wars. I mean, if Revenge of the Sith had come out in 2018, these alt-right types would have had an aneurysm.

Similarly, probably the most common complaint against Kathleen Kennedy is that she forces “politics” into Star Wars, and by that the complainants mean that she pushes for diversity in gender, race and sexuality in the franchise. That’s right, people are getting all riled up about “social justice warriors” again and it is, quite frankly, sickening. We’re well past the point where being staunchly anti-political correctness is an acceptable stance, ever since that mindset gave birth to the alt-right. Hell, it has gotten to a point where anti-PC types are arguably even more annoying than the actual SJW types that they rail against, having falling into this mirror image of the very thing that they oppose so vehemently. So yes, I believe that we’re seeing a micro version of the larger social zeitgeist playing out within the Star Wars fandom, with diversity being opposed by those who are calling for a return to the “purity” of what Star Wars should be. That’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate complaints about the direction of Star Wars outside of a racist/sexist/homophobic angle – there clearly are, but I feel like the more unsavory side of the fandom is co-opting that discontent to draw people to their viewpoint.

Hell, this shouldn’t really be considered news: at the time of The Force Awakens, there were people whining about there being a black lead in the film. When they then found out that a woman was the new hero of the franchise, the whining happened again. Similarly, people complained about how Rogue One was being led by a woman again (oh noes!) and that many of the leads weren’t white. This anti-diversity bent has been rumbling within the fandom for years now, the only difference is that now these people aren’t just being laughed off and shouted down. Now, they seem to be building in steam, which can only really be explained to me as a combination of the resurgence of extremism in society, and the growing sense of discontent within the Star Wars fandom in general. Now we’re looking at boycotts for Solo: A Star Wars Story, not because of anything in the film itself, but because alt-right types want to reclaim Star Wars for themselves:

“‘Disney continues to shove down their SJW feminazi agenda down our retinas.’
You mean creating characters, such as Daisy Ridley’s Rey, meant to empower women is a bad thing? Women holding an equal place within the Star Wars universe is bad? I don’t know where you get your delusions, laser brain.
Gabriel even claims that he’s not sexist.
Um, yes you are. News flash: if you use the term ‘feminazi’ you’re a sexist.”

Now I’m waiting to see what happens when the alt-right gets wind that Lando Calrissian is pansexual.

I don’t think George Lucas intentionally made Star Wars a predominantly-white franchise intentionally, it was just the reality of the business at the time and he didn’t think to change that up. Kennedy is clearly more aware of this and has the ability to push forth for more equality and so I’d say that it’s good that she tries to. Now, she could certainly go too far one way or another, but for now at least the diversity doesn’t feel like tokenism, nor are we looking at a “white genocide” by any means (I mean, just look at Solo, which seems poised to become its own white-male-led franchise here under Kathleen Kennedy’s rule).

For my own part in all this, I feel like Disney can’t mine the legacy of Star Wars forever. When I first heard that Disney was purchasing the franchise, I was hoping that they would be moving beyond the original trilogy and going forwards or backwards in time. Star Wars is a phenomenon and anchoring yourself to existing success only limits the creative expression you can have sooner or later. At some point, they have to push forward and make it their own thing if they want the series to last (and according to their claims, they plan on making them for the next hundred years at least), a reality which is going to alienate some long-time fans. I feel like The Last Jedi did this successfully, especially after the far-too-safe The Force Awakens. I read an article recently where a Star Wars fan basically agreed, saying that the film would have been fine if only Luke didn’t die at the end: “The most pathetic aspect of all of this is that Luke died because Kathleen Kennedy, JJ Abrams, and Rian Johnson wanted to make way for the new characters. They didn’t want them to be overshadowed. This isn’t what Mark Hamill signed up for. It’s ridiculous. Rey is a fantastic character, but Luke Skywalker defines Star Wars. It won’t be the same without him.” But that’s my point – a time would be coming regardless when Star Wars would be without Luke Skywalker. In a decade’s time, the Skywalker saga might even just be a starting point in the Star Wars franchise. Really, the sooner we cut that tie to the past, the easier it will be to expand Star Wars on to future generations, including those who may not have had heroes to identify with before, and to keep the saga from being stifled. As my home-boy Kylo Ren said, it’s time to let the past die.

*Because apparently angry Star Wars fans put their faith in the tomatometer all of a sudden, and despite obviously not understanding that the tomatometer is an aggregate of how many critics gave it a 6/10 or higher, not an actual score for the film… wait, is the writer of that article equating a 71% tomatometer with a 7/10 for a video game? Because film critics aren’t as awful as video game reviewers and a 7/10 is actually a good score… bloody hell.
**POST-SCRIPT: I feel like Solo is failing in part due to people who were burned by The Last Jedi not showing up, but probably more in the general disinterest in a Han Solo movie, the negative buzz that has been dogging this film, and probably most importantly, the diluting of the Star Wars brand and “event movie” status.

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Quick Fix: Beta Uprising

In the time period between #GamerGate (ugh) and the rise of Trump (BLEH), I started reading We Hunted the Mammoth to get an idea of the sorts of extreme sexism present in our society which people are largely unaware of. However, as the American election began to ramp up, these stories began to evolve. Small communities in the “manosphere” of men’s rights activists, incels and “red pillers” were becoming more extreme and latching onto other groups. More than a year before neo-nazis came back into the public conscious at Charlottesville, I was seeing how the manosphere was drawing people into the alt-right and neo-nazi beliefs through their insulated communities centered on little more than hatred. That’s why men’s rights activism is a total joke – men face real issues which could be fixed with a concerted effort. However, trying to organize an effort to combat these issues is like trying to throw a white pride parade – the people who latch onto that cause will steer the ship towards the people they hate and blame for their problems.

This brings me to the recent van attack in Toronto, in which 10 people have been killed (so far) and 16 injured. Initially, it appeared that this might be an organized terrorist attack of some sort, as it was clearly premeditated. However, it is now coming out that the perpetrator, Alek Minassian, was likely a member of the manosphere and alt-right, specifically an “incel”, who was radicalized by the group’s hateful rhetoric. To put it simply, this rhetoric has grown from, and appeals to, groups of insecure and sexually frustrated young men who are “involuntary celibates” (hence “incel”). In their version of reality, “Chads” are the successful men who horde all the sex with the “Staceys” (aka, “sluts”, because even in this version of reality, a woman is worthy of scorn if she has sex with somebody). They also have a very social-Darwinist view of the world, where the Chads are alpha males and the incels are all betas (if you ever hear an alt-right dumbass calling you a “beta cuck”, now you know exactly why to laugh at them). Even the name “involuntary celibate” belies a belief that they feel that men are entitled to sex and that it is women who are in the wrong for denying them this right, with some even going so far as to fantasize for a world in which men can force women to have sex with them.

If it seems odd that this might cause someone to go on a killing spree, you’d be right, but the hatred that brews within the alt-right is literally radicalizing people in a manner not unlike that of a more organized terrorist organization such as ISIS. Incels’ fantasies about a world where the betas get their revenge has led to further fantasies of a “beta uprising”, to the point where it has basically become a legend among incels (seriously, that is not hyperbole on my part, just Google beta uprising). To this end, we have had mass killers inspired by this rhetoric, most notably Elliot Rodger of the Isla Vista killings in 2014. Perhaps most disgustingly, some incels have latched onto Elliot Rodger as a hero who started the beta uprising.

Predictably, Alek Minassian is being hailed as a hero once again by some within the incel community. It’s actually kind of a funny situation, I wonder how many of these people would paint all of Islam with the same brush in this situation, but say “hey, not all incels celebrate mass murder” when the finger gets pointed at them. But I digress – as one of my friends put it yesterday, this isn’t a mental health issue, but it’s going to be painted as such because that’s easier than dealing with the serious issues that are funneling young men towards radicalization in our society. People will rail against political correctness and feminism, but sexism is still alive in our society and this attack in Toronto is, as it seems with the evidence we have right now, the sort of result that it leads to at its most extreme. We should remember that it isn’t religion that causes people to kill, as the common scape-goat goes, but deep-seated hatred, dehumanization and radicalization.

I’m going to end this Quick Fix with the words of David Futrelle in his comments on this latest tragedy:

“[…] It would be dishonest and dangerous to dismiss this as a ‘mental health’ issue. Incel is a poisonous and hateful ideology, not a form of mental illness, and killings carried out in its name should be considered deliberate terrorism just as ISIS bombings or KKK lynchings are. Misogyny is hate, just as racism and religious intolerance are. As I’ve been saying for some time, the incel movement is a real danger; it appeals to young men consumed by bitterness who don’t think they have much to lose. And instead of helping them solve their problems it radicalizes them and ratchets up both their bitterness and their ‘nothing to live for’ nihilism. It’s a movement that idolizes mass killers and that has only slightly ironically heralded Elliot Rodger as its patron ‘saint.'”

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