Gaogaigar vs. Betterman Manga Chapter 1: Go Read It!

Us Gaogaigar fans had long waited for a new sequel, a call that was answered this past year through the Hakai-Oh: Gaogaigar vs. Betterman novel series. In more recent news, Sunrise announced a manga adaptation, and the first chapter has been available online for the past month or so.

Having read through the first novel, this manga seems to be adapting the contents pretty faithfully. This might go without saying, but the key advantage of the manga version is that it’s more visual—a welcome thing given that Gaogaigar as a whole thrives on visual spectacle.  It’s also a lot easier to follow if your Japanese language proficiency isn’t especially strong.

I’m not sure what the schedule is for this manga, but I’m hoping that having it so easily accessible means that Gaogaigar fans will be able to rally around it, and really give it the attention it deserves.

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Beyond Expectations: Planet With

Imagine a long-running anime series that finally hits its climax, and winds down with an incredible conclusion. It seems like the perfect place to end the story, satisfying and complete yet somehow making you feel like you’d like to dive back into that world someday.

Now imagine if this anime received a follow-up. You love this series, but feel trepidation. After all, sequels are notorious for often failing to live up to the original, and you want your memory to remain untainted. Still, you give it a chance…and it’s even better than the first one! How is this possible? While you’re reeling from having your faith rewarded, you find out that, once again, this isn’t the end. Another sequel has been announced! And another. And another. Each time, you worry that something might go wrong, but it never does. Before you know it, hundreds of episodes have passed, and you can’t help but feel that the world is a different place.

Except you realize it’s only been twelve episodes. All of those years you swore had passed you by were contained within three months. That feeling is essentially what it’s like to watch Planet With.

Based on a manga by Mizukami Satoshi (Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer, Spirit Circle), Planet With is rare among anime adaptations because the original author actually specifically created the storyboards for the animated version. While the anime and manga apparently do diverge, there’s a certain level of consistency that can only be achieved through such hands-on involvement. If it wasn’t clear from the opening paragraphs, the value this provides comes across in the final work in spades.

Initially, Planet With feels “unstable.” It’s difficult to establish a foothold as a viewer. What are these bizarre, giant totems flying through the air? Who is this seeming hodgepodge of people declaring that they’re here to defend the Earth? Where did they get their mysterious-looking armors from, and are they science or magic? Who is this kid who’s clearly supposed to be the main character, and why is he living with an overly cheerful maid who translates for an eerie bipedal cat that looks related to Chiyo’s Dad from Azumanga Daioh? Who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy?

The answers come, with time. As the story moves forward, the scope and the stakes expand exponentially, but Planet With never feels emotionless or distant. There’s something very personal about the series, but rather than fighting with the increasingly grandiose scale, those two sides feed off of each other. It’s a work that feels both impossibly large and unfathomably small, as if it took some of the best parts of Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars, Brigadoon, Gurren-Lagann, and (of course) Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer and mixed them all together.

The most pleasant surprise about Planet With is that while it seems to go to the ends of the universe and back both literally and metaphorically, it never stops being an uplifting piece of science fiction. Somehow, it takes even the wackiest possible moments and contextualizes them into gripping scenes that ignite both heart and mind and asks the two to harmonize. From beginning to end, it can practically feel like a lifetime, and I mean that in the best way possible.


The Big O and Loving Robots

Warning: Spoilers for The Big O.

Artificial intelligence is one of those staples of science fiction, a bridge between the mechanical and the biological. For if an AI can achieve true sentience, it entails a whole host of questions about the meaning of life. In anime, one recurring topic is how artificial intelligence intersects with love—whether AIs are capable of love, and whether it is morally right to love an AI.

While something like Chobits is more (in)famous in its approach to the subject of love and AI, my favorite example is actually the mecha anime The Big O. While not the central narrative, protagonist Roger Smith’s relationship with his robot assistant R. Dorothy Wayneright is an ongoing plot thread that grounds an otherwise stylishly obtuse series.

Throughout The Big O, Roger is often verbally dismissive of Dorothy, bringing up her android qualities as evidence of what makes her unable to compare to humans. However, this is portrayed as a kind of denial defense mechanism, as he gradually finds himself attracted to and more in love with Dorothy. The impression is that Roger believes he’s not supposed to love her, and that perhaps he’s only drawn by her created and manufactured traits. Yet Dorothy, despite exhibiting very “robotic” mannerisms, seems to have an all too human side of her. And while her characteristic monotone is a source of comedy, it also seems to be a defense mechanism of her own—a constant reminder for herself and Roger that there are supposedly limits to how close they can be.

In one episode, Roger and Dorothy are Christmas shopping, and Roger steps into an elevator. He beckons Dorothy to get in as well, and she initially hesitates. When she finally does join Roger, the elevator comes to an emergency stop. Dorothy, weighing many times more than any human, put it over the weight limit. A moment of awkwardness ensues between the two, at least visibly on Roger’s side. Whether or not Dorothy is bothered by it is difficult to discern due to her apparent nature. Still, Roger and Dorothy seem to share a special connection. Nothing says more about their relationship than the iconic shot of Dorothy inside the Big O, her hand over Roger’s as he readies for a fight against three enemy Megadeuses at the end of Season 1.

Underlying all of this is the notion that love comes part and parcel with sentience. If Dorothy is nothing more then an android whose artificial intelligence is nothing more than a highly advanced computer, then that love feels “wrong” for Roger. But if it speaks toward a complexity beyond prediction, then Dorothy is an equal to Roger and therefore just as capable of love and being loved. In that situation, she must possess agency, and cannot be an object merely to be used. She must be her own being to the point that she can love or not love, and then make decisions of her own as to whether or not to follow along. In other words, it is morally right to love an AI if they can truly reciprocate, if human and robot stand on even footing.

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’re interested in submitting topics for the blog, or just like my writing and want to support Ogiue Maniax, check out my Patreon.

Otakon 2018 Interview: Kawamori Shoji

This interview was conducted at Otakon 2018 in Washington, DC.

In your anime, you often visit the theme of love as power, or the power of love, even in your mecha and science fiction settings such as Macross, Escaflowne, and Aquarion. What draws you to this subject?

I always wanted to be original, and not like others. In previous science fiction anime, having love in the main theme was unheard of. You’d have love among the sub-characters, but not with the principle ones. So it’s something I always wanted to incorporate.

My next question is about Macross 7. I find the characters of Basara and Sivil have a unique relationship or a special connection. How would you describe their relationship in the story?

If you look at the character of Nekki Basara himself, he is unique in all of the Macross series. I thought it would not be fitting for him to be engaged in just a normal love affair, and he should have something that transcends love—like a resonance or clash of souls. The director of Macross 7, Amino Tetsurou, is someone who values the idea of passion, over any sort of details. It would just be a story of souls clashing.

I noticed in your credits that you worked on Toushou Daimos as a mechanical designer. Did you have an opportunity to work with Director Nagahama directly, and if so, do you have any memories of him?

I didn’t have much opportunity to speak to Director Nagahama on Daimos. Of course, I met him, but most of the interaction was through reading and looking at the storyboards that he draw. I did the designs through that. I really got to talk to him more on Ulysses 31. He was quite the gentleman, and he had a real passion for incorporating and valuing drama in his stories.

You’ve designed many mecha for decades—for toy lines, for kids, for adults, and even for video games. What changes in your design process and thought process according to the type of project?

This is something I value so much that I would take an hour or two to talk about it in detail. I look at the worldview of the work, the setting, and the target audience—for example, if it’s a toy, what would be the age range? Those are all the important considerations: market, target, theme, and the worldview. Those are the principle elements that go into the design, and after I have that down, the rest comes more easily.

To pick a specific example, I really enjoy your designs in Eureka Seven. What particular concerns did you take into account for that project?

When I first received the order for Eureka Seven mecha design, the initial order was to have a transforming mecha from automobile form to humanoid. But since that was something I’ve done so many times, I didn’t think I could do anything new.

I held the world-building meeting with Director Kyoda and the principle writer, Sato Dai, and they told me that in the Eureka Seven world, they’re in a world saturated by trapar particles that allow ships to float, and that’s how travel is done. And I thought, if these particles allow large ships to float, I can easily envision them as waves, so you can have mecha that use the waves to float. Director Kyoda liked the idea, and once the concept of surfing was in, the actual design was easy.

While you’re better known for your accomplishments in science fiction and mecha, you also worked on a show called Anyamaru Tantei Kiruminzoo. It’s quite outside of your usual genres or wheelhouse. How did you come around to being on this project?

For me, since I’m known as a mecha designer, most clients tend to bring me that kind of work. But I always want to try out something new, and communication with animals is something I’ve always been interested in. So, in Anyamaru Tantei Kiruminzoo, we have a girl who would transform and communicate with animals. But in normal magical girl series, when you have a girl transform into a magical girl, she would become invincible. I didn’t want that. I wanted someone who would be more different from a human with human abilities. So I pitched the idea and fortunately, that’s how we got the show.

This is my last question. Traditionally, it hasn’t been common for non-Japanese artists to work on anime aside from the outsourcing done in South Korea, but Satelight has hired artists such as Thomas Romain and Stanislas Brunet. How did Satelight bring them aboard, and what is it like working with foreign artists?

That goes back to me and Macross with the concept of “deculture.” I’m very fond of the differences in cultures, because we all grew up in different backgrounds. We might be fond of the same things, but we might have different ideas and concepts about those same things. That’s great inspiration for myself, and it’s very enjoyable working with foreign artists at Satelight.

Satelight’s parent company is an IT company. As such, it’s always had a corporate culture that’s open to working with foreign employees. So, our current president, Sato Michiaki, never had any issues employing non-Japanese artists.

Thank you!

Gattai Girls 9: Darling in the Franxx and Zero Two

Introduction: “Gattai Girls” is a series of posts dedicated to looking at giant robot anime featuring prominent female characters due to their relative rarity within that genre.

Here, “prominent” is primarily defined by two traits. First, the female character has to be either a main character (as opposed to a sidekick or support character), or she has to be in a role which distinguishes her. Second, the female character has to actually pilot a giant robot, preferrably the main giant robot of the series she’s in.

For example, Aim for the Top! would qualify because of Noriko (main character, pilots the most important mecha of her show), while Vision of Escaflowne would not, because Hitomi does not engage in any combat despite being a main character, nor would Full Metal Panic! because the most prominent robot pilot, Melissa Mao, is not prominent enough.

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Darling in the Franxx is a mysteriously divisive anime, ripe for viewers of all stripes to interpret according to their personal values. Given a series whose messages appear to change depending on who you ask, it’s perhaps not so surprising that the main heroine of Darling in the Franxx, Zero Two, is just as much a whirlwind of contradictions.

Darling in the Franxx is a high-key sexually charged anime. If the doggy-style male-female combination cockpits weren’t enough, the series actively draws attention to the fact that the anime’s teen heroes live in a bizarre dystopia where their sexual energies are channeled into piloting giant mecha called Franxx. Covering subjects like love, sex, and marriage through both overt and relatively subtle metaphors, the anime is loved and hated in seemingly equal amounts on ways that contradict one another.

In Darling in the Franxx, Zero Two is the pilot of the robot Strelitzia. Far and away the most powerful weapon in humanity’s fight against the monstrous Klaxosaurs, Strelitzia would be their most reliable advantage if it didn’t come at a price: Any man who pilots with Zero Two inevitably ends up critically injured or dead. The protagonist, Hiro, ends up being the only guy who can survive Zero Two, and their combination becomes the key to turning the tide of battle. However, their connection ends up going back much further than either realize.

Is Zero Two an inspiring firebrand who lives by her own rules, or is she a fetishized sex object whose mere presence fulfills men’s fantasies? Is she an ideal girlfriend or a femme fatale? The answer is “yes.” She’s all these things and more, despite Zero Two being a difficult character to project one’s assumptions onto. She doesn’t have the appearance of an emotionless doll like an Ayanami Rei (Evangelion) or the “dishonest,” tsundere-esque feelings of a Souryuu/Shikinami Asuka Langley (Evangelion). She’s not an Asuna (Sword Art Online) either, who’s kindness and strength make her practically “good wife, wise mother” personified.

Zero Two is rebellious towards rules and authority, loyal to those she loves, and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve her goals. She can’t be pegged down or held back, and the only times she’s willing to show weakness are around people whom she truly trusts. She’s more than willing to take matters into her own hands, and has even rescued Hiro from being taken over by the enemy. Zero Two herself has never been damseled herself, and the only time Hiro had to reach out to bring her back was more in the metaphorical sense—diving deep into her mind and their shared past to keep Zero Two from going berserk.

Strelitzia itself is a fascinating piece of the puzzle that is Zero Two. The main mecha of Darling in the Franxx are feminine-looking, which goes against the tradition of primarily masculine designs. Those with a more feminine appearance tend to have attacks that draw attention to their “womanly” aesthetic as well, like how Aphrodite A in Mazinger Z shoots “Breast Missiles.” The Franxx are, aside from cute faces and a general feminine silhouette, not as overtly sexual on the outside. That being said, the workings of the cockpit mentioned above make it impossible to ignore sexual connotations, especially because the female pilots “become” their Franxx. Like the others, Zero Two’s facial expressions become Strelitzia’s, and when she talks to Hiro in fights, her display shows that robotic appearance instead of her own. Eventually, this integration of girl and machine gets taken further, driving home the theme of love in a way that both reinforces and defies the conventional cockpit setup.

Zero Two is strong and weak, cruel and compassionate, loving and spiteful. She’s a complete character in a certain sense, and a caricature in another. She is as much of what you want of her as you want, which means that on some level, she reflects the desires and/or anxieties of the viewer and their relationship with the world.

Darling in the Franxx: Thoughts on a Divisive Anime

WARNING: Spoilers for Darling in the Franxx, Gurren-Lagann, Evangelion, and Daitarn 3 (yes, you read that right)

When I first wrote about Darling in the Franxx and its sexual dystopia, the series had just presented some major revelations, among them how Hiro and Zero Two first met, and the true identity of the Klaxosaurs. Seven concluding episodes later, it turns out those “bombshells” were only the tip of the iceberg.

But this show has been full of surprises, and fan reactions to all of these twists and turns has been just as fascinating to follow as the show itself. Darling in the Franxx is, in a word, divisive—perhaps more than any other anime I’ve seen in a long time. I believe the reason for this boils down to one thing: the show attracted a wider range of fan types than most anything else, and the conflicting takes are a product of these differences. My own take is tha the series only got better as it went along, but I’m well aware that many do not share my view to the extent that it seems as if we were all watching different anime. When I give my opinion and analysis of Darling in the Franxx, it’s with this caveat in mind.

Eye of the Beholder

Let’s get into some of the major reveals in the last quarter of the series.

  • Magma energy is revealed to be the energy source that has allowed humanity to achieve immortality.
  • The Klaxosaurs don’t consider humans their true enemy, because the actual problem is a non-corporeal alien race of conquerors called the VIRM, who all but destroyed Klaxosaur civilization both directly and indirectly thousands of years ago.
  • “Papa” is actually one of the VIRM. They infiltrated the human race and purposely pointed them towards magma energy as a way to weaken the Klaxosaurs. This is because the planet’s magma is actually made up of Klaxosaurs who purposely sacrificed themselves to become an energy source for the monster-form Klaxosaurs to fight off the VIRM.
  • The VIRM basically takes the minds of all of the adults because their goal is to integrate all species in the universe within themselves. This leaves only the non-adults (namely the Franxx pilots!) left to fight. The remaining humans join forces with the Klaxosaurs and go into space to fight the VIRM.
  • Ultimately, through the power of love and friendship, Hiro and Zero Two manage to truly become one (more on that later) and defeat the VIRM. Humanity has to rebuild without the use of magma energy, fully aware of the price they paid for draining the planet of such an important resource, and out of respect for the Klaxosaurs.

That’s quite a lot for a series where the initial main debate was “which girl is better, Zero Two or Ichigo?”, and for every fan who fell in love with the show from episode 1 only to be disappointed by where it went by episode 24, there seems to be another fan who thinks the opposite. Moreover, unlike series such as Dragon Ball Z, where the things that fans love about it are the very same things the haters scoff at, no one can actually seem to agree what Darling in the Franxx is about or what it’s saying, let alone which parts are good or bad.

The anime appears to have drawn in a larger variety of anime fans to it than is typical, combining a multitude of genre signals (mecha, science fiction, romance, love triangle) with provocative, often sexual imagery. As a result, the disparate values (both in terms of personal values and ideas as to what makes a show good) of the viewers meant that people came to the show with wildly different expectations from one another. In this environment, I’m not certain I can change anyone’s minds, but I can at least put my thoughts out there.

Defying and Affirming Conventional Humanity Through Romance

Take the subject of my previous post: whether or not the anime reinforced heteronormative values, extending to the rule of man and woman as father and mother. While Darling in the Franxx indeed ends with multiple characters having children in heterosexual relationships, it’s still notable that the main couple of the story cannot have children together. The ultimate expression of their union and happiness instead involves Zero Two becoming a literal giant robot version of herself, in a cross between a wedding dress and Mechagodzilla, while Hiro pilots her from within, carrying connotations of both penis and womb but also referencing the series’s own world. Hiro, in a way, acts like the magma energy that powers the Klaxosaurs, moving away from “conventional humanity” in order to be with the one he loves.

On a less dramatic scale, Ikuno (the only lesbian in the series) ultimately does not have children, but instead devotes her life to science and medicine. Without having any offspring of her own, she makes for herself a position that can help ensure humanity’s future. Hiro, Zero Two, and Ikuno all found ways to help humanity without having to be directly involved in pregnancy. And while not entirely clear, it might just be the case that Ikuno found someone who reciprocated her feelings as well. So I can’t see Darling in the Franxx as being all gung-ho about baby-making at the expense of other people’s life choices, though those more sensitive to the topic might see the degree to which the core cast decides to have children to be the stronger message.

Through the Lens of a Long-Time Mecha Fan

Another criticism of this series is that it’s shallow, schlock entertainment more interested in M. Night Shyamalan-esque swerves than any actual substance. What exactly this has meant in the context of Darling in the Franxx has changed over the course of the series, but one of the big sticking points is the VIRM reveal. Online discussion revolved around whether this was an unnecessary twist that betrayed the feel and purpose of the series, or if the show had cleverly set it up all along, and that it made perfect sense for Darling in the Franxx. I personally lean towards the latter, but I think this comes partly from being a long-time fan of the mecha.

Long before Gurren-Lagann took “go big or go home” to the most lovingly ridiculous degrees, sudden shifts to space or to larger-scale stakes were part and parcel of an anime genre founded in kids’ entertainment. The series Daitarn 3 (1978) literally goes immediately from Earth to space for the first time (barring flashbacks) in the final episode. In time, more creative and ambitious shows tried to incorporate that dramatic build-up more effectively, and I see the heavy emphasis on personal relationships and sexual tension of early Darling in the Franxx as an effective low-key cornerstone that sets up the eventual ramp-up in the long-term. Even the rapid pace of the last few episodes bothered me little for similar reasons, but fans who did not come into anime on shows that preferred such abrupt shifts could very well see it as clunky, headless-chicken writing. I understand, yet I still feel the progression to be appropriate and maybe even nostalgic.

Final Thoughts on the VIRM, and the Ending

It’s not uncommon to see Darling in the Franxx compared to either Evangelion or Gurren-Lagann for aesthetic and thematic reasons, but there’s another factor all three shows share: the idea that they in some way or form betrayed their audiences. Evangelion is probably the most famous example of an unexpected ending, with its compete stylistic departure and its abstract, introspection-heavy final episodes. Famously, the staff of Evangelion actually received death threats for it. Gurren-Lagann pulled the brakes on its do-anything, push-the-envelope mentality for its conclusion, which stung fans who watched it precisely to revel in that feeling of “doing the impossible.” Darling in the Franxx is capable of “betraying” large swathes of its diverse viewership, but I do not think the series actually crumbles when looked at with greater scrutiny.

While the opinion that the VIRM twist comes “out of nowhere” isn’t shared by all—some even accurately predicted the show’s move into space—I think an essential difference between detractors and supporters of the final episodes is that the finale comes with a tonal shift from being an anime that was focused heavily, at least on the surface, on the personal, intimate, and erotic. If that’s what you came to the show for, then it might feel like the two pieces don’t connect.

As mentioned previously, however, I don’t mind this change one bit. The reason? Because Darling in the Franxx has emphasized that something is terribly wrong with its world all along, and not just in terms of the Klaxosaur attacks. Whether it’s meeting other Franxx pilots and realizing how emotionally stunted they are, to the adult/child divide, to the sheer sterility of their cities, something has felt amiss from the start. Perhaps the VIRM being “the real enemy” can feel contrived, but taking a wide view of the series means seeing the depiction of a false Utopia that humankind bought into and that the children had to eventually make up for. Not enough people questioned the gradual consolidation of power around Papa and his organization, APE, or the exact nature of magma energy. Theirs was a society of ignorance, and it led to children like Hiro being punished for trying to fight that ignorance.

Even though Hiro and Zero Two manage to deal a crippling blow to the VIRM, the real challenge is trying to survive as a species without any magic bullets like magma energy. The libidinous energy that was once literally redirected into warfare goes to expressing love, whether that’s through making children, helping children, or just creating happiness. While personal perspective plays a significant role in how one interprets the series’s message, is it strange to see the main cast, poised to change the world since the first episode, end up doing so?

The Important Lesson Nadesico Teaches Us About Entertainment

Current discussion of entertainment media is filled with questions as to what messages, intentional or otherwise, are conveyed to audiences. Does a work promote racism or sexism through its characters actions? Does a series portray as heroic characters whose values are misanthropic? In this time, one work to look back on is the science fiction anime Martian Successor Nadesico, which highlights the idea that creative works are ultimately subject to personal interpretation, but that those subjective outlooks can have real consequences.

In Nadesico, many of the characters are fans of an old giant robot anime called Gekigangar 3. Cut from the same mold as 70s-era anime such as Getter Robo and Voltes V, it’s a simple story about heroes of Earth defending against alien invaders through the power of friendship and passion. At first, this series within a series acts mainly as a fun retro contrast to the setting and aesthetics of Nadesico itself. This all changes, however, when it’s revealed that the enemy forces are also fans of Gekigangar 3. In fact, they’re not just fans—they’ve based their entire civilization on Gekigangar.

Jovian men dress like the male heroes of Gekigangar 3. The women pattern themselves after the sole female character, Nanako. Even the robots they use to fight the Earth forces are made to look like the titular Gekiganger III. This mutual love of the same series between the space battleship Nadesico’s crew and the Jovians opens up the opportunity for peace. After all, Gekigangar 3 is all about friendship and passion, right?

One character, Jovian Vice-Admiral Kusakabe Haruki, does not see it that way, and he acts as the main antagonist at the finale of the TV series. When asked how he could defy the principles of Gekigangar, Kusakabe argues that his actions are completely in accordance with the show that forms the basis of Jovian society because Gekigangar 3 is about victory for the righteous against evil.

The same action scenes that the main crew of the Nadesico viewed as the bridge to peace also acts as the pretense for war and violence. While it’s possible to argue that Kusakabe’s interpretation was misguided and a too-narrow reading of Gekigangar 3, the reality is that it fuels his actions, and that even if the work had the best of intentions, the work does not exist in a vacuum and is subject to both social and personal perspectives.

The final joke about Gekigangar 3 is that the ending is pretty bad and hokey. Negating the noble sacrifice of one of the characters, Joe (whose design and narrative purpose is a mix of Hayato and Musashi from Getter Robo) conveniently comes back from the dead for a last-second save reminiscent of the finale of Mazinger Z when Great Mazinger shows up. The main hero of Nadesico, Tenkawa Akito, talks about how he held off on watching the last episode of Gekigangar 3 for a long time, only to find out that it’s nothing special. In a way, everyone who worshipped Gekigangar 3 put it on a pedestal that far exceeded its actual content, but at the same time the way it inspired people to strive for their best and to live with passion in their hearts is seen as a net-positive. “Remember this anime at its best” is the takeaway for the crew, but it requires an already-held belief of wanting to take a positive and humanity-affirming spin on any media consumed, which won’t always be the case for everyone.

Even works with the best of intentions, like Fight Club, are infamous for being misread. Entertainment meant to portray something in a negative light might accidentally be seen in pop culture as supporting those ideas. So for those shows and films like Gekigangar 3 that aren’t necessarily meant to be deep or extremely thoughtful, the opportunity for both loving and hateful interpretations is even greater. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of those watching to give their takes on a work, even if it’s not 100% intended by the original creators, so that a work’s interactions with the cultural and social symbols that live and grow among us can be discussed and debated upon.