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Monday, March 11, 2013

Death Note
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.
Ryuk the shinigami
Ryuk the shinigami
At this point, I should mention the rules of how the Death Note works. The Death Note is a simple notebook, and on it are listed 5 rules:
  • The human whose name is written in this notebook shall die.
  • This notebook will not take effect unless the writer has the subject's face in their mind when writing his/her name. Therefore, people sharing the same name will not be affected.
  • If the cause of death is written within 40 seconds of writing the person's name, it will happen.
  • If the cause of death is not specified, the person will simply die of a heart attack.
  • After writing the cause of death, the details of the death should be written in the next 6 minutes and 40 seconds.
There are a lot of other rules that are revealed as the series progresses. Light spends a fair amount of time towards the beginning of the series experimenting with the Death Note, discovering that, for instance, a piece of paper that is removed from the death note will still retain its murderous capabilities.

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 not evil!
"I'm not evil!" - Light Yagami
His counterpart, in the form of "L", initially seems like the antagonist, but as you lose sympathy for Light, you start to see L as the true protagonist of the series. At the beginning of the series, L is basically represented by a disembodied voice, but eventually you get to meet him, and it turns out that he is also a young man. He's delightfully eccentric and goofy, always snacking on sweets, holding objects from the top, and giving goofy smiles, all while representing a worthy foil for Light/Kira's villainy. He's a fun character, one of the more interesting detective characters out there, and definitely the strongest character of the series.
L

L

L

L, the world's greatest detective
Clocking in at 37 episodes, this may be the longest single series I've ever watched. Unlike a lot of longer series I've watched, there really isn't a ton of filler material here, though I guess a lot of that is a matter of interpretation. You could argue that the entire series is nothing but filler, an exploration of what kinds of tension you can extract from a simple rule set. Indeed, the throughline of the series is really driven more by the exploration of the rules than anything else. There's a sort of duel of wits between Light/Kira and L, but that is really just fertile ground for more rule exploration. Ditto for the sudden shifts in narrative, which are executed well, to be sure, but which are really just ways of enabling the writers to play around with more rules.

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...
Posted by Mark on March 11, 2013 at 07:37 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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:
  • Summer Wars - From the team that brought us The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, I had high hopes for this one, and for the most part, it hits the mark (the Otakusphere also seems pretty enamored with it). It certainly inherits the former film's knack for good pacing, and it displays a good balance between simple, heartfelt drama and more fantastical framing elements. In this case, the drama is derived from our math nerd hero Kenji and his schoolboy crush on Natsuki. When Natsuki makes a cryptic request for help during summer vacation, Kenji jumps at the opportunity. It seems Natsuki is from an influential, if not particularly wealthy family, and they're all gathering together to celebrate the matriarch's 90th birthday. Natsuki wants Kenji to pretend to be her fiance in order to please her grandmother. This side of the story makes for a sorta comedy of errors, with a stack of misfortune continually piling up on Kenji, until he starts to fight back.
    Natsuki and Kenji share a moment
    The more fantastical element of the story is a ridiculously connected social network called Oz. It is very reminiscent of Stephenson's Metaverse from Snow Crash, though I guess you could say that Oz is what Second Life wishes it could be... and it's also an object lesson on why such a centralized system is improbable and foolish. As portrayed in the movie, Oz has over billion users, and the system provides an infrastructure for all aspects of life, from commerce and banking to socializing and gaming to government services. It's a comprehensive network, and it can be accessed from just about anywhere (i.e. computers, phones, televisions, other appliances, etc...). And it's centralized, so when something goes wrong, things get reallly hairy out here in meatspace.

    The crux of the story arises when Kenji, who spends his free time as an admin in Oz, gets a mysterious message consisting entirely of a sequence of numbers. Being a math nerd who is clearly in over his head when pretending to be Natsuki's fiance, he relishes the opportunity to solve a more orderly problem, which he does. But then, something bad starts to happen. It seems that the problem he solved has allowed someone to start hacking Oz accounts... using Kenji's avatar (I won't discuss exactly who this is, but I will say that it fits with the Japanese relationship with technology... and in this case, of course, it's all the fault of Americans). This does not improve his reputation with Natsuki's family.
    A look inside Oz
    I won't get into more details after that, but it's a really fun story. If, that is, you can get past the absurdity of Oz's overly-connected monopoly on life. I have to admit that the premise of Oz bothered me at first, but once I got past that, things proceeded well from there. We're treated to a very nice family dynamic, including the wonderful grandmother character, who utilizes her own low-tech social network to bring her family (and perhaps the country) together during a crisis. The romance at the heart of the story is well done, as is the conflict in Oz. Visually, it's a gorgeous and inventive movie, and that certainly helps with the pacing. Overall, it totally won me over, despite some misgivings at the heart of the premise. ***
  • Sword of the Stranger - This is a movie that I don't really remember adding to my queue (nor where I saw the recommendation, as it's not typical Otakusphere material, and thus I can't find any real references to it there), but I'm glad I did, as it ended up being a very entertaining, if a bit harrowing, experience. The story is rather simplistic: a young Japanese boy named Kotaro is being hunted by a group of Chinese swordsmen for mysterious reasons. While fleeing, Kotaro and his dog run across a nameless Ronin, and a... fatherly? brotherly? relationship develops between them. The Ronin is quite talented, but is haunted by a life of violence, and does not want to fight. As the villains close in on our heroes, he has to make a choice: flee or fight?
    Sword of the Stranger
    So it's a premise that isn't expanding any horizons, but the visual style of the film and the way the action sequences are constructed certainly make up for any shortcomings on the story front. That being said, I did find the villains interesting, as well as the nationalities of various characters. There are Chinese in the film, and I believe they're speaking in both Mandarin and Japanese at times (not really that familiar with either language, but that's the impression I got), and then there's the "Western" swordsman who travels with the villains. He's a force of nature, taking on all comers, but often bored by their paltry resistance. His goal seems less focused on hunting down the child than on finding a worthy opponent (which he does, in the form of the aforementioned Ronin). Again, not sure what the significance of all these nationalities means, but I feel like there's probably something there. It is quite a graphically violent movie, bloody and grim at times, especially towards the end of the film, but the movie does an excellent job establishing stakes and putting our heroes through their paces. ***
  • Paprika - Another movie that doesn't seem to appear much in the Otakusphere, and again, I don't remember where I found the recommendation. I have mixed feelings about the movie, and I have to admit that I may not have given it an entirely fair shake. I watched it in two sittings, with the first one being late at night when I probably wasn't in any condition to give the film the level of attention it warrants. It's basically about how a new psychological device allows people to enter into one another's dreams, and then how that technology starts to break down. Paprika is one of the characters avatars, a redheaded superhero in the world of dreams, but a straightlaced psychologist out here in the real world. The film is visually spectacular, but the blurry line between dreams and reality gets to be a bit bewildering. You can almost never tell where you are or what's really going on. Again, I feel like this is a movie that demands multiple viewings (or at least, a more attentive viewing than I gave it) in order to break down what's really happening. My initial reaction was one of interest that was ultimately not very well fulfilled. I enjoyed my time with the movie and was never bored, but I wasn't particularly blown away by the story, which seemed fragmented and unclear.
    Paprika
    The film was apparently a big influence on Christopher Nolan's Inception, and there may be some common DNA between the two films, but Paprika's dreams are decidedly more dreamlike (i.e. uncanny and shifting and strange). There are some visual motifs that probably demand some sort of symbolic analysis, but again, I wasn't really up to that task upon first viewing. Again, we've got a story that explores Japan's uncomfortable relationship with technology, a theme that seems to run across a lot of postwar Japanese films and television (for obvious reasons, though this movie doesn't resort to direct mushroom cloud symbolism or anything). Ultimately, I'm not entirely sure the film worked for me, but even if it didn't, I'm still impressed by the ambition here. Call it an interesting failure at worst, and it may be even better than I'm making it out to be. It's certainly a movie I'd like to check out again sometime... At the very least, they tried to do a lot of interesting things!
And that about covers it for now. I have a few series in my Netflix queue, but I'm not sure if or when I'll get to them. The only one I see in my Watch Instantly queue is Samurai 7, which has been on the list for a while and appeals to my love of the original Seven Samurai (and the many riffs on the same story).
Posted by Mark on April 29, 2012 at 08:09 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Animovie Double Feature
A couple more quick reviews of Anime movies I've seen lately.
  • The Girl Who Leapt Through Time: This film opens by introducing us to Makoto, a young girl who doesn't seem exceptional in an obvious or traditional way, but during the course of a particularly clumsy day, she accidentally gains the ability to time travel. At first, she uses this extraordinary ability for superficial reasons: she skips back a day so that she can do better on a test, she skips backward to continue singing karaoke with her friends Chiaki and Kousuke, and so on. Naturally, things become more complicated. There's an element of the monkey's paw here, in that one should be careful what they wish for... even superficial uses of her new power can turn out to have wide-ranging consequences.

    Makoto and friends

    The movie doesn't get carried away with this though, and one of the things I really like about this movie is that it doesn't let the fantastical elements detract from the human element. It's not a science fiction story - the time travel isn't particularly well established (and there are some open questions in the end) - but it uses those elements as more than just window dressing. At times if feels like more of a high-school comedy, albeit one that grows more serious as the story proceeds. Dramatic elements are intersperced as well. The typical high-school subjects of love and confusion about the future are explored a bit. I'm not entirely sure about the ending, but I liked spending time with these characters so much that it worked well enough for me.

    Makoto Leaping Through Time

    The pacing, more than anything else, is what keeps this movie on track. The introduction sets the stage well, and just when you're starting to wonder where the story is going, the time travel elements are established. This leads to a wonderfully light-hearted exploration of Makoto and how she copes with her new powers. And just when that starts to get cloying, the story shifts again as Makoto realizes that her new powers have impacted her relationships with friends and family. In particular, her friends Chiaki and Kousuke seem to be affected, and she just wants things to go back to normal. Interestingly, the time-travel is probably superfluous here - this is exactly the sort of thing that teenagers go through all the time. It all leads up to a climax that was much tenser than I would have ever expected at the beginning of the film. But it mixes all of this together rather well. There are still some open questions and potential plot holes in the end, but I have to admit to having a ton of fun with this movie. Recommended! ***
  • Whisper of the Heart: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time enjoyed pretty favorable reviews in the otakusphere, but Pete wasn't too impressed. He says "If anyone wants to see a much better movie about the same thing, watch Whisper of the Heart." So I threw that in my Netflix queue and just watched it today.

    It's another school movie following a quirky girl and the people around her. Young Shizuku has been reading books at a voracious pace and she notices that every book she gets at the library has been previously checked out by the same boy... Despite Pet'es recommendation, I found it to be very different from The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. While I thought that The Girl Who Leapt Through Time had great pacing and was able to balance between it's various disparate elements well, Whisper of the Heart doesn't really have great pacing... because it doesn't need to. As a story, it's much more seamless and doesn't require any sort of balancing act. Now, I do think it's a bit too long, but in the end, it's a wonderful story. If the elements of the fantastical in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time bother you, then you probably would enjoy this movie much more. It's a much more grounded film, and everything in the movie falls neatly into place by the end.

    Shizuku and a very fat cat

    The thing I liked most about this movie was the way it captured the tentative nature of young teens as they try to figure out what they're going to be doing with their life. Even those who know exactly what they want to do have a certain hesitancy and insecurity about their future, and this movie really nails that feeling. I suppose it helps that Hayao Miyazaki was writing the screenplay, and you can certainly see his hand at work here (especially when you find out about the Baron). All in all, it's a very good movie, and one that will probably stick with me (though I suppose only time will tell).
This was an interesting duo to watch in close proximity. Strangely, I probably enjoyed watching The Girl Who Leapt Through Time more, but Whisper of the Heart is probably the better overall movie and it seems like the one that would stick with me longer. I think both are certainly above average features and well worth a watch, even if they're not really in your wheelhouse (I have to admit - the school drama has never been one of my favorite genres, even back when I was a student...)
Posted by Mark on June 13, 2010 at 06:40 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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).
Posted by Mark on May 26, 2010 at 07:34 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.

Nanoha

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 horcrux artifact called the Book of Darkness. Things haven't evolved very far just yet, but the pattern of villains with understandable motives seems to be holding up. As previously mentioned, the whole thing still has a vaguely Harry Potterish feel to it, which is unfortunate because I probably enjoyed the Harry Potter books more than this series.

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.

Fate

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).

Aruf

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.

Aruf in doggy form

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:

Aruf in new and improved cute doggy form

Her new and improved cute-doggy form is certainly cuter, but I've yet to see how this plays on the magical battlefield:p

Amy and Chrono

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?

Amy and Chrono, with bow

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.

Chrono

A closer look at Chrono, and his little magic technology thingy.

Nanoha is surprised

Nanoha, glassy eyed

Yunno is embarrassed

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.

Visually Interesting Screenshot

Another visually interesting shot

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.

Orange Juice?

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?

Villain?

This is one of the villains with a heart of gold that shows up in Nanoha A's.

Another Villain?

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.

Anime Attack!

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...

Nanoha and Yunno wave goodbye

And that about wraps up this post. Probably one more post in a few weeks when I finish off the series.
Posted by Mark on April 07, 2010 at 08:24 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.
Posted by Mark on March 24, 2010 at 09:36 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.

Lafiel
Lafiel

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.

Lobnas System
Lobnas

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.

Representatives
Representatives

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.

Borders

Closed-Eyes Syndrome continues unabated!

Talking with their eyes closed

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?
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...)

Bang

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):

Hello!

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.

Admiral Spoor
Admiral Spoor

Well, that about wraps up Banner II...
Posted by Mark on December 27, 2009 at 05:20 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.
  • Banner of the Stars II - Yes - I loved Crest and Banner of the Stars, so it makes sense to watch this. The only major problem right now is that disc 3 is on semi-permanent "Very Long Wait" status at Netflix. Perhaps I can find an... alternate... way of viewing those episodes.
  • Samurai 7 - Yes - I like the original Kurosawa movie (and some of the remakes and updates), and this got a recommendation in the last post. Also, it's one of the few Anime series available on BD.
  • Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's - Yes - The big question here is whether or not I need to watch the first Nanoha series. Author asked the same question a while back and the consensus seemed to be to watch from the beginning (Ben also recommends starting with the first series). But then I've heard that the first few episodes of the first series are hard to watch and atypical of the series as a whole. Still, I tend to be a completist, so I'm leaning towards watching the whole thing (for the record, I'm in the camp that would recommend watching Crest before Banner, even though I did the opposite).
  • Someday's Dreamers - Yes - Based mostly on rave reviews and recommendations. Also, I could go for something "brain engaging" as someone put it.
  • Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars - Maybe - Based mostly on high ratings of everyone else, I need to look into this one a bit more.
  • Irresponsible Captain Tyler - Maybe - Recommended by my friend Roy, it seems like a bit of a farce. Not sure I'm in the mood for that right now, but the premise of the series does seem kinda fun.
  • Samurai Champloo - Maybe - Another earlier recommendation. It's made by the same folks who did Cowboy Bebop. Now, I enjoyed that series, but the ending was a bit sour for me (though it didn't hit me nearly as hard as SDB). This series also seems generally different than CB anyway, so I want to find out a bit more before committing to it.
  • Divergence Eve - Maybe - I have to admit that the fan service seems a bit strange, but I've heard it's got good story, so there's that.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion - Maybe - Supposedly a "classic" but I've been warned not to watch it until later, something that I'm inclined to agree with.
  • Excel Saga - Maybe - I get the same vibe from this that I get from NGE above... so perhaps too early to watch this one.
  • Great Teacher Onizuka - Unsorted
  • Darker than Black - Unsorted
  • Black Lagoon - Unsorted
  • Gantz - Unsorted
  • Elfin Lied - Unsorted
  • Gungrave - Unsorted
  • Texnolyze - No - Post apocalyptic
  • Ergo Proxy - No - Post apocalyptic
  • Last Exile - No - Bad reviews from Alex, Fledge and Shamus.
Well, that about covers it for now. Recommendations are welcome, as are comments about the movies on the list right now (particularly the Maybe and Unsorted ones).
Posted by Mark on December 09, 2009 at 09:01 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Animovies
A couple quick reviews of Anime movies...
  • Ponyo - The first new Hayao Miyazaki film since 2004, this one is probably an improvement over Howl's Moving Castle (which had a great first half, but fell apart in the final act), but it does not approach the top of his oeuvre (which consists of classics like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro). Fortunately, this still makes for a pretty darn good film and something that tops most animated releases this year (though Up certainly stands on its own). The film has a great opening sequence, free from dialogue but expressive and visually striking. The story concerns a fish creature who escapes from her father, the lord of the sea. Young Sosuke, who lives in a house on a cliff by the sea, discovers the sea creature trapped in a bottle. He frees the creature and names it Ponyo. Thus starts their relationship, and when Ponyo's father eventually catches up to her and brings her back home, she spouts legs and arms, essentually turning human (an ability she gained from her contact with Sosuke). Her second escape causes some commotion in the underwater world, eventually flooding Sosuke's town, prompting Sosuke and Ponyo to take a magical voyage accross the flooded town to find Sosuke's mother. This ending portion reminded me a lot of My Neighbor Totoro, which is a shame, because that is clearly the superior film. The ending was somewhat anti-climactic to me, and anyone prone to thinking through the consequences of certain choices might be a bit befuddled. Still, the film is well made, visually interesting and certainly worth a watch. The one caveat to the current theater experience is that they are showing the dubbed version of the film, featuring the likes of Frankie Jonas, Noah Cyrus, Tina Fey, and Liam Neeson. They do a fine job, to be sure, but I would be interested in hearing the original version as well... Anyway, good stuff, though not Miyazaki's best. *** (3 out of 4 stars)
  • Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: Solid State Society - It appears I've finally reached the end of Ghost in the Shell, a set of movies and series that I have thoroughly enjoyed. This is a feature film that follows the two Stand Alone Complex tv series, and as such, it hits on similar themes. In this instance, much more so than the 2nd Gig series, the focus is on how an individual can make a difference in the world. At the start of the film, it appears that the Major has left Section 9 to pursue her own goals. Interestingly, Togusa ends up taking over as the head of Section 9, and Batou, perhaps missing his friend, seems kinda forlorn. It doesn't take too long for the Major to reappear, however, and things get going from there in typical GitS fashion. I don't really have a ton to say about it at this point - if you've gotten this far in the series, you'll probably like this movie. The animation style and art is a little better than the two series, but not as good as either film. The story is byzantine as expected, though perhaps not so much as the series. Like with the GitS: Innocence movie, I missed the Major, though at least she does show up for a good portion of the film this time. Again, if you're a fan of the series, you'll like this. *** (3 out of 4 stars)
Incidentally, when the hell are they going to release the original Ghost in the Shell (and the 2.0 remake for that matter) on Blu-Ray? Why did they release the sequel first (which admittedly looks gorgeous on BD)? In general, Anime seems to be pretty weakly represented in BD. Where's my Cowboy Bebop? Or any Miyazaki films? Gah.
Posted by Mark on August 30, 2009 at 08:03 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Noir Ends
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 other side of Kirika was a lonely girl, who wanted nothing more than a normal life, a name, a home, and someone to love and be loved by. The series shows us those two sides of Kirika, gradually building them up to tangible presences, and in episode #25 Kirika is forced to choose one over the other.
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
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...

Kirika and Mireille and a pool table

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

Cargo containers in the least organized port in the world. Seriously, look at those things.

Kirika double-fisting pistols

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

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...

Faceless Henchman #346

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.

Chloe and Kirika

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.

Chloe

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.

Kirika, with sword

Chloe, with sword

Towards the end of the series, Kirika and Chloe are reuinited at Altena's home and have an awesome swordfight (as a training exercise).
Chloe, with sword

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

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.

Mireille and Kirika

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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 series follows Mireille Bouquet, a pretty blond assassin. Her professional career seems to be going quite well... until she is contacted by a young Japanese girl named Yumura Kirika, who asks Mirelle to take "a pilgrimage to the past." Yumura is quite talented as well, though she also seems to be afflicted with Jason Bourne Syndrome (apparently a common condition among assassins). Together, the two seek to solve a mystery involving an ancient, myserious group called Les Soldats. As of yet, it's unclear what role the girls play in the plans of the Soldats, but after a slow start, things seem to be unfolding at a good pace.
  • Mireille takes contracts under the name "Noir." She has built up a good reputation, but there are several hints of old hits that could not have been accomplished by Mireille, leading me to think of Noir as a sorta Dread Pirate Roberts of the contract killer world. Later in the series, Mireille and Yumura meet someone named Chloe who refers to herself as "The True Noir." Chloe is an intriguing character, and one that has only just been introduced, so I'm expecting much more to happen with her (and her guardian at the vineyard). The word "noir" is French for "black" and is often used to describe dark stories featuring morally ambiguous characters. Film noir was a phrase coined by French film critics to describe Hollywood films of the 40s and 50s. So far, I would not say that this series follows any sort of Film noir conventions, but it's something I've been keeping an eye out for...
  • So the girls are racking up quite the body count. 12 episodes in and I think they've already outpaced legendary murderers like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. It seems that every episode features the girls taking on and killing dozens of armed minions. Apparently the regular appearance of 20 or so dead men is a common feature of French society (the series takes place in France). Nothing to get worked up over, even when the dead men are cops.

    Yumura dodges some bullets
    Yumura dodges some bullets...

  • Also intriguing about the people of France as portrayed in the series is that they appear to be bloodless. Of the hundreds the two assassins have killed, apparently no blood was shed. Either their bullets are not very effective against them, or the French have invented a blood substitute that is far superior to our own (but provides no apparent benefit, except for easy cleanup).
  • As assassins, it seems that the only tool in their assassin toolkit is a pistol. Apparently no long-range weapons like a sniper rifle, no hidden attacks like poisons and no "accidents" (unless, I guess, the accident involves someone falling on a bullet with a lot of force - an explanation I suspect the French police would accept). Still, the large amount of gunfights makes the series quite entertaining, though they never quite approach the balletic beauty of John Woo's double-fisting pistol showdowns... though I suppose we still have 14 episodes or so to rectify that. Also, despite Yumura being much younger, she seems to be more effective than Mireille. At one point, the pair are trapped in a large casino. Their enemies turn off all the lights and wear night-vision goggles. Mireille is largely defeated by these tactics, while Yumura just closes her eyes and uses apparently superhuman auditory prowess to locate enemies and kill them (a neat trick). I guess it's worth noting that Chloe eschews the pistol and uses all manner of knives instead.
  • So far, the series has posed some intriguing questions. Who is Noir? How does one become Noir? Who are the Soldats? And how do the Soldats relate to Noir? There appear to be factions within the Soldats, which could lead to some interesting developments. I haven't gone into it much, but there is a lot of tension between Yumura and Mireille, and there are a lot of questions about why the two are cooperating and what will ultimately happen to them. From all appearances, these are questions that will be answered later in the series, and from what I can tell, they are answered in a satisfying manner. It's easy to create intriguing questions and a lot of series manage to do so (*cough, cough* Lost *Cough*), but many series fall apart once they reach the the resolution (the jury will remain out on Lost until it ends, but I will say that I was quite disappointed with the end of Battlestar Galactica.) So I look forward to the rest of this series!
A few more screenshots and commentary in the extended entry...

The girls take out some mafia henchmen

The girls take out some Mafia henchmen. Apparently the Mafia was created in part by the Soldats...

A real live Soldat

A real live Soldat. You can tell because of the accent and the mustache.

Chloe

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.

Chloe and the girls have some tea

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.

That is not how to hold a gun

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.

Mireilles computer screen

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!*).

Yumura

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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
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:
  • Like the first 1st Gig, this series touches on many of the same existential issues as the films, but in a less direct fashion. The burning questions of identity and the nature of humanity and machinery seem content to simmer beneath the surface of a more straightforward narrative, though "straightforward" in the GitS universe can still be quite obtuse. All throughout the series of films and shows, I've speculated that at least part of the confusion has to do with something that is lost in translation. I think that's still a part of it, but I also think that the show's creators aren't afraid of leaving questions unanswered or allowing viewers to work out various plotpoints or themes for themselves (this despite semi-frequent info-dumps and philosophic ramblings by various characters throughout the series). In any case, even though I'm still not sure of every detail in the series, it's easy enough to follow at a high level and quite entertaining. The one thing that frustrated me was the Netflix's watch online service had the last three episodes in the wrong order, so I missed one before watching the final episodes.
  • Thematically, this series follows the first series Laughing Man story with a story about what's called the Individual Eleven. The Individual Eleven is another Stand Alone Complex (a series of copies without an original), similar to the Laughing Man, but different in some subtle ways. The first film focused primarily on the consequences of humanity relying too heavily on computer communications and merging with machinery. The second film plays off the first, pondering how machines could become more human. The 1st Gig series explored the concept of the Stand Alone Complex and how groups copied something that never actually happened. The 2nd Gig explores the same stand alone complex ideas, but it adds a wrinkle or two. The stand alone complex is initiated and manipulated by one character seeking to exploit a political and sociological situation to overthrow the current Japanese government and move on to something different. The 1st Gig seems to focus more on groups, while this series seems to focus more on individuals.
  • Individuality seems to be a key theme in the series and there are some interesting new questions raised here as well. What happens when individuals connect their cyber-brains to a network of other individuals? Are they still individuals? One of the key episodes about this is the second episode. It's more of a stand-alone story that doesn't really contribute to the plot of the series, but it follows a disgruntled war vet who dreams of assassinating his boss. The episode clearly takes it's cues from Taxi Driver, though this man never really acts out his impulses. When the Major and Batou investigate (by going undercover), they find that he is "just one in the long line of pitiful souls who fantasize about fulfilling the goals they can never accomplish." This idea of how an individual can make a difference in the world is something that is explored in this series and also in the later Solid State Society movie (which is something I plan to cover in a future post).
  • The GitS world has always featured its share of politial organizations and maneuverings, but this series seems more reliant on such elements than previously. A lot of the history of the GitS universe is explore here, namely the two World Wars that took place between current day and 2030, one a nuclear war (whose long term effects were mitigated by the invention of radiation scrubbers) and the other being a non-nuclear war often referred to as the Second Vietnam War. At the end of WWIV, a number of refugees from all over Asia sought to move to Japan, and the tensions between these refugees and the Japanese government are the primary driving force behind the plot of the series. This is clearly a series that was influenced by the post 9/11 world, and there are lots of little references to real world analogs, though nothing particularly overt (the US military shows up in the film and the series isn't especially flattering). While politics has always played a role in the series, it is more of a focus in this series.
  • Like the 1st Gig series, there are several stand-alone episodes mixed in with the continuity episodes, and in a lot of cases you get some backstory on various characters in Section 9. In my review of the 1st Gig series, I mentioned that the closing credits featured lots of shots of Section 9 staff just hanging around, shooting pool or playing cards. I had wanted to see more of that in the series, and we get a little of that here. For instance Saito plays poker with some new recruits and talks about how he first met the Major (in a sniper duel - though I'm not sure I buy that). Other side characters, like Pazu and Togusa get their own episodes as well, which is something I appreciated (and would like to see more of, as most of these characters are interesting in their own right). You find out more about the Major's past and how she came to become a full replacement cyborg, though there are some things with this that they try to tie into the main storyline later in the series which struck me as being a bit contrived, but it worked well enough, I suppose.
  • The Tachikomas are back and also get their own episode as well as a rather heroic moment later in the movies (a good cavalry moment). Also, at the end of each episode there are these 1 minute shorts called Tachikomatic Days that can be kinda funny (apparently they were part of the 1st Gig series as well, though I never noticed them...)
  • One of the things that always seemed strange about the first series was the way the Major dressed (her non-combat uniform seemed to be a one-piece bathing suit, thigh-high stockings, and a leather jacket). I was apparently not alone in this assessment, with some people going so far as to call her Major Cheeks. In comments, Steven Den Beste came up with a half-satisfying explaination for the outfit, claiming that perhaps as a full-replacement cyborg, the Major likes to express her sexuality in such ways, if only to remind herself that she's human. In this series, you get much more variety, including some more explicit stuff and some actual sensible outfits (though I still don't think she'll live down the Major Cheeks nickname). Her standard ensemble from the original series seems to have been updated with pants and a different (though still somewhat improbably) jacket, making it less obtrusive (and actually, more attractive - at least to me).

    Major Kusanagi
    Major Kusanagi

    On several occassions she puts on quite attractive and revealing outfits, but they're more appropriate to the situations at hand (a couple of these are in the extended entry section of this post). She does still retain that odd cyber-sexual ambiguity though, at one point joking around with Section 9 about how if they don't get an assignment, she'll take them all out to the nudie bar, or later in the series when a teenager asks her if she can still have sex (her behavior during this sequence is actually kinda strange given that she's of an indeterminate age and he's presumably much, much younger, but nothing actually happens, which I think is how she wanted it anyway). In any case, I've always had a thing for the Major, and this series certainly delivers on that area.
  • In the end, I enjoyed the series quite a bit, though I think I may have watched it a little too fast, as my thoughts on the series are still a little disjointed. That or after 2 movies and a series, I'm starting to repeat myself. Who knows, I may have more to say about it as time goes on.
  • I suppose I should also note that Yoko Kanno is back, and as usual, the soundtrack for this series is great. It's not quite Cowboy Bebop, but it fits the series well.
  • I watched the series mostly off of Netflix's watch online service, though this time around I installed the PlayOn media server so that I could stream the video to my PS3 and watch it on my 50" screen whilst sitting on my couch (much better than watching the series on my monitor while sitting at my desk). Unfortunately, it wasn't quite an ideal experience. The substandard quality of the Netflix video (perhaps combined with the additional steps the video had to take to get to my TV) really looked poor at times on my HD TV. Sometimes it was fine though, and it was still easier to watch from my couch than at my desk. The other major issue was that the service was somewhat unreliable, though this may have more to do with Windows Media Player than PlayOn. Still, I was frequently interrupted by "The Data is corrupted" errors and DRM failures, which means I probably won't be buying the PlayOn software (but I suppose the free trial is worth checking out, if you have a PS3). At this point, I'm hoping that the rumors of Netflix's PS3 (or even Wii) support are true, and that we'll get something workable soon.
A few more screenshots (though not as many as usual) and comments in the extended entry...

Boma and Pazu
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
Batou

Batou and the Major
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...

The Major

Another of the Major

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Trigun Ends
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.
  • Vash continued to be a likeable character - a Columbo-esque bumbling gunman - though towards the end of the series he takes on a more whiney emo style. I found this somewhat annoying, especially since the series kept covering the same thematic ground (there is one particularly tragic moment in the 24th episode where this could be appropriate, but even then, they overdo it).

    Vash the Stampede

  • The tone of the series continued to vary wildly from a silly, practically slapstick comedy to a stoic and deadly serious drama to madcap action sequences. For the first 15 or so episodes, the emphasis was pretty firmly in the slapstick realm, while things got progressively more serious and darker as the series ended. As you might expect, the exaggerated and stylized expressions continued to appear, though their frequency decreased as the series progressed (i.e. as the series got darker). The series also strays a bit from its steampunk Western roots and incorporates more and more science fiction into the mix. However, I found much of the SF presented to be just as problematic as the steampunk elements in that I found myself getting caught up in the minute details and missing the forest for the trees.
  • The series definitely contains too much filler, and could easily have been fit into 13 episodes. Indeed, the person I had identified as the primary villain in the previous entry isn't actually the primary villain. You don't find out who that is until the 16th episode in the series. Minor spoilers, the main villain is Vash's brother. It turns out that Vash and his brother Knives are not human, though it's not clear what they are or where they came from. They seem to me to be genetically altered humans or something, and the flashbacks make it clear that they are superior to humanity in several ways. Vash seems to take this to heart and loves humanity (as he is taught by his primary caretaker, Rem), while Knives seeks to destroy the inferior race... though I'm a little unclear on why he wants to do this. Such villainy is difficult to understand, and the series never quite establishes the real motives behind Knives' compulsions.
  • There are a couple of flashback episodes, but the series still generally conformed to 1 or 2 episode arcs with a video game style boss-battle at the end of each arc.
  • The animation remained poor, with continued overuse of the single cell panning technique described in my first post.
The series does go for a couple of plot twists, but I found myself somewhat unmoved at most of them. This is probably because the series never really drew me in and thus I never really made a great connection to some of the characters. For instance, there is an unexpected death somewhere in the last few episodes. The death itself didn't really bother me, but I was somewhat moved by Milly's grief (surprisingly, Milly seems to have more of an arc in the series than Meryl, who doesn't get much in the way of closure).

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...

SEEDS Fleet
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.

Vash and a fallen ship

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.

Regular Knives

Maniacal Knives

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
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
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 and his big gun
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.

Big Smile!
Big Smile!

Though it is curtailed in the last 10 episodes, the absurdly stylized art is still present.

Meryl
Meryl

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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 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
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
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
Closed Eyes

Closed eyes syndrome continues unabated.

Peace and Love
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
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
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
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
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.

Vash and Silly Face

Vash and Silly Face

Vash and Silly Face

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Link Dump
For obvious reasons, time is a little short these days, so here are a few links I've found interesting lately:
  • Still Life - This is a rather creepy short film directed by Jon Knautz. It has a very Twilight Zoney type of feel, and a rather dark ending, but it's quite compelling. Knautz went on to make Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer... alas, that film, while containing a certain charm for the horror aficionado, isn't quite as good as this short.
  • Zero Punctuation: Assassin's Creed: I've seen some of Yahtzee's video game reviews before, but while they are certainly entertaining to watch, I've never quite known whether or not they were actually useful. It can be a lot of fun to watch someone lay the smackdown on stupid games, and Yahtzee certainly has a knack for doing that (plus he has a British accent, and us Americans apparently love to hear Brits rip into stuf), but you never really know how representative of the actual game it really is. Well, after spending a lot of time playing around with Assassin's Creed this week, I have to say that Yahtzee's review is dead on, and hilarious to boot.
  • A Batman Conversation: It's sad and in poor taste, but I bet some variant of this conversation happened quite frequently about a year ago.
  • MGK Versus His Adolescent Reading Habits: Look! I'm only like 2 months behind the curve on this one! MGK posts a bunch of parodies of book covers from famous SF and fantasy authors (I particularly enjoyed the Asimov, Heinlein, and even the Zahn one).
  • Top Ten Astronomy Pictures of 2008: Self-explanatory, but there are some pretty cool pics in here...
  • Books as Games: I realize most of my readers also read Shamus, but still, this faux-review of Snow Crash if it were created as a video game before it became a book but in the present day (it, uh, makes more sense in his post) is pretty cool.
  • "Sacred Cow Slayings" Rumored at Sony... Is PlayStation In Jeopardy?: It figures... I finally get off my butt and buy a PS3 and then rumors start appearing that Sony is about to can the program. I don't think it will happen, but this news is obviously not comforting...
  • Keanu Reeves wants to make a live-action version of Cowboy Bebop. No comment.
Posted by Mark on January 07, 2009 at 08:56 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Anime Meme
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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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...
  • The series follows the exploits of the Hellsing Organization. Run by descendents of Abraham Van Helsing (the famous vampire hunter from Dracula), the Hellsing Organization hunts down and destroys vampires. In an interesting twist, the Hellsing Organization employs vampires for this task, including one particularly powerful vampire named Alucard. Alucard is implied to be Dracula himself (his name would thus be an anagram), and could possibly be the oldest and most powerful vampire in existence. He's egotistical and arrogant, and rather than merely destroy the vampires he hunts, he often toys with them first, hopeing to break their spirit as well as their life. He seems kinda bored and is always hoping for an opponent who will finally be able to put up a good fight. On the other hand, he is clearly devoted to the current head of the Hellsing organization, Integra Hellsing. He also gets along well with Hellsing butler and armorer, Walter Dornez, and he seems to have a fatherly relationship with his fledgling, Seras Victoria. Apparently in the original Manga, he is somewhat sad and envious of humans. Unfortunately, the series doesn't really explore this aspect of his personality. Alucard is basically your typical badass anti-hero. He clearly does some evil things, but compared to the pitiful creatures he hunts, he's a saint.

    Alucard and Integra Hellsing
    Alucard and Integra Hellsing

  • The other main character in the series is Seras Victoria. A police officer who got caught up in a battle between Alucard and some rampaging vampire, she was turned into a Vampire by Alucard. As such, she gives the audience their introduction to the world of Hellsing. She seems to have a little trouble accepting what she has become (for instance, she hesitates to drink blood, even the stuff the Hellsing Organization provides in convenient Capri-Sun style packages), but by the end of the series she's well on her way. Her relationship with her master, presents an interesting dynamic, as it seems to imply that he has a more sensitive side than you'd typically see. It might have been nice to get a larger character arc here, but this series seems more interested in providing cool action scenes and visuals with people pointing guns directly at the camera (which, I'll grant, is pretty badass).

    Seras Victoria
    Seras Victoria

  • One of the interesting things about this series is that it's set entirely in the UK. The english dub of the series actually uses british accents, which makes the dub more desirable than the subtitles (with the potential exception of the voice for Alucard, whose Japanese counterpart seems to have a much deeper and menacing voice). This is something I haven't seen in any other Anime title, so I found it rather interesting.
  • One of the big problems with the series for me is actually that Alucard is way too powerful. There are several villains who crop up in the series, but most don't even come close to Alucard's power, and even the one climatic battle in the series is kinda lacking in suspense because even when it seems like Alucard has been defeated, he always manages to come back somehow. The only villain who seems to have a chance is Alexander Anderson, a paladin who works for Vatican Section XIII, Iscariot. He's a regenerator, so he seems mildly invinciible too and survived two run ins with Alucard. There also seems to be a strange conflict between Hellsing and Iscariot. Apparently the Vatican frowns on the Hellsing's practice of fighting fire with fire. In any case, the series ends without really resolving either of these conflicts.
  • Sort of an extension of the above point, the mythology behind the vampire's powers is not explored in much detail and thus some of their abilities seem rather outlandish. It kinda acts like magic, but there don't appear to be any bounds on what is possible. This sort of thing is difficult to pull off. Hellsing does a decent job of this, but ultimately I get the feeling that the creators just wanted to show some cool imagery, which this series has in spades. Various abilities are sometimes hinted at, but the series never goes into that much detail. For instance, a vampire who serves a human master seems to be able to take on more abilities than a vampire who lives on their own. This is an interesting idea, one that is mentioned a few times when Alucard battles Incognito (the most powerful other vampire in the series - and he also serves a human master, though we never find out who), but it is really only hinted at. Unfortunately, when it comes to creating suspense, this sort of vague magic makes it difficult to really establish any real tension. It makes for some damned cool visuals though.

    Alucards Magic Hands
    Alucard's Magic Hands

  • The series presents some interesting threats to the Hellsing Organization as a whole, but ultimately ends with a whimper. For instance, one of the root causes of the problems experienced during the series is that someone has figured out a way to create artificial vampires, and these creatures are not the elegant and civilized villains that "real" vampires are. But this threat isn't utilized in the series very well. Another threat introduced in the series is the existence of a mole in the Rountable that helps Hellsing hunt vampires, but that too ends abrubtly. Indeed, the series ends with two rather unceremonious text messages stating that MI-5 is still hunting down the people responsible for creating artificial vampires with the freak chip, and also that the mole in the roundtable has been captured. I'm guessing that the Manga has continued on much further than the series went, and that someday there will be another series.
  • All that said, the series is a lot of fun to watch. While I would have liked it to delve deeper into some of the issues or provide more of a character arc to Alucard or Seras Victoria, there's some interesting material that is implied in various relationships and there's also plenty of entertaining action in the series. The battle sequences really comprise the series greatest strength. Visually, the series has an artistic flare that successfully mixes victorian horror with modern military motifs. The music is also exceptional - some of th best stuff I've heard since the soundtrack to Cowboy Bebop. Indeed, stylistically, this series reminded me a lot of Cowboy Bebop. Ultimately, the series works as pure entertainment. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, but I was hoping for a little more.
As usual, more screenshots and thoughts in the extended entry...

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
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.

The big gun, in more detail

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.

Alexander Anderson


Also Alexander Anderson, in silhouette form

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).

Incognito

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).

Alucard emerging from the smoke

Did I mention that this series seems to revel in creating neat visuals like this one of Alucard emerging from the smoke? Yes? Good.

Alucard


Alucards mustache

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.

Alucard says bye!

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror IV: The Devil and Homer Simpsons
  • Poor Devil (WTF is this? Franklin Mint Blog has details)
  • Hellbound: Hellraiser II (trailer)
  • Jigoku: The title of this film means "hell," but unfortunately, only the final third of the film takes place there. The first hour or so is comprised of a tedious, handwringing melodrama about Shiro Shimizu, a good student with a loving fiancee, who seems to have drawn the ire of Tamura. I'm not sure what the deal is with Tamura, but whenever he appears (and I use that term literally), people die. This film doesn't make a ton of sense, but it's beautifully shot, and once you begin the descent into hell that the title promises, things pick up a bit. Granted, things still don't make sense, but then, you kinda expect that in hell. In any case, Shiro is sentenced to an eternity of damnation in the Japanese/Buddhist version of hell... unless he can gain redemption by saving his unborn daughter. Or something, I don't think it really matters. The only reason to really watch this movie is for its use of gore, as you see various characters from the first hour punished for their sins. Relatively tame by today's standards, this movie, made in 1960, clearly disturbed audiences of the time and paved the way for gore as a mainstay of the horror genre. Alas, since none of the characters really matter much and since there is little emphasis on story or plot, I didn't care much for the film. Fantastic visuals though. Probably only interesting for students of the genre. **

    The boiling cauldron level of hell
    The boiling cauldron level of hell

  • The Ring (trailer)
  • Ringu (trailer)
  • Video Dating (Robot Chicken)
  • Ju-on: The Grudge: This Japanese haunted house tale puts an interesting spin on the cliched subgenre, creates an undeniably creepy atmosphere, and produces some excellent scares, but ultimately doesn't go anywhere. We're informed by the title sequence that a Ju-on is "The curse of one who dies in the grip of powerful rage. It gathers and takes effect in the places that person was alive. Those who encounter it die, and a new curse is born." And that's basically it. A bunch of people enter the house, get cursed, then we see them disappear or die mysteriously. Writer/Director Takashi Shimizu attempts to liven the proceedings by employing a nonlinear narrative structure, and by instituting the rule that it doesn't matter where you go, these ghosts will still find you and do their thing. The latter is an interesting twist, solving the problem of a lot of haunted house tales (i.e. Just leave the house, dumbass! Well, in Ju-On, that won't help you). At first, this movie is wildly effective. Shimizu crafts a creepy atmosphere that sets the mood and then manages a few unsettling payoffs. The film is filled with little visual tricks that keep you on edge, constantly looking in the shadows or reflections for an unseen ghost. The sound design and minimalist soundtrack provide a lot of the scares and complement the visuals well. The unconventional narrative structure is engaging at first... a series of interlocking "chapters" that each tell the tale of one individual's struggle to avoid the curse. Unfortunately, by the end of the film, the novelty of the atmosphere was beginning to flag, and the nonlinear timeline manages to give away the ending about a half hour before it happens, thus taking all the suspense out of the ending and making the seemingly interesting narrative structure essentially pointless. The ending is the one major flaw in an otherwise harrowing movie. That said, this is probably the creepiest movie I've seen during the 6WH (the only other candidate was also a ghost movie, The Others), so I'll give the movie a pass. ***

    It is either a little boy ghost or a cat ghost, or both.
    It's either a little boy ghost or a cat ghost, or both.

  • Vampire 24: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 (Robot Chicken)
  • Blood+ (trailer)
  • Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (trailer)
  • Hellsing (disc 1): I wanted to get some Anime on here, as horror is a genre not particularly covered by my guides to the Anime world. I actually wanted to watch Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, but Netflix doesn't have it for some reason, so I had to resort to this series. I picked Hellsing because it got generally good reviews and sounded rather interesting. After the first 3 episodes, it seems to be chugging along well, though I don't think the series plot has been established yet. There's no clear villain, except for the hordes of vampires that the Hellsing organization hunts down and destroys. Interestingly, the Hellsing organization employs vampires for this purpose. This actually makes a bit of sense; I've always thought that the best vampire hunters would be other vampires. One of the main characters and seemingly the most powerful vampire is Alucard, an obvious hint that he is, in fact, Dracula (Alucard is Dracula spelled backwards, and is even used in Bram Stoker's novel). The other main character is a young policewoman who chose to become a vampire when she got between Alucard and a rampaging vampire. She struggles with what she's become, and we get our introduction to the world of Hellsing through her. No recognizeable villain or serious challenge to Alucard's power has appeared, unless it's the Vatican's hunter who has just appeared at the end of disc 1 (The Vatican's vampire hunting unit, named Iscariot, seems to disagree with the Hellsing organization's practice of fighting fire with fire). While I can see that Iscariot will show up later in the series, they don't seem like the primary villain. Anyway, so far, so good. More thoughts on the series (still 10 episodes to go) will be posted separately.

    Alucard
    Alucard

That about covers it for tonight, but the festivities will continue through the week and Wednesday's entry will be a special Speed Round edition, featuing a bunch of movies that I've watched recently but haven't had the chance to write about. Thanks to NeedCoffee for the pointer to Poor Devil (they're doing a Halloween marathon as well). Kernunrex's 6WH is also proceeding well; he's even been watching Kaedrin favorite Phantasm and it's several sequels. In an interesting twist, Shamus will be posting about survival horror video games during what he calls Hallowweek. And the usual crowd is up to their Halloween shenanigans: Horror Movie A Day, Quint from AICN is still going strong, The Metal Misfit, Random Acts of Geekery, and Cal's Media of the Month. It also looks like local horror aficionados are hosting a marathon of their own this weekend: Exhumed Films 24 Hour Horror-thon. The schedule is being kept secret for now, but it looks like fun.
Posted by Mark on October 26, 2008 at 09:32 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.

Thanks,
~Mark

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.

Jinto & Lafiel
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
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
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...

Elevator Indicators
Elevator Indicators

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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
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
The Bebaus brothers view a strategic display


Another 2D Strategic Readout
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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.
  • The series follows a war between The United Mankind and the Abh Empire. The story is told through the eyes of Abriel Lafiel and Lin Jinto. Lafiel is a princess of the Abh Empire and the captain of a small attack ship, the Basroil. Jinto is her supply officer and secretary. He's also royalty, though he's the last surviving member of his family, and his membership in the Abh Empire seems to be more of a legal formality than a race thing (this is one of the interesting things about the universe this story is set in - more later in this post). This is a war story, but so far the emphasis seems to be on Lafiel and Jinto. There's some romantic tension there, and I can see the beginnings of a love triangle. Again, I'm 6 episodes into the series. So far, so good, though I'm getting the feeling that I probably should have watched Crest of the Stars first (I assume most of the backstory between Lafiel and Jinto is covered in that series).

    Jinto & Abriel
    Jinto & Abriel

  • So far, the story is told entirely from the perspective of the Abh. From what I can understand, the Abh are a race of humans who have been genetically engineered for life in space. For instance, they seem to have developed a new sensory organ that helps with space navigation (they use headpieces to interface with it, which is why it looks like all the characters are wearing a tiara). As previously mentioned, Jinto is technically Abh, but he's also a "grounder" (i.e. someone who was born and grew up on a planet) and I think his status as a member of the Abh is more legal than genetic (though I guess if your race is defined by genetic modification, a human could change to that race pretty easily). Interestingly, Jinto is referred to as a "Count" which I believe outranks "Princess" in terms of nobility, yet Princess Abriel is Jinto's military superior. We don't actually see much of the United Mankind empire, but one interesting thing about them is that they don't seem to be demonized. They're not the Nazis of the Banner universe, they're just enemies. Also, there don't seem to be any secret weapons or invincible ships on their side (something I saw in Vandread and Martian Successor Nadesico). Though neither side knows of the other side's true fleet strength, the focus seems to be more on tactics and strategy than simple brute force or secret weapons. This tends to make for a more believable and interesting universe...
  • So far, I've only seen one major battle in the series. I admit that some of the strategy and tactics went a bit over my head, but I like how this series is progressing. Other space opera series (like, for instance, Vandread) seem to have a battle every episode, which can get a bit tiresome. Banner is taking its time, arranging various elements and strategies before jumping into battle. It looks like the series is building towards a big climatic battle during the last 4 episodes, which I'm told is fantastic.
  • The music in the series bears a strong resemblance to the music in the Galactic Civiliazations II video game. Since this series was produced several years before Galciv II, I'm guessing that the composer for Galciv II was familiar with this soundtrack... In any case, I do like the music, and it seems to fit well with the space opera theme.
  • The animation quality doesn't seem all that spectacular, but it's serviceable. There seems to be an abundance of closeups (where the only thing moving is the character's mouth) and a lot of reused background stuff. This is all rather common though, and didn't really distract me much. Character design is a little interesting. I don't know why, but the eyes in this series seem larger than normal (or maybe it's the proportions of the various pieces of the eye that are catching my attention). Anime is infamous for having larger eyes than normal, but this series seems even more excessive than usual. Perhaps I'm just becoming more and more obvservant of eyes in Anime (in other news, closed eye syndrome continues unabated). Also, perhaps because the eyes are larger than normal, some characters have eyes with pupils (Lafiel and Jinto have pupils, see screenshots), and others seem to be entirely iris (Ekuryua, the person on the right in the below screenshot, doesn't seem to have a pupil). In animation, you can sometimes get away without drawing a pupil if the eyes are small enough, but since some of the eyes are still huge, it can be a little strange... The other interesting thing about the character designs is that some characters have long, pointy ears, while others have more normal human ears. The people that have the long pointy ears seem to be nobility (for instance, there are two people from the Abriel family in the series and they both have pointy ears, see the screenshots of Lafiel and Admiral Abriel (his screenshot is further down)), but then, some nobles don't have them either (Jinto doesn't and neither do the Biboth brothers). The noses also seem pointier. Not sure if there's any significance to any of this (perhaps these are indications of various genetic enhancements the Abh have implemented), or if I'm just being overly picky.

    Abriel & Ekuryua
    Abriel & Ekuryua have big eyes

  • The first scene in the series is quite confusing - it doesn't seem to have been translated into english (on either the dub or the subtitle). For a while, I thought I had messed something up with the setup of the subtitles and audio. In any case, after that first scene, everything seems to be fine. Not sure what the deal is there. The only other annoyance is that sometimes the subtitles are rendered right on top of what appear to be Japanese subtitles, making them hard to read (this is particularly annoying during the OP when you hear a voice describe events leading up to the current war). A bit strange, but after I got used to it, it's fine.
I should be able to finish the series this week, and I'm told that I'm going to want to watch the last 4 episodes all at once. Hopefully, I'll have my final review done next week.

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..

Admiral Abriel
Admiral Abriel

One of the interesting things about SF in general is how little things change. For instance, the Abh apparently salute using only two fingers.

Jinto Saluting
Jinto Saluting

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
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.

Resources Graph
Resources Graph

That's all for now. Again, more later in the week...
Posted by Mark on June 29, 2008 at 08:58 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Monday, May 26, 2008

Anime Laws
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 Motion
In space, constant thrust equals constant velocity.
#11 - Law of Inherent Combustibility
Everything explodes. Everything.
#12 - Law of Phlogistatic Emission
Nearly all things emit light from fatal wounds.
#31 - Law of Follicular Chromatic Variability
Any color in the visible spectrum is considered a natural hair color. This color can change without warning or explanation.
Good stuff, and funny even if you don't watch anime.

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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
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.)

Batou
Batou

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).

Tachikomas
Tachikomas

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).

Sniper

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.

Batous fat face
Batou's fat face

Normal batou
Normal Batou

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
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
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
Togusa and Ishkawa watch Saito play cards

Boma and Pazu shoot some pool
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.

At least based on the movie, it's apparent that some full-replacement cyborgs have doubts about just how human they really are. The body is arbitrary; it can easily be changed. Kusanagi's brain could have been put into a male-form body, or into something that didn't look human at all.

Having a sexy form (e.g. with entirely cosmetic breasts) and emphasizing that sexiness with skimpy clothing might be part of her psychological need to reassure herself that she's still a woman, and not just a machine with a human brain inside it.
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
The Major, in uniform

The Major again

The Major has a nice ass

And just for good measure, here are some of the vehicle designs in the series. The creators seem to have a thing for propellers.

Airplane

Helicopters

Armored Combat Suits

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Episodes
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):
  • 3-15 Minute Episodes: These series aren't common except on the Cartoon Network's late night programming block, Adult Swim, which features many series that fit this format, including Robot Chicken, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Metalocalypse, etc... Each episode airs in a 15 minute timeslot, though with commercials, that ends up being around 11 minutes per episode. However, all of these shows are broad comedies or parodies, and often don't tell a single coherent story, instead relying on one-liners, funny situations (though I wouldn't classify these shows as sit-coms) and short parodies. There also isn't much of a continuity between episodes, which perhaps explains why we don't see much dramatic content being pushed out in this sort of timeslot. However, one high-profile exception to this is the Star Wars: Clone Wars animated series. Volume 1 of the series featured a whole slew of 3 minute episodes, while volume 2 featured 12 minute episodes. It's a good series, though again, I've only ever seen the DVDs where all the episodes are strung together... It's worth noting that all of the examples I could come up with for this short duration are animated series...
  • Half-Hour Episodes: Probably the most common duration of a television show. Without commercials, episodes weigh in at around 22-24 minutes long. In general, though, half-hour shows still tend to be comedic in nature. Most sit-coms are a half hour long, for instance. The major exception here is Anime, most of which, even dramatic series, are a half-hour long. However, as I hinted at above, I think this might not be ideal for some of the stories being told through Anime. None of which is to say that a half-hour isn't enough to tell a story, but it is telling that the most successful half-hour episodes are ones that tell rather small stories. Seinfeld is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) sit-coms in history, and it's famous for being a show about nothing. Of course, each show has a subject, but they're small subjects and things we can relate to (perhaps adding our own context to the story, thus making it a richer experience), things like getting lost in a parking lot or waiting for a table in a Chinese restaurant. These are brilliant episodes, but there isn't that much of an impact to them, and a lot of sit-coms lose their touch when they try to do something more dramatic (I suppose Scrubs has done a reasonable job of mixing comedy with dramatic tension in only a half-hour episode). One other thing to note about the half-hour format is that it seems to match well with the average human attention span, which is around 20 minutes or so. (this is almost perfect if you're watching it on DVD, though broadcast might be a little worse... then again, commercials give you a break, which might not be a bad thing).
  • One Hour Episodes: The impression I have is that one hour shows are becoming more and more popular. Without commercials, they usually clock in at around 42-46 minutes an episode, and this is where you start to see more drama and less comedy. There's more time here to establish characters and grow a conflict while still keeping it at a manageable attention level. You start to get to a point where you can tell a complete narrative in the time alotted, though where things are really going is to have each episode be part of a larger story arc. There can be some overlap with mini-series here, especially when you get away from network television and start talking about original series made by HBO or Showtime. Since those are pay channels, they don't have to have commercials and those episodes often clock in at a full 50-65 minutes. What's more, you tend to see much more of a continuity in these series, to the point where they do start to resemble a 12 or 13 hour movie instead of a show with discrete episodes. The Wire is probably the best example of this - there's no stand-alone episodes in The Wire. Each season tells a complete 12 or 13 hour story.
  • Mini-Series: Mini-series are typically a limited set of 1 or 2 hour blocks, typically broadcast for a limited time. Big examples of this include Roots, V, Salem's Lot, From the Earth to the Moon, and Band of Brothers. In some cases, a miniseries is really a collection of smaller tales, connected in some way (as with Band of Brothers and From the Earth to the Moon). Mini-series aren't common elsewhere in the world (and really, there aren't that many here either) because most series are actually limited in scope from the start. Anime is generally like this, with either 13 or 26 half-hour episodes to a series, and that's it. Sometimes there will be a sequel, and I'm pretty sure there are some long running series, but for the most part, they tend towards a more limited run. I think mini-series are interesting in theory, but their quality level varies drastically. Part of the reason for that is that a two hour installment is more difficult to produce than a one hour segment, and more is riding on each installment of a miniseries than each episode of a regular series. A one hour show probably has the best balance between story, budget and expectations.
As previously mentioned, many one hour TV series are blurring the line between TV shows and miniseries, with long and complex story arcs that last an entire season or longer. For instance, both Dexter and The Wire tell a single story over the course of a season, then start a new story featuring the same characters the next season. This is something that wasn't that common in the past. There was a series in the 1980s called Wiseguy that had two story arcs each season, connected by some of the characters. Then you have Twin Peaks, a murder mystery that captured the nation for a season. However, once the mystery was solved, interest declined considerably. The X-Files made a name for itself in the 1990s by mixing stand-alone episodes with continuity episodes, though ultimately I think many got fed up by the open-ended nature of the long-term story.

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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:
  • In my last post, I whined about how the plot of the GitS being too obtuse. However, after watching several episodes, I think my fears were unwarranted. There is still a tendency for the plot to occassion a quick info-dump which can sometimes be overwhelming, but for the most part, each episode is relatively easy to understand. The potential exceptions are the "laughing man" episodes, but I'm guessing they're a bit confusing because the story is still in progress and so there are still a lot of unanswered questions.
  • Also in my last post, I noted that the series seems to have a lighter tone than the films, and I think that's definitely true. For instance, Major Kusanagi is definitely displaying more of a light-hearted attitude than she does in the movies, where she has a much more earnest style. She even smiles a lot. She's still a badass though, and a very likeable character. The one thing that bothers me is her uniform, which seems to consist of a one-piece bathing suit, thigh-high stockings, and a jacket.

    Major Kusanagi's uniform
    All female cops wear this stuff, right?

    There was some low level nudity in the movies, but there was at least a partial explanation for that (she was wearing one of those invisibility suits). I know there's a time-honored tradition of something called fan service in anime, and if this qualifies, then it's actually pretty tame when compared to series that are actually fan service vehicles, but still. Every time I see the major wearing that outfit, my immersion (or "transport", if you prefer) in the story momentarily snaps, and I have to wonder why this woman is wearing what amounts to lingerie while conducting her police work. It's not like we ever see Batou walking around in a speedo, vest, and combat boots. Of course, this is a total nitpick and when she gets sent into a battle situation, she wears more reasonable attire, so it's not a complete disconnect.

    Thats better!

  • 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. This is probably why the plot of the series is a little easier to follow than the films, and it actually works pretty well because it's not like any other police procedural on TV. Such shows are a dime a dozen. I could probably turn on my TV and have my choice between 3 different episodes of Law & Order right now. But GitS:SAC is a police procedural that focuses on hacking, and it's surprisingly effective at taking the usually dull or fake-sounding hacking tropes and turning them into something more compelling to watch. I think a large part of this is that it's not just computer hacking here, but rather "ghost hacking" (i.e. hacking people's brains). Ghost hacking is inherently disturbing, and so these stories carry more weight than, say, a typical episode of 24 (which has such laughable techno-babble as to be actually entertaining, but that's a different story). Anyway, I think this style suits the series well, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the episodes.
That's all for now. More as the series progresses.
Posted by Mark on March 12, 2008 at 09:34 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.
  • The first episode recalls the films in a few ways. Obviously, it's not exactly the same, but for example, both the first film and the first episod of SAC start with Major Kusanagi jumping off a skyscraper roof to attack criminals. Another similarity is Geisha robots attacking their clients (shades of GitS2: Innocence, though that movie came out after this series). Obviously this is taking place in the same universe, so you'd expect such similarities, but I do hope that the series isn't just rehashing the same ideas over and over again. Indeed, there are some differences. For example, there seems to be an element of lighthearted humor here that isn't really present in the movies (at one point in the first episode, Batou turns his head, smiles, and says "I think he broke" in a sorta goofy way. Also, the Major seems to be a little... less intense... than she is in the movies.) In any case, one episode is not enough to make a real comparison, and maybe they were just trying to get people into the series by referencing conventions from the rest of the GitS universe.

    Major Kusanagi stands atop a skyscraper

  • I'm watching this on Netflix's online service, so I don't have a choice but to watch the dubbed version of the series. However, the dubbing at least seems better than the first film (the second film inexplicably does not have dubbing). Then again, the first film had some of the most atrocious voice acting I've ever heard (though perhaps some of that is due to the writing/translation), so perhaps that's not saying much.
  • The animation is notably inferior than the two feature films. The first film used a more traditional animation technique, while the second film used an interesting blend between traditional and computer generated 3D imagery. The series also uses CG, but it's much less textured or detailed and the movements are a little less fluid. I'm guessing this had something to do with budgetary or time constraints (producing 26 half hour episodes must be more resource intensive to produce than a 2 hour movie). However, while the animation did seem odd initially, I'll probably get used to it. It's not that bad, and it's not like I frown at live action movies with poor special effects or video games that don't have eye-popping graphics. The important thing to me is the story and the ideas.
  • Speaking of which, another thing that's becoming apparent about the entire GitS series is that they either have intentionally obtuse plots, or something is getting lost in translation (or both). The ideas underlying the series are definitely very interesting (and I believe that's what I responded to in the first two films) and can be challenging. This first episode seems more plot-centric than the films (which isn't necessarily a bad thing), but I definitely think there's still something that's lost in translation here, and perhaps not just when it comes to language (though that's probably a big part of it). It might be cultural (or political) references I'm not getting either. The first episode of SAC is not as difficult as the first film. I got the basic idea of the plot, but I got a little tripped up by all the detailed references to military or governmental organizations. In any case, it doesn't seem to be a coincidence that both movies are a little difficult to understand (though the first is worse in this respect than the second) and so is this first episode.
More thoughts as I progress through the series... again, I've only watched a single episode, so it's probably not fair to make some of the statements above until I've seen more of the series.
Posted by Mark on March 05, 2008 at 09:23 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Adaptation
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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.

Fembots gone mad!

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.

Mr. Oshii squeezes charming laughs from Batou's relationship with the dog, but the hound's more essential function is to circle the film back to the fundamental question of what makes us human. Like Sean Young's replicant did with Mr. Ford's blade runner, the dog humanizes the hero and becomes the occasion for some philosophical riffing.


Batou and his puppy

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.)

These are the vistas

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).

Batou and Kusanagi

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.

Cars

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").

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...

Batou and Togusa fly above an industrial city

The industrial city from above


A dragon in the architecture


An elephant from the Chinese festival

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Anime Update
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
  • Vandread and Vandread: Second Stage - Solid mecha action, decent characters, complex story, good ending. ***
  • Read or Die (OVA): Simple dumb fun. Neat concept, mildly enjoyable, but nothing special. **1/2
  • Martian Successor Nadesico - Very similar to Vandread though it seemed to be more of a parody (thus, I wasn't sure I was getting a lot of the jokes, etc...). Enjoyable, though a little repetitive. **1/2
  • Cowboy Bebop: Very enjoyable series. The ending was a bit dissapointing, but the series is overall great. ***
  • Banner of the Stars: Waiting for Netflix to restock this.
  • Ghost In The Shell: Stand-Alone Complex: Seems right up my alley, and Netflix has it available in their "Watch Online" feature. Looks like this will be next.
  • Trigun: Sounds like fun, and it was recommended by several people.
  • Samurai 7: I'm a fan of the original Kurosawa movie, and this seems like an interesting remake.
  • Last Exile: Need to look into this more, but several friends seemed to enjoy this. Update: Well, maybe not. Still, gorgeous screenshots.
  • Noir: Gets high marks, though not recommended much because of my "no downer" restrictions (which I'm going to say is no longer a restriction)
There are lots of other series after that, but considering how much I watched this year, the above should keep me busy for a while. In any case, unless Netflix suddently gets its act in order, it looks like Ghost In The Shell: Stand-Alone Complex is next up on my list. However, I should note that we're approaching my end of the year movie blowout, so Anime posts may be a little scarce in January. Still, I hope to tackle more Anime in 2008 than I did this year...
Posted by Mark on December 30, 2007 at 03:23 PM .: link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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:
  • The music has come up a few times, and rightly so. The composer for the series is Yoko Kanno, and she has managed to capture several American music styles remarkably well. She apparently spent some time in the States, including New Orleans, and absorbed a lot. Supposedly, she's also part of the inspiration for the character of Radical Edward (the phrase "a little weird, catlike, but a genius at creating music" seems to fit). Anyway, the music is great, and before I even watched the series, I had bought a bunch of soundtracks off ebay (you can get most of the sountrack on the 4 disc set for $20, a bargain). I almost want to check out some of the other series she worked on just to hear the music (apparently she did some work on Ghost in the Shell: SAC, which is on my list somewhere).
  • Session 23 is one of my favorite episodes in the series. I mentioned this in my last post, but I wanted to talk a little more about it. It's about a religious cult that believes in digitizing the brain (or is it the soul?) and uploading it into the internet. This is a concept that always intrigues me, though it's covered in more depth elsewhere. Arthur C. Clarke, for instance, was fond of the idea that as technology progressed, humanity would eventually create hardware that is more complex and more powerful than the human brain, at which point we would migrate our consciousness to the new technology. Another example is the Ghost in the Shell series, in which many people have used technology to enhance their bodies and their brains. The concept opens up lots of questions (at least for me), and I have to wonder how long it will take before something like the SCRATCH cult in this episode actually comes up, marrying the spiritual with the technological. If I upload the contents of my brain to the internet (or some computer system complex enough to handle it), what would the experience be like? Could I make a copy of myself? Would I still exist? Just what is it that makes me me, and can that be preserved or transferred outside of my body? Would I still be me? Would my subjective consciousness continue on, even if it's housed in artificial technology? What would the transition be like? These are big questions, and there's no answer. Yet. And that's a little creepy. The episode doesn't delve too deeply into this, but it does a reasonable job for a 22 minute TV episode. Some of the visuals are neat too, such as this improbable but symbolically significant location where the finale partially takes place:

    Improbable but symbolically meaningful
Ok, that's it for the spoiler free stuff. More screenshots, comments, and spoilers after the link. Ok, so this one isn't a spoiler, but it's funny:

Spike pours beer into his cereal

Beer and cereal, breakfast of champions.

Spikes eyes are closed

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.

Faye and Ed

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:

Ed says Bye Bye to 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?

Who would really go to the Loser Bar?

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.

Spike acts like he is in a Hong Kong action film

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).

Sword versus pistol

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?)

Spike is victorious

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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. ...

Jet owns the Bebop, and he puts up with Faye and Ed, and Ein, in part because of his feeling of obligation to not turn them out. They need help, he can provide it, and he feels as if he must even if he gains nothing for doing so. He feels protective about the others, for the same reason. He gives up the possibility of shaking down the gate corporation for a huge sum of money and instead demands that they leave the chess master alone, because Ed wants to keep playing against him. Faye and Spike keep wrecking their ships and he keeps fixing them. And in one exchange between them, it becomes clear that Jet had even taken Spike in out of that same kind of feeling of helping someone less fortunate, giving a place to someone who didn't have one.
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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.
  • It's the year 2071, and humans have colonized most of the solar system using hyperspace gateways that allow easy interplanetary travel. The series follows a group of bounty hunters (often referred to as "cowboys") who travel the solar system in their ship, the Bebop. At the start of the show, Jet (a 36 year old former police officer) and Spike (a 27 year old with a myserious past in a syndicate) are the only characters, but as the show moves on, they pick up additional members of their crew. For the most part, each episode focuses on a specific bounty that our heroes are trying to nab, but this is usually just an excuse to delve into one of the characters' past or to expound upon the relationships that are being built among the various members of the crew. More on these characters, and additional screenshots below the fold.

    Jet and Spike eye a bounty
    Jet and Spike eye a bounty

  • When I was soliciting recommendations for anime, Steven Den Beste warned me that he thinks the ending is a real downer that ruins everything that came before it (he's got a couple posts on this, including one that I don't want to read until I finish the series). I gather that this sucker-punch happens somewhere around episode 24, so it's coming up soon. The knowledge and expectation that this is going to happen will amost certainly color my reaction, probably softening the blow. I don't generally like downer endings, but I'm not necessarily opposed to them either. We'll see what happens. I'm not sure what's going to happen (I'm assuming the not-so-happy little family that's coalesced around the Bebop will split up in some way), but I find it hard to believe that it will actually ruin what came before. I guess we'll see.
  • When I mentioned that I'd be watching this next, Alex mentioned that I might be put off by the more episodic format of the series, but I rather like the way this series mixed stand-alone stories with an overarching continuity that underlies everything else.
  • As previously mentioned, this series is extremely well done. It's got great set and character design, a well-realized futuristic setting, wonderful action sequences, and the visual style is overall very effective. My recent Anime viewing has seemed very much like television (of course, it is television, so that's not really a complaint), but every episode of Cowboy Bebop feels cinematic. There's a lot of humor in the series, but it's not a comedy. There are some dramatic and earnest moments, but nothing that feels pretentious or pushy.
More thoughts and screnshots below the fold.

Update: I've finished watching the series, and have some preliminary thoughts on the ending.

Spike is ready to hunt
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 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:

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
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

Spike is a badass, and you can tell because the director frames him the same way John Woo frames Chow Yun Fat. Or something.

Spike and Vicious faceoff

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 kid looks like something out of Akira

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).

Colony

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.

Cowboy Bebop 90210

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
Pippu, choice of people 4 generations from now


Coke

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:

Pippu, choice of people 4 generations from now

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.

The Nadesico In Space
The Nadesico

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
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.

A Christmas Tree on the Nadesico

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.

Hikaru and Izumi

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.

Taking a lift down...

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:

Is he giving me the finger?

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 :.


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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 :.


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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 cover of the first disc of Pani Poni Dash! parodies one of my favorite movie posters.

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 :.


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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Closed-Eyes Syndrome
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.

This is an old device to imply wisdom; more recently, it's been subverted as a device to show "wise guys".
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:

Yurika from Martian Successor Nadesico
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...

BC Closes her eyes when she talks to Bart in Vandread: Second Stage


The crew in Vandread celebrates Christmas by... closing their eyes!
A holiday celebration calls for closed eyes!

Haibane Renmei also prominently features the closed-eye syndrome:

I am so happy that my eyes have closed


I am going to close my eyes even though I am talking to you...

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 :.


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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, things seem to be pretty engaging. The characters are interesting and the story seems to be moving along well enough. The only thing that is a little strange for me is that there appears to be a ton of references to other anime series. Not having watched a lot of Anime, I can't really say for sure, but it seems pretty obvious to me that this is at least partially a parody of older Anime series. For instance, one obvious source of parody is how some of the characters become obsessed with a 100 year old series called "Gekigangar 3," which features a giant fighting robot that looks to this newbie's eyes like a version of Voltron or something. I'm positive there are tons of references going on there (it just feels referential, the way you'd be able to tell Family Guy was being referential even if you didn't know what they were referencing). Also, several of the characters tend to break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience, a sure sign of parody. Again, I'm finding the series engaging and funny (I laughed out loud several times) in its own right, but I wonder if I'd get more out of it if I was more familiar with the giant fighting robot genre?

    Voltron?  Is that you?
    This mecha looks so familiar...

  • Considering that I've pegged this as a parody of your typical giant fighting robot genre series, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that almost everything about this series reminds me of Vandread and Vandread: Second Stage. Lots of things, from the characters and their stories (for instance, Akito is like Hibiki in several ways: they've both got a mysterious past, they've both got a ditzy girl chasing them around, and they're both pseudo-untrained pilots.), to the enemy (the Jovian Lizards also seem to use robots to do their fighting, just like the enemy in Vandread - the ships even have similar designs), to the combinging robot fighters (which, granted, don't happen in the same way) are similar. MSN came out before Vandread so I can only assume that they're both borrowing from a common set of archetypical anime characters and conventions. In any case, I'm guessing that I'll be using Vandread as a point of reference to all anime in this genre going forward.
  • I was somewhat shocked by the end of episode 3 and start of episode 4. Something surprising happens to the character I had pegged as a cross between Bart and Hibiki from Vandread, and, well, I just wasn't expecting anything like that this early in the series.
  • The extras on the DVD are actually helpful for once, particularly the Translation Notes. At one point, a character who had stowed away in a shipping container makes her entrance, and one of her friends tries to push her back into the container. In response, she says "Don't put me back in... I'm not a mackeral that has to be canned." Inexplicably, she starts laughing hysterically. At the time, I remember thinking it was an odd thing to say, and that there must be some sort of translation problem with a Japanese idiom or something. According to the translation notes, I was close. It turns out that the character in question can't stop herself from making horrible puns, and the Japanese verb for "packing in" and "preparing mackerel" is the same (shimeru). Apparently, the translater pulled out his hair all throughout the series trying to come up with ways to translate the puns. To be honest, I'm not sure how much of this sort of thing really makes it through, and it makes me wonder how much I'm missing whenever I watch a foreign language film (I've recently written about this subject as well).
  • Speaking of translations, is it me, or do the subtitles on this get ridiculously difficult 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! For the most part, it's fine, but I was having a little trouble at first. The translation for the dubbing seems to be similar (not exactly the same, but not as different as some other shows I've watched). I guess I'm still on the fence about whether or not to watch with subtitles or dubbing...
More thoughts and screenshots below the fold. Some even more random notes and screenshots:

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).

Hibiki and Dita   Akito and Hikaru

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?

What's that thing on her head?
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 :.


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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.

Behold, I can move paper!

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):

A paper airplane!

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.

Hi, I'm a villain.

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.

Drake...

As previously mentioned, they come up with lots of ways to use paper, as in this paper parachute or a paper sword:

A paper parachute? Why not?

Paper Sword gets destroyed

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...

Mr Bad Guy

I Can Hear Music (hey, me too!)

And finally, here are some pictures of the striking Miss Deep herself, Nancy Makuhari. She's a badass.

Nancy is hot.

Shoot

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
Posted by Mark on May 06, 2007 at 09:36 PM .: Comments (10) | link :.


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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...

Pirates!

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
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.

And afterwards they're all weary, though Hibiki is usually the worst off in that regard. It's because he's been using his ki to make the machines run -- because they're not really machines.

What's even more interesting is the cases where a character manages to raise their ki and when they do so it directly causes changes of some kind before our eyes. In Vandread it's all about the Paksis; what they're doing is to somehow link to the Paksis, which uses its mysterious powers to create what is needed. It isn't necessarily a conscious need, of course. Hibiki does this more than anyone, and Meia/Dita/Jura do it to some extent, but Bart also does it once, in episode 16. (That is, the third episode of the second series.) Bart attains a sufficiently high emotional state that he is able to reach the Paksis, and as a result the Nirvana is changed to create banks of missile launchers.

Bart didn't do that deliberately. But in the emotional state he was in at the time he didn't question it. He was able to fully control them immediately. They did exactly what he expected them to do and needed them to do, even to where they struck only enemies and dodged around friends.
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
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...

Barnette

Bang, Bang Barnette

Barnette Being Friendly

And here's the obligatory Mecha shot, featuring the so-called Super Vandread, comprised of 4 ships:

The Super Vandread

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.

Fancy Stone

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.

BC has a Fancy Stone too

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.

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!)
Posted by Mark on April 22, 2007 at 05:25 PM .: Comments (5) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Vandread
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?

Nirvana
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 and BC
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:

Nirvana
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:

Mecha!
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:

Hibiki and Dita
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.

Bear Pajamas

The mysterious enemy ships are varied and have interesting designs. Here's one from the Christmas episode:

Funny Lookin Enemy Ship

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.

Decorating the tree
That's one huge tree!

Duero, Hibiki and Bart try to figure out this Christmas thing
Duero, Hibiki and Bart try to figure out this Christmas thing

Lighting the tree
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?)

Hibiki Claus
Hibiki Claus

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:

Kaboom
Kaboom

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.
Posted by Mark on April 01, 2007 at 09:44 PM .: Comments (6) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.
Posted by Mark on March 25, 2007 at 07:48 PM .: Comments (6) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Mental Inertia
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.

Somewhere between step 8 and step 9 there seems to be a bug, because I can't always make it across that chasm.For me, just getting started is the only hard thing. An object at rest tends to remain at rest. There's something incredible heavy in my brain that is extremely hard to get up to speed, but once it's rolling at full speed, it takes no effort to keep it going.
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.
Posted by Mark on March 14, 2007 at 08:14 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Anime
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)
  • Akira: My first forray into anime (unless you count Voltron) was largely unappreciated by me, thanks mostly to a horrible translation and bad transfer. I basically thought it was an incoherent mess (and I stand by that, given the crappy VHS experience), but when I revisited it during the marathon, I saw the new translation and digital transfer and was pleasantly surprised. I didn't love it, as the characters were annoying and generally unlikeable, but my opinion had greatly improved.
  • Ninja Scroll: At the recommendation of a friend, I rented this once. I have almost no recollection of this movie at all. I wanna say there was a scene on a boat at one point. I remember liking it, but not loving it.
  • Ghost in the Shell: I enjoyed this movie the first time I saw it, but I have to admit that it was a little out of my teenage self's league. I have since seen it several times and have grown to appreciate some of the challenging and thought provoking questions it raises.
  • Princess Mononoke: I distinctly remember watching a documentary on animation sometime around 1998 and seeing some clips from this movie and being awestruck. When it was finally released in the states, I jumped at the chance to see it and absolutely loved it. It's a fantastic film... yet, I have to admit that I haven't seen it since then and many of the details escape me. This is probably worth revisiting at some point.
  • Spirited Away: As much as I liked Princess Mononoke, this movie topped it, and when I learned that it was the same filmmaker, I was somewhat astounded. I rented it because it had won an Oscar, not because I knew it was from the makers of Princess Mononoke. It's a great film, and I gave it the best film award in the animation marathon.
  • Haibane Renmei: There was a bit of a gap between Spirited Away and this series (which happens to be my first actual anime series), and I hold Haibane Renmei responsible for my more recent interest in Anime. I checked it out because of the enthusiastic recommendations of Steven Den Beste, and, well, just about everybody else who has ever mentioned it. Put simply, this series is superb. Some have claimed that it's almost too good, and that everything else that follows will be a letdown. This might be true, but I've had about a year to cool off, and I think I should be fine:P
  • Cowboy Bebop: The Movie: I cought this on Comcast OnDemand, and thought it was great. Unlike most of what I'd seen before, this was just good, clean action-packed fun. The music was so great I went out and bought a bunch of soundtrack CDs and listen to them often. As far as anime gateway drugs go, I'd think this would be a good choice (right behind Miyazaki films, natch).
  • Serial Experiments Lain: This was my next series, and boy was it a doozy. I'd heard good things and the technological themes appealed to me, so I netflixed it. At this point, I'm still not sure what the heck it's all about. As I mention in the linked post from the Kaedrin Forum, I think it's perhaps a little too obtuse and deliberate, but also quite good. Once I figured out the "unreliable narration" angle, a lot of things clicked into place, but I need to watch the series again sometime to really work things out.
  • Grave of the Fireflies: One of the few movies in the animation marathon I'd never seen before, and, well, it's great, but I'm pretty traumatized by this. Since this was the last new thing I've seen, I think my next movie/series should be something a little more upbeat. Please.
  • Miscellaneous Stuff: I've seen a handful of episodes from a bunch of series on Adult Swim, but this is far from ideal. I've seen a few episodes of Inuyasha, Fullmetal Alchemist, Witch Hunter Robin and a bunch of other series. For the most part, this stuff just went over my head, probably because I was jumping into the middle of various series, and so I never really got into anything there. I vaguely remember watching Vampire Hunter D a long time ago, but remember very little about it (I also remember watching some othe vampire hunter anime show, but again, don't remember much). I remember attempting to watch some Mecha related anime movie on cable. For the most part, it didn't make sense and I never finished it (don't even remember the name). I watched Steamboy and was blown away with the visuals, even if I had totally lost interest by the end of the movie (same issues here as with Akira, which makes sense because it's made by the same people). I also recently went back and filled in most of Miyazaki's catalog, though there are still a few films I've yet to see. They're all great, though I don't think any approaches Spirited Away (Howl's Moving Castle was awesome until about 2/3 of the way through, at which point it began to unravel).
That's pretty much it. I'm sure I missed a few things here or there, but that should give you a rough idea where I'm at and what I think of the genre. Overall, it's actually been pretty good to me, and there aren't many movies/shows I disliked. However, at this point, I'm not really sure where to go next.

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.
  • Cowboy Bebop: When I think about what I want for my next series, I keep thinking about the Cowboy Bebop movie. That's exactly what I'm looking for, so you'd think this series would be a perfect fit. However, my understanding is that it has something of a downer ending. I'll definitely be watching this series, and probably sooner rather than later, but not next.
  • Martian Successor Nadesico: I seem to recall hearing that this was an excellent series to start with, however, it sorta fails the Netflix test: disc 5 is not available (the other discs are). The series is apparently out of print, and apparently Netflix's copy of disc 5 took a beating. This is most frustrating, as this sounds exactly like what I want. I might check to see if I can download the episodes on disc 5 and netflix the rest, but that just seems like a hassle. It sounds like a blast though, and I'd really like to check this one out.
  • Noir: I considered this because it sounds really interesting... unfortunately, it doesn't seem to fit what I'm looking for right now. However, I am intrigued and will most likely watch this at some point.
  • Angelic Layer: Sounds interesting, but I need to look into it more.
  • Twelve Kingdoms: Based mostly on Steve Yegge's enthusiastic recommendation. A quick quote from his post which has broad applicability to anime and foreign movies in general:
    You know how little kids at a certain age like to watch the same movie over and over and over again, for up to a year, and child psychologists say that each time they see it they're seeing it from a new perspective? Well, 12 Kingdoms was like that for us. There's so much for a Westerner to take in. We missed a lot of it the first time around. It took at least 3 or 4 viewings before the patterns started taking shape in our minds.
    Cool stuff. Still, I need to look into this series a little more. SDB was a little frustrated because it wasn't finished yet, but at this point, I think it has finished (but I'm not sure)
  • Last Exile: Another Steve Yegge recommendation, though I've heard this has a bit of a downer ending too (but I need to look into that).
Well, since I'm significantly past my midnight deadline, I figure this is as good a place as any to stop. At this point, I'm not at all sure what to get. Maybe I'm being too specific with my requirements... Let me know what you think. Again, all recommendations are welcome and I'll probably consider a bunch more than are listed above... or maybe I'm overthinking this and will be bitten by the paradox of choice.
Posted by Mark on March 11, 2007 at 10:50 PM .: Comments (22) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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).

Chihiro
Chihiro
Chihiro

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!
(CHIHIRO puts her hands in the shape of a rectangle.)
KAMAJI (pushing his hand through the rectangle): Clean!
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.
(CHIHIRO puts her hands in the shape of a rectangle.)
KAMAJI (pushing his hand through the rectangle): Evil... begone!
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.
Posted by Mark on January 03, 2007 at 11:50 PM .: Comments (5) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.

However, when watching Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson argue about who gets to commit suicide first, I can see them in a familiar environment—I don’t have to wonder what the fantastical device is that they’re sitting on, I know it’s called a “couch.” Even in futuristic live-action films, I can still key in on what the environment represents to the characters and I don’t have to watch it continuously to figure out its nature.

In animation, however, everything is brand new. It’s all been designed deliberately from the blank page up—everything has a choice behind it. It’s also frequently imaginative and beautiful. I don’t like taking my eyes away from it in order to read subtitles—I’d much rather hear the dialogue so I can keep watching.
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.
BATOU: Major, are you there?
THE MAJOR: Yeah, I heard you.
BATOU: I'm surprised you could hear anything. What's with all the noise in your brain today?
THE MAJOR: Must be a loose wire.
And the subtitled version was this:
BATOU: Major Kusanagi, Section 6 is ready to move in.
BATOU: Major!
THE MAJOR: I hear you.
BATOU: There's a lot of static in your brain.
THE MAJOR: It's that time of the month.
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)?
Posted by Mark on December 20, 2006 at 10:39 PM .: Comments (10) | link :.


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).

The Major

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...

The Major likes to scuba dive

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?

What am I? That can be answered in many ways. I am a particular human being; I am this body. But is the entire body really part of the essential me? I don't consider myself to be different – or to have died – if I trim my fingernails or get my hair cut. If I suffered a grievous injury and had a limb amputated, I would still be me. If I received a heart transplant, I would still be me. (And the donor of that heart would still be dead.)
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).

A tank fires at the Major

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.

Visually stunning, intellectually challenging, and action packed

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:

High Velocity ammo!

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 Major and Batou

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...

City

Billboards


At the film's climax, the Major faces off against a tank that looks more like a spider than a tank.

The Major and a Spider 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).

Major Closeup

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.
Posted by Mark on December 20, 2006 at 10:13 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.

Kaneda on his bike

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.

Tetsuo

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.

Tetsuo falling

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.

Akira returns!

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.

Bike trails

Here's a shot of Tetsuo using his newfound abilities:

Tetsuo's powers in action

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.

Smoke

Another shot of Tetsuo, with more fire and smoke:

Tetsuo and his fancypants cape

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:

Kaneda and his fancypants 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):

Kaneda on his bike

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):

I am Dave Bowema... I mean, Tetsuo.  I am Tetsuo.

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 :.


End of This Day's Posts

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Blogroll Call
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:
  • Transit of Mercury, Photoblogged: Jay Manifold takes some nice pics of the planet Mercury, as well as an amusing comparison of Manifold Observatory and Powell Observatory.
  • Team of Rivals: Andrew Olmsted reviews a recent book that chronicles Abraham Lincoln's rise to the presidency, as well as the coalition he formed and maintained to fight the civil war:
    Lincoln's ability to hold together a coalition of abolitionists, conservative Republicans, and war Democrats during the American Civil War stands as a signal feat of political dexterity that seems yet more impressive in light of more recent American history. ... the book really hits its stride once Lincoln is elected and he assembles his Cabinet, beginning with his three rivals for the nomination. The contrast is particularly stark with modern politics, where Cabinets are formed from the victor's circle of political allies. Lincoln, on the other hand, selected men who not only wanted the job he held, but who viewed him poorly at best in some cases. It's hard to imagine a modern politician selecting men who viewed him with the kind of contempt Edwin Stanton viewed Lincoln, let alone getting the kind of results Lincoln did. Lincoln's ability to get results from such disparate men is an impressive primer in leadership.
    Interesting stuff, and I think I'll pick up the book at some point, as this seems to be an impressive example of compromise and tradeoffs (subjects that interest me) in action.
  • Ars Technica 2006 holiday gift guide: Make shopping for the geek in your family a little easier with this guide (sheesh, that sounded like advertising copy *shudders*). Most of the hardware and gadget gifts are pretty good, though expensive. However, they also include lots of interesting books and smaller gifts as well. Ars always has interesting articles though. I've already mentioned the Ars System Guide on the blog recently, but they also have reviews of the Wii and PS3 that are worth reading.
  • Casino Royale: Subtitle: Die almost never � nearly forever! Heh. Alexander Doenau's take on the latest Bond flick is roughly in line with my own feelings, though one of these days I'll get around to talking more about it on the blog.
    Which may beg the question of some audiences: where is the fun when there�s nary an insane scheme to be seen, and no psychedelically decorated gyrocopters? (thank you, Roald Dahl). The answer lies partly in Bond himself. Without the scary misogyny that Ian Fleming endowed Bond with 50 years ago, Daniel Craig plays Bond as an excellent bastard. This is a Bond so confident in his own skills that he doesn�t give a care who sees him because he has a licence to kill. This is probably the only Craig film we�ll see in which Bond is able to cut as loose as he did in Uganda, because part of the story involves developing a marginally more sensible and responsible MI6 agent, but he takes the sorts of risks that make the movie fun without being stupidly unbelievable.
    I love the description of James Bond as an "excellent bastard."
  • Steven Den Beste has an interesting rating system (another subject I'll tackle on the blog at some point). He uses a 4 star scale, but also includes a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" graphic (for obvious reasons). This is interesting because it allows him to recognize a technical accomplishment without actually recommending the film (for instance, I would give Grave of the Fireflies **** with a thumbs down because it is masterfully produced, but so heartbreaking that I can't actually recommend it). In any case, if you scroll down on the link above (no permalinks there), you'll see that Steven has started rating individual anime episodes for a series called Kamichu. For episode 6, he rated it zero stars with six thumbs down. I wonder if he liked it?
  • A collection of Jonathan Swift's journalistic texts: Ralf Goergens over at Chicago Boyz makes an Jonathan Swift-related annotation to Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle:
    Attentive readers of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle will remember Daniel Waterhouse reading a a number of astonishingly vile newspapers. Some of the most acrimonious articles were from Jonathan Swift, writing for Tory papers. Stephenson didn't make that part up, the articles can be found here.

    I didn't have time to do more than a bit of browsing, but some of the historical characters from the Baroque Cycle are mentioned, like Marlborough, Bolingbroke, Harley and of course Queen Anne. There also are extensive footnotes explaining the concrete circumstances under which the articles appeared.
  • Weblog Awards: Kevin Murphy notes that since he was inexplicably passed over for the Weblog Awards, he might as well add a bunch of categories and simply declare winners. Normally, this would seem like the actions of a snarky blogger, but since Kaedrin won a Koveted Kevy, I'll say it was the result of long-standing multifaceted research project considering nearly 2 billion blogs. Also, Kevin apparently knows something I don't: Kaedrin won the Best Blog With A Japanese Word As Its Title. Hmmm. It would be pretty funny if it actually was a Japanese word (anyone know what it means?)
  • The New Threats: John Robb continues his incisive commentary on global guerillas:
    As the debate over the value of the Iraq study group's report rumbles on, it's important to reflect on larger frame within which this debate is taking place. This frame, little discussed, encapsulates nature of the threat we face in Iraq and will be increasingly likely to face in the future. With Iraq, we can catch a glimpse of the new class of threat that will increasingly define our future (and given that even a glimpse is enough to stump the establishment should be a dire warning). This new class of threat is characterized by its bottoms up pattern of growth rather than the familiar competition between nation-states. It percolates upwards through catalyzed organic growth until it overwhelms our ability to respond to it.
    My general reaction to Robb's theories is that he is usually too pessimistic and that there must be a better way to fight these global guerillas, but he always makes for interesting and worthwhile reading.
  • Depressing Anime: Fledgling Otaku's thoughts on Grave of the Fireflies are a little harsher than my own, but I have to say that he's justified in calling it anime for emotional masochists. Don't miss the comment threads on that post, the follow up post, and the recent post (in which he mentions my review). Like me, the more he learns of the context, the more he says he can appreciate its value as a work of art.
  • Tax Law Is Complicated, But Is It Vague? : James Edward Maule reads about a Judge who "struck down a portion of the Patriot Act on the ground that despite amendments to the provisions they remain 'too vague' to be understood by 'a person of average intelligence' and thus are unconstitutional." As a professor of tax law, he wonders if the Internal Revenue Code is actually vague, and asks some interesting questions:
    If everything that could not be understood by a "person of average intelligence" were to be declared unconstitutional and removed from the planet, what would remain? Is there something wrong when a patient cannot understand a medical procedure used by a surgeon? Is there something wrong when a driver does not understand the engineering formulae used in designing the bridge over which the vehicle is crossing? Is there something wrong when someone enjoying a fine meal cannot understand the recipe?
  • Take my advice, or I�ll spank you without pants.: Johno over at the The Ministry of Minor Perfidy takes note of the glorious Chingrish of actual English Subtitles used in films made in Hong Kong. Some of my favorites:
    9. Quiet or I'll blow your throat up. 11. I�ll fire aimlessly if you don�t come out!
    18. How can you use my intestines as a gift?
    18. How can you use my intestines as a gift?
    19. This will be of fine service for you, you bag of the scum. I am sure you will not mind that I remove your manhoods and leave them out on the dessert flour for your aunts to eat. [sic, of course]
    20. Yah-hah, evil spider woman! I have captured you by the short rabbits and can now deliver you violently to your gynecologist for a thorough examination.
    21. Greetings, large black person. Let us not forget to form a team up together and go into the country to inflict the pain of our karate feets on some ass of the giant lizard person.
    This sort of thing is funny, but bad translations are also responsible for ruining a lot of decent foreign movies.
  • Extremely Cool: Indeed it is:
    The Antikythera Mechanism is a 2000-year-old device, somewhat resembling a clock, found in 1902 by sponge divers in the waters off a Greek island. It has long been believed that it was a form of analog computer, used for astronomical calculations, but its precise operating mechanism was not well-understood.
    Interesting stuff.
  • Not the intended market, but still fun: Fritz Schranck has been sucked into What Not To Wear (one of those smug reality shows that berate people for having bad style, then attempt to help them out). While I've never seen this show, similar reality shows do have that sorta "I can't look away from this trainwreck" quality that makes them entertaining.
  • DM of the Rings: In terms of link love, I've been woefully neglectful of Shamus's brilliant DM of the Rings comic, which somehow manages to be both humorous and insightful (well, in terms of RPG gaming anyway). Using screenshots from the movies, it's essentially what the Lord of the Rings would have been like if it were played as a D&D game.
Holy crap, that took a while. I just realized that I would have probably been better off if I'd just done one or two a day. That way I'd have had posts every day for at least a week! In any case, stay tuned for the weekly Animation Marathon review (This week, it's Akira. Review should be up Tuesday or Wednesday).
Posted by Mark on December 10, 2006 at 09:10 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.

...Nosaka, who lost his own young sister under similar circumstances, apparently intended his book in part to chronicle his shameful pride, while Takahata explains ... that he wanted viewers to learn a moral lesson from Seita's hubris. Instead, he reports, they mostly sympathized with the boy, which is easy to do.
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.))
Posted by Mark on November 29, 2006 at 11:25 PM .: Comments (4) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Animation Marathon
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 you can see, the list is dominated by Anime movies, and they haven't yet decided which Miyazaki film they will include. In fact, they're running a poll on their site with the three choices: Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away (Spirited Away appears to be running away with it, garnering nearly 58% of the vote so far). Personally, I think they should do a Miyazaki marathon, as I've only seen a few, but they're great (and why can't we vote for My Neighbor Totoro? I ended up voting for Howl's Moving Castle because that's the only one I haven't seen.)

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.
Posted by Mark on October 04, 2006 at 07:34 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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.
Posted by Mark on October 01, 2006 at 10:02 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Bear Pajamas
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)

Lain's Bear Pajamas

Lain's Bear Pajamas

Lain's Bear Pajamas

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)?
Posted by Mark on August 22, 2006 at 10:18 PM .: Comments (6) | link :.


End of This Day's Posts

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