In contemporary fiction, there are a lot of stories writing across the veil of morality, abruptly removed with the fall of the World Trade Center on September 11th 2001. In the recent films of Ken Loach or Mike Binder, or the recent novels of Don Delillo or Paul Auster, the shift is quite obvious in the sense we call them post-9/11 works. In other parts of the globe, wherein Thailand is the case I’ll mention below, the recent catastrophe enters the domain of pre-existing disasters—modernization and development, postmodern decadence, the regional transfusion of Japanese culture, and the overall shift from a lexical language to a visual one—from vocabulary to sensation. Chartvut Bunyarak’s “The Final Tale of a Kamen Rider” (2004) (ตำนานสุดท้าย ไอ้มดแดง โดย ชาติวุฒิ บุณยรักษ์), a superhero parody amid a central political assassination plot, does a fine job at bringing all these dimensions together.
First of all, the author of “The Final Tale” plays on the reader’s familiarity with a popular Japanese movie-turned-series called Kamen (meaning “masked) Rider, dubbed and imported into Thailand during the 1990s. Kamen Rider’s mask looks like a Red Ant, which is the name he goes by in Thailand. I should point out that among the Kamen Rider clique (different versions and innovations moving from V-1 to V-9), the hero of this story is parodied as Yamaha Honda Civic Hikaru (who transforms into Red Ant V-7, from the everyday alias of “Hikaru”). The story, divided into 5 or 6 scenes (depending on how you want to count a repeated scene). In the first scene, our narrator, a Thai man named Chuan, is watching the television reports about a suicide bomber who detonated himself in a Thai parliamentary session, leaving only “Chalim Bamrungluk” alive (which we know to be a pseudonym for Chalerm Yoobamrung). Having caught a glimpse of the perpetrator, Chalim describes the appearance of the Red Ant. Chuan applauds the event, leaving the reader dumbstruck at the subjective moral position.
In the second scene, Chuan reveals to the reader that he is not “behind the plot” as s/he might think, but somehow connected. He speaks of a Kamen Rider action figure against the water filter of his fish tank, purchased from the Saphan Phut Night market years ago. Chuan continues, “he is a hero I esteem”, the action figure being a 1:8 scale of the real thing, and alludes to finishing off the remaining parliamentary member (i.e. Chalim).
Here in the third scene, Chuan flashes back (a few weeks previous) to the beginning of the story that will explain his relationship with Kamen Rider, which will then explain the mysterious suicide bombing of Thai parliament. On that night, Chuan had returned from the funeral of a friends father, observes his friend’s sadness and visible depression, and sets of on the roof of his apartment building to contemplate it amid a few cigarettes. His friend’s father, a noble policeman, had been murdered by a criminal gang he’d been investigating-see this link for the relationship between this representation and Chalerm Yoobamrung. Why does life feed injustice to good people, and why is death irrational, he contemplates. He then asks all the questions you get in from the Stranglers song “No More Heroes” and cites a film quotation (from My Best Friend’s Wedding). From above, Chuan sees a mysterious body down below, in an overgrown abandoned lot somewhere in the middle of Bangkok. He goes down to inspect it, recognizes the docile but living corpse as the Kamen Rider, and takes him back to his apartment to nurse it back to recovery—feeling a citizen’s obligation to a “people’s hero.” Arriving back home, Chuan dreams of his own metamorphosis (Red Ant V-7 morphs between a normal man and the superhero shell of a red ant, a metamorphosis triggered by danger).
In the fourth scene, the next morning, Chuan engages the Red Ant’s human alias “Hikaru” in a conversation, expresses his status as a long time fan of the Kamen Riders, and learns some rather disabling tales leading to the previous night’s discovery. Kamen Rider’s armor protected him from danger and all manner of ‘external’ threats, but could not protect him and all Japanese Superheroes from a more pervasive ‘internal’ decadence. The Japanese had exchanged heroes for “boy bands”, traditional culture for American pop culture, and embraced every manner of superficiality. Without the need for superheroes, the Kamen Rider clique disbanded and sought refuge in isolation and, ultimately, alchoholism. At the end of his rope, Hikaru refers to the previous night, he attempted his own suicide only to be protected against his will by involuntarily triggering his body armor. The scene is reminiscent of a motorcycle taxi driver’s death by falling motor cycle helmets in Wisit Sasanatieng’s Citizen Dog (2005).
Three days later, in the fifth scene, Chuan and his houseguest Hikaru set out to drink beers at a neighborhood bar, which will be the setting for Hikaru’s twenty year backstory—the story within a story, I believe, is Chartvut’s carefully constructed critique of capitalism. Hikaru begins with the Western invasion of the East, which we know as first wars, second pop stars. He continues that words like “morality” and “ethics” have been “removed from the dictionary” of language (which frankly is a bit didactic since he uses the same sentence in the story in the same collection called “A Person Without Roots”, but maybe that’s his point—that the world is increasingly based in mechanical repetition). He compares bad politicians to the vampires of capitalism (reminding me of Prabda Yoon’s analogy of capitalism between Dracula and a jawbreaker campaign in the short story “Probabilities”). Long story short, after loosing the attention span of the Japanese public (and alluding to the popularity of the series in Thailand during the 1990s), Hikaru set out to start a farm in Northeastern Thailand, based on the recommendations of his travel agent. He meets a girl to settle down with, but she abandons him for Bangkok. He follows her only to find a different person, turned to prostitution and an abrupt death (i.e. Somsri 1992). All of these things, as in other stories harking Albert Camus Sisyphus, have brought Hikaru to choose suicide as the only exit available, but Chuan whisper’s an idea into Hikaru’s head which seems to meet the latter’s approval. This brings us back to the present tense of the story.
In the sixth and final scene, we arrive back to the first scene, in Chuan’s room, in front of the television set, watching the same scene but this time with the context of Hikaru’s twenty year backstory and Chartvut Bunyarak’s critique of capitalism weaved into the televised image. It comes to light what Chuan has whispered into Hikaru’s ear in the previous scene, which is to end his life (and evade the obstacles of his armor) by detonating the suicide bomb in a Thai session of parliament. The perpetrator is no longer an anonymous global subject, the audience is located within a set of particular ideologies, each responding differently to the image projected on the television screen. The story ends as Chuan looks into his own closet, grabs some bomb materials, and sets out in pursuit of Chalim.
Chuan, ironically, has heard Hikaru’s backstory only to become what the Kamen Rider set out to combat (the terrorist organization of world domination known as Shocker). The alcoholism motif is about moderating the shocks of global shifts (western influences and so on). Hikaru’s trip to Thailand based on the illusions of his Japanese travel agent is itself highly problematic. Actually, everything is problematic here, but that brings us back to the fragmented ‘particle’ writing of the post-9/11 work within which I think this story can be placed. I have little room left for this story, but let me end with two places to find similar analogies. First, the paintings of Jirapat Tatsanasomboon that set Ramakien characters against the growing popularity of Western superheroes, cast and re-cast through Hollywood movies, brilliantly portraying the role of the audience in embracing the work; second, there is a scene in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Objects at Noon (2000) where school children try to improvise a story about an imaginary character, but can only do so with the use of Japanese Manga motifs which illustrate the extent of the world of representation into the domain of the world of imagination. Accessibility becomes intelligibility. Though I’m still not prepared to evaluate his story, I think that Chartvut Bunyarak is operating somewhere in this geography.