Episode 14: “DI: Beware the Left-Eye — POKER FACE”

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Last week, the episode was Pazu’s, and this week, we take a singular glance at Saito. Now, Saito is my favorite Section 9 member (aside from the Major), and this episode is central to that. Admittedly, there isn’t much else. But “Poker Face” is a fun exercise in character, history, and what it is… to be a sniper.

“Visions and memories, where someone once laid flowers for the past and things to come.”

In all seriousness, this really is one of my favorite episodes, and the primary rationale only ever dawned on me recently. But we’ll get there.

Section 9 is back on security detail, for a meeting between Prime Minister Kayabuki, and the American Empire’s Secretary of State Schrader. For a bit of history, which we’ll need going forward, the US’s economy has collapsed, and is here for a security treaty renegotiation. There’s a lot that will be revealed about Japan-US relations, but for now, we understand that the American Empire is swallowing its pride to be represented at the Geihin building in Fukuoka. Even though this is an international matter, pundits believe that Japan should be moving its focus to within its borders, being awash with problems like the refugee situation, and the Article 9 issue. In the Japanese Constitution, Article 9 is the clause that outlaws a standing army, following WWII.

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While the Major and Batou are present as Kayabuki’s muscle, Saito is on break with the rookie and a few members of the police (one of which looks like the dark-haired and tired Togusa from Innocence). The new rookie of course is Azuma, who we’ll see more of later. The Tachikoma are dishing just outside the ‘breakroom,’ which is like a van or something, and continuing the conversation from the news.

Why would Japan bother with these mutual security guarantees? Well, they’d probably like to get back at the US for losing face last century. What do you mean? Blabla World War II, treaties. They mention that the two nations eventually formed a symbiotic relationship, where Japan is the shield and the Empire is the spear. This may just be wishful thinking on the part of Japanese creators, but I really have no idea about where Japan exists on the world stage. Color me ignorant.

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Uh, Togusa?

The Tachikoma’s like ‘ooh sync with me!’ And Azuma’s like jeez, would you shut up already? Not you too, Azuma! They keep talking, about how this poker game the guys are playing is all about probability, but if that’s the case, how come Saito keeps winning? The police guy, let’s call him Suzawa, says it’s just because he’s got a poker face.

“Compared to the real world of life and death, this is just child’s play,” Saito says. Suzawa admits Saito’s a top-flight sniper, but comparing it to the game? He doesn’t buy it. Saito says that there was an experience that left him with the ability to accurately guess what people are thinking with just a glance. He’d stood off against someone who terrified him, changed his life forever.

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The Tachikoma are buzzing. “You want to hear the story?” he asks in his low gravel. Of course the Tachikoma do. Suzawa’s just like, “It’s not like I want to hear this fairy-tale. I just want to play.” He’s a difficult person to sway, when so much is on the line.

Back in the summer of 2020, which was ten years from the first season, Eurasia was mired in a pointless war of attrition. Saito, a Japanese soldier, got fed up with the isolationist policy of his own country, and hired on as a mercenary with Mexican rebels. Is this why we had all that history stuff at the beginning? To follow through here? These two things don’t exactly connect, but maybe the historical context of Saito’s story help us to understand where the US and Japan are now, where they’ve come from.

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The Empire is invading Central America under the cover of stopping the drug trade (what?), but they’re motives aren’t so pure. “Middle Eastern oil and Central American drugs. There’s always conflict where there’s money to be made.” His team, there to keep Mexico’s provisional government in place, was wiped out, so Saito — who had both eyes back then, as Ilaria says — was just waiting around in the ruins of Monterrey to surrender.

But he soon caught wind of a UN Peacekeeping Unit about to pass through, transporting a tactical nuke. They were already using strong-arm tactics like heavy armor divisions (spider-tanks, of course), but this was one too far. So he figures to stay on a little longer — hadn’t racked up that many kills thus far, so might as well. What a sociopath.

We then move across perspectives, jumping to the Special Forces squad, composed of American, British, and Japanese soldiers. The three Japanese soldiers are none other than the Major, Ishikawa, and Batou. In my least favorite part of war stories, the squad is characterized, where soldiers divided by nationality make really banal pot-shots at each other. All is humdrum until Saito shoots one of the American guys — right in the ass! What a psycho.

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The Major takes off her helmet, an obvious move to let that purple hair down, but to the show’s credit, Ishikawa does the same, sans purple. They coordinate, and Batou is impressed. You two are good. Ishikawa chews him out. Damn rookie!

Saito strikes again, and still the soldiers on the ground have no idea where he is. To the east? No, to the west! They panic when Saito uses a decoy gun on the opposite side of the battlefield. The Major’s like alright, alright. Let’s get a handle on this situation. But the American Sergeant is too busy being an idiot. Ishikawa narrows the sniper’s location to three spots. The Major theorizes that they’re up against a single sniper. How could that be?! She explains while slowly stripping her top off.

Soon she confirms the gun was a decoy, and shows the Sarge. Guy’s a pro, she says: only loaded one round. The Sergeant assumes the sniper’s in the church, but the Major says he could be in the hospital. We can’t get this wrong — this guy’s probably versed in guerilla warfare, and if so, we can all kiss our asses good-bye!

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We have this sub-narrative of American leadership being slowly overtaken by Japanese cool-headedness. Naturally, the Major would take charge in this scenario, but to have that divide makes it seem obvious what’s really going on here. Those dumb Americans.

Jeez, what a pain in the ass, Batou says. Ishikawa explains that this woman is what they mean when they say “professional.” Just then, Saito kills ‘Pickles,’ and the Major pinpoints him — the hospital! The Sergeant wants to return to base, but the Major is adamant they can’t leave. They need to take care of this guy.

Saito watches through the scope. It’s odd. They should be panicking, but they’re regrouping. Must have a good commanding officer. He suddenly realizes, in a jolt that shoots up his body, that the showdown was imminent. As he explains to the police guys, the act of sniping itself leaves a calling card. That’s why snipers aren’t taken prisoner, but killed on the spot. So let’s remember that note.

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The Major yells at Batou and Ishikawa to cover her while she and Snow, the last surviving guest character (immediately thereafter killed) storm the hospital under smoke cover. “So what am I, her backup?” Batou laments. Ishikawa assures him that now you’ve earned her trust. Leave it to the Major. The Major? Nobody knows where she came from, but everyone who serves alongside her refers to her as the Major.

As Ishikawa reveres her, the Major gets into position, so we get the ‘show don’t tell,’ and the ‘tell.’ She shoots his jamming gear, and he aims — instantly retracts. Like Batou in Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence – After the Long Good-bye, Saito runs simulations, envisioning the battle. He knows… he’s about to die. From her stance, and her whole not blinking thing, he could tell he was facing off against a cyborg, who doubtless had full installs of firing control software at close, mid, and long ranges.

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He keeps running this simulation, again and again, but it’s the same result each time. She shoots down his first bullet, and with her semi-automatic, is able to pop another round off and kill him before he could reload. This technology is like a literalized version of just thinking through a problem. Having a little video loop in your head, increasingly repeating per paranoia — I’d go crazy with that. Imagine the little kids, replaying potential first dates, and realizing that she’ll just shoot down the first bullet and kill them before they reload. Nobody would date, for fear of mucking it up — it’d be the downfall of our species.

But then Saito notices that his jamming gear had been shot three times. Maybe… just maybe, she doesn’t have the mid-range software, and was using this rifle of hers in a submachine-gun capacity. She must be downloading that software now via satellite! “Get there first!” He pops out, takes the shot. She shoots as well.

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He grazes her cheek, she blows the scope out of his gun and hits him in the eye. Then she’s running, and gives him the chop, and stabs his hand to disarm him as he tries to draw a pistol. She stands over him, says he’s pretty good with that rifle, you son of a bitch. From now on, you’re mine. And Saito gives a classic defeated villain line, he’s like “You… had the software all along!” And he wouldn’t gotten away with it, too.

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Back in the present day, Suzawa says he’s all in, and Saito is too. “You can’t bluff your way out of this one.” He’s unimpressed by Saito’s story, thinks it’s just a ploy for tonight’s showdown. He claims to have heard that story in a movie once (possibly Full Metal Jacket, according to Wikipedia, but my memory of that movie suggests nothing).

“No fooling you. I made the whole thing up,” Saito says, and packs up. Tells Azuma to cash him out. He goes, and Azuma’s like “What an ego. Some role model.” The Tachikoma are sad. How could it all be false? But then one of them checks his cards — he had a straight flush! I’ll be damned.

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The Tachikoma wonders, does this mean his story was true? And there he is, walking off into the chilly night, smoking a cigarette. Pure cool.

You can’t help but speculate as to the immediate time between the Major shooting Saito’s eye out, and how he nestled into life as a Section 9 agent. He never replaced his eye with a bioroid one, opting instead for the Hawkeye implant — it becomes an asset in his sniping, not a hindrance with painful memories. Even still, you’d still wonder if the Major ever worried about some blowback, or if she assumed that since she beat him once, she could just kick his ass again if he ever got out of line. That’s hardly a healthy employer/employee relationship.

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This scenario is in fact somewhat repeated in Arise, where we learn that nearly every one of the Section 9 agents were recruited by the Major forcefully, against their will, usually with a pistol in their faces. She beats up Pazu in an alley, and subdues Saito while he’s like, getting high in his cabin or something. And he tries to defect the second he’s able to.

So with the Major taking Saito prisoner, in that way which never happens to snipers, was there that anger? Based on what we know of Saito’s character in Stand Alone Complex — it seems that his mind was made up in that moment. This is clearly a person to follow to the end of the Earth, and besides, he was only ever a mercenary. He was fighting to fight, and that’s what the Major wants him for. He was on the losing side of a war he wasn’t ideologically involved in, so this was actually a merciful way out.

But this is an odd situation, isn’t it? What we’re talking about here would otherwise be character-assassinating. It certainly isn’t graceful in Arise. And yet, the whole point of the episode is Saito being a pretty baller dude. A veteran, and now the badass guy in the crew with the eyepatch. The silent loner with a visible and particularly hardcore specialty.

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So although this is an episode about Saito, even more explicitly than Pazu’s was about Pazu, it’s also an episode about the Major. Note Ishikawa’s balladeering. The strong female character is a major issue for The Battle Beyond Planet X, and the great hope is that she’s normalized in the eyes of the audience, such that physical female strength isn’t discouraged in greater society.

The Major was found to be an ideal, if not perfect, feminist archetype, in the 1995 film. In 2nd Gig, she pretty much is perfect, one of the coolest and most badass characters in scifi. But part of selling the strong female character is also selling a counterpart, a context for her to exist in. For the Major, that might be Saito.

This episode is expertly handled in this regard, point by point getting everything right toward characterizing Saito as cool — and cool for being dominated by a female force, even going on to follow that person, and never appearing weak or submissive. It’s okay, it doesn’t make you a loser. The strength of the Major is normalized, and the effect of her strength is equally so.

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The eyes. Even while stabbing — dead doll eyes… Pretty creepy

Saito is a soldier, this is all professional. This is the rare part of the already rare strong female character archetype. Where does the male exist in respect to the strong female? He has to exist somewhere, and so Saito will directly interface with the men in the audience, redefining masculinity — turns out manhood is more complex, and accommodating, than those old movies would have it, where the male hero punches or slaps the female lead when she’s getting hysterical.

In the summer of 2020, we’ve come a long way.

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That’s five years away. We’re definitely headed in that direction, but it’s a slow and painful process, one that allows most frequently for despairing. I’ve only ever seen one film by Karyn KusamaJennifer’s Body. I watched it with the sound off while doing something more productive. I never knew about her until very recently. She’s an important filmmaker, but I had to find out by accident.

Thank you, Saito. Thank you for keeping it real. If only your latest incarnation could be so chill.

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