I am writing this as I am hiding out in my hotel in San Francisco — jet lagged and under the weather from some evil germ that was working its way through the airplane’s ventilation system — and I can’t get the Haw Par Villa out of my mind. In my previous posts, I wrote about it in terms of its thematic content — the antimodernist impulses, the representation of classically Chinese conceptions of transgression and punishment, and the place of violent representations in moral instruction. But what interests me today has to do with the formal organization of the exhibits themselves. Remember that these exhibits were built in 1937. I’m going to go all art history on you for a moment so read at your own risk.
Consider this image (taken by William Uricchio) which allows us to see one of the tableaus in its largest possible context. The first thing which may strike you is that the space breaks down into a series of different frames which can be read sequentially but which may be taken in as a whole.
In that sense, I am reminded of comic book creator and theorist Will Eisner’s arguments about the ways comics might be read — both in terms of the organization of information into a series of framed boxes and in terms of “the shape of the page” which we take in through peripheral vision and which shapes our interpretation of each framed image. It is this notion of the “shape of the page” which got dropped when Scott McCloud reworked Eisner for Understanding Comics and for my money, it may be Eisner’s most significant contribution to the theory of the medium.
Eisner’s own work was very good at exploiting the relationship here between information communicated sequentially — panel by panel — and simultaneously — through the shape of the page. Consider this example taken from one of Eisner’s very last published pieces — note how he weaves the Spirit and the Escapist, his two protagonists, across the page in multiple ways. We can take in an overall impression of what’s happening here at a glance but as we examine the page more closely, we see that it does contain a series of implicitly and explicitly framed actions which can be read sequentially to form a narrative.
In the case of the Haw Par Villa vignette depicted here, some of the frame lines are defined very emphatically — there are two separate scenes staged side by side here — while others are more ambiguous — see the way features of the space function as implicit frames encouraging us to focus on one part of the action at a time. And there is even some activity taking place in the space between frames — in what we might describe as the gutter if we were talking about comics. We are to see the people drowning below as at once a separate scene and part of the larger scene being depicted. Even within a single space, we are invited to scan the image, break it down into clusters of figures (such as some of the specific examples of combat depicted here), create a narrative context for the interplay of the figures, and then draw them back into the larger scene. The demands which this places on the viewer are quite complex. We can take in the scene as a whole on first impression but we really only understand it when we work it over with our eyes over a more prolonged period.
Other vignettes depend upon relatively straight forward juxtapositions within the same space — as in the contrast here between the chaste peasant couple in the background and the more sexually transgressive modern couple in the foreground. We can read each scene individually but we only really understand the moral message when we understand the significance of this juxtaposition.
I find it productive to compare my first example here to a surprisingly similar aesthetic effect in a work better known to western readers — Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.
Bosch’s painting is a triptych, allowing for the use of framing to create a similar play between simultaneity and sequentiality.Here’s how one art-history-focused website tells us to read the image:
The triptych depicts the history of the world and the progression of sin. Beginning on the outside shutters with the creation of the world, the story progresses from Adam and Eve and original sin on the left panel to the torments of hell, a dark, icy, yet fiery nightmarish vision, on the right. The Garden of Delights in the center illustrates a world deeply engaged in sinful pleasures.
One’s first impression upon looking at any of the framed segments is one of total visual chaos. The image is not organized for us in the ways we anticipate — there is no central focus, no coherent whole. We are staring into a space that defies human comprehension — and we can only begin to experience the painting by breaking it down into smaller narrative chunks, clusters of figures or bits of terrain which take on local significance as we scan across the image.
Bosch is one of those artists that I have always had trouble situating inside any coherent mental map of the trajectory of western painting. I love his work but what makes them interesting are all of the ways they break from the representational structures one associates with other classical paintings of the period. He seems to look towards the work of surrealists like Salvador Dali rather than having much to do with the realist impulses that would shape so many of his contemporaries.
Increasingly, though, I am wondering if there might not be some value in looking at a range of these “eccentric” forms of expression side by side as I am trying to gesture towards here and see if we might identify an alternative aesthetic system — one which is more often than not associated with popular forms of representation and one which has to do with simultaneity of impressions or to go back to Eisner, “the shape of the page”.
There has been a tendency to see the introduction of framing in comics, for example, as a step forward in organizing the chaos of the page — with the resulting fascination with all of the wild experiments in framing and segmentation done by an early comics pioneer like Windsor McCay. But I have always been fascinated with the work done by R. F. Outcault on the early Yellow Kid strips. Here, the entire page of the newspaper may be given over to a single image (and some loosely affiliated text) which is so dense in details that one can not take it all in at once but rather must scan across it, slowly forming logical links between different actions which at first seemed unrelated, and thus working through the sequence of what must have occurred.
Most writers on comics have seen Outcault’s work as more primitive than McCay’s but what if we saw them as operating according to a different aesthetic principle — one which is interested in capturing the sensation of living in a city where many different things may be occurring at the same time at the same space and may only have a loose connection to each other, even if they intersect or interrupt each other at various points. Read in these terms, the goal of the artist is only superficially to tell a story or to lay out information for the viewer; rather, the artist seeks to create a rich, immersive world. Each of these works I am discussing here represent consummate examples of spatial stories of the kind that I have discussed regularly in my writing on games — most notably in my essay, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.”
I made a similar point about the relationship of games to other forms of world building activities in popular art in a column I wrote with Kurt Squire for Computer Games magazine after a trip to Japan, where I encountered yet another example of this world-making practice:
To get to the new Ghibli Museum, I (Henry) had to travel by train to Mitaka, a sleepy little suburb of Tokyo. The world outside is green and lush, full of Japanese school girls giggling on their way to class. The world inside is unlike any place I’d ever been: A physical embodiment of the great Japanese filmmaker Hiyao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away). Miyazaki personally designed or supervised almost everything in this enchanted, maze-like building. It’s not just the big things — a giant stuffed version of the flying cat bus from My Neighbor Totoro, an even bigger giant robot soldier from Castle in the Sky — but also the little things, like the snack foods in the recreation of Miyazaki’s cluttered studio.
Panorama boxes — small windows into imaginary microworlds with titles like “The Great Underwater Adventure,” “Monman the Water Spider,” and “The Ogre’s Snack Box” sit close to the ground forcing adults to get down on their hands and knees to look inside. On a plaque, Miyazaki explains, “Just as people wished to make pictures move, they also wished they could look inside a different world. They yearn to enter the story or travel to a faraway land. They longed to see the future and landscapes of the past. The panorama box with no moving parts was made much earlier than the zoetrope.” Cinema, for Miyazaki, originates from a desire to step inside these microworlds and become a part of the story.
The next day, I had the rare privilege of talking with Toshio Suzuki, Miyazaki’s long time producer. Suzuki is a thoughtful man, passionate about cinema and knowledgeable about its history. I shared my observation that every scene in Spirited Away centered around an interesting space and a compelling task and that the scene continued until the characters had fully explored that space and completed their assigned goals. His eyes sparkled as he completed my thought, “Like a video game.”
But Suzuki wanted to talk about space. First, he sketched a Western Cathedral, reminding us that from above, the configuration resembled a cross and that every object was organized in relation to that overarching shape.
He sprang up to use the chalk board, and drew a tiny little room, and then a hallway, and then another room, until he had drawn a complex maze. This, he said, was how the Japanese designed a space — one interesting detail at a time. The whole was an unpredictable but aesthetically satisfying conglomeration of details. This space makes no sense from above. One can only map it by walking down the hallways and being surprised — and delighted — as you turn each corner. Then, he pointed to a poster from Howl’s Flying Castle, and said that this was how Miyazaki approached designing its mechanical world — one detail at a time. It is a world so rich that the human mind can’t take it all in at once but can only explore
it, one space at a time.
Finally, returning to my question, he revealed that Miyazaki is a close friend of Shigeru Miyamoto, the master video game designer. And suddenly it was clear to me that Miyazaki-sen and Miyamoto-sen share something in common: both design complex and compelling microworlds that we want to explore. Miyazaki’s heart contains only cinema; his films have never been adopted into games. They don’t need to be — in a real sense, they already
Many unusual things about Tokyo suddenly made sense: the 8-9 stories high manga shops in Akihabara with one whole floor devoted to scale models anime robots, spaceships, and characters; the rows of Gachapon machines which yield a plastic ball with a toy anime figurines; the kids who gather on the outskirts of YoYogi Park on Sunday afternoons playing cos; the toy kits depicting levels from early Nintendo games. All across Tokyo, Otaku are
obsessing over the details.
Such richly detailed worlds allow multiple points of entry, routes for exploration, and things to carry back into everyday life. Media scholars talk about Japan’s “media mix” culture, starting from the idea that story details get scattered across multiple media products.
Miyamoto’s games (think Mario Brothers or Zelda) follow the same principles: they are micro-worlds built from detail to delightful detail. In his Master’s Thesis for Georgia Institute of Technology, Chaim Gringold describes Miyamoto’s works as “miniature gardens”: “Gardens, like games, are compact, self-sustained worlds we can immerse ourselves in… A miniature
garden, like a snow globe, model train set, or fish tank, is complete; nothing is missing, and nothing can be taken away… Miniatureness makes a garden intelligible in the mind of a player, and emotionally safe in his heart. Miniature scale, clear boundaries, and inner life help players to wrap their heads, hands, and hearts around a world.”
Miyamoto’s games are a later-day variation on Miyazaki’s panorama boxes — microworlds that delight us in their details and invite us to get down our hands and knees to see inside. Seen in that way, the computer game predates the cinema — at least in Japan.
This is all heady stuff — and it may just be the cold medicine talking here — but I hope it provokes my readers to look at some of these works from a somewhat different point of view.