Monday, March 11, 2013
I've been woefully neglectful of Anime over the past few years, having watched just a few isolated movies here and there. The time commitment for series, especially long series, tended to make me shy away from Anime for a while. However, I've been watching more television series lately, and when I heard Don and Mike talking about the first few episodes of Death Note over on the Radio Free Echo Rift podcast, I knew this was something I wanted to check out. There are some things about the series that are really engaging and interesting, though I think it did ultimately run out of steam towards the end.
The story begins in the realm of the shinigami, a race of supernatural beings that survives by killing humans to extend their own lives. This sort of existence is apparently not all the exciting, though, so one of the shinigami, named Ryuk, decides to make some entertainment by sending an extra "Death Note" (the device shinigami use to kill humans) to the human world, just to see what happens. Enter Light Yagami, a very intelligent young man who is well on his way to becoming a police detective. He is motivated by the seeming lack of ability among the world's formal justice systems. When Light discovers the Death Note (and verifies that it actually works), he develops a plan to kill all the criminals in the world, thereby creating a utopia in which he is considered a god. However, when Light sets his plan in motion, various police organizations begin to notice patterns in the mysterious deaths, eventually attributing the deaths to a murderer they call Kira. The police hire the most famous detective in the world, a mysterious man known only as "L", to hunt down Kira. L is able to immediately deduce the general location of Light/Kira as well as the operation of the Death Note (even though he doesn't know how Kira is killing the criminals, he can deduce how it operates), and thus begins a battle of wits that will drive most of the series. Death Note works. The Death Note is a simple notebook, and on it are listed 5 rules:
The rules actually represent what is best about this series. From a relatively simple set of rules, the writers manage to wring out amazing amounts of suspense and plot. They really put the rules through the paces, and the series is actually very entertaining as a result. I'm reminded of Isaac Asimov's robot stories, in which he devised three simple rules, then went about subverting them in several novels. Similar feats are abound here, and the series also does a good job of escalating the stakes or even just evolving the stakes so that the series takes on a different tone. There were two or three times when I thought the writers had cornered themselves, but actually came up with some sort of ingenious plan to evolve the series into something slightly different.
Spoilers aho, fun ahoy! I'll try to keep them to a minimum, but it's hard to write about the series without mentioning some broad, high-level spoilers.
For example, at one point, it becomes clear that there's actually a second Death Note and what's more, the Kira who is using that death note apparently doesn't need to know someone's name. This changes the whole dynamic of the series for a few episodes, and just when you think the series is about to wear out its welcome, it switches gears again, reversing sympathies back to Light.
Speaking of which, one of the difficulties I have with the series is that it's generally told from the perspective of Light Yagami, who seems like a well intentioned sorta guy, but is ultimately the villain of the piece. As the series progresses and you see the lengths which Light is willing to go to protect his selfish vision of the future, he becomes less and less sympathetic. He kills literally thousands of people in the series, sometimes even innocent characters, people you grow to really like. I was intrigued enough by the pyrotechnics of subverting a powerful rule set that this wasn't a huge problem, and you might be able to guess the way the series ends, given that Light is actually a pretty evil guy...
I'm actually impressed with how well they were able to craft the series. Something built around a limited set of rules can't last forever, and they really are able to wring a lot of juice out of that setup. The series really only starts to stumble when you get to the last 5 or 6 episodes. They just struck me as one shift too many. That last run starts with a really shocking event, something that saddened me greatly, but which I thought could have been a worthy plot development. Instead, the series just introduced some new characters and jumped ahead a few years. It gives the end of the series a sorta tacked-on feeling. It all works well enough, but by that point, the machinations of the plot were getting a little tired. It just started to seem a little arbitrary towards the end, as if the writers didn't really care about character so much as they wanted to make the plot as byzantine as possible. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of byzantine plotlines, and I think that's a big part of why the beginning of the series worked so well, but I think they just tried to stretch a bit too much towards the end...
So what we're left with is a very good series. Compelling, exciting, and interesting, but perhaps a bit on the arbitrary side of things. I really love the exploration of rules and the way the writers were able to extract so much interesting television out of them, but it starts to feel a bit hollow towards the end of the series. There is, perhaps, a reason for that that is more personal than not, but I will say that none of my complaints ruined the series for me or anything. I actually did find this to be one of the most interesting Anime series I've seen, and would recommend it to people who like this sort of focus on plot machinations. I just wish I could have been a little more satisfied with that ending...
Sunday, April 29, 2012
Anime Movie Corner
I have been woefully neglectful of anime over the past year and a half or so, but I've still occasionally taken in a movie here or there, and after this year's very nice The Secret World of Arrietty, I threw a few Anime movies I've been meaning to catch up with in my Netflix Queue. Here are some assorted thoughts on each:
Posted by Mark on April 29, 2012 at 08:09 PM .: link :.
Sunday, June 13, 2010
Animovie Double Feature
A couple more quick reviews of Anime movies I've seen lately.
Posted by Mark on June 13, 2010 at 06:40 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Nanoha A's Ends
I finished Nanoha A's about a month ago, but have neglected to post about it until now. I don't have much to add to my previous posts on the subject, but I do want to comment on one thing that I wrote a while back:
Ultimately, I'm glad I'm watching this series, but I think I've discovered a strain of Anime that I know I want to avoid in the future. The whole lolicon business is frustrating, especially since you can go a few episodes without it and just when I'm getting used to a normal story, I get slapped in the face with a creepy transformation deck or something. I don't really have that much of a problem while watching the show, but I can already tell that this is the sort of series where my opinion will degrade over time because the most memorable part of it is something I find annoying and creepy.A month after finishing the series, and I have to say that my opinion has indeed degraded over time for the reasons described above. Much of what I remember about the show are the creepy lolicon overtones and a bunch of nitpicky complaints.
The overall stories of both series are reasonably well done, and I do like the way stakes were raised in the second series. For a quasi-inanimate object, the Book of Darkness makes for a good villain, and I like how it meets its match in a young, crippled girl who has seemingly endless reserves of good will and optimism. The way the protectors bond with that girl is touching and further reinforces the "empathetic villain" motif of the series.
There's a twist later in the series which is reasonably satisfying, though not entirely unexpected. As soon as a second masked mystery man showed up, it was almost immediately obvious who they were and why they were helping the Book of Darkness.
The battles in the series are certainly bigger and our heroes' power certainly seems to be growing, but this does represent something of an issue with Magic. I had mentioned before that the series doesn't get too carried away with the Magic, but in hindsight, I think it might suffer from the typical magic trap of ever-escalating power. There don't appear to be much in the way of limitations to magic in the universe of this show, and that does begin to sap the show of some tension.
But all of that is beside the point. In the end, I simply can't deal with the creepy lolicon stuff. There isn't that much of it in the series, but it's about evenly spread throughout, so that every time I felt myself getting comfortable with the story, they'd throw a creepy transformation deck at me and I'd be right back where I started. It's a good series, but I find it hard to overcome the things I don't like about it. As I mentioned above, it's only really gotten worse over time, to the point where things I didn't mind much now feel like negatives. I'm glad I watched it, because I now know to steer clear of anything with even a whiff of lolicon, but that's a bit of a shame because I did enjoy some aspects of the series quite a bit. I'm a little comforted by the fact that the folks who recommended this series to me don't seem to like the whole lolicon business either, but while they were able to tune it out, I just wasn't able to do so... I'm told that the sequel to this series takes place when Nanoha and friends are in their late teens (something we get a glimpse of at the very end of this series... and I wish that's how the series had started), which sounds promising, but at the same time, I'm not exactly in the mood to chase down the series (which hasn't been released yet in the US).
Up next in the Anime queue are a pair of movies - Banner of the Stars III (technically an OAV) and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (which I apparently had in my Netflix queue, probably added due to Otaku Kun and the rest of the Otakusphere).
Wednesday, April 07, 2010
Nanoha Ends and A's Begins
I finished off the first season of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha last weekend and moved on to the first disc of the second season, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's. As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, the first season was slow going at first, and I had some major problems with a few things, notably the age of the characters combined with the fan service (apparently the specific term for this is "Lolicon", something I'd like to avoid from here on out). But behind all that stuff was a pretty good story, and I suppose I'm glad I stuck it out. I'll try to avoid major spoilers, but there are some things I want to talk about that require them, so there.
I've already gone over the basic plot of the series:
The story concerns a young girl named Nanoha whose life is changed when she runs across a magical ferret who gives her a stone called the "Raging Heart" (there seems to be some confusion in translations here, it sometimes being referred to as "Raising Heart" - I gather there's some sort of story there, but I don't want to read too much about it until I finish the series). The stone unlocks Nanoha's magical powers and she decides to help the magical ferret recover powerful but unstable Jewel Seeds (magical artifacts from another dimension). Soon it becomes apparent that they're not the only ones after the Jewel Seeds, and Nanoha gets caught up in the middle.It turns out that the relationship between Nanoha and the other girl who is going after the Jewel Seeds (named Fate) is an important part of the series. It's pretty clear that Nanoha and Fate are only superficially opposed to one another, and Fate's mother is the real villain of the series.
This brings up something I did like about the series, which is that first impressions of characters, especially the villains, are often wrong. There are three primary villains in the series. There's Fate, but she's only following her mother's wishes and eventually you grow to like her. Aruf is Fate's familiar, and she's especially mean to Nanoha and Yunno. But then we see how well Aruf treats her master and I think she ended up being my favorite character in the series. Finally, there's Fate's mother. She is pretty thoroughly evil, but we find out later why she's doing what she's doing, and it's a legitimate motive, even if her methods are detestable.
The turning point of the series is when the Space Time Administration shows up. The universe gets fleshed out, and we start to get a better idea of what's going on. A few additional interesting characters are introduced and the story starts moving quickly. There are some things I found a bit odd though. At one point, the captain of the Space Time Administration ship comes down and talks to Nanoha's parents, explaining that Nanoha needs to go away for a while and that things might be dangerous... but there's no explanation of why Nanoha needs to go away. Her parents don't know about magic or Jewel Seeds or anything... and yet they still agree to it. The fact that no one in Nanoha's original circle of human family and friends knows about her magical qualities seems a bit odd to me. I keep expecting the other shoe to drop, but it hasn't happened yet (even 5 episodes into the second series). Everyone has such a cheery attitude about a 9 year old being put into a dangerous situation (and that includes Nanoha, which leads to strange cognitive dissonance for me while she's in a battle). Like I mentioned in my previous post, this sort of thing makes no sense to me. In an email response to my last post, a reader explained that a lot of other cultures have a recent and celebrated history of children soldiers, which does make a sort of sense. I guess my western sensibilities just aren't tuned right for this series, because stuff like this keeps tripping me up.
This seems to be a very uneven series from my perspective. There are a lot of little things I don't like about it, but there are also a lot of little things I do like. Some of the side characters are great (Aruf in particular, though I also have a soft spot for Amy). The sense of technology that drives the magic is actually very well done, and it kept the series from getting to out of hand with powerful magic (in the way that, say, Hellsing did). This is important because it means that there actually are stakes in the series, and that when a battle happens, I don't always know the outcome. There seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that physics are still important, even if they can be stretched a bit. Visually, the series does have an interesting look. Often, the animation is done to imitate camera styles - for instance, there are scenes which look like they were "filmed" with a handheld camera. It's not something I noticed much in other series, and it works really well here. Lighting effects are also well done. The music isn't especially my taste, but I suppose it works well enough.
The ending of the first series is reasonably well done. There are some specific revelations that are surprising, even if the general plot is a bit predictable. Nanoha and Fate become friends in the end, and Nanoha A's picks up right where we left off. This time, a powerful magical faction has appeared on earth, attempting to use another unstable
Ultimately, I'm glad I'm watching this series, but I think I've discovered a strain of Anime that I know I want to avoid in the future. The whole lolicon business is frustrating, especially since you can go a few episodes without it and just when I'm getting used to a normal story, I get slapped in the face with a creepy transformation deck or something. I don't really have that much of a problem while watching the show, but I can already tell that this is the sort of series where my opinion will degrade over time because the most memorable part of it is something I find annoying and creepy. Honestly, I struggled even writing this post, but I figured that I started writing about it and it wouldn't be fair to stop in the middle. Probably one more post when Nanoha A's ends. Anyway, lots more screenshots and comments in the extended entry.
This is Fate and her magical staff, Bardiche. As mentioned before, one of the things the series gets right is the way the magic is driven or at least enabled by technology. Every magician in the series has an artifact like this, and they seem to act like advanced computers. I don't know that I would call them artificial intelligence, but there's clearly a relationship between the magician and their artifact. In fact, I think I like this better than the parallel in the Harry Potter universe (which are wands and which are kinda lame).
This is Aruf. She's Fate's familiar and often takes the form of a large dog/monster thing (I suppose you'd call her Yunno's counterpart). When she's in her human form, she still retains some of her doglike features (apparently a common thing in Anime), but in a cute way. As previously mentioned, she comes off as a bit of a brat at first, but you eventually come around when you see how loyal she is to Fate.
This is Aruf in her doggy form. Not quite as cute, but that was rectified in Nanoha A's, when she cuts down on her size:
Her new and improved cute-doggy form is certainly cuter, but I've yet to see how this plays on the magical battlefield:p
This is Amy and Chrono, who work for the Space Time Administration. One thing I haven't really gotten into with this series is that there seems to be a quasi-romantic angle going on here. Chrono and Yunno both seem to have a thing for Nanoha, but it's not especially followed through in the series. Amy and Chrono also seem to be good friends, and sometimes I get the feeling that Amy and Chrono will get together. Or maybe Chrono and Fate will get together. Who knows?
This is the scene that endeared me to Amy forever. After a particularly brutal battle, Chrono has a wound on his head. Fate and Nanoha have wounds as well, but their familiars are taking care of them. Amy dresses Chrono's wound, but then she ties this fruffy bow on top as a sorta joke.
A closer look at Chrono, and his little magic technology thingy.
Like Trigun, this series sometimes uses exaggerated visual poses to emphasize surprise or embarrassment. In my last post, I mentioned that "Yunno and I have pretty much the same reaction" to the creepy lolicon stuff, and I meant that I kinda looked like that last screenshot of the ferret. The aforementioned emailer mentioned that someone could take that the wrong way, but I'm glad no one posted anything about that because I'm pretty emphatically not enjoying that sort of thing.
Here are a couple of interesting visuals from the series. As previously mentioned, the series does a pretty good job with this sort of thing.
I'm always amused by English labels on stuff in Anime. In this case, we've got a half-gallon of Orange Juice, but it's labeled as 100% Pure Florida... Sunday? The box also mentions that it contains 100% juice, but I'm still not sure what they mean by "Sunday". It's also interesting that they chose to make it Florida OJ though. Is it common to have Florida OJ in Japan?
This is one of the villains with a heart of gold that shows up in Nanoha A's.
This mysterious guy has only just appeared in the series. His role is unclear, but he seems to be a villain as well. I do believe that later in the series, he will end up turning on the group of magicians he's helping out now.
One of the things that strikes me about this series is that it features many of the stereotypes of Anime. Stuff like power beams and someone jumping through the air with colors flashing in the background, etc...
And that about wraps up this post. Probably one more post in a few weeks when I finish off the series.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha
A while ago, Steven recommended that I check out an Anime series called Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's. It turns out that it's a sequel to the original series. Opinions differ on whether or not to start from the beginning, the crux of the matter being that the start of the first series can be a bit of a difficult watch. However, I've found myself to be something of a completist these days, and prefer to start from the beginning (this also holds true for Crest/Banner of the Stars - I'd recommend people to start with Crest even though Banner is the better series overall.) So while I was recommended the second series, I decided to start with the first.
This is probably a good topic for another post, but I've found this completist impulse to be interesting because I can remember when I was young and had no problem turning on a series or a movie even when it had already started. I'm not sure if it's just because I take the idea of watching a movie more seriously these days or what, but I rarely put on a movie that's already begun (unless it's something I've seen before). When it comes to series, a big part of it would have to be that when I was young, most series didn't feature an overarching story arc, instead consisting of mostly one-off episodes. That sort of series is obviously much easier to start watching than something more tightly plotted like the shows common today. Technology may be part of it too, as devices like my DVR or services like Netflix make it easier to watch a series or a movie from the beginning. But I digress!
Having just finished Disc 2 of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, I have to say that despite some major reservations after the first Disc, the show has really turned the corner and become something I'm looking forward to finishing. Indeed, when I got home tonight and put in Disc 2, I had only planned to watch 1 episode. 4 episodes later, I hopped on my computer and pushed up Disc 3 in my Netflix queue and then started writing this post.
The story concerns a young girl named Nanoha whose life is changed when she runs across a magical ferret who gives her a stone called the "Raging Heart" (there seems to be some confusion in translations here, it sometimes being referred to as "Raising Heart" - I gather there's some sort of story there, but I don't want to read too much about it until I finish the series). The stone unlocks Nanoha's magical powers and she decides to help the magical ferret recover powerful but unstable Jewel Seeds (magical artifacts from another dimension). Soon it becomes apparent that they're not the only ones after the Jewel Seeds, and Nanoha gets caught up in the middle.
A sizeable portion of the premise feels a lot like a Japanese version of Harry Potter, what with the young protagonist and the discovery of a magical world, but despite the sometimes fluffy tone of this series, it does seem to delve rather frequently into darker territory. Indeed, while Harry Potter never really had a choice but to confront his destiny, people like Dumbledore at least attempted to protect him. Nanoha, on the other hand, seems to freely choose her fate. Yuuno, the magical ferret, seems to feel bad that he got Nanoha involved, but doesn't really do much to discourage Nanoha. I found this a bit odd, but then again, Yunno is apparently around the same age. For that matter so are Fate and Chrono.
I'm not necessarily opposed to a story that features young characters in such a way (for example, I like Enders Game a lot), but given the dark nature of the story, it's hard to imagine this appealing to young children. In particular, there's a scene where Fate meets with her mother that is brutal. I guess I'm just not sure why the characters aren't older (I speculate below, but I find that reason kinda creepy). There doesn't seem to be any story-related reason for it, and it can sometimes lead to rather odd tonal shifts. These tonal shifts didn't impact me nearly as much as they did in Trigun and indeed, seem to be something common in a lot of Japanese entertainment (I've also seen a few Yakuza flicks lately that feature this sort of thing, and certainly Kurosawa was no stranger to it either - this, too, is probably a good topic for a separate post).
There is one thing that really did bother me about the series though, and that's the fan service. I'm sure there's probably another name for it, but a show that features fan service with 9 year olds is pretty emphatically not my thing. I'm not a big proponent of fan service in general, but I can tolerate it in something like Ghost in the Shell, where it's pretty tame. Here it's just creepy. In particular, there are scenes where Nanoha transforms from her regular clothing to her magical armor, and the transformation is just disturbing. I seriously considered stopping the series after the first disc because this made me so uncomfortable. At this point, I'm glad I continued, but it's enough to hold me back from truly loving the series.
I suppose it helps that the creepiness factor seems to be waning a bit since episode 5 (the one with the hot spring). There have even been a few transformation sequences that aren't cringe-inducing, so perhaps it's something that will lessen as the series goes on (which may be too much to hope for, but still). Also, it seems that Yunno and I have pretty much the same reaction to these types of scenes.
In any case, I'm looking forward to how the first series ends, and I recognize that the second series is what I was really recommended, so I'm looking forward to that too. More thoughts (and screenshots) to come once I've finished the series.
Update: More thoughts here.
Sunday, December 27, 2009
Banner of the Stars II
In Crest of the Stars, we were introduced to Lafiel and Jinto (and they are introduced to each other), the main characters of this series. They are almost immediately embroiled in the outbreak of a major war and are very nearly trapped behind enemy lines. However, they manage to escape to safety and join the Imperial Star Forces (which is their duty, as Jinto is an Imperial noble and Lafiel is a member of the royal family). During the course of the story, Lafiel and Jinto become good friends and in Banner of the Stars, they are reunited on the Basroil, a rather small assault ship in the massive Imperial Navy. While Jinto and Lafiel are still key characters, that series takes a much broader view of the war, often focusing on the strategic decisions made by various Admirals (one of whom is Lafiel's father). Banner of the Stars is an excellent story of military combat, and part of the reason it works so well is that it focuses on both the strategic and tactical perspectives. You get a feel for the overall war in the scenes with various Admirals, while you get a good idea of what it's like on the front lines in the scenes with the Basroil.
With Banner of the Stars II, the series returns to its more personal roots. It is more like Crest of the Stars in that it is much more concerned with Lafiel and Jinto than the overall war effort. There are, of course, some establishing scenes featuring Admiral Bebaus and later in the story, Admiral Spoor pitches in, but the overall story is tightly wound around Lafiel and Jinto.
At the end of the first Banner, the Abh was victorious. In the sequel, Admiral Bebaus is leading the effort to reclaim the planets initially lost during the war with the United Mankind. His fleet is moving quickly, and as each new system is reclaimed, a Territorial Ambassador is left behind to manage the planets. Lafiel is assigned as Territorial Ambassador to the Lobnas system. This sort of duty is usually described as tedious and boring, but in this case, things become interesting when we find out that Lobnas was used as a giant prison, with millions of prisoners inhabiting the only island on the planet. There are guards, but things escalate quickly when some prisoners and guards request emigration.
I don't want to go into too much detail about the actual conflict, but I will say that I enjoy stories like this, where something seemingly simple turns out to be much more complex than initially thought. The characters who represent the various factions in the conflict are surprisingly well drawn considering how little screentime they have, and the relationship between Lafiel and Jinto is fleshed out more as a result. We also see more interaction between Lafiel and Admiral Spoor, and in an amusing turn, Admiral Abriel lays the smackdown on the Admiral Bebaus. There are less battle sequences here, but what battles do happen are pretty intense. It's also interesting to get a peek into the internal workings of the prison planet as well as the Abh government and how they treat conquered planets (just a small part of the impressive worldbuilding the series engages in). At one point, we also get a rather disturbing glimpse of how the Abh regard the faithful execution of revenge (something they attempt to use as a deterrent, which is an interesting conjecture).
My initial thought was that the series had seriously decreased the stakes, which was almost disappointing. Crest was the story of two characters escaping the enemy, while Banner raised the stakes considerably. The interstellar war portrayed in Banner was filled with tension and suspense. The outcome was by no means guaranteed, and the fate of the Abh empire hung in balance. So became a little confused when Banner II focused on such a seemingly insignificant planet of no strategic value. However, as the series progressed, I found myself drawn into the fate of those on the planet and more importantly, I realized that while the stakes were not on a galactic level, they were still high due to the emotional investment we have with the main characters of Lafiel and Jinto. Furthermore, the series is tightly plotted. There's no filler here, and while things may start a bit strangely, the tension builds steadily. Crest lagged a bit in the middle, but Banner and now Banner II are very well constructed.
In the end, I breezed through the 10 episode series rather quickly and very much enjoyed them. Each of the series tells a somewhat independent story, and Banner II is no exception, but I'm betting that some of the emotional impact is lost on someone who hasn't seen the previous two installments. And for the record, I also recommend watching Crest of the Stars before the first Banner. In any case, Banner II is a welcome addition to the series and well worth a watch if you enjoyed the first two series (especially Crest)...
Due to Netflix's semi-permanent "Very Long Wait" status on the last disc, I had to torrent the last three episodes, but it was easy to find and I even managed to use a media server to stream it to my PS3, which worked better than I expected. Next up is Banner of the Stars III, which to my knowledge has not been released in the US yet, but the torrent is available... As usual, more comments and screens below the fold (actually, not as many as usual, but a few). The Lobnas system is the big yellow circle. As you can see, it's firmly behind the front lines of the war. You'd think that would mean that the system is safe, but things are more complicated than they appear... You can also see Admiral Bebaus' advance to the left.
These are the representatives of the four main factions on Lobnas. One of the first challenges Lafiel and Jinto face is deciding which one to trust.
As previously implied, there are 4 main factions on the planet, and they're all divided up as seen below. The territory on the rightmost side kicks up the most fuss, mostly to get to the territory on the leftmost side. The bottom section is where the guards and administrative officers are housed. Again, I don't want to go into too much detail here, but the seemingly simple situation gets out of hand pretty quickly.
Closed-Eyes Syndrome continues unabated!
On the planet, there are these slug-like (or perhaps leech-like) creatures that are constantly crawling around. I'm not sure what the point of them is, but it's something I want to keep in mind during future rewatching.
What are these?
While I wouldn't consider the series overly violent, it does get darker than in previous series. For example, one of the various factions kills this guard in cold blood, something we don't see often in the series (though we do see a fair amount of ships exploding, etc...)
On a lighter note, the series does feature some light fan service in the form of this character (interestingly, it almost makes sense in the context of the story that she be dressed this way, at least, from a symbolic standpoint):
The low angle of this shot of Admiral Spoor is used to either emphasize her powerful position... or it's an extremely mild form of fan service. Maybe both.
Well, that about wraps up Banner II...
Posted by Mark on December 27, 2009 at 05:20 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, December 09, 2009
Anime Future Series
A few years ago (has it really been that long), I asked for some recommendations for anime series to watch. While I haven't completely exhausted the list, I have seen a good portion of them and I've started to get other recommendations. It's getting hard to keep track of them all, so I figure I should create a list of future series (not unlike some other folks' lists). The idea will be to maintain this post going forward, unless a better way of maintaining the list becomes available later. Before I list the series, some general info about what I've seen and what I'm looking for:
What I've seen: The Anime category archive contains all my posts covering the grand majority of the anime that I've seen so far. If you want a more concise list, I created one on ANN here (it can be sorted, though I'm not used to their rating system so some of them might be a little different). I'd recommend looking at the sorted ranking and if you're curious about why I liked (or disliked) a given series, check out the category archive for full posts.
What I'm looking for: I want to watch a series, but not something too long. I don't want to have to wade through 18 DVDs or anything absurd like that. In fact, I tend to prefer 13 episode series, though I can accept 26 episode series as well (generally, I feel 26 episode series have too much filler. This isn't that bad when I like the characters, like in GitS, but it's really bad when I don't, like in Trigun). The series should contain a full story arc (i.e. no Twelve Kingdoms). In general, I prefer a good story to things like character studies or narrative wanking. In the past, I've asked for action packed and fun. While I certainly enjoy that, I'm not opposed to other genres. However, some things I'm not interested in at the moment: downer endings, post-apocalyptic settings, incomprehensible or severly obtuse plots (i.e. Serial Experiments Lain) and steampunk. Some things I do like: Science fiction, action, suspense, thrillers, horror, good stories and twists. Nothing comprehensive about my likes or dislikes, but I thought it might help. The series must be available via Netflix. Bonus points for a series available via Netflix Instant Streaming or Blu-Ray!
Currently on the list: Based on recommendations from my first Anime post as well as stuff I've picked up on later posts and elsewhere. Taking my cue from Steven's list, I'm labeling each one:
Yes - Means I'll probably watch it
No - Means I probably won't
Maybe - Means I'm unsure or not yet ready
Unsorted - Means I haven't looked into it at all
Obviously this is very subjective activity. I'm not as allergic to recommendations as some folks, but that doesn't mean I'll watch anything! Anyway, here's what's on the list right now.
Posted by Mark on December 09, 2009 at 09:01 PM .: link :.
Sunday, August 30, 2009
A couple quick reviews of Anime movies...
Posted by Mark on August 30, 2009 at 08:03 PM .: link :.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
In my first post on Noir, I kinda made light of the body count that our two heroes were racking up as well as the fact that French society never seemed to notice when a few dozen nameless hitmen are discovered in a park or abandoned building somewhere. I was making a joke of it, but it always sorta bothered me. There are a few hundred people who die during the course of this series. While they're all portrayed as mostly nameless, faceless victims, I couldn't help but wonder what the consequences of their deaths were. Were they married? Did they have kids? Friends? And so on. Warning: The rest of the post contains major spoilers!
One of the things I wondered about was how well Mireille and Kirika were able to deal with the amount of death and destruction they were doling out. For the most part, they seem to deal with it remarkably well. Kirika seems to be more affected by it than Mireille. As the series goes on, she seems less and less enthused with what she's capable of doing.... but there's something off about her reaction that took me a while to place. I finally realized what it was - it reminded me of Crime and Punishment (I suppose I should note spoilers for that novel as well), in particular, this paragraph (page 623 in my edition) where Raskolnikov laments his punishment:
... even if fate had sent him no more than remorse - burning remorse that destroyed the heart, driving away sleep, the kind of remorse to escape those fearsome torments the mind clutches at the noose and the well, oh, how glad he would have been! Torment and tears - after all, that is life, too. But he felt no remorse for his crime.In essense, Raskolnikov felt no guilt or remorse for his crime, but that lack of feeling, that lack of guilt was just as horrible as he could have imagined. That's very much how I thought Kirika felt during the second half of the series. In his take on the series, Steven Den Beste does an excellent job describing the duality of Kirika:
Kirika had two parts inside. One part was a killing machine. It was created by Altena through training and indoctrination, and once it seemed ready, Kirika's memory was wiped and she was placed in Japan, so that she could begin to face the Trials which were required of all candidates for Noir to prove their fitness. Events after that point were not planned, because they depended on what Kirika herself did, and how she reacted to the process. Hints were left which might lead Kirika to Mireille, but if they had not, she would have faced her trials alone.The killing machine part of Kirika's personality was capable of evil, without remorse or guilt, but the human side of her personality recognized how horrible that was and the series is essentially about Kirika's internal struggle. Mireille seemed to be much more neutral. The other piece of the puzzle is Chloe, who seems to take a perverse pleasure in what she is capable of, and as the series progresses, she becomes more and more creepy.
Kirika and Chloe
Ultimately, when Kirika is forced to choose between Mireille and Chloe, she chooses Mireille (who I guess is supposed to represent the human side of Kirika's personality). As Steven notes, the series does not end there and neither does Kirika's internal struggle. She is still capable of horrible evil and is not sure she could live with herself. Altena still attempts to appeal to killing machine portion of Kirika's personality, but she ultimately fails, and Mireille succeeds in saving Kirika. At the very end, it's clear that Kirika and Mireille will continue on together and that they love each other (like sisters). I am once again reminded of Dostoyevsky (page 630 in my edition - replace the male pronouns with female pronouns and this could easily apply to Kirika):
... at this point a new story begins, the story of a man's gradual renewal, his gradual rebirth, his gradual transition from eone world to another, of his growing acquaintance with a new, hitherto completely unknown reality. This might constitute the theme of a new narrative - our present narrative is, however, at an end.There's a lot more to the ending of the series that I'm skipping over, but Steven's post covers that in plenty of detail and I don't see a need to repeat all that... It's not a perfect series, but the ending did make it worthwhile for me. I wouldn't say that I was as taken with it as Steven or Alex, but neither was I as disappointed with it as Ben. I thought the series was a bit too long (a little too much filler, perhaps) and unevenly paced, but the ending made up for any issues I may have had with the series.
As usual, more screenshots and commentary in the extended entry...
I didn't notice this at first, but the table that Mireille uses to do her work is a pool table. Not sure what the significance of that is, but I guess you could make something symbolic out of it, like that Mireille and Kirika are stuck playing the Soldats' game or something.
Cargo containers in the least organized port in the world. Seriously, look at those things.
As mentioned above, Kirika, seen here double-fisting some pistols,John Woo style, is the main character of the series. This is interesting because at first glance, the series seems to be primarily about Mireille. As the series progresses, Mireille takes a back seat to Kirika and Chloe, then comes to the foreground at the end.
The Soldats in their stereotypical lair, sitting next to a fireplace and sipping port. We find out more about the Soldats later in the series, but their ultimate plan and Altena's plan for Noir all ends up taking a backseat to Kirika's internal struggle, which is the true conflict of the series. That's a good thing too, as giant conspiracies tend to bore me...
As the series progresses, Kirika, Mireille and Chloe encounter more and more hired killers, and in this case, the killers are literally faceless. Not a single one seems to be able to hold a candle to any of the Noirs though, which makes me wonder how challenging these "trials" are supposed to be for Noir.
This scene really bothered me. Not so much when it happened as in the next episode when we find out... that it doesn't really mean anything. It serves a purpose - Mireille begins to realize just how much she cares for Kirika, etc... but it's a kinda cheapshot. Also, I'm not really sure what happened. Did Chloe actually shoot Kirika? Why is Kirika fine afterwords? I didn't get it.
Towards the end of the series, we learn that Kirika killed Mireille's parents (apparently when Kirika was extremely young). Chloe was also there, and the screenshot above is her after she sees Kirika kill. Kinda creepy.
Towards the end of the series, Kirika and Chloe are reuinited at Altena's home and have an awesome swordfight (as a training exercise).
Kirika wins the training session, and in the screenshot above you see something that is a recurring image. Often, when Kirika's killing machine personality is in control, her hair covers her eyes, making her faceless and symbolizing emotionlessness. I didn't really notice this until later in the series, so I'm not sure it applies to the whole series, but I did see it multiple times.
Mireille and Kirika have a faceoff towards the end, and they are legitimately trying to kill one another, but in the end, neither can pull the trigger.
This is the last shot in the series. The saturated, washed out brightness of this type of shot usually symbolizes transcendence or resolution, and that certainly fits with the ending of the series.
Well, that about covers it. Next up in the Anime queue is Miyazaki's Ponyo, which I should be seeing sometime this week. It's actually getting a pretty wide release - it's even playing at the local multiplex...
Posted by Mark on August 16, 2009 at 02:08 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Noir: Initial Thoughts
I am slowly making my way through the Anime queue I posted recently. I'm currently watching Noir and am a little less than halfway through the series. In no particular order, a few thoughts on Noir:
The girls take out some Mafia henchmen. Apparently the Mafia was created in part by the Soldats...
A real live Soldat. You can tell because of the accent and the mustache.
This is Chloe. She's quite effective with knives. She's only been in a couple of episodes, but she does get one to herself that emphasises that she has some sort of honor code. I like the character and am intrigued to see how she fits in with the rest of the series.
In one of my favorite scenes, Chloe stops by while the girls are having tea. Yumura invites her to join them. It's an interesting scene.
Every now and again, you see the girls use this stance. It's not quite the ridiculous sideways gangster style, but neither is it a proper way to hold a pistol. A total nitpick and one that could have a visual language meaning (oblique angles in a frame typically emphasise instability and uneasiness), but it was something I noticed.
This is Mireille's computer screen. As you can see, she is using one of the ugliest interfaces ever devised. She must be using a linux distro (*zing!*).
Just another shot of Yumura, because I felt like it. That's all for now. Should be finished with the series in a week or two.
Posted by Mark on July 22, 2009 at 09:09 PM .: link :.
Sunday, July 05, 2009
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig
I always find myself coming back to Ghost in the Shell. The original movie was among the first anime movies I'd seen, and I revisited it near the start of my current Anime watching regime. As I (slowly) progressed through various anime series, various parts of the GitS series would pop up. I saw the second film, Innocence and eventually moved on to the first Stand Alone Complex series. This past week, I burned through the second series. Perhaps it's because I didn't like Trigun so much, but I found myself pouring through this series at a rate I never have for an anime series. In the end, I found it entertaining and satisfying, though perhaps not as much as the first series or movies. Still, it hit the spot just right.
Public Security Section 9
In all honesty, I don't have a ton to say about the series, and I don't have many screenshots either, but here are some assorted thoughts on the series:
Boma and Pazu
As mentioned earlier, some of the bit players in section 9 get more screen time. On the left we have Boma, who is apparently an explosives expert but is mostly seen helping out Ishikawa with online information gathering and the like. He at least gets a chance to disarm a bomb later in the series. On the right is Pazu, rumored to be former Yakuza and apparently he sleeps around a lot (as evidenced by his episode).
Batou and the Major
Batou and the Major enjoy some time on the Section 9 equivalent of the Holodeck whilst reminiscing about their cat burglar escapades earlier in the episode. Batou clearly still has a cyber-crush on the Major and it's even kinda referenced at some point in the series, but of course nothing comes of it. Still, I always liked the interactions between these two...
And finally, just a couple more shots of the Major, because I feel like it. I like these better than the faux-lingerie outfit from the first season...
And that wraps it up for now. Again, I may have more thoughts later and I'll definitely have another post soon about the Solid State Society movie, which picks up a few years after 2nd Gig.
Posted by Mark on July 05, 2009 at 03:53 PM .: link :.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
So I finally finished Trigun this week. Ultimately, I wasn't very impressed with the series and I would probably rank it near the bottom of what I've seen. Most of my initial thoughts of the series still hold, with some minor shifts in focus.
The ending makes a certain thematic sense, but I found the execution be somewhat dull and anticlimactic. It was pretty obvious what was going to happen - it's not like the theme hadn't already been established over and over again throughout the series. I suppose there is an element of ambiguity in the ending, but I have to say that I'm not particularly interested in exploring various interpretations.
So this is the first series I've watched and pretty thoroughly disliked. It had its moments, and for a good portion of the series, it was watcheable, but something didn't really jive with me. In the comments to my last post, I said:
I have a hard time articulating what it is that I don't like about this series. Everything I come up with seems like a nitpick or a rationalization. Nitpicking is almost always symptomatic of a deeper distaste for something, I just haven't really figured out what that is. It might be the tonal schizophrenia, but then, I don't mind huge shifts in tone in other things. Indeed, watching a movie like From Dusk Till Dawn, the best thing about it is the tonal shift (IMHBCO). Perhaps I can like FDTD because it's only one big shift, and the two tones are similar in structure, if not in content. Maybe it's the combination of things. Tonal schitzophrenia, steampunk, wacky animation, and a story with too much filler. None of these things inherently bothers me by itself, but combine them and I'm not doing so well.I've got no new insights as to why the series didn't click, it just didn't. In any case, I've got several other series in the queue. I think Noir or Samurai 7 (I'm leaning towards this because it's on Blu-Ray, and is thus only 3 discs) will be next.
As usual, more screenshots and comments (and perhaps some major spoilers as well) after the jump...
The SEEDS Fleet
The sixth disc started with an episode that had this image of a fleet of starships. I momentarily thought that I screwed up my Netflix queue, putting Banner of the Stars II ahead of Trigun, but it turns out that this image begins a lengthy flashback that describes Vash's past and how the planet was colonized. I was a little disappointed that I wasn't watching Banner II, which just goes to show that I didn't like Trigun much.
I just really like this visual, though it's indicative of what I don't like about the series' overuse of panning on still shots.
On the other hand, this series of two shots shows how effectively human emotion is communicated through a couple of simple (ok, exaggerated) changes to facial expressions. Still, the continual use of cheap animation techniques was somewhat grating to me.
Legato vs Vash
I loved this shot of Legato's final showdown with Vash. Major spoilers! In the showdown, Legato's real purpose is not to physically defeat Vash. Rather, Legato seeks to force Vash to break one of his own rules. Vash has sworn to never take a life, so Legato set up this situation in which the only way for Vash to survive would be to shoot Legato. The reason the shot is brilliant is that Legato is higher in the frame, towering over Vash. This position is usually a sign of strength, and thematically, Legato does indeed have the upper hand in this situation, despite the fact that he is unarmed and Vash is pointing a gun at his head. I found this bit of visual dissonance rather clever, but unfortunately, the next couple of shots ruin it by having Vash stand up and showing Vash from a low "camera" angle (which visually ephasises Vash's power, despite the fact that Vash is actually succumbing to weakness).
Knives vs Vash
Unfortunately, Vash's showdown with Knives is not as visually interesting and is indeed anticlimatic. The battle takes maybe 5-10 minutes of screen time, but I was distinctly reminded of the pointless fight sequences in the Matrix sequels.
Wolfwood's Big Gun
At some point during the last 10 episodes, you see the full power of the cross that Wolfwood carries around. I'm not positive, but I'm pretty sure they only animated this one pose of Wolfwood holding his weapon, and then changed the backgrounds on at least 2 or three separate episodes.
Though it is curtailed in the last 10 episodes, the absurdly stylized art is still present.
And I shall leave you with one more pic of Meryl, because, well, because I want to. It's a good pic, right?
That does it for Trigun. Again, not positive what Anime I'll be watching next, but it'll probably be Noir or Samurai 7.
Posted by Mark on April 12, 2009 at 05:57 PM .: link :.
Sunday, March 01, 2009
Trigun: Initial Thoughts
Since finishing Hellsing, I've been working my way through Trigun. In short, the series has grown on me, though there are some things that just aren't clicking for me. I expected the series to be much different than it really is, which kinda put me off at first.
The series follows a character named Vash the Stampede (aka The Humanoid Typhoon) as he wanders across a desolate planet. Towns he visits have a nasty habit of sustaining massive amounts of damage, and he has a $$60,000,000,000 bounty on his head (the currency is referred to as "double dollars"). So Vash is constantly being chased by a plethora of bounty hunters and unsavory types. He's also being tracked by two insurance agents named Milly and Meryl, whose goal seems to be to simply discourage him from destroying towns, as the Bernardelli Insurance Company is apparently taking a bath on property supposedly damaged by Vash. Naturally, much of what is known about Vash is an exaggeration, so at first, they don't believe Vash is who he claims. As time goes on, it becomes clear that Vash is who he says he is, and that he has a dark past that he can't remember.
Vash the Stampede
Vash is an interesting main character. At first, he seems like a bumbling idiot, and a naive one at that. He has a silly sort of demeanor and seems to be constantly down on his luck. As the series progresses, you see that he's not as hopeless as he seems. He's constantly being thrust into tricky situations, and he always seems to be able to handle the situation perfectly despite still mostly appearing like a clumsy moron. And despite all the damage that happens to towns, it's usually not caused much by his actions (the bounty hunters who chase him seem to be the worst offenders)... and he never kills anyone either. He's a very likeable character. A lovable buffoon.
This is helped along by the character design, which looks like your typical Anime art mixed with absurdly stylized exclamations. Honestly, I found this a bit disconcerting. The tone of the series is all over the place. Sometimes it's a silly, practically slapstick comedy, other times, it's stoic and deadly serious, and it can switch modes at the drop of a hat.
The setting is reminiscent of a western, but with a distinct steampunk flair, and that's another thing that I'm not particularly in love with. Steampunk is one of those conventions that can look really cool, but which always make me ask nitpicky questions. For instance, every town on this planet seems to have a giant lightbulb hanging over it. We learn later that it's some sort of generator, but still, why would you design your generators like that? It's stupid and not important to the story, but I find myself nitpicking all sorts of stuff like this while watching the show. This usually happens to me when a show or movie isn't clicking with me.
The experience of watching this show has been odd. I watched the first disc and seriously considered quiting the series right then... but Netflix had already shipped the next disc, so I watched it, and I found the series growing on me. And this seemed to be continually happening. Every disc I'd get, I'd start off not particularly enjoying it, but by the end of the disc, I'd be sucked in. So I'll probably finish the series, even though it's not especially my bag.
Milly and Meryl
The story is relatively simplistic, and there seems to be a lot of filler in the series. Every episode or two is a new town with a new challenger, whether it be a bounty hunter or one of the main villain's henchmen. Perhaps it's just my recent bout of video game madness, but the series seems structured like a video game - it's like every episode has a boss battle. This can be an entertaining dynamic, but it's not especially substantial either. There seems to be something more substantial brewing with Milly and Meryl, but 5 discs in, and it's still just surface level stuff...
Visually, the series has some neat looking designs. The art is good, but the animation isn't that great. One of the tricks of low-budget animation is to create one large cell drawing, then pan accross it. This gives the impression of movement without actually having to animate the movement. This series uses that technique a lot. Perhaps too much. The series has good music though. Not as good as Cowboy Bebop, but it's up there.
I can see why this series is popular, but it didn't especially click with me. I suppose my thoughts could change after seeing the ending, but I'm doubting that. More thoughts and screenshots below the fold.
Obvious Villain #458
As previously mentioned, the show is a series of encounters with various vaillainous types and encounters with bounty hunters and the like. The series features a fair amount of gunplay, and like Hellsing, it's often used as an excuse to have cool shots like this with someone pointing a gun straight at the "camera".
Closed eyes syndrome continues unabated.
Peace and Love
At one point, after defeating his enemies without resorting to violence, Vash makes this symbol with his hand and starts chanting "Peace and Love" over and over again. The hand gesture has a similarity to the "V" peace gesture common in the west, but it's not the same. His fingers are crossing. I've never seen this before... and it doesn't look biologically feasible either. I mean, I can cross my fingers, but not like that! What's the deal with this gesture?
Two suns and Wolfwood
This is Wolfwood. He shows up about halfway through the series. He's apparently some sort of priest or preacher or something... but you see that cross he's carrying? It's really just a big gun rack, which makes one wonder what kind of Church he belongs to. Note also the dual suns in the sky. This planet seems to have two of everything. Well, it has two suns and two moons, at least. Perhaps that's why the currency is "double dollars".
Vash the Stampede, channeling Spawn
As the series progresses, you get more of an idea about Vash and the dark secrets in his past. When he gets cornered by one of the various assassins sent after him, he really puts on his game face and shows flashes of the darkness in his past. He looks a little like Spawn, doesn't he?
Obvious Villain #460
This is one of the aforementioned bossfights... I mean, assassins that is sent to handle Vash, but gets more than he bargained for when he meets up with the Spawn style Vash.
Obvious Villain #461
This guy seems to be the main villain. 5 discs in, and I know very little about him, except that he seems to know about Vash's past, and he has lots of powers.
Here is a small sampling of Vash's many silly faces and the stylized way the series portrays him. This sort of thing always strikes me as odd.
Well that's all for now. Perhaps more when I finish the series...
Posted by Mark on March 01, 2009 at 10:07 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
For obvious reasons, time is a little short these days, so here are a few links I've found interesting lately:
Posted by Mark on January 07, 2009 at 08:56 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
So there's an Anime Meme making the rounds, and I figured I'd give it a shot:
• What anime are you watching now?
Disc 1 of Trigun just came in the mail today. After that, I think I'm going to watch Noir.
• What is your favourite time to watch?
I don't really have a set time to watch anime (or, well, anything really). Or, to put it another way, I'll watch anime at any time the mood strikes (unless I'm at work, or otherwise engaged.)
• And your favourite place?
On my TV in my living room. My couch is comfy.
• Who is your favourite auteur?
I'm not sure I've watched enough Anime to have a favorite auteur, but the closest thing I can think of would be Hayao Miyazaki... probably the most obvious choice out there. And even he has movies and themes that I'm not a huge fan of. I suppose another choice would be Mamoru Oshii (of Ghost in the Shell fame), but I've only seen 2 of his movies.
• Your favourite OST?
Yokko Kanno's music in Cowboy Bebop is exceptional. I saw the movie and bought a bunch of CDs before I even thought about watching the series. My favorite songs would have to be Rush, Tank!, and Gotta Knock a Little Harder.
• What is the most difficult anime you’ve ever watched?
Grave of the Fireflies, for reasons belabored in that post. I still find it odd that most people find this film so sad... I found it infuriating. But then, both of those traits make it difficult to watch. It is an exceptional film though, and it's one of those films that you could pull out to traumatize people who think that you can't tell real stories with animation.
• What was the first anime you remember watching?
A friend of mine in college introduced me to Akira. It was a crappy VHS copy of the movie, with a poor transfer and bad subtitles, so I didn't think much of it until I revisited the movie somewhat recently. I vaguely remember also watching Vampire Hunter D around that time (may have been before Akira, I don't remember). For more of my early experiences with Anime, check out this post. I suppose if you consider stuff like Voltron to be Anime, then that was my first Anime, but I don't think that counts...
• Do you have a comfort show that you re-watch?
Not especially, though this may have something more to do with my tendency to Netflix my anime rather than buy it.
• What is the most erotic anime you’ve watched?
To be honest, I don't even really understand the fan service side of the Anime world, let alone freaky stuff like Hentai. I'm sure some of that stuff could be erotic, but I'm so disinterested in that side of things that I don't think I'll be able to answer this question for some time.
• Which classic should you have watched?
Given my current experience, it would probably be easier to list the classics that I have seen (or even, all the anime that I've seen period). Again, see this post for more of what I've seen and check out the Anime archives for other series that I've seen since then...
• Which series did you never want to end?
One of the things I like about Anime is that most series actually do have an ending. That said, there are series I've seen that I've wanted to go on. For instance, I wish Cowboy Bebop would have kept going, if only because I found the ending unsatisfactory. On the other hand, I can't imagine that the creators would take that series where I'd like to see it go...
• What is your most overrated anime?
Once again, I'm not sure I have enough experience with Anime to say for sure.
• Which character could you have an affair with?
I have no idea, but this question did make me wonder, is there an anime female that isn't cute or attractive (with the potential exception of evil villains, etc...)? Seriously, even girls who are supposed to be dorky or unpopular are cute.
• Who is your favourite character?
I stink at choosing favorites, but the first person that came to mind was Major Motoko Kusanagi from the Ghost in the Shell movies and series.
• Which character do you most dislike?
I guess Seita from Grave of the Fireflies. So infuriating.
• Which character do you identify with most?
I can't think of a particular character, but I suppose I have connected the most with the existential themes of the Ghost in the Shell series.
• Which anime changed your life?
I can't think of anything that's had that sort of effect, unless you take an overly sensitive chaos-theory approach, in which case all anime I've watched has technically changed my life (as has every experience I've ever had, right down to sitting quietly in the freezing cold (with some rain too!) for 2 days waiting for a deer to pass by but not seeing anything, not even a doe, not that I'm bitter or anything).
Posted by Mark on December 03, 2008 at 10:23 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Hellsing: Assorted Thoughts
I mentioned the other week that I wanted to try out a horror Anime series. I initially wanted to watch Vampire Hunter D because I'd seen the original and I'd heard it was just as good if not better than that film. Alas, it was not available on Netflix, so I had to find something else. Keeping with the theme of vampires, I found a couple of good reviews of Hellsing. This was an interesting experience, because my usual guides to the world of anime had almost nothing to say about Hellsing. It didn't even warrant consideration on Steven's Future Series page (not that he'd like this series, as it easily meets two of his criteria for rejection: "grim and gritty" and "blood and gore")! In any case, it seems to have good reviews and it was a short series (13 episodes), so I figured checking out the first disc was worth it. Below are some assorted thoughts and the extended entry has more screenshots and thoughts as well...
Update: Author comments. I must be somewhat frustrating to other members of the Otakusphere in that I'm not constantly posting about Anime and will sometimes go through prolonged droughts while I work through some other obsession (most recently, the 6WH marathon). This time, I was delayed in part because I went back and watched Crest of the Stars and got a little sidetracked while I waited for the final disc from Netflix (incidentally, the final disc did come at some point, and I stand by my recommendation not to skip Crest before watching Banner.)
Fledgeling Otaku also comments. He's intrigued by Alucard's invincibility and draws parallels with Avatar: The Last Airbender and even Superman (who is just about the opposite of Alucard in every way except for their theoretical invincibility - perhaps Alucard is more like General Zod?). It's an interesting perspective...
Alucard and his big gun
Did I mention that the series has lots of uber-cool shots of people pointing guns directly at the camera? That seems to be one of Alucard's favorite moves.
Here is one of Alucard's guns. Because of his superhuman strength, Alucard can cary bigger, heavier guns than a mere human. As you can see, this particular gun uses .454 Casull ammunition. This is a real caliber, and for a short time, it was the most powerful commercially produced handgun round on the market (it has since been eclipsed). I've actually shot a .454 Casull handgun, and let's just say it's a rather powerful round. Later in the series, Alucard even upgrades his weapon to a more powerful round, but he still keeps this gun around in case he wants a gun in each hand.
This is Alexander Anderson. As previously noted, he works for the Vatican's vampire hunting wing, the Iscariot Organization. He's also a Regenerator, and thus he doesn't seem to be able to die. Devoted to hunting down and killing monsters, he seems to disagree strongly with the Hellsing Organization's use of vampires, and thus he has attacked Alucard and Seras Victoria on multiple occassions. He has survived his encounters with Alucard though, and seems to be able to hold his own (though he's clearly not as powerful as Alucard).
This is Incognito, the second most powerful vampire in the series (behind only Alucard). It is mentioned that he is from "the dark continent," presumably a reference to Africa. It's also mentioned that he serves a human master, though we never really find out who that is or why it's important (as I mentioned above, this might be a source of strength for vampires, though it isn't really explored in detail).
Did I mention that this series seems to revel in creating neat visuals like this one of Alucard emerging from the smoke? Yes? Good.
The name Alucard itself implies that he is actually Dracula (Alucard backwards is Dracula - this is an alias used in Bram Stoker's original novel), but just in case you don't follow, the series really rams it home with this quick flash, followed by a picture of one of Alucard's enemies impaled on a spike.
And that about wraps it up for Hellsing. Overall, I enjoyed the series. Though I would have preferred a little more depth, they made up for it with lots of neat battle sequences and a lot of implied details...
Posted by Mark on November 12, 2008 at 08:46 PM .: link :.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
6WH: Week 6: Japanese Horror
The final week of the Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon (See Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5) kicks off with a two Japanese horror films, one disc of an Anime series, and the usual smattering of shorts and trailers.
Posted by Mark on October 26, 2008 at 09:32 PM .: link :.
Sunday, August 17, 2008
Dear Netflix User With Disc 4 of Crest of the Stars
Judging from the "Very Long Wait" status on Netflix, you've apparently had this disc for well over a month now. Please return it so the rest of us can watch. Thanks.
Also, if you're the same person who has had the final disc of Banner of the Stars II for the past month, you might want to get going on that too. I haven't started the series yet, so you've got some time, but still.
P.S. - Alternatively, if anyone from Netflix is reading, please increase stock of Crest, Banner, and Banner II. It seems like you only have one copy, and somebody still has the last disc of each series. Thanks.
Update: Crest disc 4 has been upgraded to "Long Wait." Thank you Netflix user.
Posted by Mark on August 17, 2008 at 07:58 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Crest of the Stars: Initial Thoughts
One of the things I liked about Banner of the Stars was the worldbuilding. As such, I questioned my decision to skip the first series, Crest of the Stars. When I finished Banner, I immediately put Crest in my Netflix queue. Well, I've watched the first disc and I loved it. It covers a lot of the things that were hinted at in Banner, and it does a good job explaining many of the concepts (for instance, the 2 dimensional nature of Plane Space) I didn't know about while watching Banner. A lot of stories that are set in an unfamiliar setting have a character in them that has the same knowledge as the viewer. That way, when this character learns something, the audience does too. For example, in Das Boot, the main character is a journalist who has never been aboard a u-boat. The character basically provides the filmmakers with a reason to have the captain explain things he wouldn't normally need to explain (thus the audience gets an insight into what it's like to be on a u-boat). There was no corresponding character in Banner, but Jinto effectively plays that part in Crest. He grows up not knowing much about the Abh and then gets a bit of a culture shock when he meets Lafiel for the first time.
Lafiel & Jinto
At this point, if someone asked me, I'd tell them to watch Crest first. There's enough backstory in Banner to allow someone to watch it without having seen Crest, but I get the feeling it would be a lot better if they watched Crest first. It's hard for me to tell, because in the comments of my first Banner post, Steven gave a great overview of the Abh, so I knew more than an average viewer might while watching Banner. Granted, I'm only 4 episodes into Crest, but so far it appears to be setting up the characters so that you care more about them by the time Banner rolls around. Still, I enjoyed some of the subtle character moments that establish the relationship between Jinto and Lafiel - for example, when Jinto asks Lafiel what her name is, it seems kinda strange at first, but then you find out why that moment is important a little later. Good stuff. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.
A few more assorted thoughts and screens below the fold... The animation in Crest of the Stars seems to be crisper than Banner of the Stars, which lends an overall better visual effect to the series. My Banner DVD set has only 2 discs with 6-7 episodes on each disc. That's more than I usually see on a single disc, so perhaps those discs are sacrificing quality for quantity.
An Abh Ship
When Jinto becomes a nobleman, he gets sent to another planet and secretly schooled until he gets old enough to enter the Abh military academy. When he's leaving his school, his buddy comes to visit him on the space station. It's nice to see that the fist bump remains a fixture in future culture. Also, it appears that Jinto's friend is a member of the X-Men.
Jinto and his Mutant Friend Fist Bump
At one point, Jinto and Lafiel are traveling in an turbolift (for lack of a better term) and the indicator features a bunch of geometric shapes (instead of numbers or letters). The light moves from left to right as they move. The shapes seem somewhat orderly, but I wasn't sure if they had a specific meaning or if they were meant to approximate the shapes or sizes of the various areas they were passing through...
Well that's all for now. Disc 2 just arrived today and Disc 3 should be arriving tomorrow. I could potentially get disc 4 this weekend too, if I hurry. In any case, I should have one last update on Crest next Wednesday.
Posted by Mark on July 16, 2008 at 07:38 PM .: link :.
Sunday, July 06, 2008
Banner of the Stars: Worldbuilding
I finished watching Banner of the Stars today. Spoilers ahead...
The last several episodes depict the Abh's defense of the Aptic system as it is set upon by a United Mankind counter-attack. The battle itself was riveting, but I actually think the ending was a bit anti-climatic. I'm assuming that the long-term plot arcs will be expanded upon and resolved in the sequels. There were a few things I was expecting that didn't come to pass. I would have liked to have seen some of the fabled "spectacular insanity" of the Bebaus brothers and was expecting something right up until it became clear that their fleet was no longer in any condition to contribute to the battle. Still, the concept of the Bebaus clan fascinated me, and I wanted to see more of their genius/insanity (I suppose taking a bath in the middle of a battle could be considered insane, but it winds up not mattering much either way). Instead, Admiral Bebaus seemed to proceed on a decidedly conventional course of action. Not that he commanded his fleet poorly - it was obvious that he did a good job despite being overwhelemed by a numerically superior force. I was impressed with Admiral Spoor's quick read of the situation though, and she is another character I would like to know better. None of which is to say that the series isn't satisfying, and indeed it's focus on Lafiel and Jinto are what's really important here. I have to admit that I was surprised by the fate of the Basroil, though it does make perfect sense (and again, I assume the sequels contain more on the long term story).
Admiral Spoor orders an attack
So I enjoyed the series. I have to admit that I don't have much to add that hasn't already been stated at great length elsewhere. Steven Den Beste's long comments in my first post give an interesting overview of Abh culture and royalty (indeed, at this point, I think he may have written more about the series in his comments than I have in my posts!) and he's written previously on the military aspects of the show, which are also well thought out.
As has been noted in previous posts, Banner is set in a well thought out universe. The author, Hiroyuki Morioka, has made various changes to physics, military and political systems, then systematically thought out the impact of said changes on his universe. The story of the series is interesting in itself, but the universe it's set in is clearly much broader than what we see explicitely. In SF and Fantasy, this process is known as worldbuilding. The most obvious example of worldbuilding is J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, the setting for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien spent decades defining the languages, races, and mythology of Middle-Earth before he even wrote the books (and the first of those was written for his kids, not for publication). Most science fiction contains some form of world building; it's one of the distinctive features of SF. Ultimately, though, the point of worldbuilding is to tell a human story. Sure, there are differences between our world and that of the story, but the point is to see how humans react to those changes. The balance between these two components can be tricky. A lot of SF tends to neglect worldbuilding in favor of their human story (two examples discussed on this blog recently are The Man Who Fell To Earth and Solaris). At the other extreme, there are some stories that focus almost entirely on the technology of their universe and practically ignore their characters (I get the impression that a lot of Mecha series in Anime are like this). These stories will always have their fans, but in my opinion, the best SF contains both an intriguing and internally consistent setting and interesting characters that will allow the audience to relate to the differences between reality and the constructed universe of the story.
In Banner there are several interesting extrapolations (many of which have already been covered in comments, etc...). One is the existence of the Abh themselves. They aren't exactly aliens (they're genetically engineered humans), but the small changes to their physiology seem to have brought about significant differences in culture. This is to be expected, since they were engineered for life in space, but the author of this series has done a good job extrapolating how these differences impact other aspects of life, while maintaining a familiarity with humanity (this is important because the story is told entirely from the Abh's perspective, so the audience still needs to be able to relate to the Abh). For instance, there is a distinction between a member of the Abh empire and a member of the Abh race. Jinto is of the human race, but he legally became a member of the Abh empire... he doesn't share the genetic differences of the Abh. The Abh have been engineered with an extra sensory organ which allows them to jack into their ships so that they can instinctually sense what's happening in and around the ship without having to use their other senses. This distinction between genetic and legal Abh comes into play in many areas; for example: crew composition. On the Basroil, genetic Abh hold positions related to navigation and weaponry (their extra sensory organ gives them an advantage over human members of the crew, and presumably their human enemies as well), while the humans (Samson and Jinto) handle engineering, logistics, and some other duties. I imagine other ships in the Abh fleet have similar makeups (though I didn't get a good feel for how many legally Abh humans are present in the empire). A lot of the Abh culture and societal structure seems to be driven by their differences with humanity. A race which is born in the stars and doesn't spend much time on planets is bound to develop a different type of society. The Abh's political structure is an interesting mixture of royalty and the military, and there appears to be a significant merchant fleet in addition to their navy. I was initially a little skeptical of the military component of their political system, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. They're a race that primarily space vessels and so it makes a lot of sense that their ruling class would be the people in control of the ships. Again, this is a very detailed universe, and I'm really only scratching the surface here.
Another important change is the way the series depicts space travel and combat. Interstellar travel is an intractable problem in reality, so most SF universes come up with workarounds like Hyperspace or other FTL travel. In Banner, they use something called "Plane Space." You can only enter into plane space via a gate, and unlike most other SF, plane space is actually only two-dimensional. Ships travelling through plane space must generate "space-time bubbles" which surround the ship and allow it to continue existing in its native three dimensions. There are several important implications here. Strategic battles that happen in plane space are only happening in two dimensions (tactically, battles occur within space-time bubbles, which technically contain three dimensions). This was something that initially bothered me about the series. Because I didn't understand the concept of a 2D plane space, I was a little confused as to why all the strategic readouts in the series were strictly 2D (well, actually, a lot of SF movies/series don't take advantage of the 3D nature of space - the only example I can think of off the top of my head is the battle with Khan in Star Trek II).
The Bebaus brothers view a strategic display
Another 2D Strategic Readout
This seemed odd to me when I considered how carefully constructed the rest of the universe was, so it wasn't surprising when I learned about the true nature of plane space. As a consequence, the space battles in the series actually end up feeling more like a traditional naval engagement than space combat (hence the use of familiar tactics like pincer movements, etc...) Again, there are lots of implications involved with plane space. The speed of space-time bubbles is directly related to the amount of mass contained within a bubble. This becomes important because when you engage an enemy in a space-time bubble, you're effectively increasing the amount of mass in the bubble. Even if you win, the debris from the other ship is still being carried along with you and will slow you down (there doesn't appear to be an easy way to get rid of the debris). This has other implications regarding ship design and fleet composition (smaller ships are faster and more maneuverable, but obviously not as powerful, while larger ships are much more powerful, but are sluggish and handle poorly). The notion that plane space can only be entered through gates also plays an important role - gates obviously become strategically valuable in times of war. Banner essentially follows the defense of the Aptic gate, which is strategically important in multiple ways (it's a system with a gate, it seems to be centrally located, and it's apparently got a lot of supplies).
The great thing about the worldbuilding here is that everything seems to happen because of the constructed reality. The author didn't come up with a story and then build his universe around that (you could call that a form of retconning). He came up with the universe, and the story just flowed a natural result. In Banner of the Stars, the story is the direct result of the things that make its universe different than ours. And despite all the detail, there is plenty of room for the characters. I'm still trying to wrap my head around some of the nuances of this universe. For instance, I didn't understand much of the military strategy until after the series (when I found out that plane space was two dimensional).
At this point, I'm convinced that I really do need to go back and watch Crest of the Stars and I'd like to check out Banner of the Stars II as well. I hadn't realized how much of a serial the story really was (apparently the author has plans for more books as well). I'm not sure where this will fit in with the rest of my Anime schedule, but I might just have to make room for it now while it's fresh in my mind.
Posted by Mark on July 06, 2008 at 03:24 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, July 02, 2008
Bypassing Crest of the Stars
In watching Banner of the Stars, it became immediately apparent that there was a lot of backstory. Indeed, after reading Steven Den Beste's comments on my post, it has become even more apparent that Banner is set in a detailed and well thought-out universe. As such, I'm probably going to go back and watch Crest of the Stars (which tells the story of how Jinto and Lafiel met). Apparently, I'm not the only one who has run into this. Author has been reading about Crest and is questioning his decision to bypass Crest and go directly to Banner.
Author also shares an interesting anecdote sent by TheBigN:
I speak from limited experience, but at Cornell as a freshman, our college anime club showed both Banner series (one per semester). [ ] When there was a survey about the audience’s experiences with the clubs schedule, responses were divided with people who didn’t watch Crest before the Banner series tending to pan the series, while people who watched Crest before Banner tended to praise it. And it’s understandable, since Crest introduces you to the universe of the Abh and co, and as Banner of the Stars is just a continuation from there, people who watch Banner first tend to get dropped into the story without any information on how the world works.Author thinks that Banner did an exemplary job setting up the backstory. Personally, I don't think I'd go so far as Author, but I did find that the series did a good job establishing the backstory. However, I do want to go back and watch Crest. In recent years, I've become more of a completist in that I don't generally want to jump into the middle of a series. I'd rather wait for the whole thing to be available and watch it all at once (hence my TV on DVD addiction). I probably should have taken a closer look at the original recommendations because Crest was mentioned, but my request at the time was for a more action oriented series (and Banner seems to be the better "action" series). It's been over a year since that post, so some of the arbitrary restrictions I placed on series should probably be lifted. Some of the good Anime mentioned in that post that was ruled out for one reason or another is probably fair game now (for example, Noir seems like an interesting series, even if it is somewhat grueling). I should put together a future series type page. I'll get right on that (in typical Kaedrin fashion, it should appear sometime next year and then promptly fall into disrepair as I neglect to update it).
Posted by Mark on July 02, 2008 at 12:19 AM .: link :.
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Banner of the Stars: Initial Thoughts
Still working though the original set of Anime recommendations, next up is Banner of the Stars. Netflix didn't have it in stock, so I had to delay a bit, but I found a cheapo thinpack and bought it. I'm about halfway through the series. Assorted thoughts, comments, questions, and screenshots below.
A few more screenshots and comments below the fold... This is Admiral Abriel, apparently a relation of Lafiel. He shares the distinctive pointy ears of the Abriel family. This screenshot also shows one of the odd features of the animation... namely, that you can see through his hair. Sometimes this is more prominent than others, and it's usually fine, but shots like this are a little odd..
One of the interesting things about SF in general is how little things change. For instance, the Abh apparently salute using only two fingers.
One of the things I like about the series is that strategy and tactics seem to be the focus, rather than just the combat. The series follows Operation Phantom Flame, an offensive by the Abh empire. Here's a screenshot of the general strategy. There's a primary thrust up the middle to attain the main objectives, followed by a pincer movement to pick up other systems along the same path. Apparently, there are allies on the other side of this screen which the main Abh force hopes to hook up with.
The Pincer Movement, diagrammed
As previously mentioned, the music in Galciv II is very similar to the music in this series. As such, I thought it was funny when this screen came up - a screen that is very similar to the graphs in Galciv II. Of course, this is more of a coincidence than anything else (it's not like the Banner folks invented the line graph), but the interfaces are very similar.
That's all for now. Again, more later in the week...
Posted by Mark on June 29, 2008 at 08:58 PM .: link :.
Monday, May 26, 2008
These are very old, but new to me and I'm travelling this weekend, so time is short. So over at Everything2, someone put together a list of Anime Laws of Physics. Some of my favorites:
#4 - Law of Constant Thrust, First Law of Anime MotionGood stuff, and funny even if you don't watch anime.In space, constant thrust equals constant velocity.#11 - Law of Inherent CombustibilityEverything explodes. Everything.#12 - Law of Phlogistatic EmissionNearly all things emit light from fatal wounds.#31 - Law of Follicular Chromatic VariabilityAny color in the visible spectrum is considered a natural hair color. This color can change without warning or explanation.
Apologies for the lateness of this post. I was travelling this weekend, so I wrote it on Friday (inasmuch as it required "writing") with the understanding that I would be able to use my phone to publish it yesterday. Anyway, I lost my phone, hence no entry yesterday. Sorry...
Posted by Mark on May 26, 2008 at 12:42 AM .: link :.
Sunday, May 04, 2008
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is an anime series that is based on the same Manga that inspired two films (both reviewed on Kaedrin previously). For the most part, it deals with similar subjects and themes, though it does so in a less somber and more prosaic manner, sometimes even finding room for humor and the occasional smile. Despite some flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed the series and if you enjoyed the movies, I don't see why you wouldn't enjoy the series.
The series is comprised of a mixture stand alone and continuity (or as they call it, "complex") episodes. There is a good balance between the two types of episodes, though I do think that some of the stand alone episodes felt a little rushed and could have benefited from having more time to flesh out the stories (whether that be longer episodes or splitting the story up into two episodes). That said, the stand alone episodes are still entertaining and often contribute towards the larger series (i.e. they're not completely stand alone). The continuity episodes tell the story of The Laughing Man, a masterful hacker and terrorist who has been blackmailing major corporations for six years.
Thematically, this series touches on many of the same issues as the films, but in a less direct fashion. The movies could be mind-numbingly dense at times, often directly confronting the philosophical implications of the technology in their universe (a subject I find interesting and discussed in my reviews of those movies). There are occasional info-dumps or philosophical discussions in the series, but nothing on par with the films. However, many of these technological issues come to light as a part of the plot, which tends to move forward as a result of action rather than conversations. This works well after having seen the two movies, though I'm not sure how well it would work if you haven't seen either of them. If I had to guess, I'd say this series still raises all the fascinating questions the films does, just in a less direct fashion. What makes me what I am? Am I really who I think I am? If I could copy my brain into a computer network, would that still be me? If I could swap "shells" (bodies) or project my "ghost" (i.e. soul) into another shell, is that me? Again, the series doesn't confront these issues directly, but it does use such technology in service of the story, which begs the questions. What would the subjective experience of transferring your consciousness from one body to another be like? Can a machine develop or have a ghost? What's the difference between an artificial body (like the Major has) and an avatar (like the Major uses in episode 9)? And so on.
Another interesting thing about the series is external memory, or memories that are not stored in your brain (but on some other media, like a hard drive). These devices are referenced much more frequently in this series than in the movies, and I found it interesting because that is the direction we're heading. The internet has created this phenomenon wherby you think you know something, but you really don't... you just know where to look up the information on the internet. Obviously, this isn't new (or unique to the internet), but it is accelerating. It reminded me of Charles Stross' book Accelerando, a book I didn't particularly love and never actually finished, but which had some interesting technological musings. At one point in the book, a character who stayed in constant communication with the net via a pair of glasses has them stolen. Without the glasses (i.e. without access to his external memory), he feels profoundly lost and unable to cope with reality. Obviously, we haven't reached that point yet, but GitS:SAC shows several examples of this sort of thing.
There are some new themes as well, namely the titular Stand Alone Complex, which refers to a phenomenon where you see emergent copycat behavior without an original. For example, let's say that someone dies in suspicous circumstances. The death could very well be attributed to natural causes, but some people might be tempted to call it a murder or conspiracy, and even others might take the opportunity to commit a copycat murder. The situation could escalate into a series of murders, all by different copycat killers. This is a stand alone complex, and it's distinct from normal copycat behavior in that the original death was not actually a murder. As Chief Aramaki notes, they're "Nothing but copies without an original." It's something of an odd concept, and it's a little difficult to understand during the series, but it does touch on many concepts I find fascinating, such as emergent, self-organizing behavior. It also appears in several forms throughout the series, with direct references, but also in more subtle ways. For example, the Laughing Man's logo is basically a second-order simulacra, which is a symbol without a referant. The symbol contains a quote from Catcher in the Rye and the name Laughing Man is a reference to another Salinger story, but the symbol doesn't really represent either, nor does it actually represent what became known as "The Laughing Man."
Public Security Section 9
The main characters of the series are the members of a special operations task-force called Public Security Section 9. This is a small team of around 8 well trained and competent members whose main charter is to perform search and rescue operations, but this ends up leading to counter-terrorism and more general anti-crime tasks. You get a much better idea of what this organization is during the series, and you also get to know its members a little better (though perhaps not as much as I liked, more on this later). Many of the members who only have fleeting appearances in the movies take on a more solid role in the series. The team seems to be highly autonomous and independent, picking and choosing their targets carefully, but often without interference from the rest of the government. This is probably due to the political leader of the group, Chief Aramaki. Members of the team also share this autonomous and independent attitude and are often trusted to carry out tasks without any intrusion from others. Aside from the Chief and Major Kusanagi (who seems to have emerged as the team's combat leader), there don't appear to be any ranks or jobs, though it's obvious that some members of the team have certain specialties (for instance Ishikawa is almost always at a computer terminal, crunching numbers or tracking down the "ditigal paper trail" of whoever Section 9 is hunting, and he almost never enters battle. On the other hand, Batou is clearly a brute force combat specialist who almost never messes around with information warfare.)
Again, the movies tend to be more philosophically inclined than the series, which seems content to let the philosophical implications of their universe simmer beneath the surface of a straightforward police procedural (albeit one that is spiced up with hackers, an addition that actuall works well). There are occasions when the philosophy comes to the foreground though, such as episodes 12 and 15, both of which deal with Section 9's AI-equipped mini-tanks, the Tachikomas. In a previous post on Gits:SAC, Author wondered if I was liking the Tachikomas, which gave me the impression that they're dislikd in the Anime world (not sure about that though). To be sure, the Tachikomas do seem to have a child-like demeanor (they're voiced in high pitched, young sounding female voices, for instance) and often make naive statements. These "cute" characteristics are odd when considering that they are combat vehicles. Conceptually, however, they do provide fodder for one of the interesting themes of the GitS universe, namely the question of whether or not a machine can acquire a ghost (aka a soul). In the series, Tachikomas have artificial intelligence... however, they are synchronized every night so they have identical memories. This leads to some confusion later on, as memories experienced by a specific Tachikoma become shared amongst all the other Tachikomas... which begs the question of which one of them actually experienced the event (they can't figure it out). It is interesting that despite the synchronization process, the Tachikomas somehow manage to develop individual and distinct personalities. So even though they "wake up" every morning with the same memories, they still exhibit differing personalities and opinions (for example, one of the Tachikomas spends all its time reading paper books... every night, the memory of reading these books is synchronized with the other Tachikomas, but this one Tachikoma is the only one that continues to read).
In Isaac Asimov's robot novels, one of the main characters, a humanoid robot named R. Daneel Olivaw, mentions that while he cannot experience emotions, his positronic circuitry seems to run more smoothly when he's around Elijah Baily (his human parter). When thinking about the potential paradoxes created by the synchronization process, I thought of Olivaw. The engineer in me also thought of tolerances and chaos theory, meaning that even though each Tachikoma has it's memories and consciousness synchronized every night, minor defects in the manufacturing process (which are within tolerance) could account for differences in personality (inasmuch as a machine can have a personality). Batou seems to have the most affection for the Tachikomas, and has indeed picked one particular Tachikoma as his own (and he pampers it with natural oil instead of the synthetic oil used for the others - this leads to interesting consequences later on in the series). Ultimately, the Tachikomas are a relatively small part of the series, but I think they are an important part of the series, and I guess given the above, I did really like their storyline and would welcome more.
Despite the lighter tone of the show, it does still tackle mature themes and the setting is somewhat "grim and gritty" (like the movies) and so I can see why someone like Steven Den Beste wouldn't be that interested in the series (though I think he would find the existential questions interesting, I can see how he wouldn't love the universe that brings them up). I have less of a read on what Author likes, though I gather he didn't care much for this series. However, I do think that Fledge would enjoy the show, if only he could get Netflix Watch Instantly running...
One of the big complaints of the series is that the animation is poor, and that is indeed true. This is a huge step down from the two films. The conceptual design is actually quite good, and there are some striking compositions throughout the series, but the biggest issues are that the backgrounds are less textured and the movements are less fluid. There is also an inconsistency in the way certain characters are drawn that gets annoying (see below the fold for an egregious example). The screenshots I'm posting actually look decent, but again, it's the movement of the characters that is really lacking. I'm hoping that the 2nd Gig series will be an improvement (I'm pretty sure it's not), but in any case, though the animation was inferior, it also didn't distract me too much from the story or themes (which I consider more important, and they are indeed very well done).
The music of the series is different than the films, but holds it's own. This shouldn't be a surprise, as the music is mostly done by Yoko Kanno (the composer behind Cowboy Bebop's awesome music). Though perhaps not as distinctive as her work on Cowboy Bebop, Kanno's music is quite good and better than most anime series I've seen. Also on the sound front, I'll note that the dubbing for this series is much, much better than it is for the first movie (I don't think there is a dub for the second movie). I was using Netflix's online-streaming service, so I didn't have the choice to watch a sub, so I can't comment on that (or on any differences in translation), but again, the dubbing is pretty well done here.
So I really enjoyed the series and have added Gits:SAC 2nd Gig to my queue. It's got its flaws, but its positives outweight the negatives handily.
More comments and screenshots below the fold... As mentioned above, the animation in the series is not as detailed or textured as the movies. It can also be quite inconsistent, such as this case in which it looks like Batou put on a hundred pounds between episodes.
Batou's fat face
Most members of Section 9 are cyberized to some degree, but Togusa is almost completely human (he has cyberbrain implants, but that's it). Interestingly, Togusa is one of the most valuable members of the team, and he's constantly putting pieces of the puzzle together before his cyberized partners. Here's the Major and Togusa debating the Laughing Man Case.
Togusa and the Major
The OP for the series features a completely different kind of CG animation. It's a much smoother, shinier CG render. It seems to be more detailed as well, and the shading is definitely better. The movement is still a little jerky and the look begins to approach the uncanny valley for characters, so I guess I'm glad that the actual episodes don't rely on this too heavily. Still, it is a little strange that the OP features this different animation...
CG Rendered Major
And the ED for the series takes on yet another style. The art is similar to that used in the series, but instead of being animated, all you see are still shots of various characters. Like the OP, it features a bunch of scenes not in the series, which wouldn't be that big of a deal, except that I think a lot of these still shots depict things I kinda wanted to see in the series. I mentioned above that you got to know the members of Section 9 a little better, but you do so mostly through their work. In some of the stills of the ED, you see several members just kinda hanging out, playing cards, or shooting some pool. I would have liked to have seen that sort of thing in the series a little more often. In several cases, stuff like this is hinted at, but nothing much comes of it. For instance, the Major seems to have several female friends (roommates?), but she rarely sees them. (This made me wonder if full replacement cyborgs ever sleep or if they're pretty much constantly working. There are some references to hobbies and whatnot - Batou lifts weights, the Major mentions watching movies, etc... but we never see much of this in the show. Somwhere along the way, I got the implication that being a full replacement cyborg was hugely expensive and that they are basically obliged to work long hours to pay off their maintenance...)
Togusa and Ishkawa watch Saito play cards
Boma and Pazu shoot some pool
In a previous post, I mentioned that Major Kusanagi tends to wear... suggestive... outfits. I found it a little odd. Steven Den Beste noted that it could be a character trait:
As to why Kusanagi wears lingerie a lot of the time, that might well be explainable in character terms. Remember that she's a full-replacement cyborg. The only "original equipment" left is her brain. All the rest is mechanism.I don't know if I fully buy that, but it's certainly an interesting conjecture. The Major does get "dressed up" for formal occasions, and she actually manages to wear pants for a good portion of the episodes. Still, I found it a little odd. At one point, while wearing an especially skimpy outfit, Chief Aramaki actually calls it out as being strange, which I thought was kinda funny. In any case, the psychological implications of being a full replacement cyborg certainly play a role in the series. As full replacement cyborgs, they often cling to objects that have sentimental meaning to them - the Major has a watch. This is basically a way of reminding herself that she's still human (or that she was human). As these things go, the Major is actually not that sentimental, but Batou certainly is. He lifts weights (but since he's a cyborg, he has no muscle tissue, so the act has no real meaning other than to connect with his humanity), he has a favorite Tachikoma, and in the movies he has a basset hound. Anyway, here are some pics of the Major:
The Major, in uniform
And just for good measure, here are some of the vehicle designs in the series. The creators seem to have a thing for propellers.
And that about wraps things up. Up next is Banner of the Stars. I actually have the DVDs in hand this time, so it should be a relatively quick watch...
Posted by Mark on May 04, 2008 at 02:47 PM .: link :.
Sunday, April 20, 2008
I've been watching a lot of TV on DVD (or Netflix Watch Online) lately. It can be quite an addictive experience, as the shows don't have commercials and many episodes end with something interesting (not necessarily a cliffhanger, but enough to make you want to see what happens next). I usually end up watching a bunch of episodes at once. In the past few months I've watched a bunch of shows in this fashion, including Dexter (seasons 1 and 2), Battlestar Galactica (season 3), It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (seasons 1 and 2), Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and The Wire (seasons 1 and 2). It helps that all of these shows are pretty good, but I began to wonder about the impact of watching shows on DVD versus broadcast television. I also started to wonder what the ideal length of a TV episode should be and why most Anime series, even dramatic ones, tend to be only a half-hour, while the best American drama series tend to be an hour per episode...
A few weeks ago, I finished up BSG season three and in my post on the subject, I said:
I'll be able to watch season 4 as it happens. This presents an interesting contrast though, as I've watched the first three seasons on DVD. I've been wondering lately what impact this sort of schedule has on the perception of a series. It's certainly fun to watch. Addicting, actually. Will watching only a single episode a week (as opposed to 4 commercial-free episodes at a time) have a positive impact on my perception of the show? It's obviously a highly subjective question, but I guess I'm going to find out.So we're a few episodes into season 4 of BSG, and I have to say that I'm not enjoying it as much as when I was watching it on DVD (though the latest episode was pretty good). It's hard to tell if it's the notion of having to wait a week between episodes, or if it's just that the quality of the episodes is bothering me, and there's no real way to accurately test this, though I suppose if I do it more often (i.e. watch a series on DVD and catch up to the broadcast) I could get a better idea of how this impacts a show. Season 3 of Dexter is supposed to start up sometime this summer, so I guess that's my next chance...
I'm particularly interested in this when it comes to Anime episodes, because most of us Westerners pick up DVD sets and watch multiple episodes at a time. Perhaps it's the typical half-hour duration that Anime uses (more on this later), but I wonder if a series would get frustrating if I had to wait a week between episodes. For GitS:SAC, there are some episodes that fit well into the series when watching it all at once, but that I think i'd find frustrating if I had to wait a week to see the next episode. For instance, the entirety of episode 9 takes place in a chat room where a bunch of people talk about the Laughing Man (a cyber-terrrorist whos is being chased throughout the series). I guess some interesting stuff comes to light in that episode, but if I was watching that series as it aired, I might have been a little more underwhelmed. I love Haibane Renmei, but I have to admit that it's probably not something I'd have stuck with if I had to wait a week between each episode (at least, not until DVD). And so on.
I think part of that is that the duration for the grand majority of Anime seems to be a half-hour (with commercials, OPs, and EDs, it works out to around 22-23 minutes an episode), and I'm not sure that's the ideal length for some of the stories that are being told through Anime. Of course, lumping all Anime together is foolish, as it's extremely broad and some series work fine.
So what is the ideal length of a TV episode? Let's take a look at the typical lengths (emphasis is on American series, as that's what I'm most familiar with, but I'll also go a little into Anime):
These days there are too many long-form TV shows to list. A big part of this is that people have broken away from broadcast television and consume their media in different ways (DVRs, torrents, even waiting for a DVD set), so they don't really have to worry about missing an episode and losing track of what's happening in the story. There's also a notion that television series have gotten much more complex and referential to be more cognitively engaging for the audience (Steven Johnson makes a compelling case for this sort of thing in his book, Everything Bad is Good for You). It's much easier to develop a multi-threaded story comprised of a complex network of relationships in 12-24 hours than it is in one or two hours.
Interestingly, television used to be the domain of the short form narrative, where a story was crammed into a 23 or 46 minute timeframe. Movies told more of a long form story that took 90 minutes to 3 or even 4 hours to develop. However, as time goes on and our ability to time-shift television programming gets better, television and film have become inverted. Television now tells the long form stories, and because they have even more time than movies, their stories can be that much richer and more complex. Of course, this all depends on how well done the television show is. The Wire would certainly hold its own with most movies, but it's also a bit of an outlier. Most shows are not done at the same quality level as The Wire.
Given the above, I have to wonder why there aren't more Anime series that have a one hour format. I think hour long episodes tend to be better for telling a complete narrative (or contributing a more meaningful chunk of an overall story arc) than a half hour episode, so I think it would be interesting to see an Anime series take on that sort of format. For instance, I think GitS:SAC would benefit greatly from a little more time to flesh out the characters and their universe (which, as I've noted before, can sometimes be a little confusing - though I should note that SAC is better at this than the feature films, which have even less time to spare). Instead, I get a rushed feeling from some episodes (and I had a similar reaction to some episodes of of Vandread and Cowboy Bebop too). In many cases, Anime series are already telling a long form story, so it would be interesting to see if an hour long format would make that long form story better (or worse?)
Posted by Mark on April 20, 2008 at 03:53 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
GitS:SAC - More Thoughts
After several episodes of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, I have a few other quick thoughts:
Posted by Mark on March 12, 2008 at 09:34 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex - Initial Thoughts
I've started watching this series, and after the first episode, several things occur to me.
Posted by Mark on March 05, 2008 at 09:23 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, February 06, 2008
Via Author, I found this question posed by Iwa ni Hana:
Why would fans want to experience / creators want to tell more or less the same story with more or less the same characters in different formats, be it manga, TVA, OVA, feature film, CD drama, novel, live action movie or live-action TV series?The structure of the question pretty much demands a two part answer (one for fans and one for creators), and I'll tack on some tangents while I'm at it.
I imagine that the creators question has the easier answer, though there are really several possible reasons why a creator would want to adapt their work to other mediums. Perhaps the creator always wanted to make a movie, but lacked the resources and expertise to create one, so they started with a comic book/manga/web comic instead (Author notes this in his post - "formats form a vague hierarchy of expense, with cheaper works (such as manga) forming the base and being adopted into more expensive arts."). Another big reason could be because the creator wants their story to reach a wider audience. A corollary to that would be that the creator would assent to an adaptation because they were paid well, and if the adaptation is successful, they may be able to achieve a higher degree of independence or creative freedom in their future work. Note that these aren't necessarily good things, but high-cost mediums like film require creators to make a name for themselves before studios will sign off on the budget for a dream project.
This probably isn't that common a scenario, but it's definitely possible, and the history of film shows great filmmakers "slumming it" before they go on to make their classics. Take Stanley Kubrick. He got his start as a photographer for Look magazine. He once did a photo-essay on a boxer named Walter Cartier, which he later adapted into an independently financed short-subject documentary called Day of the Fight. He parlayed that minor success into a few more short documentaries and then into narrative fiction films, doing kinda standard noir thrillers like Killer's Kiss and The Killing. These are fine films, and better than most of their contemporaries, but Kubrick was also paying his dues in the film industry, which is something he continued to do up until Spartacus, after which his career really took off. He had proven himself a bankable commodity. A filmmaker popular with the critics and with audiences (a rarity, to be sure). Again, this probably isn't that true of all artists who do (or allow) adaptations of their own work, but it seems likely that at least some creators would pursue other mediums so that they can tell the stories they want to tell.
The fan's perspective is a little more complicated. Why would you want to watch what basically amounts to the same story you just read? I'm honestly not sure. Personally, there are definitely cases where a book is adapted into a movie and I dread watching the movie (said dread is often justified). But there are a few reasons this could happen. First, it could be a way to introduce a friend to one of your favorite authors or books without nagging them to read the books. Second, there is often a chance, however slim, that the adaptation will add something new and interesting to the source material. Most adaptations are, by necessity, not the exact same story. In the rare instances where they are, they generally turn out a little bland (I actually enjoyed the first two Harry Potter films, but they're also bland and a little boring if you've read the books). Indeed, many of the best adaptations are significantly different than their source material. Not to keep using Kubrick as an example, but The Shining is a wonderful example of a movie that only bears a superficial resemblance to the book, and yet is quite entertaining. It's also one of the few examples of an adaptation that has carved out it's own reputation without affecting the reputation of the source material. In my mind, both the book and movie are classics, but for different reasons. This actually makes sense, as different mediums use different "language" (for lack of a better term) for telling a story. I think this is part of why authors who write the screenplays for movie adaptations of their work often produce disappointing results. For example, take any number of Stephen King adaptations where he's written the script, including even The Shining mini-series, which pales in comparison to Kubrick's film.
This brings up an interesting question about movies that end up being better than their source material. Of course, most often, it's the other way around, but in some instances, lightning strikes. Unfortunately, I haven't read many of the typical examples, but from what I can see, both Jaws and The Godfather took rather conventional source material and elevated them into classics. One I have read that's a better movie is The Bourne Identity. It's not an utterly brilliant movie, but I thought the book was poorly written (though I think I like the story better). Other books I've read that have at least comparable or debatably good adapatations are Fight Club and The Exorcist.
All of which makes me wonder why people don't adapt (or remake) bad stories that have a neat idea. The All Movie Talk podcast had an interesting list of movies that should be remade, and I think it's an interesting concept.
But I digress. Another reason fans might want to see an adaptation is that they're just so enamored with the characters or the story that they revel in any chance to revisit them. As Author notes, other mediums may add something of value to the original work, even if the adaptation is not as good as the original.
So to recap, there are lots of reasons! Personally, I find the most compelling to be spreading the story around to a wider audience, though I do have a soft spot for wanting something new and exciting from an adaptation. Then, of course, you also get totally off the wall stuff like the movie Adaptation, which is based on an oddly recursive story: The screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, was hired to write an adaptation of Susan Orlean's novel The Orchid Thief, but he found the task to be quite difficult and could not seem to make any progress. So instead of actually writing the adaptation, he writes a script about how he is having trouble writing the adaptation. (A quick tangent: Ironically, the one story that Stephen King has sworn not to sell the film rights for is the Dark Tower series, in which King basically pulls the Adaptation trick.) In the end, I think adaptations are good things, even if many of them are of dubious quality.
Posted by Mark on February 06, 2008 at 07:50 PM .: link :.
Monday, February 04, 2008
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
As I made a last minute rush to watch 2007 movies for the recent awards, my netflix queue was whittled down a bit (I'm at a manageable 109 DVDs) and without paying attention to my queue, I ended up getting Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence in the mail last week. I enjoyed the first film a lot, and after watching the sequel, I ended up with pretty much the same feeling as the first. It's not perfect, but it is an excellent animated film and it brings up many thought provoking subjects.
Minor Spoilers below...
The first Ghost in the Shell film has a cult following and is rightly proclaimed as one of the essential Anime films that anyone interested in the form needs to see. It was one of the first to be released in theaters in the U.S., though it has been more successful on DVD than in the theaters. It's weighty themes and confusing plot turned off some people, but struck me as being fascinating, and it has also captured the imagination of U.S. filmmakers (you can't watch the lobby gunfight in The Matrix without being reminded a little of the first GitS film, and even the Wachowski brothers have acknowledged the influece of the Anime in their work). 9 years after the first film, this sequel was made.
The story takes place in 2032, and it follows the special officers of Section 9 as they investigate a series of grisly murders committed by gynoids (basically female robots used for, well, take a guess). Many characters from the first film return, including the main protagonist of this feature, Batou. Other members of Section 9, such as Chief Aramaki and Togusa also make appearances. After the disappearance of Major Kusanagi in the first film, Togusa becomes Batou's new partner (Togusa clearly knows he has big shoes to fill, but he works well with Batou, and as Alex notes, one of the joys of this film is the camaraderie they share) and they trace the murders back to a specific model of gynoid, made by a cyborg company called Locus Solus. It appears they're doing something strange to their gynoids which makes them more desirable than other models, but also appears to drive them crazy. As Batou and Togusa get closer to the truth, help arrives in the form of an old friend.
Like the first film, the plot can be a little obtuse at times, and would probably take a few viewings to fully decipher. I get the impression that this whole series loses something in translation, though I obviously can't be sure. This film is not quite as difficult as its predecessor, but there are still lots of plot twists and complex shifts of perspective. In general, it covers most of the same thematic ground as the first film, but from different angles. The first film was about cyborgs - human beings that were becoming more and more machine - and the philosophical implications of that. I talk about this a little in my review of the first film:
It's a dense story, and the technological advances pose a ton of intriguing questions about the nature of identity. The Major, whose physical body is almost all machine, is understandably a little paranoid about her identity. Is she really who she thinks she is? Is anyone really who they think they are? What makes me what I am? If my consciousness is transferred into an artificial brain, am I still me? This is the sort of thing that will stay with you long after the film has ended.The first movie was all about how replacing or augmenting humanity with technology changed the nature of identity. In Ghost in the Shell 2, many of the same ideas are covered, but from the perspective of robots that take on characteristics of humanity (instead of the the other way around). There are a lot of thought provoking ideas here, and once again, I found myself asking lots of interesting questions. At what point does a machine become sentient? What's the difference between an artificial intelligence and a human intelligence? Are the two compatible? Can you transfer a human consciousness into an artificial construct? And so on. You'll note a marked similarity between these questions and the ones from the first film, and for the most part, there isn't much that's really new here. That said, it's certainly a subject worth further exploration, and I think this film does a good job of it, making a good complement to the first film.
Major Kusanagi (the protagonist from the first film) makes an appearance in this film, though in an unusual way. Kusanagi and Batou have an interesting relationship. In the first film, it's clear Batou has a sorta cyber-crush on Kusanagi, but they were both full cyborgs. They retained some of their humanity, I suppose, which is why you can see some chemistry (for lack of a better term) between them, but being cyborgs owned by Section 9 had taken its toll. In the second film, Kusanagi no longer exists within a human form, instead opting to take up residence in a global computer network, but she's able to download portions of her consciousness to the physical world in some situations, and Batou refers to her as his "guardian angel." It's clear that even in their respective forms, one a full-replacement cyborg, the other a disembodied consciousness living in a global network, they retain some sort of attraction. Romantic isn't the right word for whatever it is, but neither really is platonic (though it could be argued). It's something new, something different.
While the film explores such weighty topics, it's all done in the form of an entertaining pot-boileresque thriller with plenty of opportunities for action. It's maybe a little more fun that the first movie, though both employ this technique. There are some elements of neo-noir, and a lot of references or familiar influences. Asimov's laws are clearly in evidence, but the most obvious influence is, of course, Blade Runner, and Manhola Dargis makes some interesting comments in the NY Times review of the film:
A study in earth tones and gum-shoe rectitude, Batou is a self-conscious cross between the detective played by Harrison Ford in "Blade Runner" and the runaway android played by Rutger Hauer. Drawn along the same solid lines as Mr. Hauer, Bateau comes clad in the classic world-weariness worn by Mr. Ford, one difference being that Mr. Oshii's tough guy keeps a basset hound. A floppy bundle of love and slobber, the dog is a link to the ghost (human identity) in Batou's machinery and, perhaps, as the hagiographic images of the hound suggest, something else.
From a technical perspective, the film has made some improvements over the original. It's much more visually spectacular than the first film (see screenshots in the extended entry for more). This is probably due to the striking mixture of traditional 2D animation for the characters and newfangled computer generated 3D animation for backgrounds (which are breathtakingly complex and textured). In some cases, the illusion of depth was noticeably prevalent (I'm sure there are lots of animated films like that, but there's something different here that struck me). The film is filled with epic vistas depicting a mix of industrial and classical architecture, and it sometimes feels like you're watching a painting. The action sequences are more elaborate and entertaining, and the settings are great. The movements of the robots are awkward and creepy, which actually works well. Kenji Kawai did the score for both films, and helps imbue both films with a similar atmosphere. My one real complaint was that the DVD I got was strangely set up: instead of subtitles, it only had an option for closed captioning and thus it includes descriptions of sounds or actions like "Helicopter approaches..." etc... (There was apparently a big controversy when this was first released, as the DVD didn't include a dubbing either. This has supposedly been fixed in newer versions, but the one I got from Netflix was the closed caption one.)
What you end up with is a very well made, intriguing motion picture. It's not as original as it's predecessor (obviously... it is a sequel), but it's still thought provoking and it makes for an interesting companion to the original, further exploring the same themes from different perspectives. If you liked the first film, chances are, you'll like this too. And if you're like me, you'll find yourself asking a lot of interesting questions... *** (three stars out of four)
As usual, more screenshots and comments (and more specific spoilers) below the fold... Batou is a badass in this film, much moreso than in the previous film. Here he has just fought his way through a throng of killer androids when he encounters Kusanagi, who has downloaded herself into one of the killer androids (incidentally, Kusanagi is still a badass as she demonstrates in the scenes immediately following this one).
The cars in this movie are inexplicably retro. Of course, the interiors are futuristic (there's an elaborate "Pursuit Vehicle Checking System" that runs every time they park the car), so perhaps it's just a future fad or something.
As I mentioned earlier, I got the impression of depth much more than I typically do for animation, and this was one of the first examples. It's a little hard to tell on a still image, but when Batou is walking down this grimy deserted alley, the feeling of motion and depth is downright palpable (as the NY Times article notes, it's a "photo-realist alley so authentically derelict that it's a surprise you can't smell it").
At one point, Batou and Togusa head up north to investigate Locus Solus. There are a whole bunch of gorgeous shots as they fly above the industrial city, followed by a startling sequence depicting a Chinese festival set to Kawai Kenji’s moody score. These are gorgeous landscapes, and there's a lot more than I'm showing here...
Again, there's a lot to chew on here, so I could probably go on and on, but this just about wraps it up.
Posted by Mark on February 04, 2008 at 05:35 PM .: link :.
Sunday, December 30, 2007
I've been remiss in my anime watching of late. After I finished Cowboy Bebop, I immediately bumped Banner of the Stars to the top of my Netflix queue. Unfortunately, it was marked as having a "Very Long Wait." Two months later, and it's availablity still hadn't changed... so I looked into it, and it turns out that by "Very Long Wait," Netflix actually meant "unavailable." Since the DVDs don't appear to be out of print, I suppose there's a possibility that Netflix will buy a new set, but for my purposes, I'll need to move on to another series.
Looking back at my Anime recommendations post, I've made it through most of the strong recommendations, but there are still a few series left there that interest me, and even some that didn't fit my original requirements, but which also interest me. Here's the list, including series I've already watched
Posted by Mark on December 30, 2007 at 03:23 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Facial Expressions and the Closed Eye Syndrome
I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink, and one of the chapters focuses on the psychology of facial expressions. Put simply, we wear our emotions on our face, and some enterprising psychologists took to mapping the distinct muscular movements that the human face can make. It's an interesting process, and it turns out that people who learn these facial expressions (of which there are many) are eerily good at recognizing what people are really thinking, even if they aren't trying to show it. It's almost like mind reading, and we all do it to some extent or another (mostly, we do it unconsciously). Body language and facial expressions are packed with information, and we'd all be pretty much lost without that kind of feedback (perhaps why misunderstandings are more common on the phone or in email). Most of the time, our expressions are voluntary, but sometimes they're not. Even if we're trying to suppress our expressions, a fleeting look may cross our faces. Often, these "micro-expressions" last only a few milliseconds and are imperceptible, but when trained psychologists watch video of, say, Harold "Kim" Philby (a notorious soviet spy) giving a press conference, they're able to read him like a book (slow motion helps).
I found this example interesting, and it highlights some of the subtle differences that can exist between expressions (in this case, between a voluntary and involuntary expression):
If I were to ask you to smile, you would flex your zygomatic major. By contrast, if you were to smile spontaneously, in the presence of genuine emotion, you would not only flex your zygomatic but also tighten the orbicularis oculi, pars orbitalis, which is the muscle that encircles the eye. It is almost impossible to tighten the orbicularis oculi, pars orbitalis on demand, and it is equally difficult to stop it from tightening when we smile at something genuinely pleasurable.I found that interesting in light of the Closed Eye Syndrome I noticed in Anime. I wonder how that affects the way we perceive Anime. If a smiling mouth by itself means a fake expression of happiness while a smiling mouth and closed eyes means genuine emotion, does that make the animation more authentic? Animation obviously doesn't have the fidelity of video or film, but we can obviously read expressions from animated faces, so I would expect that closed eye syndrome exists more because of accuracy than anything else. In my original post on the subject, Roy noted that the reason I noticed closed eyes in anime could have something to do with the way Japan and the US read emotion. He pointed to an article that claimed Americans focus more on the mouth while the Japanese focus more on the eyes when trying to read emotions from facial expressions. One example from the article was emoticons. For happiness, Americans use a smily face :) while the Japanese tend to use ^_^ (which seems to be a face with eyes closed). That might still be part of it, but ever since I made the observation, I've noticed similar expressions in American animation (I just recently noticed it a lot in a Venture Bros. episode). Still, occurrences in American animation seem less frequent (or perhaps less obvious), so perhaps the observation still holds.
Gladwell's book is interesting, as expected, though I'm not sure yet if he has a point other than to observe that we do a lot of subconscious analysis and make lots of split decisions, and sometimes this is good (other times it's not). Still, he's good at finding examples and drilling down into the issue, and even if I'm not sure about his conclusions, it's always fun to read. There's lots more on this subject in the book (for instance, he goes over how facial expressions and our emotions are a two way phenomenon - meaning that if you intentionally contort your face in an specific way, you can induce certain emotions. The psychologists I mentioned earlier who were mapping expressions noticed that after a full day of trying to manipulate their facial muscles to show anger (even though they weren't angry) they felt horrible. Some tests have been done to confirm that, indeed, our facial expressions are linked directly to our brain) and it's probably worth a read if that's your bag.
Posted by Mark on November 28, 2007 at 08:19 PM .: link :.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
Cowboy Bebop: Miscellaneous Thoughts
Additional assorted thoughts on Cowboy Bebop (see also: Initial Thoughts and The Ending). I'll have some more thoughts on the ending, but for the most part my opinion of the end hasn't changed much. As you might expect, spoilers below (I'm putting most of the spoilers in the extended entry though). First, the non-spoilers:
Beer and cereal, breakfast of champions.
Closed-eyes syndrome continues unabated. In that post, Roy noted an article which said that the Japanese tend to depict emotions with the eyes, rather than the mouth (as we do in the states). This is far from scientific, but there are several indications of this, and one is that happy emoticons in the US are :) or :D (which basically depicts a smile), while in Japan, the typical happy emoticon is ^_^ (which looks like closed eyes to me). But I've also noticed watching anime that a lot of emotion tends to be put in the eyes, and it's not just the closed eyes. For instance, then Faye has her epiphany in the shower and runs into Spike, her eyes are quivering.
I watched episode 24 again, with particular emphasis on Ed's story. Steven Den Beste and I disagreed about the character, and I wanted to check it out. While I do think Steven is right to note the indifference of Ed's character during the mushroom episode, I don't think it's really an indication of serious sociopathy (sociopathy is much more apparent in Spike, who has mostly closed himself off from the crew and hasn't really built any enduring relationships beyond the ones of his past, which haunt him). Ed's just a kid, after all, and if she was a sociopath, I don't think she'd have the relationship she did with Faye (who's sorta like a big sister) and Jet (who's a sorta father figure). Faye, in particular, seems to have influence over Ed. In the screenshot above, Faye is leaving the Bebop to go back to her family's home. She makes a big deal about "belonging" there and tells Ed that she belongs somewhere too, and that she should go there. That's when Ed leaves (note, Ed doesn't go chasing after her dad when he runs away - she just says "Father person is gone" and then hops back on the Bebop). And before Ed leaves, she gives Spike a little gift (a little wind Toy, which Spike later attaches to the front of Bebop - perhaps he's not a sociopath after all) and paints a farewell on the deck of the Bebop:
Also, and I'm keenly aware that this is my naive optimism that noticed this, when Ed is talking to Ein during her departure, she says that she's going "far away" and that she "might not come back." So that means she "might" come back and she might not. Given that Faye came back, I think it's possible that Ed would too. Of course, the series doesn't really give any indication that Faye stays and even less that Ed would be back, but hey, a guy can dream, can't he? I wonder if a sequel could ever happen?
One thing I've noticed in a lot of Japanese movies and anime is that English appears often, though in many cases, it doesn't make much sense. For instance, I noticed several random books in the Read or Die OVA that had titles like Mr Bad Guy or I Can Hear Music, which don't make much sense from my perspective (or at least, they're silly), but may add a bit of flavor to a Japanese viewer. So I thought it was funny when Jet and Spike sat down for a drink at the "Loser Bar." However, the English in Cowboy Bebop was pretty good, so I'm guessing this is just a none-too-subtle commentary on Jet and Spike's state of mind.
I mentioned in my initial thoughts post that some of the action was framed like a John Woo film, and indeed, a lot of the action in the series seems to be influenced by the Hong Kong action scene. Apparently I'm not alone, as a commenter at Pixy's site named CPT. Charles notes: "Perhaps I'm imagining things, but I plenty of themes/storylines/hero-villian interactions in Bebop that I have seen before...in HK films. If John Wu would do anime, it would resemble Bebop." (sic).
Now this isn't a HK action trope (at least, not to my knowledge), but the final confrontation between Spike and Vicious has Spike armed with a semi-auto handgun and Vicious armed with a sword. Spike has been shot and otherwise beaten up, so his aim is a little off, and they actually manage to make the fight seem well matched (even though a gun is obviously preferable - right Indy?)
In the comments to the last entry, there was some speculation that maybe Spike isn't really dead. After all, Spike had endured previous beatings that were just as bad if not worse, multiple times throughout the series (and he gets shot in the head and thrown off a moving train hundreds of feet off the ground in the movie without dying). What's more is that the series creator apparently doesn't know whether Spike is dead or alive. However, I find that hard to believe, as the visual aspects of the ending clearly point to Spike being dead. Most people will point to the fading star at the end of the credits, but even the screenshot I posted above implies death. Well, not death, but the saturated, washed out brightness of the shot usually symbolizes transcendence or resolution, and in this case, that means that Spike is dead. To me, at least.
My overall feeling of Cowboy Bebop is that it's a really good series, maybe even great. There are some things I don't like about the ending, but other than that, it's a fantastic series and I enjoyed it more than I did most of my recent Anime viewing. Even though I didn't love some aspects of the ending (at the very least, depending on interpretations, it's anticlimatic), I don't think that really impacts my feelings on the series as a whole (i.e. it didn't ruin the whole series for me). After all, the series is mostly episodic, and though they feature the same characters and some continuity between episodes, they are isolated enough that the ending doesn't really affect my enjoyment of the first 23 episodes (and the movie).
Next up: Banner of the Stars (uh oh, the first disc is marked as "Very Long Wait" on Netflix)
Posted by Mark on November 11, 2007 at 08:44 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, November 07, 2007
Cowboy Bebop: The Ending
The final disc of Cowboy Bebop came in the mail today, and I just finished watching it. I liked it, but didn't love it. There are a couple of things that bothered me and hold it back from true greatness, though I have to say that I didn't especially feel sucker-punched. Perhaps a big part of that is that I was expecting bad things to happen, so when they finally did, I wasn't particularly phased by them. It's not a sucker-punch if you've braced for the blow, I guess.
More spoiler-ridden thoughts below the fold. The thing that bothers me most about the ending of the series is Ed's departure. It doesn't make much sense, and had she stayed, I think the series would have been more impactful to me. As it is now, I keep straining to think of ways for Jet and Faye to run into Ed and Ein again and get back together.
Let me rewind a bit. In the first 23 episodes, what we essentially get is an introduction of characters, a little backstory on each, and some relationship-building between them all. In the last few episodes, we see a lot of conflicts come to a head. A lot of unpleasant things happen, but it's not a total loss. There's some hope in the end, which is all I really ask. Actually, there's a lot of room for interpretation, but if you give me that sort of opening, I'm going to insert hope.
Steven Den Beste has a long, spoiler-laden analysis of the series in which he looks at it from two angles. One, the tragic point of view, sees almost no room for hope or happiness. The other, which posits that Cowboy Bebop is really a Ronin story, presents a very interesting perspective. I think I come down somewhere inbetween. There is tragedy in the story, but also hope and honor.
Of the main characters, Jet's story is the most straighforward. He changes and grows as the story moves along, but his growth is along the same trajectory as it always was. Den Beste's ronin theory describes Jet remarkably well:
Jet served a dishonorable master, the ISSP. Once he found out that the organization was corrupt, he faced that dilemma: if he remained part of it, he too might become corrupt, forfeiting his honor, or have the ISSP prevent him from carrying out what he saw as his duty. But leaving was itself dishonorable. Still, he found the best answer he could: he left, but became a bounty hunter, because it let him continue to pursue lawbreakers and to bring them to justice, which he had accepted as his duty in life. He decided that he had to stay true to his own honor rather than to stay true to a corrupt and dishonorable master. ...And it goes on. I don't know nearly as much as Den Beste about Japanese history and culture, but this fits Jet well. Spike, I'm not so sure about. Steven says:
Jet and Spike were both ronin, but in every other way they were opposites. Jet became a ronin to save his honor. Spike was a ronin because he had lost his.The only problem is that Spike was a gangster. Jet was basically a cop, and it doesn't take much to draw parallels between a cop and a Samurai (in the idealized sense, at least). Jet's crisis came about because he was always trying to do the right thing. Spike had no such luxury of pretending that he was doing something good. Can one be a ronin without ever being a Samurai? He was a gangster who found love and tried to run... but was not followed by the one he loved (the whole event only postpones the inevitable though). There is some sort of honor in Spike's world, but it's not the honor of the Samurai. It's the faux-honor of the gangster. Spike's story seems to jive well with my limited experience of Yakuza flicks, which are filled with talk of honor but acts of deception and betrayal. Gangsters with honor are gangsters who are crushed by weasely boss' or betrayed by friends and that's what happens to Spike. Steven is right that Spike had no honor, but I'm not sure ever had honor until the end. He gets revenge on Vicious, but dies in the process. I think the one saving grace of this, for Spike, is that he also gets to join Julia, even if it's only in death. I think Spike's death could have meant more to the story, but this isn't really explored for reasons I'll belabor in a moment.
The biggest surprise for me was Faye's arc of the last few episodes. She confronts her past and gets her memory back only to find that it gave her no comfort. She had sought this past for as long as she could remember, and it gave her nothing... nothing except the realization that she already had what she really sought. This is a variant of a common story. A protagonist seeks some unattainable goal only to realize it's been sitting right before their eyes the whole time (this story seems to happen most often with a male character seeking to win the affections of the pretty, popular girl, only to realize that he's really in love with his "normal" female friend that he's known forever). Faye finally understands that she does belong somewhere, and when she finds out that Spike is leaving to face certain death, she can't handle it. She asks him why he's leaving and pleads with him to stay. Steven attributes this to selfishness, which I guess I can see, but I'd give her more credit. I think she's giving Spike a chance (or at least, she thinks she is). She sees that Spike's life still has worth and she tries to make Spike see that she wants to depend on him, but Spike is empty. For most of the story, Spike is aloof. He doesn't seem too connected to anything, in part because he's been traumatized in the past. Knowing what I do of Spike's story, I can't say that I blame him for leaving, but from Faye's perspective, she just doesn't have any idea why he needs to do it. I think she's offering a chance at redemption to Spike, even if she doesn't realize that Spike can't be redeemed in that way. I don't see that as a fault either. Faye is far from perfect, but it's clear she's turned the corner. I think this is why I liked her story's end so much. She's the one character that doesn't really have a straightforward trajectory. As such, I can't imagine a scenario where Faye and Jet don't stay together, and I could even see Spike's death really galvanizing Faye and Jet's relationship.
Which brings me to Radical Edward and Ein. I think Faye's return and Spike's departure would have been more meaningful if Ed and Ein were still members of the crew. Instead, we get a tacked-on backstory for Ed and her inexplicable departure. In episode 24, Ed finds her father... but her father is clearly not interested in Ed. I agree with Steven's take on Ed's story as well, and find Ed's departure baffling. It doesn't make any sense to me. Indeed, this is the only real story (other than when we first meet Ed) that really goes into Ed's past, and it's in an episode that also has significant happenings for Faye. As such, we spend about 10 minutes total (if that, and that's in the course of 26 episodes) on Ed's past, which is kinda lame. For most of the series, Ed plays a sort of comic-relief foil to the rest of the crew. A cheery, naive child in the presense of bitter, world-weary adults. It worked really well. I loved the character of Radical Edward, even if there wasn't really much meat there. So this backstory of a father that abandoned her felt arbitrary and pointless. Ein followed Ed, and they make a good team, so there's at least that. The only other trace of hope I can see here is that Ed left right after Faye left, and Faye told Ed that it's good to be where you "belong." Faye found that she didn't belong where she thought, so it stands to reason that Ed could come to the same conclusion. But that's just my naive optimism coming out, I guess. I like the idea of Spike being a tragic figure whose death brings together those that were around him. They might not live happily ever after (they are bounty hunters, after all), but at least they'd be growing.
It's funny, because I wonder how much the show's creators thought about such things. A part of me wants to think that the story is really just an excuse to creat a compelling audio/visual experience, which is something they do in spades. This is probably the most visually and stylistically impressive anime series I've seen. There's a real cinematic feel to every episode, which is an achievement these days when a lot of movies don't feel cinematic. They hit a good balance between humor and drama, and nail the tone of the whole series. I think the reason this series is so popular is that it's such a visceral experience. Plus, the series is more episodic than serial, so it's easy to isolate parts you like from parts you don't. For all their faults, I think people can at least identify and empathize with the characters, and the creators do a good job of setting everything up in the series.
Having just finished the series, I'm not sure how it will sit with me in the long run. I may be tempted to write some more about the series once I've had more time to think it over (episode 23, in particular, warrants more thought on my part - shades of Ghost in the Shell's existential themes), but these were my initial thoughts. All in all, it's a good series, and it is one I'd recommend as a gateway drug. It's very accessible and, as previously mentioned, it's a visceral experience. The ending isn't perfect, but it's not the black stain for me that it seems to be for Steven (or, at least, not yet, we'll see how I feel later or if I ever rewatch it). I don't think the ending ruined all that came before it and I can see a silver lining in the dark clouds of the story. Of course, part of that is probably wishful thinking on my part. The creators didn't show a lot of things I'm taking for granted about the ending, but they did leave it open to interpretation.
Posted by Mark on November 07, 2007 at 10:06 PM .: link :.
Sunday, November 04, 2007
Cowboy Bebop: Initial Thoughts
Despite recent posting, I didn't spend the entire month watching horror movies. Indeed, at this point, I'm almost finished watching Cowboy Bebop (I'm up to episode 22 out of 26, 1 disc left). So far, I'm loving it. It's action packed, fun, and extremely well done. Assorted thoughts, comments, questions, and of course screenshots below.
Update: I've finished watching the series, and have some preliminary thoughts on the ending.
Spike is ready to hunt
This is Spike. If pressed to find a main character, Spike would probably be it. His past is by far the most mysterious, and it also seems to haunt him to this day. I would imagine that his past would be part of the catalyst for the aformentioned sucker-punch. Or not. We'll see, I guess. Spike has a knack for getting into or causing trouble, and more than once in the series, he gets beaten to within an inch of his life. In the movie Brick, the main character is said to be based on a Dashiell Hammett character whose primary strength wasn’t that he was smart or overly powerful - it was that he could take a beating. Spike kinda reminds me of that, except that he's a badass as well. So maybe not. Anyway, Spike and Jet are the first characters we're introduced to, and as the series goes on, they gradually start to pick up other members. First among them is Einstein:
Ein is hungry
Ein joins the cast in just the second episode, and a big deal is made of his being a "data dog," yet this hasn't been mentioned since then. I think perhaps this is something that will need to come up in the next couple episodes. After Ein joins the crew, Spike and Jet run into what is probably the other main character of the series, Faye Valentine:
Her past is also mysterious, and she seems to constantly try to distance herself from the crew, yet always finds herself returning. I think perhaps she likes being part of the little disfunctional family of the Bebop, and as the series progresses, you see her begin to fit in a little more with Spike and Jet (who, in turn, seem to fit more with her as well). As a viewer, I want her to stay with the crew, but my expectation of an upcoming sucker-punch makes me think that perhaps that she'll have a nasty fight with Spike and Jet. We'll see I guess. Finally, there's one of my favorite characters from the series, radical Edward.
Ed and Ein
She's kinda hyperactive (and yes, Edward is actually a she), and is constantly fidgeting around and saying silly things. I'm sure lots of people are annoyed by her (and when I watched the movie, I remember being a bit confused by why the character was acting so weird), but I think she fits in well, and I really like the Mushroom Samba episode (where she hunts down a mushroom toating bounty).
Spike is a badass, and you can tell because the director frames him the same way John Woo frames Chow Yun Fat. Or something.
One of the recurring villains is a guy from Spike's past named Vicious (how's that for subtlety). Visually, the scene pictured above reminded me of the famous standoff scene between Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs, except one of them has a sword.
This is one of the aformentioned bounties, and I wanted to call it out because this visually looked like something out of Akira (which is one of the most visually impressive anime movies I've ever seen).
The future that the creators came up with is pretty interesting, and the way they've laid out the technology that drives everything is interesting as well. For instance, colonies on the various planets of the solar system aren't really in domes, but neither did humans terraform the entire planet. Instead, you've got these craters that seem to have an atmosphere of their own, but you can see it sorta leaking into the atmosphere of the planet. I have no idea if there's any scientific basis for this at all, but visually, it's pretty neat looking.
In one episode, Spike and Jet are trying to figure out how to play a video cassete (Beta, no less), so they go to this guy who specializes in it, and he's watching "20th century TV" and it seems to be a bit of a spoof on Beverly Hills 90210 (note the names, which are cut off, but it's still obvious who they are).
Pippu, choice of people 4 generations from now
It's nice to see that the cola war is still in full swing. Pepsi seems to have rebranded as Pippu, but Coke is still itself. And look here, it seems that later in the series, Pippu takes a page out of the Coke design book and redesigns it's logo with the Coke swoosh:
Both Coke and Pippu in one frame there. On that note, I think I'll call it quits. I took something like 250 screenshots while watching the first 20 episodes, so I'll post some more in the next post.
Posted by Mark on November 04, 2007 at 08:55 PM .: link :.
Sunday, September 02, 2007
Martian Successor Nadesico
After a few weeks and various obstacles (work, Netflix), I have finally completed Martian Successor Nadesico. Overall, I'm happy with it, though there are a few things about the series that I didn't particularly care for. Many of my initial thoughts still hold. For instance, I couldn't stop noticing the similarities between this series and Vandread (and Vandread: Second Stage), though towards the end, things did seem to be a little less Vandread-like.
The series takes place a few hundred years in the future. Humans have colonized the Moon and Mars, but attackers from Jupiter start to cause lots of trouble on Mars. The Jovian Lizards are seemingly unstoppable, but a privately built warship developed by Nergal industries gives hope to humanity. Commanded by the ditsy but competant Yurika, the Nadesico and her crew, including reluctant pilot Akito, take on their Jovian enemy. But everything is not what it seems.
Again, the similarities to Vandread are more than skin deep (though I should note that Vandread was produced after Nadesico). All the major elements are there - a mysterious enemy with overpowering technology and automated attack ships, a male pilot with a mysterious past who is pursued by several jealous females, a ship's computer that's a living entity of some kind, etc... There's even some strange male/female issues going on (though nothing as explicit as Vandread's war between men and women). The list goes on and on and on. Sure, there are some wrinkles in the various formulas, but overall the series are quite similar. However, the impression I'm getting is that both series are simply drawing from a larger pool of clichés that feature prominently in other series about mechas and space combat. Nadesico has more of a referential tone than Vandread though, and it seems to approach parody or even farce at times. It breaks the fourth wall often (once, a character even tells another character that she's breaking the fourth wall) and it often seems to be poking fun at itself. As someone who isn't especially familiar with the genres in question, I can't be sure just how well Nadesico captures and skewers the genres, but I enjoyed it even without that context.
While the series does have the aformentioned lighthearted tone, it's not always like that. It often veers off into more serious territory, and from the very beginning of the series, the creators never let you forget that this is a war. There are several surprises strewn throughout. Betrayals and death are not shyed away from, even as the series constantly pokes fun at itself. To be honest, I'm not sure how well they pulled this off. There aren't many big switches between silly fun and deadly earnestness, but when they happen, it's quite disorienting. Some episodes are just so silly (like perhaps episode 19, the Nadesico Idol episode) that it's hard to believe that other episodes are from the same series. This inconsistent tone is odd, though not necessarily a bad thing (and the same inconsistency struck me about Vandread as well, so perhaps it's not so unusual).
One thing about this series that I really liked was that they did try some interesting things. Results vary, but when they take a risk and it works, the results are great. Some of the episodes really stood out, particularly the Run Silent, Run Deep episode. It's the 20th episode in the series, and it features a battle of wits between the captain of the Nadesico and an enemy captain that's reminiscent of the classic submarine movies like The Enemy Below and, uh, well... Run Silent Run Deep. The enemy has developed a new and potentially devestating weapon, and the Nadesico must run for it's life... Eventually, they mount a creative counter attack. What makes this work is that both sides are competent, their tactics sound, and you can tell there's a respect between them. It was an enthralling episode and I've already watched it twice.
Most of the main characters are reasonably well defined and interesting. The main character of the series is Akito, a cook and reluctant pilot who has a mysterious past on Mars and is troubled by his role in the war. He's also pursued by several female members of the crew (and other women throughout the series). This harem comedy thing sometimes works, but this series goes a little overboard with it.
Visually, the series well done but not spectacular. As I mentioned before, the subtitles were a little hard to read at times (They use different colors to indicate background speech and foreground speech, but they're sometimes inconsistent with it and in a couple of cases, the text takes up more than half the screen!) so I mostly watched the dubbed version. I'm not a huge fan of the music in the series, but by the end, I'd gotten used to it.
The end of the series is somewhat satisfying. The main character arc of Akito and Yurika is resolved, but a lot of subplots are left open or unexplored. Apparently, there's a movie that continues the story, but from what I can see, even that doesn't finish the story.
More comments and screenshots below the fold... One of the problems reviewing a 26 episode series in a short blog post is that a lot of the details of the series that I love are often lost in the shuffle. One of my favorite characters was the ten year old Ruri. At first, I thought she was the counterpart to Vandread's Paiway, and in some ways she is (they both seem to have a detached perspective while observing the rest of their respective crews). But Ruri is also the ship's very capable science officer and seems to have a great relationship with the ship's computer. The shot below shows Ruri and Yurika explaining how the Nadesico works to the crew.
Yurika and Ruri
Another similarity between Nadesico and Vandread, there's a Christmas episode! Is this a common convention on Anime series? Regardless, Nadesico's Christmas episode isn't as great as Vandread's, but it's still fun.
Most of the supporting cast have interesting little quirks. I've already mentioned Hikaru, a cheerful Otaku and pilot who likes to wear funny toys. Izumi is another pilot who is constantly making bad puns. This was apparently hell on the translator, who had difficulty coming up with english equivalents. They're hit or miss, but some of them are great. Here's one I liked: "...In space, there is no down. In order to 'lay down' you've got to get a duck." Heh.
While I'm still something of an Anime newbie, I did recognize some of the references in the show (I'm sure I missed most of them though). I'm not positive, but there's a sequence where Nergal officers take some people to something they found buried on Mars. Is it me, or does this lift look exactly like the one in Akira? The whole sequence of going down the lift and looking at some piece of found technology is familiar. Are these diagonal elevator things common in Anime? The only other place I can remember seeing them is in various video games... which, come to think of it, were probably made in Japan.
So I noticed a couple of times in the series that someone wearing glasses pushed them back up with their middle finger. I noticed this at least twice. I don't know, is flipping the bird a universally understood thing? Apparently not:
So that about wraps up Nadesico. I'm glad I watched this series, but I'd like to watch something a little different next. Something without mechas or harems. Perhaps it's time for Cowboy Bebop or Trigun...
Posted by Mark on September 02, 2007 at 09:18 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Wii, guess what I get to do?
So I've been working a lot lately, which means no exercise. How to correct this? That's right, I bought a Nintendo Wii using the feeble excuse that it will at least provide some measure of activity other than sitting at a desk and typing. Plus, you know, it's fun. In any case, I'm not writing much tonight, so I'll just point to a few things, including the latest "hubristic" round of the Movie Screenshot Game, in which I posted 5 screenshots and requested that the winner has to get them all right. As it turns out, that was perhaps a little too hard, so I've posted some hints in the comments. If no one gets them tomorrow, I'll post even more obvious hints, and if no one still has it by Friday, I'll have stumped the internet. Or, uh, the 10 people who read my blog.
For those who are baffled by the title of this post, it's one of the little clips they often play on the Preston and Steve Show, a local morning talkshow that's freely available online as a podcast (the whole show is posted every day, with almost no commercials). When I can home tonight and saw the Wii waiting on my doorstep (I ordered online), that was the first thing that went through my head... then I realized I could make a Wiipun.
In other news, Author is also watching Nadesico and wants to "engage into a stegagography themed game" in which people who get rare discs mark them in some way and post them in a central location, so that other people who get the same disc will know, and can mark it again, etc... until they find out how many copies of a disc Netflix has in stock. Interesting idea, though I should admit that I never got disc 4. It said "Very Long Wait" and then one day, it said "Now" so I put it at the top of my queue, but a couple of days later, I checked again, and it was back to "Very Long Wait." Crap. I proceeded to remove it from my queue and downloaded the episodes, which I still haven't watched (this weekend, I promise!) I'm half tempted to put disc 4 back in the queue, just to play Author's game. Author, if it helps, I do have disc 6 here, if that counts for anything. My assumption is that they have less than 10 (maybe only a couple or even just one) of disc 4. Since they don't have any of disc 5, I wouldn't put it past them...
And finally, for anyone who listens to the excellent Filmspotting podcast, it looks like we've reached the end of an era. One of the hosts, Sam Van Hallgren announced on last week's show that he will be retiring from after just a few more shows. At first I was shocked, but then the more I thought about it, I realized I should have seen this coming. The show has had several guest hosts throughout it's 2.5 year run, and it always seemed to be Sam that was absent. Sam will certainly be missed, and I can totally understand his reasons. When he started Filmspotting (or Cinecast, as it was called back then), he was single and working a part time job. Since starting, he's gotten married, bought a house in Milwaukee, and gotten a full time job. Like some bloggers I read, I have no idea how these people manage to produce the quality and quantity of material that they do, and so it's hard to begrudge Sam leaving the show. Again, though, he will be missed. One of the great things about the show was that Adam and Sam have great chemistry and differing tastes. They've already found a replacement for Sam (one of their friends, nicknamed Matty Ballgame), and he's guest hosted before. I'm sure he'll do a good job, but the show will never be the same. Of course, that's what happens - life goes on. Hey, maybe we'll go back to the 2 shows per week format! Really, though, I have to credit Cinecast/Filmspotting for really galvanizing and inspiring my recent (by which I mean the last 2 years) movie craze. I've always loved movies, but listening to Cinecast/Filmspotting has really emphasised my appreciation, and despite Sam's departure, I'm sure it will continue to do so.
That's all for now. Back to the Wii for me.
Posted by Mark on August 29, 2007 at 10:21 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Judging Anime by its Cover
Time is short (I know, I know, what else is new?), so just a quick post about something that caught my eye when I was looking at the Anime series that I can watch online at Netflix. The cover is a pitch perfect parody of the poster for one of my favorite movies:
The series is called Pani Poni Dash! and it's apparently an exercise in referential humor (perhaps a sorta Japanese Family Guy?). The series, which is apparently a high school comedy with little or no plot, doesn't seem all that interesting, but the artwork on that first disc and the fact that it's available to watch online means I'll probably give it a chance. I doubt it's something I'll get into (it seems... stupid), but who knows, maybe I'll enjoy it.
I'm still making my way through Martian Successor Nadesico though, and I'm going to finish that first. Discs 4 and 6 are on their way (should be here for the weekend) and I've downloaded disc 5, so I should be able to finish it off in the next week or so (I'm actually travelling this weekend, so not a lot of time then...) I haven't forgotten all the other recommendations that were on the list, but given my schedule over the next couple of months, progress may be slow.
Update: Steven has a page with a capsule review of Pani Poni Dash!, and he doesn't seem impressed: "Take one part Azumanga Daioh, two parts Excel Saga, remove all the charm and most of the humor, and add half a liter of unsweetened lemon juice. " Doesn't sound so appetizing.
Posted by Mark on August 22, 2007 at 09:33 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
So I've been exploring the world of Anime, and one thing I've noticed is the tendency for characters to close their eyes a lot. Most often, this seems to happen when they get especially happy or giddy and is thus accompanied by a smile of some sort. A character who yells is often animated as having tilted their head back, with closed eyes and an oversized mouth. However, it seems to extend beyond that as well. Often, a character's eyes will be closed even while delivering normal dialogue. By itself, it's not all that unusual, but it seems to happen quite frequently in most anime that I've watched. Maybe I never noticed it in other animation, but it seems to be much more frequent in Anime than anywhere else. I don't think there's anything especially wrong with it, except insofar as I always notice when it's happening.
There's apparently a trope for eyes always shut, but that seems to apply to particular characters who never open their eyes:
This describes a character who appears to have their eyes shut constantly, except, perhaps, for a few instances of surprise or shock. Nevertheless, they still give every indication of being able to see - which implies that this characteristic is actually more of a pronounced squint.I'm not familiar with any of their examples, but again, I've noticed that eyes are closed a lot more often in Anime than in other animation. For example, I've been watching Martian Successor Nadesico, and closed-eyes syndrome seems to be operating in full force:
OMG, I'm so happy I simply must close my eyes!
More examples below the fold. Closed-eyes syndrome was prevalent in Vandread and Vandread: Second Stage as well. Examples below, including one where at least 6 characters are doing the eyes closed thing...
A holiday celebration calls for closed eyes!
Haibane Renmei also prominently features the closed-eye syndrome:
I think that last screenshot is the only one I have that shows someone who is just talking normally with their eyes closed. Most of the other screenshots are of the more common "I'm so happy I've closed my eyes" variety, but that's only because I rarely take a screenshot of random characters talking normally with their eyes closed. I had to dig our my copy of Haibane Renmei to get it, though I'll note that I was able to pull several screens from the first 5-10 minutes of the first episode.
Perhaps I'm being overly observant, but it's Wednesday night and my brain is fried and I wanted something easy to write about. So there. I've finished the first 2 discs of Martian Successor Nadesico, but unfortunately, I have to wait a little longer for disc 3, as Netflix doesn't have a copy at my local shipping center (I'm lucky in that I live very close to one of their shipping centers, but sometimes stuff that's out of print like this series are scattered throughout the country, so it takes a little longer to arrive). It shipped today from NY, so I should get it tomorrow or Friday. I don't think I'll be able to finish the series by Sunday, but I'll probably have an update.
Incidentally, Netflix has lowered their monthy fees again. That's two times in the last month or so. I don't especially follow the industry, but I assume this is due to competition from other companies like Blockbuster. The funny thing is that when I saw that price drop, I immediatly thought about how that meant that I would have less access to their "Watch Instantly Online" service (which basically says that you can watch 1 hour for every dollar you pay a month - so I used to have 18 hours of free watching, but now I only have 16 hours). As my friend Dave noted in the comments to a recent post, it seems like an awkward way of determining the viewing allowance. But then, I'm not complaining. I think Netflix should be applauded for simply giving us new functionality for no extra charge. I just thought it was funny that their price cuts also cut their viewing allowance.
Posted by Mark on August 15, 2007 at 10:05 PM .: link :.
Sunday, August 12, 2007
Martian Successor Nadesico: Volume 1
It's been a while since I tackled an Anime series, so I checked back to my recommendations post and decided that I should try Martian Successor Nadesico next. It gets good reviews, it seems to be recommended for newcomers to Anime, and it meets the requirements I laid out in my recommendation request (said requirements won't stay in place forever, but I've got to start somewhere). The only drawback is that it's out of print and Netflix is missing disc 5 (of 6 total) in the series. But I was able to find a torrent of the series and downloaded the episodes on that disc, so I think I'll be alright. I just finished the first disc and wanted to give some of my initial impressions.
So far, the series has two ditzy female characters that appear to be going after the lead male character (i.e. playing the role of Dita from Vandread). The first is Yurika who is ditsy when it comes to social graces, but she's also the ship's captain and she seems to perform well in that role. She has a thing for Akito, who seems to be making every attempt to ignore her advances (the first couple episodes made me think that this would play out almost exactly like the Hibiki/Dita relationship, but buy the end of the first disc, I can see things are progressing differently). The other ditsy character is one of the pilots, named Hikaru. By the end of the first disc, I'm not sure she's actually interested in Akito, but her introduction mirrors Dita's pretty strongly. She falls on top of Akito (giving us the apparently common and awkward trope of having a female character's breasts smooshed on top of an unsuspecting male character, though in Vandread, this is given extra juice because of the whole male/female war thing), then they sit and talk and the scene is framed almost exactly the same way (well, the background is more complicated in Vandread, and their positions are reversed, but the whole sequence is still very similar).
Later, the aforementioned pilot introduces herself to the rest of the crew thusly: "Hello, I'm Hikaru Amano, another pilot! My blood type is B and I'm 18 and among my favorite foods are pizza crust edges, and slightly soggy rice crackers. Nice to be working with you!" She then pulls a tube to her mouth, takes a deep breath, and blows, activating... well, I've never seen one of these before. It appears that she's rigged some birthday noisemakers into a device that she's attached to her head. Its... awesome? Eccentric? I don't know, is this something common in Japan?
What's that thing on her head?
For some reason, I tend to like these ditsy characters. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's that they also seem to have a professional side to them. One is a captain, and by all accounts a brilliant tactician. The other is a pilot. So even though they're ditsy, they've also got to have some smarts, right? Same thing for Dita in Vandread. Lots of reviews mentioned that her ditsyness was annoying, but I was fine with it, perhaps because she was also a pilot...
That's all for now. I'm sure I'll have more to say as the series progresses. I already have disc 2 and will probably watch that today. I should get disc 3 later this week, though disc 4 has a status of "very long wait" on Netflix. I may have to just download those episodes too...
Posted by Mark on August 12, 2007 at 12:25 AM .: link :.
Sunday, May 06, 2007
Read or Die
I asked for recommendations a while back, and one of the recommendations was a series called Read or Die. The series was universally hailed as being stupid, but some people thought it was a "fun" stupid and enjoyable nonetheless. While I do believe they're right, I also wish they would have fleshed out some of their ideas a little more. I only watched the OVA (which is only 3 episodes) and not the TV series, so I guess it's possible that the TV series goes into more detail, but the OVA seemed a little rushed and cramped. At its core, there's a pretty good story here though, and I did enjoy it.
The premise is that a Special Operations Division of the British Library employs various librarians with superpowers who fight book-related crime. It's actually a neat sorta mixture of James Bond, super heroes, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and... books. Anyway, the story details a particular incident in which clones of major historical figures threaten to wipe out civilization. The details of how these clones were created, who they are, and why they want to destroy the world are glossed over a bit, but that's because the story focuses more on the relationship between Yomiko Readman (aka Agent Paper, who has the power to manipulate paper - which is more useful than it sounds: she can stop bullets, shoot paper projectiles, among other improbable but clever uses (more on this below)) and Nancy Makuhari (aka Miss Deep, who can make herself intangible and pass through matter - walking through walls and whatnot). It's reasonably involving, though again it feels a little rushed.
So yes, it's silly, and there's lots of Huh? moments that even the most unflappable viewer will think are odd. Still, there's a certain charm to the flight of fancy that underlies the series. Its the same sort of feeling I get when seeing steam-punk technology (which actually features significantly in this series as well, so it makes sense). After an initial confused reaction, I generally found myself amused at these episodes, such as when Yomiko creates a paper airplane so that she can chase after one of the villains (who's flying a jet):
Yeah, it's absurd, but it's fun, and the action sequences are actually well staged and quite entertaining. As previously mentioned, the writers did a good job coming up with clever ways to use paper as a weapon or shield or whatever. Most of the villains don't have much of a back story, and their powers are sometimes a little over-the-top, but that ends up being fine.
The animation is pretty good and the music is fantastic (it's got a very Bond-esque feel to it). Overall, it's entertaining and fluffy, and there's nothing wrong with that. I'd like to have seen some of the villains and the story fleshed out a bit more, but that's surprisingly not much of an issue. It's just good old fashioned mindless fun (which was actually good, considering my busy schedule of late). Thanks to Roy and Wonderduck for the recommendation. As usual, more screenshots and comments below the fold. This is Drake, the third member of the team (along with Yomiko and Nancy). He doesn't have any superpowers though, and seems to be a bit of a third wheel, though he appears to come into his own towards the end. The role of regular, non-superpowered folks is a bit strange, especially when it comes to the military. Huge amounts of military power is neutralized and destroyed several times throughout the film, and the US president is portrayed as something of a weenie. When confronted with the destruction of a helicopter fleet, for instance, he literally falls to the ground and wets himself. This seems a bit out of place, but it's a minor quibble.
As previously mentioned, they come up with lots of ways to use paper, as in this paper parachute or a paper sword:
There are lots of books in the movie, and occassionally some of them are rather strangely titled in English. Who could forget such riveting titles as Mr Bad Guy, I Can Hear Music, or At Tha Close of the Century...
And finally, here are some pictures of the striking Miss Deep herself, Nancy Makuhari. She's a badass.
That's all for now. Not sure what's up next in the Anime realm, but I'll blog it when I watch it. In the mean time, I'll be working through season two of The Venture Brothers, and will be catching up on some of my live-action viewing:P
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Vandread: Second Stage
I finished Vandread: Second Stage last week, but I was so busy this week that I haven't had time to post any thoughts until now. As with the first series, I found myself quite pleased with this series. It's more or less the continuation and conclusion to the first series, so this is isn't too surprising. Potential spoilers ahead...
The men and women aboard the pirate ship Nirvana have learned to work well together and get past their cultural differences. This is a good thing because the enemy they face seems to be quite adaptable, raising the bar during each battle. We learn a lot about the enemy in this series, but it basically boils down to this: after initial colonists left from Earth, the planet suffered some sort of meltdown and the people of Earth could no longer reproduce. The Earthlings became jaded and twisted, consumed by hate and fear, eventually constructing a robotic fleet that would go after the colonists, harvesting their organs so that the Earthlings could continue to live. (I don't know how much of this will make sense if you haven't seen the series, but it would take too long to go through the entire story...)
The revelations are meted out at a reasonable pace and are mixed with various character development arcs that make up the series' emotional core. Interestingly, the single most important character in the first series turns out to be something I barely noticed in the first series: the Paksis.
The Paksis, it's alive!
The Paksis is the power plant of the Nirvana - it's also apparently a living, sentient being. The Paksis was discovered on Earth as the colonists were beginning to expand into the galaxy. It's unique properties made it ideal for an energy source, and so it was split into two: one remained on earth, the other was sent out with the colonists (eventually ending up on the Nirvana). The red Paksis has suffered as the people of Earth enslaved it to construct and power their harvester fleet, while the blue Paksis went on as part of the colonists' fleet.
The Paksis is behind a lot of the confusing things that happen in the series - it's the driving force behind the way ships combine and evolve, and it's also got a self-preservation instinct that opened a wormhole and sent them light-years away in the first series. During many of the battles, the enemy shows the ability to adapt and evolve, mimicking many of the powers of our heroes. This lead to lots of questions until I realized that the Earthlings were simply using their Paksis to copy the fighting machines and tactics that were created by Nirvana's crew. Steven Den Beste wrote about this a while back, using the Japanese word kiai (which essentially means "fighting spirit") as a starting point:
All through the series the four primary characters seem to have an unreasonably fast learning curve regarding the abilities of the various versions of Vandreads as they appear, becoming adept at using them in just a few seconds. It's not clear that the controls really matter, in fact. When they're sufficiently motivated, the machine does what they need it to do pretty much no matter what control they use.In essence, the entire series could be seen as a struggle between the red and blue Paksis, and the way the blue Paksis draws on the power of it's crew leads to a lot of interesting character dynamics. As with the first series, there are several interesting character arcs here. One is the aformentioned arc with Bart, who becomes attached to sick little girl and is thus able to achieve an emotional state that allows him to interface with the Paksis (in order to protect the girl). It's a fantastic episode, and it features a great reveal at the end:
Bart's new haircut
Hibiki continues to grow, as does his relationship with Dita, and it turns out that Hibiki plays a surprisingly important role in unifying the opposition to Earth's harvester fleet. Oh, and speaking of surprises, there's a big one towards the end. Some hints were dropped, but I doubt anyone saw it coming (indeed, at first, I was really confused by what happened).
All in all, the story progressed well and most of the unanswered questions were resolved. We get more background on Earth, we get more detail on why Tarak and Mejale are segregated by sex (though I'm still not totally clear on that one), and of course we find out a lot more about many of the characters. There were some nitpicks and open questions, but nothing major. For instance, what was the deal with Gascogne's return? I was happy to see her come back and all, but a little baffled as to how she managed to do so... it seemed extraneous and unnecessary to me. Also, the battles with Earth's forces got a little repetitive, but you'd expect that in a series where our heroes engage the enemy in every episode. However, as I noted in my review of the first series, nitpicks don't seem to bother me with this series.
In the end, it's a solid series, and pretty much exactly what I was looking for. By the end, I was sad to see the characters go, but pleased that there was some sort of closure to the story that made sense. Thanks again to Steven for the recommendation.
As usual, more screens and comments below the fold... This one should make Pete happy, as I've grown to really like the character of Barnette. In the first series, she was mostly relegated to being Jura's man-hating sidekick, but in Second Stage, she gets a lot more to do (I still don't like Jura though). She seems to have an affinity for "antique" projectile weapons, which comes in handy, and she gets a little more depth later in the series when she takes over the behind-the-scenes operations in Gascogne's absence...
And here's the obligatory Mecha shot, featuring the so-called Super Vandread, comprised of 4 ships:
In one of the later episodes in the series, Hibiki gets temporarily stranded on a planet where the people can only communicate telekenetically. This culture is naturally very spiritual and plays an important role in the story. They send Hibiki on a sort of vision quest, and of coures Hibiki returns a different man. At this point, one of the telekenetic elders places a stone on Hibiki's forehead as an indicator that he's completed this rite of passage.
Interestingly, there are a few other characters in the series that feature this stone. One is Rabat, who looks and dresses like the telekenetic folks, but the other one (and this is really interesting) is BC, the second-in-command of the Nirvana. I'm not sure what the deal is there, but from what happens later in the series, this is quite interesting.
I ended up taking over 100 screenshots from the series, so I could probably keep going, but since time is at a premium for me these days I'll finish it off with a stylized shot of Hibiki.
I've got a few more Anime posts in the pipeline (Next up is the Read or Die OVA), though the way work has been going lately, I don't know when I'll actually get to them (but I will!)
Sunday, April 01, 2007
As requested, a review of Vandread. I finished the first series this week, and I must say that I'm quite pleased (this is in line with my initial thoughts). The first series doesn't answer all the questions that were raised and the story isn't complete, but it answers some and provides a great, satisfying finale. It's a big, spectacular battle sequence, but the reason it's satisfying has little to do with the action (though that's fun too).
It occurrs to me that I haven't actually described the story much yet. Sometime in the future, men and women seem to have segregated themselves on separate planets, and for three generations, a war has been waged between the sexes (apparently, in this future, technology provides a means to reproduce which does not require interaction between the sexes). It's a little unclear why this rift exists, but it does, and it is exacerbated by propaganda depicting the opposite gender as monsters or worse. Hibiki is a mechanic that works on Vanguards (giant fighting robots or mechas), and as part of a dare, he attempts to steal one off a ship that is launching. Of course, he gets stuck on the ship, which is promptly attacked by women pirates. During the course of the battle, the ship takes moderate damage, but its core power generator has some rather nifty automatic repair mechanisms that sorta run haywire, merging the men's ship with the women's ship and transporting them far away. Hibiki and two other men are stuck on the ship with a bunch of women, and to make matters even worse, they seem to have stumbled into a new, unknown enemy that attacks on sight. Who are these new enemies, where do they come from, and what do they want? And can the three men work hand in hand with women to defeat this mysterious foe?
The male & female ships are merged into this ship, dubbed Nirvana
In general, the series has a lot of action, but the focus is pretty squarely on the characters. There are a few standouts who get the majority of attention, but many of the side characters are also interesting and likeable. The main characters are Hibiki and Dita (one of the female pirates), and their relationship has grown pretty steadily throughout the series to a point where they're both acknowledging that they kinda like each other. Hibiki has had the clearest character arc so far and I think the ending of the first series is satisfying because of the way Hibiki handles the final battle. The story of the series doesn't end, but Hibiki has definitely changed, and for the better. He was a bit of an annoying loudmouth at the beginning of the series, but he has grown, and it's been handled well. Again, many of the characters are likeable (though not all - I'm not a huge fan of Jura or Barnette, but that's only a minor beef, and I'm pretty sure they capture what the writers were going for anyway), and there are many little subplots and relationships that are entertaining and fun. My favorite subplot was the Christmas episode. I'm a total sucker for Christmas stories, and I absolutely loved that episode. (Screenshots and more comments on this subplot below the fold.) I'm guessing that some of these characters will be fleshed out a little more in the Second Stage (the stoic male doctor Duero and the female engineer Parfet will continue to flirt, Bart might actually become something of a leader and maybe get with BC, and Meia, well, I'm not sure what she's up to, but I think she's an interesting character.)
Bart & BC share a moment
The animation is pretty and the action sequences are well executed. I mostly watched the series with dubbing on, though I took a gander at the subtitles as well (as I've noted before, I'm interested in the differences between translations, and will still occassionally watch a series with english dubbing and subtitles on at the same time). I haven't settled on which is better in general, but the dubbing on this series wasn't bad at all, so I ended up sticking with that for most of the series. The translation seems a bit funny at times (dialogue that is supposed to be witty banter or sound inspirational sometimes fall a little flat), but the general idea always gets through. The music is serviceable, but not great (I'm just spoiled by Yoko Kanno, I think). All in all though, it seems to be pretty well produced.
The story still has a fair share of open questions, but again it seems to be progressing nicely and I'm looking forward to watching the Second Stage. The series is clearly episodic with an overarching story underlying everything. This works well, as the episodic content allows the writers to develop the relationships between the characters. Lots of jokes are made exploring the differences between the two sexes, and it's quite fun. The ending of this first series was great, though I can't imagine getting that far and not wanting to watch Second Stage. The series was pretty much exactly what I expected, and it seems like it's got a lot of the steriotypical Anime tropes, right down to the way the characters (i.e. faces, hair, clothes) are animated. Everything looks somewhat familiar, but not (I could swear I've seen half of these people before). For a beginner like myself, this definitely isn't a bad thing, and it seems like a pretty good gateway drug. There are some aspects of the plot that might seem strange upon closer inspection, but I don't seem to be getting hung up on nitpicks or anything. It's funny, but corny stuff that might normally bother me doesn't seem to be doing so with this series...
Again, I'm very much looking forward to the conclusion of the story, which I assume happens in the Second Stage. Thanks again to Steven for the recommendation... this is just about exactly what I was looking for.
More screenshots & commentary below the fold... As mentioned above, the character of Hibiki grows a lot as the series progresses, and it becomes clear that something has changed when he sits down and attempts to develop a plan to save the ship. It shows that he's developed a more serious and thoughtful side, and his actions have more meaning than they did before. It's a great moment:
Hibiki contemplates a plan
Men have developed fighting machines called Vanguards, which are pretty straightforward-looking mechas. Women have more traditional fighters called Dreads. The Vanguard that Hibiki uses has the rather odd ability to temporarily combine with the Womens' Dreads, thus creating something entirely different: the titular Vandread:
It's a Mecha!
There are actual several different varieties of Vandread, depending on which Dread Hibiki combines with (there's a lot of male/female awkwardness as the women, especially Jura, attempt to vie for combination with Hibiki, who just wants to be left alone.) One of the nitpicks that would probably bother me about the series if I didn't like it so much is the actual process of this combination. Every combination basically shows the Vanguard popping into a Dread, then everything just changes, and the two pilots are suddenly thrust together in a single cockpit. It's something that might be annoying, but strangely isnt. Here's Hibiki and Dita after combining:
How'd they end up in the same cockpit?
A while ago, I wrote about Lain's Bear Pajamas (from Serial Experiments Lain) and found out that it's actually something that's relatively common in Japan. They're called Kigurumi, and it appears that a member of the female crew is so grossed out by having men onboard her ship that she sequesters herself in a little bear costume so she can avoid having to deal with them looking at her (or their smell). I'm not sure what the deal is with the "Be Out" sign that she's wearing. She clearly doesn't like the men, and the series is riddled with strange english labels (on equipment or computer screens - they often only make partial sense), so I'm guessing it means that the guys need to be kicked off the ship or otherwise kept out of her way.
The mysterious enemy ships are varied and have interesting designs. Here's one from the Christmas episode:
And speaking of the Christmas episode, here are some other pics. The crew perks up around Christmas and goes nuts decorating the ship, putting up a huge Christmas tree, and preparing gifts for each other. They're also passing by a huge comet, which makes for a strangely appropriate atmosphere (and it comes in handy later in the episode). The men have no idea what Christmas is, and so they have to figure it all out and get their female counterparts a last minute gift. It's interesting because it's one of the later episodes and the characters are becoming better developed, and this gives them a chance to relax (sort of). As previously mentioned, I'm a sucker for Christmas stories, and this is a fantasic episode.
That's one huge tree!
Duero, Hibiki and Bart try to figure out this Christmas thing
Lighting the tree. Did I mention it's a huge tree?
Dita's gift to Hibiki is awesome. I must find a way to work this picture into Christmas this year (and, hmmm, isn't December 25 some other holiday?)
The series also has its fair share of spectacular visuals. Some of the big battle sequences are difficult to capture in a single screenshot, but here's a nice big explosion:
That's all for now. I'll be starting Vandread: Second Stage this week, and I might even be able to finish it by next weekend. However, I've got a busy schedule at work this week, and the Philly film festival starts next week. Gah. To much to do, and too little time.
Sunday, March 25, 2007
Vandread: Initial Thoughts
So I've seen the first 8 episodes of Vandread, and I should be finishing the first series early this week. So far, it's pretty good. I'm holding off on pronouncing any final verdict until I reach the end, but I have to admit that I'm enjoying myself so far and I'm kinda looking forward to a long-term story that has an actual ending.
American TV has recently experienced an explosion of the sprawling, multi-season story. This has been bolstered by the emergence of the TV DVD market, which makes it possible to catch up with a series really quickly. The problem is that I honestly think this Writers of Lost parody is a fairly accurate representation of what goes on in the writing office for some of these series. I gave up on Lost after watching the first season on DVD and I won't watch another episode until someone tells me there's a definite ending and that it's a good ending that actually makes sense. I actually enjoyed watching the first batch of Heroes episodes, but I get that same sorta feeling that the writers are just screwing around and making it up as they go along. As Dalton Ross writes in a recent editorial in Entertainment Weekly, "As much as I love all the drawn-out mysteries and soap opera shenanigans, there's something I crave even more -- closure."
This is one of the things about Anime that really appeals to me. I'm sure there are a bunch of ongoing series, but it seems like a lot of the series have definite ends, and thus have good, long yet concise character arcs, etc...
Vandread has its share of mysteries and open questions (especially in the first couple of episodes), but the series has progressed nicely, and I'm looking forward to the ending. Indeed, I already put Vandread: Second Stage in my Netflix queue. If the ending of the first series stinks, I can always remove it, but I don't anticipate any major issues.
As usual, I'm noticing little bits and pieces of culture that I'm not familiar with. For instance, when Dita first encounters Hibiki, she makes some sort of greeting gesture with her hand (I added screenshots in the extended entry below). Dita appears to be a UFO nut, so maybe that gesture is some sort of universal greeting or something (like the lights and tones at the end of Close Encounters). Hibiki returns the gesture (further supporting the universal greeting theory), and then promptly runs away. Did I mention that in the Vandread universe, men and women have segregated themselves to different planets and are pretty much at war with one another? I thought this was a little strange, but it makes for some interesting dynamics (and I'm sure it will play a role in the progression of the series).
Dita chases Hibiki
More screenshots & comments in the extended entry below... When Dita first encounters Hibiki, she makes a greeting gesture with her hand, like so (the small pictures are kinda hard to make out, but if you click on the image you can get a bigger version):
A stunned Hibiki then returns the gesture:
Again, I'm assuming this is some sort greeting, though I've never seen it before.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
As I waded through dozens of recommendations for Anime series (thanks again to everyone who contributed), I began to wonder about a few things. Anime seems to be a pretty vast subject and while I had touched the tip of the iceberg in the past, I really didn't have a good feel for what was available. So I asked for recommendations, and now I'm on my way. But it's not like I just realized that I wanted to watch more Anime. I've wanted to do that for a little while, but I've only recently acted on it. What took so long? Why is it so hard to get started?
This isn't something that's limited to deciding what to watch either. I find that just getting started is often the most difficult part of a task (or, at least, the part I seem to get stuck on the most). Sometimes it's difficult to deal with the novelty of a thing, other times a project seems completely overwhelming. But after I've begun, things don't seem so novel or overwhelming anymore. I occasionally find myself hesitant to start a new book or load up a new video game, but once I do, things flow pretty easily (unless the book or game is a really bad one). I have a bunch of ideas for blog posts that I never get around to attacking, but usually once I start writing, ideas flow much more readily. At work, I'll sometimes find myself struggling to get started on a task, but once I get past that initial push, I'm fine. Sure, there are excuses for all of these (interruptions, email, and meetings, for instance), but while they are sometimes true obstacles, they often strike me as rationalizations. Just getting started is the problem, but once I get into the flow, it's easy to keep going.
Joel Spolsky wrote an excellent essay on the subject called Fire and Motion:
Many of my days go like this: (1) get into work (2) check email, read the web, etc. (3) decide that I might as well have lunch before getting to work (4) get back from lunch (5) check email, read the web, etc. (6) finally decide that I've got to get started (7) check email, read the web, etc. (8) decide again that I really have to get started (9) launch the damn editor and (10) write code nonstop until I don't realize that it's already 7:30 pm.It's an excellent point, and there does seem to be some sort of mental inertia at work here. But why? Why is it so difficult to get started?
When I think about this, I realize that this is a relatively new phenomenon for me. I don't remember having this sort of difficulty ten years ago. What's different? Well, I'm ten years older. The conventional wisdom is that it becomes more difficult to learn new things (i.e. to start something new) as you get older. There is some supporting evidence having to do with how the human brain becomes less malleable with time, but I'm not sure that paints the full picture. I think a big part of the problem is that as I got older, my standards rose.
Let me back up for a moment. A few years ago, a friend attempted to teach me how to drive a stick. I'd driven a automatic transmission my whole life up until that point, so the process of learning a manual transmission proved to be a challenging one. The actual mechanics of it are pretty straightforward and easily internalized. Sitting down and actually doing it, though, was another story. Intellectually, I knew what was going on, but it can be a little difficult to overcome muscle memory. I had a lot of trouble at first (and since I haven't driven a stick since then, I'd probably still have a lot of trouble today) and got extremely frustrated. My friend (who had gone through the same thing herself) laughed at it, making my lack of success even more infuriating. Eventually she explained to me that it wasn't that I was doing a bad job. It was that I was so used to being able to pick up something new and run with it, that when I had to do something extra challenging that took a little longer to pick up, I became frustrated. In short, I had higher standards for myself than I should have.
I think, perhaps, that's why it's difficult to start something new. It's not that learning has become harder, it's that I've become less tolerant of failure. My standards are higher, and that will sometimes make it hard to start something. This post, for example, has been brewing in my head for a while, but I had trouble getting started. This happens all the time, and I've actually got a bunch of ideas for posts stashed away somewhere. I've even written about this before, though only in a tangential way:
This weblog has come a long way over the three and a half years since I started it, and at this point, it barely resembles what it used to be. I started out somewhat slowly, just to get an understanding of what this blogging thing was and how to work it (remember, this was almost four years ago and blogs weren't nearly as common as they are now), but I eventually worked up into posting about once a day, on average. At that time, a post consisted mainly of a link and maybe a summary or some short commentary. Then a funny thing happened, I noticed that my blog was identical to any number of other blogs, and thus wasn't very compelling. So I got serious about it, and started really seeking out new and unusual things. I tried to shift focus away from the beaten path and started to make more substantial contributions. I think I did well at this, but it couldn't really last. It was difficult to find the offbeat stuff, even as I poured through massive quantities of blogs, articles and other information (which caused problems of it's own). I slowed down, eventually falling into an extremely irregular posting schedule on the order of once a month, which I have since attempted to correct, with, I hope, some success. I recently noticed that I have been slumping somewhat, though I'm still technically keeping to my schedule.Part of the reason I was slumping back then was that my standards were rising again. The problem is that I want what I write to turn out good, and my standards are high (relatively speaking - this is only a blog, after all). So when I sit down to write, I wonder if I'll actually be able to do the subject justice. At a certain point, though, you just have to pull the trigger and get started. The rest comes naturally. Is this post better than I had imagined? Probably not, but then, if I waited until it was perfect, I'd never post anything (and plus, that sorta defeats the purpose of blogging).
One of the things I've noticed since changing my schedule to post at least twice a week is that it forces me to lower my standards a bit, just so that I can get something out on time. Back when I started the one post a week schedule, I found that those posts were getting pretty long. I thought they were pretty good too, but as time went on, I wasn't able to keep up with my rising expectations. There's nothing inherently wrong with high expectations, but I've found it's good every now and again to adjust course. Even a well made clock drifts and must be calibrated from time to time, and so we must calibrate ourselves from time to time as well.
Update 3.15.07: It occurs to me that this post is overly-serious and may give you the wrong idea. In the comments, Pete notes that watching Anime is supposed to be fun. I agree wholeheartedly, and I didn't mean to imply differently. The same goes for blogging - I wrote a decent amount in this post about how blogging is difficult for me, but that's not really the right way to put it. I enjoy blogging too, that's why I do it. Sometimes I overthink things, and that's probably what I was doing in this post, but I think the main point holds. Learning can be impaired by high standards.
Sunday, March 11, 2007
In case you can't tell, I like movies. A lot. I'll watch just about anything, and indeed, I've spent a fair amount of time seeking out the strange and offbeat films that most of my friends have never heard of. When it comes to this sort of thing, I tend to go into phases. Hong Kong Action, Italian Horror, and Japanese Yakuza films (among many other genres) have captured my attention for a time. As such, it shouldn't be surprising that I've seen my fair share of Japanese animation. For the most part, my exposure has been limited to films, but I've seen a few series as well.
Now, I've consumed enough anime, and I read enough blogs in the Otakusphere, to know what I'm getting into here. I recently played along with the Filmspotting podcast's Animation Marathon, which contained a bunch of anime films (several of which I'd already seen, but welcomed the chance to revisit). The marathon is over, but I feel like I'm just getting started. The only problem is that I'm not sure where to go from here. So, in an attempt to figure this out, I'm going to list out what I've seen, what I'm looking for, and some series I know about but haven't seen yet. If you have any recommendations, feel free to drop a comment, but I've been cautioned to take recommendations with a grain of salt (which you kinda have to do for anything subjective like this).
What I've seen: (in rough chronological order)
What I'm looking for: For the next series I watch, I'm going to impose a few somewhat strict guidelines. I want to watch a series, but not something too long. I don't want to have to wade through 18 DVDs or anything absurd like that. A 13 or 26 episode series would be fine. At some point, I'm sure I'll move on to longer series, but for now, let's keep it relatively short. Sort of related, I'd like the story to be complete (or at least, the arc should be complete). I don't want to have to wait for new DVDs to come out before I can finish the series! I'd like something that has a good story arc (i.e. a character or plot based narrative), and preferably one that doesn't have a downer ending (I've had my fill with Grave of the Fireflies, thank you). I'm also looking for something that's a little more action-packed and fun than what I've been watching recently (i.e. not something like Serial Experiments Lain). I don't mind kid's shows, but that's not exactly what I'm looking for (I'm flexible on this one though). All recommendations are welcome, as I'll certainly need something after this... but this is what I'm looking for at the moment. Oh, one last requirement, the series needs to be available on Netflix.
What I'm currently considering: I seem to have fallen into reading a significant portion of the Otakusphere (SDB, Fledge, Shamus, Pixy, Alex, Pete, and a couple of others), and even if I have no idea what they're talking about most of the time, I'll occasionally notice a title here or there, so I have some ideas as to what could come next. Two pages I've been referring to while writing this post are Steven's reviews and Steve Yegge's Anime post. Unfortunately, I've already had to nix a couple of series, but I haven't looked real hard at most of these.
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Japanese Cootie Shots
One of the things that interests me about foreign films is the way various aspects of culture become lost in the translation to English. In some cases, this is due to the literal translation of dialogue, but in others it's due to a physical mannerism or custom that simply can't be translated. In a post about Lain's Bear Pajamas in the Anime series Serial Experiments Lain, I mention an example of such a gesture that appears in Miyazaki's Spirited Away. Of course, I got the details of the gesture completely wrong in that post, but the general concept is similar. Since Spirited Away is the next film in the Animation Marathon, I got the DVD and took some screenshots. The main character, a little girl named Chihiro, steps on a little black slug and the boiler room man, Kamaji, says that this is gross and will bring bad luck. So she turns around and puts her thumbs and forefingers together while he pushes his hand through (click the images for a larger version).
Now this is obviously some sort of gesture meant to counteract bad luck, but it's a little strange. The dialogue in the scene helps, though the subtitles and the dubbing differ considerably (as I have been noticing lately). The subtitled version goes like this:
KAMAJI: Gross, gross, Sen! Totally gross!Quite sparse, though the meaning is relatively clear. The dubbed version expands on the concept a little more:
KAMAJI: You killed it! Those things are bad luck. Hurry, before it rubs off on you! Put your thumbs and forefingers together.I noticed this gesture the first time I saw the movie, because I thought it was stange and figured that there had to be a little more to it than what was really being translated. On the DVD there is a little featurette called The Art of 'Spirited Away' and in one of the sections, the translators mention that they were baffled by the gesture, and weren't sure how to translate it. After researching the issue, they concluded that it's essentially the Japanese equivalent to a cootie shot. Of course, this makes a lot of sense, and it's totally something a kid would do in response to stepping on something gross (this film, like many of Miyazaki's other films, seems to nail a lot of the details of what it's like to be a kid). It also illustrates that the boiler room man isn't quite as gruff as he appears, and that he even has a bit of a soft spot for children. Interestingly enough, this gesture is repeated again by a little mouse (I think it's a mouse), and the soot balls that work in the boiler room, though I don't remember that (I'll try to grab screenshots when I rewatch the whole film)
Again, Spirited Away is the next film in the Animation Marathon, and it's probably the best of the bunch as well. Expect a full review soon, though I'm not sure how detailed it will be. Filmspotting (the podcast that's actually running the marathon) is on a bit of a break from the marathon, as they're doing their obligatory 2006 wrap up shows and best of the year lists.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Dubbing vs. Subtitles
One of the things movie snobs often complain about is dubbing, and when it comes to your typical live action foreign language films, I'm pretty firmly entrenched in the snob camp. However, animation is different, as it doesn't suffer as badly from unsynchronized lip movement. Most humans find the human face engaging and are wired, seemingly from birth (faces are among the first things babies are thought to recognize), to read facial expressions and movements. So we're very good at recognizing when someone's voice doesn't match their lip movements. Again, in a dubbed live action film, this produces a sort of cognitive dissonance. Animated films always have to deal with this (even when animation is matched to the voiceover, the fidelity of animation prevents an exact match), so it would make sense that a dubbed animated film would probably not be as jarring as a dubbed live action film. In short, I'm already accustomed to the cognitive dissonance caused by animated films, so dubbing should theoretically be fine. Beckonking Chasm recenty wrote about his adventures in Anime, and makes an interesting case:
I always watch the English dub versions. Not to disrespect the Japanese or their language, far from it, but I have absolutely no facility with foreign languages. (My abilities in English are bad enough.) Yes, one can read subtitles, and that’s how I always watch live-action foreign films. An actor’s voice is just as much a part of his performance as his face and the way he chooses to move.I've recently been watching more Anime, and the question of whether to use dubbing or subtitles is still up in the air for me. My live action snobbery has leaked over to animated films, so I've watched most everything with the original audio and subtitles, but I've also recently tried giving the dubs a shot as well (with varying results). However, I think Beckoning Chasm makes some interesting points. So when I started watching Ghost in the Shell, I decided that I'd give the dubbing a try. Bad move. The english voice acting was so bad that I couldn't stand it and had to switch to subtitles. Then I noticed something interesting. The translations were completely different.
The opening scene in the movie features the Major on a rooftop, eavesdropping on some diplomatic meeting. The dubbed version goes like this:
BATOU: Major Kusanagi, Section 6 is in position and ready to move in.And the subtitled version was this:
BATOU: Major Kusanagi, Section 6 is ready to move in.Quite a difference, and, um, a little sexist? Even disregarding that, it appears that the dubbing is a more natural translation, even if the voice actors can't emote to save their lives. I finished the movie with subtitles on, then went back and turned on the english language audio with the english subtitles. It's a bizzarre experience.
I didn't watch the whole thing like that, as it's a little distracting to be reading and hearing similar, but different text (talk about your cognitive dissonance). Oddly enough, even though I think the dubbed translation is better, I still think subtitles work reasonably well too. Some of the dialogue sounds ridiculous when voiced out loud, but reading it gives a different experience. Also, it makes sense that the subtitles would be different, as there is a limited amount of space to communicate the same information (apparently there is less space in subtitles than in the audio).
One of the problems with adapting books to movies is that an exact translation is nearly always doomed to failure. You can't typically use the same dialogue as the book, for instance. It will sound stunted and out of place. No one talks they way people talk in books. Hell, no one talks the way they do in movies. That's because the dialogue is adapted to the medium. You can get away with a lot more in prose, but movies need to convey a lot of the same information visually. This is why adaptations are so difficult. However, when I watched the subtitled version of Ghost in the Shell, the dialogue seemed much better when reading it than when listening to it (even though I liked the dubbed translation better). It's almost like an accidental middle ground between a book a movie. It's an interesting dynamic, and I'm not sure what to make of it. In the mean time, I'm going to have to experiment with dubbed versions of stuff that I've already seen. I wonder what Haibane Renmei is like dubbed? Is the translation different? Why do I have the feeling I'm going to spend my Christmas holiday watching anime with the audio and subtitles set to english (then again, December 25 is Anime Day, so perhaps this is appropriate)?
Animation Marathon: Ghost in the Shell
The next film in the animation marathon is Ghost in the Shell. Like the previous film in the marathon, Akira, I had already seen this movie a few times before revisiting it for the marathon. Unlike Akira, my original opinion of this film was relatively high, and this most recent viewing hasn't changed my feelings much. Ghost in the Shell is not perfect, but it holds up well and is an excellent animated film.
Like Akira, Ghost in the Shell is often held up as one of the essential pieces of anime that anyone interested in the form needs to see. Historically, it was the first anime film released simultaneously in Japan and in other markets (notably the UK and the US), but it proved a little too complex to become a mainstream success. However, it found a market on DVD and has enjoyed cult status ever since.
The story takes place in a futuristic world where technology has advanced considerably and has begun to displace biological components of the human body (this even includes the brain). Cyborgs are common, and indeed, many people are more machine than human (those who can afford it, at least). One such cyborg is Major Motoko Kusanagi. She heads up a team that is part of section 9, an intelligence organization that tends to work more in the shadows (as opposed to their counterparts in section 6, whose role could be described more diplomatically).
All this technology comes at a price though. Increased internet connectivity and human-computer brain interfaces have introduced new vulnerabilities, and a new crime has appeared: Ghost hacking. The "Ghost" essentially represents a person's individual identity (while the "shell" represents their physical body, be it biological or artificial), and hackers can access and manipulate a human's ghost. A ghost hacker named "The Puppet Master" has appeared on the scene, hacking into various people, erasing their memories and programming them to do his bidding. Section 9, lead by the Major, has been chasing the Puppet Master for a while now, and some pieces of the puzzle are beginning to fall into place...
It's a dense story, and the technological advances pose a ton of intriguing questions about the nature of identity. The Major, whose physical body is almost all machine, is understandably a little paranoid about her identity. Is she really who she thinks she is? Is anyone really who they think they are? What makes me what I am? If my consciousness is transferred into an artificial brain, am I still me? This is the sort of thing that will stay with you long after the film has ended. After watching Ghost in the Shell, Steven Den Beste wrote a fascinating article exploring these concepts:
Ghost in the Shell challenged me to consider the question of what I actually am. What makes me what I am?The whole article is great and helps illustrate the intellectually challenging aspects of the story. The film explores these questions in detailed philosophical conversations that may be a little to overt for some, but it works well in a plot that intersperses enough action and intrigue to keep the viewer's attention. While the film does include governmental agencies and a futuristic city, I think it's worth noting that this future isn't a dystopia. It's a well realized vision of the future, but it actually doesn't feel all that different from our own world. That is to say, things aren't perfect, but we haven't descended to the ninth circle of hell just yet either. This is a large part of why I enjoyed this film more than I enjoyed Akira. Both movies deal with big ideas and transcendant themes, but Akira's characters are shallow and unsympathetic and it's ideas are only given a superficial exploration. Ghost in the Shell, on the other hand, has several sympathetic characters and it delves much deeper into it's conceptual vision. The ending of both movies involves some ambiguity, but Ghost in the Shell's ending resonates deeper because I could empathize with the characters (even if the plot was a little convoluted).
Visually, Ghost in the Shell is impressive. Like Akira, it's a spectacular piece of work, and quite engaging. The animation is extremely detailed and fluid (though I have to admit, I think I'm more impressed with Akira's animation). The action sequences are well orchestrated and sometimes approach a poetic feel. The soundtrack is evokative and well suited towards the subject matter, though the dubbed voiceover is amongst the worst I've heard. Ironically, I think subtitles may suit this script better than spoken word in some cases (see my musings on the varying translations on the dubbing and subtitled versions), as the longer monologues sound absurd when spoken aloud in a monotone voice, but don't seem so ponderous when read by the viewer. Symbolism, such as the use of a wall charting the evolution of life in the climax of the film, is used but not abused. As previously mentioned, the juxtaposition of action sequences with philosophical musings may seem a little disjointed and jarring to some, but I was taken in by the film.
Ultimately, we're left with a visually stunning, intellectually challenging, action packed movie. Unlike Akira, this movie had more of an emotional impact and it provoked interesting thoughts. It stuck with me, and forced me to ponder some of the great unanswerable questions. While I wouldn't call it a perfect film, it is well worth the watch and definitely amongst the Anime essentials. Three Stars (***)
Update: Filmspotting has posted their review, and their feelings were mixed. Neither seemed to be impressed with the story (or couldn't follow it) or the visuals, but Sam seemed to like it for the same reasons I did (though Adam did not).
More images and assorted comments below the fold... As with Akira, I took too many screenshots and wanted to show off some of the visuals in the movie here in the extended entry.
Action sequences are frequent and well done. I wanted to use this image in the above review, but it seemed a little out of place and didn't flow with the review or the other screenshots. In this shot, a ghost hacked individual is using high velocity ammo, and the animation shows him bracing his body and still being pushed back by the force of firing his weapon. Neat effect, but it doesn't translate well to a static image:
This next shot shows the Major and her partner Batou, who is clearly taken with the Major, but not necessarily in a romantic way. There's a dynamic between the two that isn't really explored too deeply, but is interesting nonetheless. It makes sense that their relationship would seem weird to me though, because they're both cyborgs that are mostly machines... and I would assume that things are different in some way.
The next two shots show the setting of the movie, which is a large unspecified Asian city. As I mentioned in my review, though the city is futuristic, it's not a dystopia and it doesn't feature all the lame cyberpunk tropes that populate most such futuristic settings. In fact, it resembles current cities, only it's larger and more advanced...
At the film's climax, the Major faces off against a tank that looks more like a spider than a tank.
And finally, I'll leave you with another closeup shot of the Major (there seem to be a lot of these in the film).
Again, an excellent movie. It's probably not for everyone, but it's worth watching along with Akira. Honestly, Akira might be a little more visually spectacular, but GITS wins on characters and story.
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Animation Marathon: Akira
There were only two movies in the Animation Marathon that I hadn't seen before, and they were the first two. Next up is Akira, a movie that I have seen multiple times in the past. My first thoughts upon initial viewings were that it had some interesting points but that it was ultimately an incoherent mess. However, it should be noted that I originally saw the movie many years ago on a crappy VHS tape with a dubbed soundtrack and a washed out transfer. The movie has since been fully restored, digitally remastered, and perhaps most importantly, it's recieved a new translation. As a result, the film looked great and I could follow the story much better this time around, and my opinon of the film has improved considerably. It certainly has some flaws, but it really is a spectacular experience. Spoilers ahoy.
Along with Ghost in the Shell (the next film in the marathon), this film is often held up as the pinnacle of Anime and, as such, is generally considered to be "essential" viewing for someone interested in the form. Historically, this is the film that brought Anime to America (it was my first exposure to Anime as well), so it's certainly important in that respect. Even so, I don't know that it really would make a good introduction to the form, unless you are really into the gritty post-apocalyptic genre.
The story begins by showing Tokyo consumed by a large explosion that apparently sets off World War III. Thirty years later, the war is over and Tokyo has been rebuilt. Like most post-apocalyptic worlds, this one ain't pretty. The streets are overwhelmed with dissent and crime is rampant. The story follows a wimpy biker punk named Tetsuo and his friend Kaneda, who seems to be the leader of their makeshift motorcycle gang. The two get caught up in a governmental experiment that attempts to harness latent human abilities, and Tetsuo suddenly becomes endowed with psychic powers. I think Justin puts it well when he says: "As we all well know, from studying Carrie, rejected nerds with telekenetic abilities do not use their powers just for cleaning litter on the highways." Tetsuo goes on a rampage through New Tokyo in an attempt to reach the mysterious Akira.
Adapted from a 2,000 page Manga series of the same name, Akira touches on a lot of subjects. As with most adaptations of large bodies of work, there are some scenes or characters that seem out of place and it feels like there is a lot of complexity lurking beneath the surface, especially when it comes to the social and political issues that are only touched on in the film. However, the story works well as a whole. The ending is still a little confusing, but it's much better than the garbled mess from the original translation. Thematically, the film is obviously alluding to Japan's relationship with technology, specifically nuclear weapons. There appear to be strong cultural themes in the film that are a little hazy to a westerner like myself, but there is clearly something going on there.
The only issue I had with the story is that the most of the characters are not very likeable. Tetsuo and Kaneda are ostensibly the center of the film, but they're both self-interested punks and not very sympathetic. I guess you'd call Tetsuo the villain of the movie, so it's understandable that he's not likeable, but Kaneda is supposed to be our hero, and he comes off as goofy, ignorant and immature (granted, he is a kid, but his silly comments were often quite jarring). The only characters that show a noble side are the three kids that are part of the government project, but while they play an important role, they're really only bit characters. However, the film is able to overcome these deficiencies because its vision is sufficiently compelling, and there are plenty of interesting and ambitious ideas to keep the viewer occupied. Action sequences are also well composed and keep the story moving briskly, which helps.
Speaking of vision, this has to be one of the finest examples of animation I've ever seen. It is perhaps a little dated, but when you take into account that this movie was made long before modern techniques (like CGI or digital image correction), it really is a remarkable achievement. Filled with vibrant colors and stunning imagery, the film is a rollercoaster ride from start to finish. I've included a bunch of screenshots from the film, but it's worth noting that the animation itself - the actual movement of various elements on screen - is very well done (and can't be captured in a still). The ambient soundtrack is atmospheric and evokative, with an interesting mixture of instrumentation and electronic music (that doesn't seem at all dated and indeed, may even have been ahead of its time). Symbolic imagery (for example, Tetsuo's growing powers are symbolized in a dream by a flood of milk... or towards the end of the movie, when Tetsuo is being consumed by his powers and regressing into a monstrous creature that engulfs everything in sight, his morphing body clearly takes on the shape of a mushroom cloud) is used, but not abused.
Ultimately, while the kinetic action of the animation and story serves to hold the viewer's attention, the film isn't especially involving on an emotional level (I think this is due to the lack of sympathetic characters more than anything else). It does tackle some "big" ideas, but not in a way that will have you questioning life, the universe, and everything. In many ways it is a spectacular experience, and well worth the watch, but it is also a flawed movie. Still, thanks to the restored version, I've come to see why it's considered an "essential" film for anyone interested in Anime (though I'm not sure it would be played on the traditional Otaku holiday known as Anime Day). Three stars (***)
More images and assorted comments below the fold... When I went to take screenshots from this film, I ended up saving about thirty of them and I had some trouble deciding which ones to include in the review (damn choices!), so I'm putting a bunch of other pics in this extended entry.
While the movie is visually engaging, it rarely seems like they're really showing off. The below image features one of the few effects that is a bit showy, but they used it sparingly enough that it remained interesting. During a bike chase towards the beginning of the film, the animators used these light trails to emphasise the action.
Here's a shot of Tetsuo using his newfound abilities:
I can't imagine smoke or fire being an easy thing to animate, yet Akira easily features a dozen different types and shades of billowing smoke and explosions.
Another shot of Tetsuo, with more fire and smoke:
The bikes in the film have an interesting look, even if they are a bit absurd. Here's a better look at Kaneda's bike:
As previously mentioned, the animation and actual movement in the film is handled well, but that doesn't necessarily translate well to a screenshot. The below screenshot depicts a sequence in which Kaneda faces off against a rival biker while on foot. As the biker approaches, Kaneda jumps and kicks, unseating his foe. It happens in a sort of stylized slow motion, and it's very well executed (but you wouldn't know that from the screenshot):
It's amazing how influential 2001: A Space Odyssey has been in film. Nearly every movie that features some sort of transcendent ending nicks the psychadelic trip scene from the end of 2001 (though most of the thieves have sense enough to keep it brief). The ending of Akira is somewhat ambiguous, and uses a stylized pencil test that morphs into a sort of energy bubble as a voiceover proclaims "I am Tetsuo," implying that Tetsuo has transcended his physical form and become something new (which symbolizes humanity's evolution as well):
Again, good film, well worth the watch, but it has its flaws (most notably the unsympathetic characters).
Posted by Mark on December 13, 2006 at 09:25 PM .: link :.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Everyone loves to be on a bunch of blogrolls, but just because you're there doesn't mean you'll get a lot of visitors. This becomes more true as the blogroll gets larger. Blogrolls are subject to an inverse network effect; the more blogs in the blogroll, the less valuable the link. Kaedrin gets a small amount of traffic, so even though I have a short blogroll, I'm guessing most of those blogs don't get a ton of visitors coming from here. So I just figured I'd throw some additional links their way:
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Animation Marathon: Grave of the Fireflies
Of the six films chosen for the Animation Marathon, Grave of the Fireflies was the only one that I hadn't heard much about. The only thing I knew about it was that it was sad. Infamously sad. After watching the movie, I can say that it certainly does live up to those expecations. It's a heartbreaking movie, all the moreso because it's animated. Spoilers ahead...
The film begins by showing us a 14 year old boy lying dead on a subway platform, so you can't really say that the filmmakers were trying to hide the tragedy in this film. The boy's name is Seita, and through flashbacks, we learn how he came to meet his end. Set during the last days of World War II, the story is kicked off by the American firebombing of Seita's city. Seita's father is in the Japanese Navy and Seita's mother is horribly wounded by bombing, eventually succumbing to her wounds. The entire city is destroyed, leaving Seita and his little 4 year old sister Setsuko homeless. For a time, they take refuge with an Aunt, who seems nice at first, but gets grumpier as she realizes that Seita isn't willing to contribute to the war effort, or to help around the house. Eventually, Seita finds an unused bomb shelter where he can live with his sister without being a burden on their Aunt. It being wartime, food is scarce, and Seita struggles and ultimately fails to support his sister.
This isn't quite like any other animated movie I've ever seen. It's a powerful and evocative film. It has moments of great beauty, even though it's also quite sad. It displays a patience that's not common in animated movies. There are contemplative pauses. Characters and their actions are allowed time to breath. The animations are often visually striking, even when they're used in service of less-than-pleasant events (such as the landscape shot of the city as it burns).
After I finished the film, I was infurated. Obviously no one really enjoys watching two kids starve, suffer, and die after losing their family and home to a war, but it's not just sad. As I said before, it's infuriating. I was so pissed off at Seita because he made a lot of boneheaded, prideful decisions that were ultimately responsible for the death of his sister (and eventually, himself). At one point in the film, as Seita begs a farmer for food, the farmer tells him to swallow his pride and go back to his aunt. Seita refuses, and hence the tragedy. But at least he's young and thus reckless, which is understandable. While I was upset at Seita's actions, I really couldn't blame only him and the film did prompt some empathy for that character. I can't say the same of the Aunt. Who lets two young kids go off to live by themselves in wartime? Yeah, Seita wasn't pulling his weight, but hell, your job as an adult is to teach children about responsibilities... It was wartime for crying out loud. There had to be plenty to do. Yeah, it's sad. Especially when it comes to Setsuko, who was only 4 years old. But other than that, it was infuriating, and I wasn't sure how I was going to rate the movie. Then I read about some context in the Onion A.V. Club review of the movie (emphasis mine):
Adapting a semi-autobiographical book by Akiyuki Nosaka, Takahata scripted and directed Fireflies while his Studio Ghibli partner, Hayao Miyazaki, was scripting and directing his own classic, My Neighbor Totoro. The two films were produced and screened as a package, because Totoro was considered a difficult sell, while Fireflies, as an "educational" adaptation of a well-known historical book, had a guaranteed audience. But while both films won high praise at home and abroad, it's hard to imagine the initial impact of watching them back to back. Totoro is a bubbly, joyous film about the wonders of childhood, while Fireflies follows two children as they starve, suffer, and die after American planes firebomb their town.It turns out that my feelings about the film were exactly what the filmmakers were going for, which kinda turned me around and made me realize that the film really is brilliant (in other words, my expecation of the film as having to be "Sad" made me feel strange because, while it was certainly sad, it was also infuriating. Now that I know the infurating part was intentional, it makes a lot more sense.) As the Onion article brilliantly summarizes, "not so much an anti-war statement as it is a protest against basic human selfishness, and the way it only worsens during trying times." And that's sad, but it's also quite annoying.
The animation is very well done, and while some might think that something this serious would not be appropriate in animation, I'm not sure it would work any other way. One of the most beautiful scenes in the film shows the two children using fireflies to light their abandoned bomb shelter. It's a scene I think would look cheesy and fake in a live action film, but which works wonderfully in an animated film. Roger Ebert describes it well:
It isn't the typical material of animation. But for "Grave of the Fireflies," I think animation was the right choice. Live action would have been burdened by the weight of special effects, violence and action. Animation allows Takahata to concentrate on the essence of the story, and the lack of visual realism in his animated characters allows our imagination more play; freed from the literal fact of real actors, we can more easily merge the characters with our own associations.In the end, while this is definitely an excellent film, I find it difficult to actually recommend it (for what I hope are obvious reasons). This type of movie is not for everyone, and while I do think it is brilliantly executed, I don't especially want to watch it again. Ever. In an odd sort of way, that's a testament to how well the film does what it does. (***1/2)
Filmspotting's review is not up yet, but should be up tomorrow. Check it out, as they are also reviewing The Fountain (which I reviewed on Monday).
(In a strange stroke of coincidence, I had actually watched Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro just a few days before Fireflies, not quite mimicking the back to back screenings mentioned in the Onion article, but close enough to know that it was an odd combo indeed (and I can't imagine the playful and fun Totoro being a "harder sell" than the gut-punch of Fireflies.))
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
My favorite podcast, Filmspotting (formerly known as Cinecast), has a great format. They review a recently released movie every week, but they also review an older film that they have, for one reason or another, neglected. The usually choose a theme for these older movies and watch a bunch of them in a row. As such, they refer to them as Marathons, and it makes for some interesting listening, even when you aren't watching along. They've done one for Westerns, Horror, Hitchcock, Screwball Comedy, and many others. Their next marathon (scheduled to start in a few weeks) is for Animation. This is the first one I plan to play along with, in part because I like animated movies and also because I have netflix now and can easily follow along with minimal effort.
They've chosen an interesting list, though I have some reservations. Here's the list:
As I say, it's an interesting list, but I have some reservations. I've seen 4 of the 6 films (assuming Spirited Away is chosen), so this is perhaps not the best one for me to play along with. I am intrigued by Grave of the Fireflies though, and I could certainly revisit Akira (which I saw many moons ago, and don't remember all that much about it except that it was confusing). From what I've seen of these, I think that while they may have chosen films that illustrate the evolution of Animation, I don't know that they've chosen the most enjoyable of the bunch. Akira seems to be an important film for the genre, but it's not especially a walk in the park, for example. The only one I'd say is truly great is Spirited Away. I probably would have also recommended the Cowboy Bebop Movie, which is a very good all around experience. The other thing that might seem a little strange is that Anime seems to be a genre dominated more by series than by movies... but then I could see why these guys don't want to spend 4.5 hours a week watching these series (I don't know how they managed to do as much as they do).
In any case, I plan to play along, so expect some entries in a few weeks discussing the films above.
Update: The Miyazaki film will be Spirited Away. Also added links to my reviews of the films I've watched so far.
Sunday, October 01, 2006
Bear Pajamas & Kigurumi
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the bear pajamas that Lain often wears in Serial Experiments Lain, wondering if it was perhaps a cultural thing or maybe an Anime convention. Several people commented, and commentor Lily posted an interesting explanation yesterday:
These pajamas are indeed a cultural thing in Japan. It's a part of Japanese street fashion and the costumes are called kigurumi. People wearing them are called kigurumin. There are a few firms in Japan that produce these costumes, the most popular one of them is Sleeper's.Interesting. Lily also links to a page from their site which has a bunch of examples (no bears, though). A brief check of Wikipedia yields some more info:
Kigurumi (着ぐるみ?) is the Japanese name for costumed animal characters. The name comes from the Japanese term (着る - kiru: to wear) and (縫いぐるみ - nuigurumi: a stuffed toy animal).To wear a stuffed toy animal. Heh.
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
One of the things I like about watching foreign movies are the cultural differences that don't quite make it through (it's a novelty thing, perhaps). Sometimes this is due to poor translation and sometimes it's due to a physical mannerism or custom that simply can't be translated. There is a perfect example of this in Miyazaki's Spirited Away. Towards the beginning of the film, the main character Chihiro is taken to the boiler room where she meets an old man with several arms who runs the place. At one point, this man puts up his hands in what looks sort of like a football goalpoast gesture and Chihiro pushes her hand through it (alas, I do not have a copy at my hands, so I can't give a screenshot). I have no idea what this means, but it's clearly something children in Japan do (I'm not sure how I picked up on this - I think I might have watched the movie with the commentary on at one point, which might actually explain what this means).
Most of the Anime I've seen are films, not series. I've seen a few Miyazaki movies, and some other movies like Akira and the Cowboy Bebop movie, amongst assorted other stuff. A few months ago, I watched Haibane Renmei because of the enthusiastic recommendations of Steven Den Beste (and pretty much everyone else who has seen it). Their enthusiasm is certainly warranted. Again, my expectations were constantly thwarted, which I think is part of the reason I enjoyed it so much (I'm sure this series will come up again here). I have since moved on to Serial Experiments Lain. I haven't gotten too far into the series, but one thing that really struck me as funny was Lain's bear pajamas, which she seems to wear whenever she's feeling down:
(Click images for a larger version)
As you can see, it's adorable (I believe the appropriate word is Kawaii). Now, what I don't know is if such pajamas are normal garb for young Japanese girls, or if it's just a quirky Anime trope like washpans that bonk people on the head or Absurdly Powerful Student Councils (not that I've seen either of those). Like I said, I haven't seen much anime, but I've fallen into the habit of reading blogs in the Otakusphere, many of whom seem to delight in posting screenshots and I seem to remember some similar type pajama/costume type stuff coming up from time to time. So is this a pseudo-trope, another cultural difference, or is it just an oddity limited to Serial Experiments Lain (one could certainly find symbolic meanings in such a visual)?
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