Spoilers for Shelter Music Video
Shelter is a literal anime music video. It’s a collaboration between electronic music producer and DJ Porter Robinson and anime studio A-1 Pictures. As a fan of electronic music myself I found that Shelter, the song, works as great accompaniment to what is a beautiful exhibition of animation. But what really makes Shelter memorable for most people is it’s supposive tear-jerking story. Robinson summarized the video on twitter “’shelter the animation’ tells the story of a girl living alone in a simulation built by her father to save her from the end of the world.”
The premise alone is not very original. It’s quite similar to the 2016 anime film Garakowa which was also produced by A-1 Pictures and used similar bishoujo character designs. Even if there’s no direct influence, the studio’s staff likely had it fresh on their minds. But the premise of a young girl escaping apocalypse via her scientist parents is common enough that Shelter also reminded me of a Japanese game called Firefly Diary. Shelter only represents another bud off of this concept rather than any type of new take.
So aside from the derivative premise, I also take issue with how the story is presented. There’s minimum dialogue since it’s a music video after all. So what’s important is not what the characters say but how their actions and gestures are framed by the camera and convey to us what little backstory exists for what we witness on screen.
Our main character is Rin, a 17 year old girl. However, we don’t learn her name or age from the music video itself. We are introduced to her and her inner monologue as she appears to be drowning but then it is revealed that was actually a dream.
Rin awakes in her bedroom, a type of glass terrarium that emphasizes not only how Rin is like a specimen whose life the audience is observing but also represents how she is confined to her “shelter”. An obvious homage to the metaphor of the caged bird, a metaphor that is tirelessly used by male authors to explain the relationship between female characters and their families. The bird is beautiful yet sorrowful, an untouchable object that the audience is meant to feel sorry for.
We learn that this world “belongs” to Rin and she is its sole inhabitant. This is when the music starts and we watch Rin’s room deteriorate as she miraculously rebuilds a new landscape to explore from her tablet. The imagery is reminiscent of Minecraft or even The Sims. Rin is essentially a goddess that creates and destroys mountains and oceans on whim to keep herself entertained. We don’t see Rin exerting effort to climb or swim the geological feats she creates. Instead she wistfully looks up while perched on top of her structures. She also spends a lot of time wistfully looking up in general, never addressing the camera or audience.
Rin is not an explorer, an athlete, or even an artist as we see that her tablet drawings are simplistic like that of a child’s. Despite her, canonically, approaching adulthood her bishoujo design gives her the appearance of a preteen. A little girl consumed by boredom rather than a young woman doing something worthwhile. After creating breathtaking landscapes it’s implied she just deletes them and then goes back to lounging in bed her big pink bed. It’s as though she is waiting to be acted upon, which is exactly the case. She eventually starts receiving flashbacks to explain how she came to possess her personal world.
During these flashbacks the camera focuses almost entirely on a young elementary school age Rin, full of innocence that must be preserved before it is destroyed. This is her father’s only real motivation that is properly communicated to the audience where we watch an adorable montage of happy bouncing Rin play in sandboxes and color as her father quietly prepares the virtual world for her to live out her life in after earth undergoes an apocalypse, with no regard for young Rin’s feelings or will.
While Rin’s father’s face is shown in several shots, the way his face is obscured to bring our focus onto young Rin and how all of young Rin’s engagements with the camera are presumed to be from his point of view make these flash backs reminiscent of harem anime and other channels of male self-insert where a nondescript male with dark short hair engages with a cute bishoujo in order to provoke moe. This combined with Rin’s tragic tale is reminiscent of the crying games of the 2000s that functioned as cheap emotional catharsis for male otaku to feel moe. Shelter’s simplistic tragedy of Rin’s father sacrificing his life for his daughter is not meant to make us feel sadness for him, as we hardly get to know him. It is only meant to make us focus on Rin’s loss and need to be comforted, thus resulting in Lifetime movie-esq tear jerking and a sensation of moe around the helpless Rin.
Another important aspect to creating an enticing moe character is the encouragement of the purity complex that holds up bishoujo characters as perfect lovers, untainted by reality. In Rin’s world we never see her eat, use the bathroom, experience her period or masturbate, because these actions would humanize her and harm the purity complex that moe characters are built around. And if the reasoning within the story’s universe is: “we don’t Rin doing these things is because she lives in a virtual world and no longer has need for human habits” then there’s no reason for us to watch her change clothes or take a bath either, but we do anyway. The audience can enjoy watching Rin do these activities because they place focus on her body and pure sexuality created for the enjoyment of moe consumers. Thanks to her conveniently dead mother, the only female presence in this work is Rin and there is nothing to distract from her unrealistic moe brand of femininity. Thanks to Rin’s youthful bishoujo design and the presentation of her binary life stages of adorable child straight to attractive teenager, her character is merely an echo of anime lolita fetishism rather than a plausible human being.
As Rin departs from her father and earth she weeps as he proudly smiles at accomplishing his goal. Rin’s father is never shown as emotional, only tech savvy and dedicated to preserving his young daughter creating a cliche binary of the cold logical man the fussy emotional girl. Rin continues to weep for either the loss of her father or for the end of humanity or for her innocent life that ceases as we see her naked body hooked into machinery and a teddy bear placed next to her as a memento of her fleeted youth and original world.
After remembering her past Rin is brought to tears once again realizing she is entirely indebted to her father for her life, and all of her agency in her new world. We then return to see her real body, now older and slumped over crying next that same teddy bear.
Rin’s character is defined by her role as a helpless child who has nothing but gratitude to the male presence in her life. This is a common mistake when men try to write female characters. Rin is what men often think teenage girls should be like rather what actual teenage girls are like.
Her father’s choice committed Rin to a life of feeling unfulfilled, lonely and indebted. For a split second we see a message from Rin’s father on screen where he clarifies that Rin’s mother had died and expresses regret and condolences saying “I want you to forget everything”. But after seeing this message Rin’s monologue returns and claims that remembering has made her stronger and more hopeful. However, the parting image of the video is the corpse-like body of Rin prodded by wires and surrounded by monitors provoking the imagery of Ghost in the Shell or Serial Experiments Lain, works that explore humanity’s connection with technology and identity through superhuman women. Shelter only takes imagery from these works and none of their substance. Rin is most similar to a doll in the final moment of Shelter, there is no moral to her story only the image of a young naked girl crying over her father complex, asking the audience to sympathize with her innocent imprisonment knowing that her primary characteristics are cuteness, rolling around in bed and a need to be comforted.
[This post was originally posted: Oct, 22nd 2016 on the Otaple 1/2 Tumblr]