July 2021’s Gwern.net newsletter is now out; previous, June 2021 (archives). This is a collation of links and summary of major changes, overlapping with my Changelog; brought to you by my donors on Patreon.
- The Green Knight (2021)
What distinguishes an ‘homage’ from an ‘imitation’ or worse ‘plagiarism’/‘ripoff’? Why does the extent to which the ending of Flip-Flappers copies End of Evangelion leave a bad taste in my mouth, while Kill la Kill’s similar use is neutral, and EoE’s own use of Battle of Okinawa (perhaps via Space Battleship Yamato) feels positive?
Deception and credit can be a part of it: Flip-Flappers feels like it’s hoping you won’t notice, while KlK expects you to know, and that does make a difference; but on the other hand, it’s not the only difference, because EoE can hardly expect you to have even heard of some 1971 war film (and still likewise for Yamato because while it was popular, it would be unrealistic of Yamato’s makers to expect kids to have seen an adult movie from 4 years previously—they could hardly stream it on Netflix). When Simpsons makes a Rashomon reference, it surely flies over the head of >95% of viewers (I know it did for me until I watched a bunch of Kurosawa movies for school and then caught a rerun) or re-enacts a movie plot without any explicit signaling of which movie, this is all par for the course and indeed a good part of why one watches it. ‘Being lazy’ may be part of it, but also appears inadequate: often, copying something may be quite a lot of work! is hardly an easy act to follow; there must be countless alternative endings which would just be way easier to animate. (Writing is hard, but it’s not that hard.) Lack of novelty or new contributions is also sufficient but not necessary: a work which does nothing at all new will be bad, but a work can do many new things and still leave a bad taste if a homage is handled badly.
It might be helpful to consider traditional Japanese waka poetry as a medium where homage/plagiarism is a much more pervasive and sharper phenomenon: with only 5 lines, a prescribed vocabulary & set of topics, and an extensive corpus & concern for tradition, explicit reuse of lines is necessary, and common. (Indeed, a lot of waka poetry is intelligible and esthetically appreciable only as allusions, requiring commentary for those of us not reading the originals & steeped in the corpus. Read in isolation, they come off as banal prose observations.) Sharing 1 or 2 lines out of 5 with a previous poem is no flaw, and sharing even 3 may be acceptable. (But at 4, you are in trouble and had better be ready to defend yourself.) What is acceptable? If some important twist or addition or depth can be added by the quotation, or if the remainder of the alluded poem helps explain the current one. The implied gender of the speaker might be reversed, an ‘ending’ provided to an episode, the sentiments flipped into a Buddhist moral, and so on.
Importantly, the new poem relies on the old poem, but the old poem itself gains by the allusion: new possibilities are drawn out of it, or it is given additional resonance by being at the center of a web of associations, so that the thought of it also brings to mind all the others. Good allusions can enrich both works.
EoE and Battle of Okinawa form such a symbiotic pair: like all of Yamato’s progeny, is haunted by WWII and the Japanese Empire (see also Gunbuster’s subtle backgrounding), and the Okinawa allusion places NERV (Japan) being invaded by the UN/SEELE/JSSDF (Americans) using overwhelming force and brutally-efficient methods like flamethrowers and room-by-room grenade clearing and civilian death. Perhaps not a particularly deep set of allusions, but it’s there and serves a purpose, and it also makes watching Battle of Okinawa that much more interesting, as one thinks about how a post-war Japanese film on a defeat is received and transmuted by the youth who grew up in the aftermath and knew only the Japanese economic miracle.,
EoE and KlK form less of a pair, and is more commensal. The KlK ending follows Gainax and the similarity to is… interesting, I suppose? There’s arguably a bit of interesting ‘story archaeology’ in that KlK embraces the original alien panspermia/colonization trope which started with but rapidly pushed into the deep background, but that’s deep into the out-of-universe weeds.beats closely, but with its own textile twist and less of a sekaikei emphasis; knowing how much of Studio Trigger comes from
The Flip-Flappers relationship is just parasitic. Flip-Flappers adds nothing to a rewatch of, and indeed, to the extent that someone watches Flip-Flappers and then watches , they suffer from the “Shakespeare is so cliche” problem—EoE will be that much more bland and ordinary. Flip-Flappers, by copying , makes worse off. It is a parasite, worse, one that’s playing a negative-sum game: it poorly benefits itself, at a larger cost to the host.
As Norbert Weiner remarked of the A-bomb, the only nuclear secret worth keeping from Stalin was the secret that it was feasible: knowledge of the implementation details isn’t that important, as much work as they may take, compared to the general idea & the knowledge that it works. I am reminded of the joke about the repairman, but to rewrite it for DL: “Here’s a 10-line diff fixing your AGI; my compute-bill is 10 million petaflop-days.”; “What‽ But it only takes 0.1 million to train it!” “Yes, 0.1m to train it with the diff, and 9.90m to know which 10 lines.”↩︎