Seven Anime Titles for Thinking People

(Work and the lack of inspiration conspired to prevent me from posting here for some time. I hope to break that inactivity in the coming weeks starting with this post)

Anyone who says that anime is only for immature people does not know anime well enough. I’ve said that already here before. The long history of Japanese animation has produced a diverse range of titles, in genres often unique to it. From cooking battle shows to tentacle porn, anime is a testament to the wild imagination of the most creative culture on the planet.

And because this is Japan we are talking about – the culture that produced Zen and Superflat – it should come as little surprise that many anime titles already reach the level of literature in terms of style and substance, dealing with heavy philosophical and/or aesthetic themes with often complex story telling techniques.

This is a list of my favourites among them, works that have had a profound influence on both my philosophical and stylistic growth. The list is by no means exhaustive, and I am sure there are many great titles out there I have yet to discover which would easily fit into this list.

 

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Revolutionary Girl Utena

I start this list with a bang. Shoujo Kakumei Utena (literally ‘Girl Revolution Utena’) has been described as one of the most complicated anime titles ever made. The first major work by the anime auteur Kunihiko Ikuhara (with the exception of the Sailor Moon series he only directed, every one of his works is here), the series revolves (pun intended) around the eponymous character Utena, who, and my struggle to make sense should reveal how strange this series is, enrolls in a school where she must engage in duels to defend a classmate, Himemiya Anthy, from being abused by Duelers as the Rose Bride. Initially proceeding with narrative coherence, the series descends into near-incomprehensible symbolism, involving a Student Council which receives instructions from someone named End of the World, heavy hints of abusive brother-sister incest, and a character turning into a cow. There is a movie adaptation, which is almost a completely different work altogether, and it ends with Utena becoming (literally) a sports car.

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Anthy pulling out the sword from Utena. Usually it’s the other way around.

Utena is a monstrosity of a work, forcing you to retain your disbelief and instead analyze the symbolism the series is literally filled with. In that sense Ikuhara has succeeded in achieving Brechtian verfremdung where Brecht himself had failed spectacularly with Mother Courage. In typical Brechtian style Utena consists of repetitions of tropes (the damsel in distress, the duel of honour, the prince on a white horse) to reveal the metafictive character of the series, but where it diverges (and arguably why it succeeds) is in how it repeats those tropes so often and puts so many of them together to the point of absurdity, such that there isn’t even any room for the lazy bourgeoisie imagination to revel in formulaic familiarity. To that end, then, Utena shows that the future of Brechtian narrative is in Theatre of the Absurd.

But to say Utena is merely a Brechtian title would be too simplistic, because it also heavily demonstrates that Russian Formalist tenet of polyphony: it is so full of symbolism that there are multiple possible interpretations of the series. I am deliberately avoiding a reading of the series here, there is a website, Empty Movement, which compiles critical essays attempting to interpret the title. Essays (properly cited and intellectually elucidated) range from the interpretation of many that it is a critique of the Shoujo genre and of societal standards of femininity in general (this is why it is considered a classic feminist work), to the eye-opening theory that it may be an allegory of Buddhist cosmology and ethics. The constant quoting the famous ‘the egg is the world’ line from Hermann Hesse’s Demian certainly lends to the series a metaphysical bend, but the series is coherent stylistically, not didactically, demonstrating best Barthes’ description of the literary work as a ‘crossroads of meaning.’

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Utena, as mentioned, is coherent stylistically, not meaning-wise: while I said it shows that the best way to accomplish Brechtian verfremdung is Theatre of the Absurd, it also shows that Theatre of the Absurd can also be Symbolic and Baroque. Even if it is hard to understand, Utena is a pleasure to watch because of its stylistic repetitions. The ‘revolution’ in the English translation of title plays on the word’s dual meaning of both ‘radical change and upheaval’ (the literal translation of its original Japanese title, ‘kakumei’) and ‘spinning’ (reinforced by the opening song’s title ‘Rondo Revolution,’ and the constant image of things spinning).  The image of roses is a dominant motif throughout the series, and by spinning roses around and translating the series title to French (‘la fillete revolutionnaire’) in the commercial credit, Ikuhara neatly reinforces the heavy allusion to the Shoujo anime classic Rose of Versailles, itself a critique of female gender roles.

 

 

 

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Bakemonogatari series

I have written about the Bakemonogatari series here before.

Bakemonogatari follows Araragi Koyomi, an ordinary young man (in the beginning of the franchise he is in middle school) who has frequent encounters with the paranormal.

But to simply say Bakemonogatari is magical realist would be too lazy. It has the typical irony and whimsicality typical of that literary genre, but it does not dispel any emotive attempts, and instead proceeds to explore how the sense of the fantastic can still be evoked even after the genre has been exposed to the point of metafiction. In a way the metafictive element of the series disarms the viewer into a false sense of security, then proceeds to playing with silence, extreme close-up shots that obscure the whole scene, and eerie use of shadows to suddenly bring out the paranormal again.

The anime adaptation of Nishio Ishin’s light novel series (this series is anything but light!) is dark minimalist, a title so heavy in dialogue it can only be deliberate. The Bakemonogatari series compels the viewer to piece the story together as it unfolds before you – the narrative is almost non-linear, and is deliberately obscured by the verbal jousting of the characters.

As I’ve said before, Bakemonogatari deals heavily with Nietzchean principles, from the moral ambiguity of the supernatural ‘aberrations’ to Nisemonogatari’s deconstruction of authenticity (and the implications of that in Barthes’ theory of the erotic and jouissance).

 

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Katanagatari

Another work by Nishio Ishin, I have also written here before about Katanagatari. The title is a sword-hunting series involving Yasuri Shichika, heir to the Kyotouryu style of martial arts, and Togame, a strategist working for the Owari Shogunate who hires him to seek out twelve legendary swords.

Katanagatari, as I’ve written before, deals with jouissance (a consistent fascination, it seems, of Nishio Ishin), but unlike in Bakemonogatari the jouissance is treated not in terms of erotica but the way the classic Greek tragedians used it: by obscuring the action, the reader’s fascination for it is heightened. As I’ve also said before, it also uses this denial (the name of a character in the series!) to take the discussion to the existentialist level, ending not with fulfillment but with frustration, thus becoming an allegory of life.

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Shichika, with Hitei-hime, at the anime’s end

As a Nishio Ishin work, the series is heavy in dialogue, although unlike Bakemonogatari it does have some action. Dialogue-heavy stories is not new to the Japanese, just watch any classic Kabuki play (Kanjincho, Kanpei Harakiri, Benten Kozo, just to name a few) and you will find entire stories led by people sitting down talking. In a recent anime (I would have included here if not for there being other titles I could talk about more), Seirei no Moribito, the eighth episode is a masterpiece of narrative that demonstrates how this works in the classic sense.

In Katanagatari however Ishin treats dialogue differently: rather than being the sole driving vehicle of the story, the dialogue in the series revels at the small talk and banter, almost as if Ishin wrote the story to have an excuse to write fanservice and gags. To that end the series is metafictive like Bakemonogatari. But where Katanagatari is stronger is in its gorgeous and deliberately Rinpa-style design, further putting style over realism as its main aim. Katanagatari is much less story as it is spectacle and verbal banter.

 

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Mawaru Penguindrum

The next Ikuhara masterpiece came out quite some time after Utena ended. Like Utena before it, Mawaru Penguindrum is difficult to give a synopsis to: brothers Kanba and Shoma Takakura live with their sickly sister Himari after they were orphaned under mysterious circumstances. Himari dies at the beginning of the series but is brought back to life with the powers of an alien penguin hat which possesses her and, using her body, tells the brother to look for the ‘penguindrum.’ Like Utena, the story gains some plot complexity before it descends into the absurd.

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While Utena was set in a faux-European Roccoco world, Mawaru is very modern Japanese, and likewise deals with issues closer to the postmodern Japanese condition: there are heavy references to the 1995 Sarin Gas Attack in Tokyo,  there are demonstrations of parental abuse, and consistent images of dehumanization and alienation in the post-industrial age (there’s a machine called ‘child broiler,’ where ‘unwanted children’ are ‘disposed’). Like Utena there are also multiple allusions that lead to a polyphony of allegory, heaviest of which are references to Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Intergalactic Railroad and Haruki Murakami’s ‘Superfrog Saves Tokyo.’ Like Utena, it too has spawned a myriad critical essays (here is an excellent one for example)  Mawaru is rich with symbolic possibilities in its absurdity, probably more so than Utena.

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The character I love best in this series was Oginome Ringo, who  seeks to fulfill her ‘destiny’ by following the diary her dead sister Momoka left behind. The diary is written in future tense, laying out Momoka’s dreams (along with seemingly random acts apparently linked to a mysterious conspiracy to which Momoka is at least privy). Ringo and her concept are the inspirations for the eponymous character in my short story ‘Arabella Raut the Eighth’, which came out in Kritika Kultura in 2017.

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Hyougemono

Anime has many Künstlerroman titles – whether it be something as action-packed as Yukihira Soma’s growth as a cook to something as subtle as Yuurakutei Yakumo’s coming-of-age as a rakugoka (more on the latter later). But I only know one work of fiction that serves as a bildungsroman for the connoisseur: Hyougemono.

A fictional account of the rise of Sengoku-era warrior and chado master Furuta Oribe, Hyougemono chronicles Furuta’s struggle to balance his obsession with fine things and his life as a warrior, first under Oda Nobunaga and later under Toyotomi Hideyoshi. His growth as a man of the arts – with the guidance of the rising star Sen no Rikyu – is told against the backdrop of court intrigue within Nobunaga’s ranks, and at the end of the series Furuta is made to choose between being a disciple of Rikyu or being a retainer of Hideyoshi.

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Oribe-yaki is characterized by beautiful green patterns brought about by copper glaze

Furuta, in history the originator of Oribe-yaki, is a very endearing character in Hyougemono, because one actually relates to his artistic growth: the viewer cannot help but joining him in his naivety, and later enlightenment. The series can be seen as a study of the class dynamics of Sengoku Japan, but more interestingly it charts the growth of the individual into the highly developed world of Japanese high culture.

What makes this series most striking is in how it demonstrates that in traditional Japanese culture, the artist and the connoisseur are one and the same thing (such arts as Chado and Kodo, which are more performative than they are productive, give heavy emphasis on the cultivation of the individual practitioner’s taste).

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Hyougemono also serves to demonstrate how much the ideal of wabi-sabi is an expression of the Buddhist dogma of the Middle Way, and how in Furuta’s initial obsession with finery he has, in typical Buddhist paradox, lost sight of himself is in his self consciousness (wabi sabi, in that sense, is also very Zen). Particularly poignant is the scene where Furuta realizes his folly when he hosts a tea ceremony with a primitive theme.

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Perhaps most intriguingly, Hyougemono looks at the role cultural capital played in the treacherous politics of the Sengoku and Azuchi-Momoyama periods (Rikyu’s subtle goading of Hideyoshi with the single flower on the Tokonoma was brilliant), and how politics influenced the development of Chado aesthetics.

 

 

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Yurikuma Arashi

In this list, Ikuhara’s latest work (his shortest to date) is the work I had the hardest time penetrating (this time, any possible puns unintended). Yurikuma Arashi is, if anything, even denser than Utena and Mawaru, because where those two begin with some semblance of plot comprehensibility, it descends into the absurd early on. Yurikuma Arashi follows Kureha, a student in Arashigaoka Academy, living in a world dominated by a large wall called the Wall of Severance. The wall was set up to separate humans from alien bears, who eat humans. The series also follows two of these bears, Ginko and Lulu, who infiltrate the human world and enroll in Arashigaoka. As Ginko befriends Kureha, a mysterious force looms over the characters, the Invisible Storm, and tensions of identity and sexual determination emerge.

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Gingko and Lulu, as bears

Where the lesbian undertones are only implied in Utena and Mawaru, female homoeroticism takes center-stage in Yurikuma (Yuri, literally ‘lily,’ is of course the genre name of lesbian anime). There are almost no male characters, and the main characters frequently engage in sexual behaviour with one another, often to the point of glorious camp (Ikuhara is a master of camp): in one transformation scene, Ginko and Lulu are depicted licking nectar oozing from the petals of a glowing lily emerging from a naked Kureha’s groin.

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I wasn’t joking

Consequently, unlike Utena and Mawaru Yurikuma’s allegory, while denser to penetrate than those two, is nevertheless almost singularly directed at the critique of female gender roles. It is a testament to its intellectual complexity that Anime News Network’s episode reviews of the series (competently written by Gabriella Ekens) serve more to discuss it rather than give feedback to it (it is a must-read when watching the anime).

 

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Show Genroku Rakugo Shinju

One of the best anime titles released in the past decade, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is a romance Künstlerroman based on the manga by Haruko Kumota, dealing with the traditional Japanese performing art of Rakugo.

Showa Genroku follows Yuurakutei Yakumo, the holder of a prestigious name in Rakugo, as he takes on a young ex convict named Kyoji as his apprentice at a time when the art is struggling. Yakumo’s past as Kikuhiko (his first stage name), his initial reluctance to do Rakugo, and the tragic past that led to his assuming the name, are revealed throughout the two-part series.

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The title is as much about Yakumo’s sexuality as it is about Rakugo and its aesthetics (those two are intimately linked). His early repressed sexual attraction to fellow Rakugo disciple Sukeroku, his inability to respond to the erotic advances of the geisha Miyokichi, and the bitterness born of Miyokichi’s affair with Sukeroku all make this at once a cerebral and carnal series.

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Kikuhiko, as Benten Kozo Kikunosuke

But where Kikuhiko dies inside because of his frustrated sexuality, he blossoms artistically as he finds his voice as a rakugoka in depicting the sensual. It is a stroke of artistic genius for Kumota to set Kikuhiko’s artistic (and sexual) awakening at a farcical performance of the Kabuki play Benten Kozo, in which he plays the eponymous character, a famous icon of sexual ambiguity. As a fan more of Kabuki than Rakugo, the series definitely taught me a deeper appreciation of that art form, which I had initially taught was just a form of standup comedy. Rakugo, it turns out, is just as subtle and complex in its standards as Kabuki is, and the case of Kunihiko demonstrates how, just like in Kabuki,  individuality plays a key role in the artist’s inheritance of a repertoire of performances performed for centuries.

 

I consider myself a benign snob, and these titles, remarkably cerebral for a medium often dismissed as ‘children’s entertainment,’ were practically made for me. It would be an understatement to say I recommend these titles to anyone.

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The Real Threat to Press Freedom

Let us talk about Press Freedom with some sobriety.

The Securities and Exchange Commission in the Philippines recently revoked the license of Rappler Holdings to operate as a mass media corporate entity, citing the presence of Omidyar Network and North Base Media among its shareholders as being in violation of Constitutional provisions against foreign ownership of media. In response, Rappler organized a very vocal movement to decry the ‘attack on press freedom.’ A war of words has since ensued between those whose concern is press freedom and those who think the real issue is foreign ownership.

Of course I have publicly associated myself with the latter camp.

But okay, let us talk about Press Freedom.

One of the myths perpetuated by the Philippine press is that of ‘media impartiality,’ the romanticized image of the investigative journalist pursuing the truth for its own sake. ‘Panig sa katotohanan, panig sa bayan,’ as ABS-CBN’s news motto goes.

But this is both an exercise in vanity and a betrayal of naivety, if not duplicity. Truth-telling is a matter of power and interest rather than objective disclosure, Foucault established that for decades now, there is no such thing as an impartial public conveyor of truth. What we choose to tell and to not tell betrays our biases.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact it takes us (rather paradoxically) much closer to the truth – in healthy Fourth Estates like the British Press, media bias is accepted as fact, and there is an even distribution across the political spectrum among the papers in Fleet Street. None of them are pretending to be only wedded to the impartial truth, what is revealing is what a particular paper is saying.

Because journalism ideally is not a science, it is free speech, it is the telling of facts to prove a point – it is discourse, if you want the technical jargon. It is the pursuit not of truth as it is, but of the ideal as it is envisioned, a matter of principles rather than of documentation, an existentialist pursuit of the Platonic ideal if you will.

And that being said, yes, I agree, the Philippines Press is under threat. Or rather, it has long been under threat.

Because the real enemy of a healthy mass media is when the principles that should motivate its speakers play second fiddle – are perhaps even weaponized – by interests.

Interests? There are a multitude of them.

But the most serious is the commercial. Our press is much less about public service and more about ratings. It doesn’t matter if the truth is useless or damaging, if it sells let’s air it. That’s why we get zero coverage on the national press of police kidnappings in Mindanao by the NPA (who cares about Mindanao?), but we get national reports on Kris Aquino’s son slipping in a swimming pool. That is why local press outlets can report a murder or a suicide as just some scandal for the masses to relish on. That is why reporters will ask the bereaved families of fire victims how they are feeling, a howling mother makes good television. Philippine journalism is just another form of entertainment.

There are of course more sinister interests. I suspect Rappler is betraying one, that of political powers using the myth of ‘media impartiality’ to reinforce the image of tyranny on the government they are criticizing (I do not believe Rappler is guilty. Not yet. I believe in the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise. But I strongly suspect they are, and I only want the courts to decide on the matter.) But whether those interests are there or not is subject for much debate, and there is plenty of that already.

The real threat to press freedom is when the press loses sight of how it should use its freedom, that is, the pursuit of principles.

The creatures of the old press must look at themselves in the mirror, be honest with themselves (for we can only really be honest with ourselves), and ask if they are still worth defending.

Our Fourth Estate is metamorphosing, moulting its old pretenses to become a more mature mass media. The monolithic media is showing its cracks, and the resulting fragmentation of the media narrative (right now broadly grouped into the pro-Duterte, the Liberal, and the Left) will be the seeds to a more transparent journalism.

The next necessary step is tolerance, when we learn to recognize our own and one another’s biases and live with them, when we stop accusing those who disagree with us of being paid trolls or blind followers of evil, when we start talking to each other rather than preaching to our own choirs. That is still nowhere in sight, but I believe we will eventually get there.

Because that is what it means to believe in this country.

 

 

 


An open letter to the Philippine Communists on Federalism

You are a bunch of bumbling idiots.

How can you expect the people – anyone – to support you when you can’t even be consistent on a goddamn idea.

That sounds counter-intuitive considering your decades of paroting the ‘US fascist regime’ in rallies and communiques. But the issue of Federalism foregrounds your inconstancy, your opportunism, and your stupidly.

In the early half of Duterte’s presidency, you expressed support for Federalism, even going so far as to promise to co-fund its implementation.

But as soon as your relationship with Duterte turned sour, you began rejecting Federalism too.

It is understandable – expected even – for you to change your mind on the government. But to do the same for an advocacy you only very recently embraced?

You are a cadre of idiots, the lot of you. Federalism was the only chance you had at actually managing to get power. Your pathetic attempt at recreating our own version of the Bolshevik revolution is failing, so we all know your last chance of being relevant is by soft power and recreating what the Left Democratic Front in Kerala, India did. But with your criticism of that, you have lost your right to participate in any Federal democratic exercise.

Duterte was right, you’re terrorists. And you have the hallmarks of terrorists: an ideology muddled beyond coherence by emotions, reducing you to idiots with a proclivity towards violence.


We Who Seek to Settle: Problematizing the Mindanao Settler Identity

(Published in ten installments in Davao Today, by far my most ambitious work of nonfiction yet)

 

The Mindanao Settler: few collective identities are as complicated and yet as poorly introspected upon and discussed. Marginalized in the National narrative while paradoxically also guilty of sociocultural oppression in the land of our birth, the Settler’s condition is at once archetypal of the problematique of the Filipino identity and uniquely positioned in the turbulent discourse of Mindanao.

 

The Narrative of Encroachment: The Mindanao Settler in the Tri-People Arrangement

The very nomenclature of the Mindanao Settler foregrounds underlying tensions. We are defined, in the context of Mindanao’s tri-people paradigm, by otherhood: those from Mindanao who are not Lumad (of the twenty or so indigenous peoples) or Moro (of the thirteen Islamized ethnolinguistic groups). The term ‘Settler’ itself implies foreign arrival – we who have come to settle.

Ideologically, it also connotes peace and order – we who are settled – implying unrest and lawlessness with the alternative Lumad and Moro. For not only are Settlers foreigners in Mindanao, we and our settlements have also always been the agents of encroachment by the colonial Manila State. When Mindanao is called the Land of Promise, the promise is peace and progress and it is made by the State. And the State displays Settlers to reinforce this narrative.

This otherness and agency for dominion goes at the very heart of our identity as Settlers.

A cruder label for the Settler is ‘Christian,’ framing the tri-people paradigm against a religious backdrop. While attempting at positive identity, the term nevertheless proves inaccurate: with the term ‘Christian’ invariably implying ‘Catholic,’ it fails to reveal the complex dynamics of the Spanish-introduced Catholic orthodox with the American-encouraged introduction of the different Protestant faiths. And, particularly in urban Mindanao, there is a growing population of non-Christian Settlers (I, an atheist, included). But the term nevertheless serves to highlight the socio-political role religion has played in defining the Settler identity. The Settler is distinct from the Moro (who, historically speaking, are also Settlers in the word’s purely literal sense) because the settlement that defines us is Bajo de la campana – under the bells of the Christian State.

The Settlers’ presence, it can be argued, serves as the binary other which defines Moro and Lumad identity: with the encroachment of these Christian invaders, not only are Ancestral Domain and the Bangsamoro given a compelling motivation to be asserted, they are foregrounded into positive existence.

The resulting narratives of Tribal and Moro self-determination are all in conflict with the narrative of the Filipino Nation, which has roots in the haphazard colonial bundling of the archipelago’s independent cultures by the Spanish. And in the Mindanao stage, the role of the encroaching Filipino Nation is played by the Settlers.

 

(Read the whole essay in installments along with my other articles on Davao Today, or in full with references on  Academia!)


The Curriculum of Unfairness

(Appeared on Davao Today 12 September 2017)

 

In the Philippines, students are not created equal.

A high school student of the special section gets to use a flush toilet in a tiled and well-maintained bathroom which he shares with his just two hundred fellow honour students.

But a regular high school student has to pee in a cubicle made of rotting wood – sometimes simply an outhouse – that she shares with the six thousand seven hundred other regular and heterogeneous students, flushing with a tabo if she’s lucky to have running water. And she has to pay for using this latrine.

The stratification of the Philippine caste system begins in school. Like breeding livestock, we separate the goats from the sheep, our teachers handpicking a small and exclusive portion of our studentry from a young age and grooming them to aristocracy. The vast majority who weren’t anointed would have been culled if they were pigs, but instead they’re simply neglected.

The select, privileged cadre of students are lavished with resources and opportunities almost entirely denied from the rest of the student body: more and better materials, newer and better furnished classrooms, more competent teachers, more chances for involvement.

My girlfriend Nal, who was moved (demoted, really) in high school from the special section to a heterogeneous section in Koronadal Comprehensive National High School, relates to me the sheer unfairness of the system: while their old, pre-war classroom continued to have holes on its rotting wooden floor, the school administration planned to aircondition the special sections’ tiled, concrete classrooms. (as a silver lining, Nal would later cherish the fact that her dilapidated school building was an historic Gabaldon building).

When I was in elementary at Boys (what people in Kidapawan call the Notre Dame of Kidapawan College long after it had ceased being exclusive), I was not handpicked to write on the school paper, and it was only when the school paper moderator in high school – I was already third year – liked my writing that I got my chance. Now I’m writing for this column, while those who had an early start abandoned writing altogether and are busy microscoping stool samples.

In private schools, it’s a matter of common practice among teachers (one they do often get in trouble with), but in public schools the pyramidal stratification is institutional. There isn’t even any of that Animal Farm pretense at ‘some being more equal than others,’ being a public school student meant you had to fit into the rigid caste system. You knew your place and you stayed there.

And the public school caste system is defined by sections: at the top of the pecking order are the students of the special sections (SpEd, Pilot classes, Sci-Cur, STEM, the elite come by different names). Just below them are the regular sections, students who don’t quite qualify as elite but are still relatively decent. At the very bottom of the hierarchy are the heterogeneous sections, what the previous two orders call the “lower classes”, “the stupid students”, “the bulay-ogs”. The delinquent, dimwitted urchins in elementary who grow up to become rugby or Sukarap boys, Three-Rounder girls or teenage mothers in high school. “A basket of deplorables,” to use the Ivy League graduate Hilary Clinton’s language.

This discrimination is systematic, but more seriously it is cultural.

I had recently served to train student publication advisers of the public elementary and high schools in Kidapawan, and I saw this culture first hand. From DepEd district superintendent to the teacher-facilitators, the whole public education machinery was bent on winning student press conferences. Presscons, if you don’t know, involve around twelve student publication staffers per school: in a school of around seven to ten thousand students, DepEd is focused on investing its energies on developing the skills of these twelve privileged students. With the battlecry of “Kidapawan, always number one,” teachers were enticed to make their thoroughbred, showdog students win presscons so they can go to places like Baguio and Boracay. The rest of the student body hardly mattered.

Kidapawan, always number one: the number twos and number threes and number seventy eights do not matter.

Just the simple recollection of names is visible (and to a student, lasting) sign of favouritism and discrimination. Like a farmer naming her favourite piglets but not bothering to name the rest, teachers in Boys will call their favorites by the first names – sometimes even nicknames! – and the rest of us by our family names (if they remember our family names at all).

And of course, where teachers lead, students will follow, but in their own more horrible way. In KNCHS, Nal shares how the culture of special section elitism worked. When a regular student managed to get high enough grades to get into the privileged classes, she is met with hostility: “she’s not one of us!” Doubly so if this happens when a special section student suffers demotion into the realm of mortals, as the other special students will defend the worthiness of their brethren to remain over this lucky stranger. In high school proms, there are proud traditions maintained for the special section students that do not apply to mere commoners. In all programs the special section students sit up front while the mortals sit at the far back. And of course, all the student council seats, varsity team places, and graduation awards are tacitly reserved for the special sections.

When I was a student in Boys our prejudice was against the non-Notre Dameans (I grew up thinking all schools other than my own were lowly public schools), who when they trespassed their way into our walled world of a campus we called “outsiders.” Young women from Notre Dame would agree to always walk together when passing by a public school, lest the lawless public school kids come to include them in their anarchy, while young men were advised to avoid public school campuses altogether because the gang-boy students there were prone to picking fights with strangers. When a classmate found themselves having to transfer to another school, we pitied them. When a transferee from another school entered our ranks, we expected them to be some miraculous prodigy emerging from the wilderness.

The school is a microcosm of the country, and what an accurate microcosm the Filipino school is: run by teacher-bureaucrats preoccupied with promotions and lakbay-laags, dominated by a subservient, self-entitled elite in a teacher-student padrino system, while the vast majority of us are denied of opportunities.

Inequality is a natural result of a healthy society, the best emerge on top while the inefficient lose out as everything works in Darwinian order. I would be the first to point this out.

But school should not be some Hunger Games where you pit student against student until the most toxic wug kills the rest and emerges victorious. School is where we develop our children, give them the skills and opportunities to grow and be prepared for the challenges of a competitive life.

But our schools are limiting opportunities for a select few, justifying it as “rewarding hard work.” How can you reward hard work when you limit the students’ chances to actually try? Non necesse habent sani medicum.

“Rewarding hard work” is far too often an excuse made by schools to justify their misplaced priorities: abandoning quality education for all by limiting their resources to a select few to increase their chances of getting higher accreditation and quantifying success with Sports Meet wins and NCAE high scorers.

What is happening to our schools isn’t simply inequality, it is unfairness. These pilot class students – these oration contest fodder and varsity players – do not become the elite because they excel on their own merits in a leveled playing field. More often than not they’re privileged because of initial advantages. Many of these students have been teachers’ pets since pre-school, and a substantial bulk of them are the children or relatives of teachers and principals (how my mother often deplores the ugly kagid scars on the legs of majorettes from public high schools during city fiestas. “Anak ng teacher, kaya pinasali,” she would mutter in condescension.) A student with no such connections and who is too shy to display her intellect or skill will stand little chance of getting the opportunities and awards.

And there is even less hope for the defiant student, because of course the pecking order is all about compliance and subservience to teachers. I said something my high school chemistry teacher did not like, and she badmouthed me in all the high school sections until I graduated (thank goodness I did not rely on teachers’ opinions for my success as a student). I stepped out of the line, I was banished from Olympus.

This, incidentally, is how we have killed Filipino criticality. Our political thought is mind-numbingly orthodox because we have taught our kids what to think, complete with mandatory Jose Rizal quote. The little actual criticism our people exhibits is more the result of sourgraping (the salutatorian who was sidestepped from being valedictorian) than of any genuine ideological objections.

Instead of producing well equipped, critically thinking intellectuals, what we get from these privileged cadre of “young leaders” are self entitled snobs who thrive by complying and conforming.

A lifetime of being given the privilege of opportunities allows them to grow up subconsciously thinking that they alone have the society’s agency – “l’etat c’est moi,” as Louis XIV would have put it. When they hear (and quote ad nauseam) that Rizal aphorism of “the children being the future of our nation,” they understand that quote to be referring to them specifically. They are the world, they are the children.

And why shouldn’t they think so? They’ve been handpicked since elementary (kindergarten even!) by titateacher to compete in inter-school orations and quiz bees, participant in Leadership camps and Youth fora, go to Tagaytay or Dumaguete to join NSPCs. In high school they were the chosen few anointed by tita-principal to take the UPCAT so the school gets a high passing rate. They are the student leaders (in Ateneo’s case, the inadvertently elitist label “sui generis,” oh how special they are). The elect of God. The future of the nation.

It is a point of profound irony that this is the background of many progressive-leaning, “pro-poor” student activists that serve as rally fodder (remember that their schools allowed only them to take the UPCAT or groomed only them to get high enough grades for a DOST scholarship).

In college, they encounter the plight of the urban and rural poor and the displaced tribal peoples, see this as part of their natural enlightenment, and understand it to be their God-appointed duty to take up Marxism and call for equality. The rest of us who do not fall within the protectionist, nationalist, socialist mould they envision – well, we’ve always been stupid even back in elementary, we were never in the honors lists! They’ve immersed in poor communities for months, interviewed a few victims of landgrabbing and EJKs, joined in many rallies. Of course they understand inequality better than us.

Self-entitlement is the easy precursor of self righteousness.

While Philippine education is becoming more and more accessible, the pace at which it moves to become more inclusive is still deplorably glacial.

And it just goes to show how utterly blind these elitists are to their own self-righteousness when, in spite of this more chronic problem, they called instead for free higher education (and when Duterte signed it into law, claimed full credit for it). It would be being uncharitable to insinuate that they had been rallying to get tuition fee incentives for their own university education, but one does wonder.

Because far from free higher education, what our country urgently needs more is better and more inclusive basic education. High education should be optional in a society where quality education is given in the primary and secondary levels.

The budget that could have been allocated to the improvement and greater accessibility of our basic education services will instead be eaten up by the free college subsidies.

And for what? Because there are no mechanisms to ensure that state-funded education results in national service, the country is not earning back what it is spending: most graduates work in the private sector, with many even going abroad, so at most we’re just adding taxpayers, something the private schools are already doing. Even among that vocal progressive portion of our privileged student activists, most of them that I know are in well-salaried private jobs, their ‘call for social justice’ reduced to angry tweets and quarrels on Facebook.

We will simply be subsidizing – as we always have – the self-righteousness of the elitists we have created.

I daresay we are not only breeding our next generation of snobs, but also our next generation of graft and corruption perpetrators. I so dare because I have at least one case to cite: in 2014, the student president of Negros Oriental State University (where I was teaching at the time) was expelled for failing to account for almost three hundred thousand pesos worth of funds. I’ve seen the culture of “student leaders” in that state university, and it’s just as described: the president of several clubs who has been valedictorian since elementary and who is running for magna cum laude couldn’t even pronounce “voila” correctly. In this case, the word was that the missing funds were used by the president for a weekend outing with fellow student officials to Siquijor. This is just one case, there are many others out there of our “promising youth” pilfering money for themselves.

September will be National Teachers Month, and like our long-established school culture of unfairness and inequality, of elitism and selectivity, we will celebrate it the way we always do: praising our teachers for doing what they’re paid to do, requiring our students to make surprise greeting cards for their class advisers and even pitch in from their meager allowance for a lunch kumbira that they or their mothers cooked – all while their creaky old classrooms remain riddled with holes in the floors and leaks on the roofs, their bathrooms still no more than urine-stained holes in the ground, their battered old books still grossly not enough.

Not the special section students, of course. Why should they cook when they can always ask for budget from tita-principal for catering.

 


Why Leoncio Deriada Should be National Artist

(Appeared on Davao Today 10 September 2017)

Last week I wrote a review here of Leoncio Deriada’s novel, “People on Claveria Street.” With the nomination process underway, readers will forgive me if I will be a fanboy again this week as I push for the man’s declaration as National Artist for Literature.

To those who don’t know, Leoncio Deriada is a prolific writer of fiction, drama, essays, and poetry, writing in English, Tagalog, Hiligaynon, Kinaray-a, and Cebuano. He has won the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award – the Philippines’ version of the Pulitzer prize – so many times that he has been named a Hall of Famer (and he holds the distinction of winning it in the most number of languages). He is also an influential literary activist, organizing lectures and workshops for the past few decades.

The Order of National Artists is the highest honor the Republic of the Philipines can grant to any artist, a recognition of a lifetime of relevant work promoting the country’s arts and contributing to national consciousness. National Artists are named for music, dance, literature, theater, film, visual arts, and architecture.

And these are the reasons why I think Deriada should long have been named National Artist for Literature.

1. He’s a great writer. The awards should be indication enough that Leoncio Deriada doesn’t just join contests a lot, he wins them a lot. Deriada’s fiction manages to strike that difficult balance between good writing and gravitas of theme (far too often, well-written stories are shallow, while socially relevant ones are boring). Deriada’s plots are clever and original (just read stories like ‘Dam’ and ‘The Hunt’), and his language is easy and accessible but often throws out startlingly fresh phrases (I and my girlfriend Nal love how he describes one character’s crossed eyes as ‘a facial calamity’). But at the same time they deal in an insightful manner with some very serious realities: the urban-rural divide in Mindanao, landgrabbing of tribal ancestral domain, the horrors of the war in the countryside, the dehumanizing impact of modernity.

2. He’s the local writer par excellence. The bulk of Deriada’s fiction is set in Davao, with the rest set in his ancestral home of Panay. One of my first exposures to literature set in a locale familiar to me was his work (I started my college life devouring the Ateneo de Davao’s copy of his short story collection “Week of the Whales”). Deriada represents best the power of literature to elevate the local into the realm of creative imagination: the lingering horrors of war in Guerrero Street, the deep knowledge of life among frontier settlers in Mawab, the clash of classes in Artiaga.

3. He created the literatures of two Philippine languages. Deriada has been nicknamed ‘Father of Western Visayan Literature.’ But as grand as that moniker sounds, it doesn’t fully capture the monumental achievement of this man in Philippine literature. Before Deriada, Akeanon (the language of Aklan) and Kinaray-a (the language of Antique) did not have literary traditions. This was largely because these two languages were treated as inferior to the local lingua franca Hiligaynon – which in turn was considered inferior compared to Tagalog and English. In a span of a few decades, Deriada went about looking for young writers who speak these languages, and mentored them to write in their mother tongues. These young writers have gone on to achieve international recognition (“Kinaray-a is now an international literary language,” as Isagani Cruz put it). No other Filipino writer can claim to have started the tradition of one language, and Deriada single-handedly did it with two. In a country where only English and Tagalog are considered prestigious languages, Deriada managed to convince government agencies to give grants to writers in languages which have long been marginalized twice over.

4. We need a regional writer as National Artist. The Order of National Artists fails ridiculously to represent the diversity of Philippine cultures. The rostrum of National Artists for Literature in particular is the crowning institution of Tagalog Imperialism: of the twelve awarded National Artists since the honour was first granted, only one, Edith Tiempo of Dumaguete, is not from the Tagalog area (although she ultimately comes from Luzon). And all awardees were or are writers in either English or Tagalog. Deriada is uniquely positioned to address this gross cultural injustice, being prolific in the most number of languages among the country’s many literary figures. Seriously, the Order of National Artists needs him amongst its ranks to fully deserve the label ‘national.’

5. A Dabawenyo President deserves a Dabawenyo National Artist. Digong’s election as President threw all your Manila imperialist expectations of what is likely in the Philippine halls of power out of the window. There is no better time to name a regional writer and regional literature advocate to the National rostrum of artists than now. And what better way to fulfill this timeliness but with a writer who hails from the same frontier town as our hillbilly president?

 


Nakapangyayari ang Sambayanan

(Appeared on Davao Today 6 September 2017)

Few Kidapawanons know the official motto of Kidapawan city, much less understand what it means.

‘Nakapangyayari ang sambayanan’ is banderoled on the city’s official seal, just below the escutcheon. The seal, designed by then Tourism Officer Benjamin Mallorca, was adopted by Kidapawan when it became a city in 1998. I have yet to find any official documents pertinent to the motto, but because I cannot find any use of it before 1998 I’m assuming it was also adopted upon cityhood.

The rather lofty Tagalog motto officially translates to ‘the people are sovereign’ (see the first few words of the Constitution’s preamble in Tagalog: ‘Kami, ang nakapangyayaring sambayanang Pilipino…’). It’s a metaphysical statement of nationhood: the word for sovereignty, ‘nakapangyayari,’ is rooted in the word ‘yari,’ ‘composition,’ but the morphology makes it an active state, ‘we who constitute.’ Sovereignty in Tagalog is implied to be active composition, thus making Kidapawan’s motto more literally ‘the people can constitute.’

But ‘nakapangyayari’ has another possible morphological derivation, leading to a more interesting alternative translation to the motto: ‘pangyayari’ also means ‘happening.’

The motto can thus also be translated: ‘The people can make it happen.’

Lovely idealism, you might think, one of those DepEd or DoH mandated themes that far too often are more the stuff of essay-writing contests for public school students that of any actual practice.

Kidapawan, in particular, has often shown that it is not the people but its government – the detached bureaucracy headed by the winning oligarch of the day – which makes things happen. The environment and natural resources are managed by the government. Law and order is the exclusive responsibility of the government. Festivals are organized by the government. The bulk of the education sector is run by the government. We rely, for everything, on the government, and so the government does everything.

But one recent development shows that, when they try, people can and often do make things happen.

This development, quite remarkably, is in another of those hollow principles we so often take for granted: the city’s history.

While Davao celebrated August with the Kadayawan festivities, on the other side of Mt Apo there were two celebrations in my hometown: the annual Timpupo Fruits Festival, and the town’s foundation anniversary.

The fruits festival was muted owing to the meager harvest (Kidapawan’s fruit industry is still picking up from the poor yield of the past decade), but the foundation was specially poignant. Not only was it a celebration of Kidapawan’s seventieth year, it was a celebration made possible by the efforts of its people.

You see, for the past decade or so, Kidapawan’s local government celebrated ‘foundation day’ on February 12. On this date in 1998, Fidel Ramos signed into law Republic Act 8500, declaring the Municipality of Kidapawan into North Cotabato’s first city. Earlier this year, posters from the City government promoting celebrations of the date called the day ‘Kidapawan’s 19th Foundation Anniversary.’

I had heard of negative reactions from Kidapawanons about this years before. Many people (including myself) still remember Kidapawan before it was a city, and so feel that this putting of the town’s foundation on the declarion of cityhood is a form of whitewashing. One friend pointed out that he was born in Kidapawan, and he was already in his thirties, so how could Kidapawan be only nineteen years old?

The more accurate foundation date being advocated is August 18, 1947. On this date Manuel Roxas signed Executive Order No. 82, creating ten different municipalities from existing municipal districts. Among them was Kidapawan, which was then a municipal district of the Cotabato province.

For much of Kidapawan’s history as a city, the only festivities held around that date were Fruit Festivals (which date often changed depending on the caprices of the harvest). During such events there was hardly any mention of the municipality foundation, and if there were no festivities during that month, the date passed unnoticed.

Much of the complaints about the February 12 celebrations were unaired, merely murmured at home among the city’s old timers.

That is until I made a blog post about it. In the post I called for February 12 to be called ‘cityhood day,’ and calling for August 18 to be celebrated as Kidapawan’s real foundation day. I lamented the whitewashing (specially if it was inadvertent), and decried the city’s disregard for its past.

I did not expect the post to go viral, but it did, eliciting rather strong reactions. On social media it was shared and reacted on. There were those who agreed and denounced the LGU for forgetting all those who came before them, but there were also those who called on me and those who agreed with me to move on because the municipality is gone.

But in the end the online sentiment (at least from what I saw) became overwhelmingly one of recognition for August 18. At the very least my post raised awareness about the date, and about its undeniable neglect. Informative posts like mine were easily shared on social media. And this made the neglect of August 18 all the more glaring.

I must have seen right, because by the time this year’s August came nearer, the City Tourism Office proudly declared that preparations for the city’s ‘70th Foundation anniversary’ were underway. The Tourism Office under Mallorca’s successor Joey Recimilla, has been very responsive to public sentiment.

But in this case, at least, the people of Kidapawan made it happen.

The celebrations also showed a strong appreciation for the city’s history – a complete reversal from the apathy I decried.

As early as 2010 (when I was still a student) I had been writing about Kidapawan’s colourful but long ignored local past. In 2010 I published a write-up on the destruction of the Sultan Omar Kiram mansion and the colourful life of its architect. In 2012, I and Vincent Cuzon (who had started being aware of Kidapawan’s history through my work) started the Kidapawan of the Past Facebook page, giving wider public access to old pictures of the town. A bit later I came up with another blog post, one on the obscure World War II martyr Eliseo Dayao Sr.

I received some responses from these efforts, but I never fully appreciated how much impact these efforts were making. I did not know that I and Vince (and later fellow Kidapawan of Past administrators Paul Gumanao and Clyde Vallejo) were slowly creating a demand for more information about Kidapawan’s history.

By the time the August 18 celebrations were held, the City Tourism office opened an exhibit of old pictures of Kidapawan, including portraits of the city’s mayors, of the city landscape in the distant past, and some domestic snippets (like my grandfather’s oathtaking as teniente del barrio of Baranggay Lanao). For the first time ever, historical figures like Siawan Ingkal and Eliseo Dayao was publicly remembered, and Rita Gadi’s poem ‘Kidapawan in my heart’ (which before then was unheard of in Kidapawan) was even displayed prominently.

Again, it was ordinary people who made it happen.

There will be – and in my work promoting more historical awareness there indeed have been – those who will dismiss such efforts as disruptive. I have been accused of ‘twisting history’ simply because I’ve presented versions of it that people are not used to.

But all change will be uncomfortable, specially change that is necessary.

I advocated for August 18, 1947 to be celebrated as Kidapawan’s foundation day, but now I am seeking to further problematize that: Before becoming a municipality, Kidapawan was first a Municipal district during the American colonial period. The question now is when that happened. I have yet to get hold of the law creating the municipal district, but I’ve ascertained it to be somewhere between 1906 (when the Department of Sulu and Mindanao was created, and Kidapawan is not mentioned) and 1917 (when the Cotabato province was created, and Kidapawan is first mentioned as a municipal district).

There will again be change, yes, and many people will again have to adjust. But as the President and his hoarde of devoted minions like chanting, ‘change is coming.’

And I like to believe part of that change will be this empowerment of people to take governance – whether it be something as concrete as the running of a festival or as abstract as local history – into their own hands, to have a country that works bottom-up.

We need to see a smaller government and a bigger society. One where fiestas are organized not by the municipio from the poblacion but, like the neighbourhoods of Gion in Kyoto, by each of the Baranggays altogether. One where local communities play active roles – and even compete with other communities – to keep their public spaces clean and attractive. One where local businesses work together to revitalize the local industries.

Just as locals are used to having the local government do everything, the local governments are used to receiving directive and funding from Imperial Manila. The imminent prospects of a shift to Federalism – essentially breaking apart the top-down unitary state into more localized spheres of administration – will hopefully make change more likely and more lasting.

There are qualms about the shift as it is a fundamental and radical change that is, rather ironically, being imposed on localities from top down. Critics will say that such a top-down introduction will create artifical reform, just another foreign concept introduced to the locals.

But then again, ‘nakapangyayari ang sambayanan’ is a sentence just as foreign to the Kidapawanon as Federalism would be, and yet we have owned its foreignness and, far beyond our own expectations, we are learning to live it. The foreignness of Federalism is the foreignness of self agency to those who are used to having their destinies defined for them.

And it will continue to be foreign if local people do not take an active role for themselves in making it their own. Federalism is a change that must be owned if it is to work.

But if anything, Kidapawan history teaches us to trust the people. With little help from the colonial government the Obo Manobo started the municipal district. With little help from the Commonwealth government the district slowly grew commercially until it had to be declared a municipality. In the 1960s, they were so ambitious that they planned to build an airport, and while that has not yet materialized, nothing is preventing Kidapawan from still realizing that dream. And with little help from Manila, the municipality petitioned (for decades) to be elevated into a city.

Will Federalism happen and work for Kidapawan? Only time will tell. But of one thing I am sure. Its people can definitely make it happen.