Saturday, May 31, 2008

Impressions: Air, Haruhi, Kurau and Innocent Venus

Yeah, so I've watched a lot of stuff lately, most of which I could do something longer on, but I thought I'd just run through my impressions on them.

Air (TV) – This is one of those shows where there was a lot that I liked and some stuff I didn't. I didn't have a horrible time with the fairly lacksidasical pacing. In fact, it reminded me a lot of James Blaylock's In the Rainy Season, another story that combined a somewhat slow pace with somewhat bizarre happenings and had at least one girl in it (albeit in a different fashion.) Overall, I didn't have a problem with the characters, but I didn't fall in love with them either.

But what was up with the last couple of episodes? It just felt like they were trying to make up space. It left me wondering whether the rest of the story was picked up somewhere else, or if it was just going to leave me at that "Lady or the Tiger" moment. Overall, I didn't love it and I didn't hate it. But it just left me feeling a bit empty.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzimiya – Yes, I finally watched this show. And I know I'm the last person on the planet to do so. But, I have to say, why does everyone have a problem with Kyon? Honestly, he was the saving grace of the show. I wouldn't have enjoyed it nearly as much if it wasn't for the dry rationalism (and the occasional perverted comment) that he brought. It provided a good counterpoint to all of the weird stuff that takes place.

Now I did watch the show in episodic order (versus broadcast order), so I don't know how much that really affected my enjoyment. But I do have to say the Melancholy episodes were probably my favorite, most likely because they formed the longest arc of the show. But the lack of a real resolution to the fundamental question of why she chose Kyon does bug me. All of that said, I do think it's a show that was worth the hype, but not necessarily the best show I've ever seen.

Kurau: Phantom Memory – I swear only BONES could have pulled this series off and made it as good as it was. But somehow they took a fairly simple superhero type character who's getting chased by the government and turned it into a fairly complex psychological drama. Almost every part of this series was well planned and had excellent execution. So I do have to hand it to the director on this one.

All of that said, there's a ceiling on how good this series could be, especially considering the tone they set at the beginning and the plot. And while Kurau surpassed my lowest expectations, it wasn't earth-shattering either. Especially with the amount of times they shouted each other's name. I mean you could have a "Kurau/Christmas" drinking game with this series.

Innocent Venus – And on a more mech side of things, I actually watched Innocent Venus. To be honest, it left me feeling a lot like I felt after watching Blue Submarine No. 6, which is to say it could have been a lot better with some more space. But, it does have one of the coolest betrayals I've seen in an anime in quite a while. It also has some good action scenes and some fun mechs (which actually remind me a bit of the mecha from Argentosoma.)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Impressions: Higurashi – tentacles and moe, oh my.

Every now and then I watch a series that makes me go totally fanboy. The last time was when I watched Code Geass.

But it's been a couple months since then and even though I've watched some good series, I hadn't seen anything that actually got me excited (in a completely non-sexual way, thank you very much.)

That was until I watched the first season of Higurashi.

First, I have to say… wow. There is so much to talk about this series. I mean I could talk about the structure (It's broken up into six arcs, two of which are retellings or additional material). I could talk about the really great opening sequence. I could talk about the crazy girls with hatchets as big as they are.

Or I could talk about moe.

Where Elfen Lied tried and failed, Higurashi succeeded in using cute girls as a fa├žade for crazy. Elfen Lied and Higurashi both used moe in similar ways: to set up a cognitive dissonance in the viewer. Basically they're so cute, but so evil. Elfen Lied forced it a bit too far, making the more powerful characters progressively weaker and weaker, until the most powerful (and inhuman) had to be carried out. Higurashi doesn't do that. In fact, the characters become progressively less cute as the story arcs progress. I found this twist on the slice-of-life genre both interesting and… well… Lovecraftian.

Yes, I know that summoning up the ghost of Lovecraft is pretty common when it comes to looking at horror stories.

And to be totally fair, Lovecraft wasn't the first to use the idea of thin veneer of civility covering a wellspring of evil (how you define evil is up to you.) Arguably, Joseph Conrad did it in The Heart of Darkness and Poe did it in the Tell-tale Heart. But where Lovecraft is different is the idea that people are generally sane, it's the world that's crazy.

The structure of a Lovecraft story (for the most part) goes like this: Some random guy encounters strange events/items/things. Guy is driven insane by these. Guy either gets divine retribution or gets sent to an asylum or dies. Story ends. There are some variations to the theme. I mean he wrote a lot.

He did this by creating a completely alien landscape. I'll be honest, the Cthulu mythos is still unlike anything else that I've ever encountered in fiction. You have Elder Gods, who in general like screwing around with people. You have the Old Ones (the giant tentacle things that live in space or in the earth), who are creatures of extreme malevolence. In fact, there really aren't any good things in the mythos he created.

Which is a lot like Higurashi. Now the mythos in Higurashi is a lot more limited, since all of the stories take place in one village and really within the same week or two (although two of the stories dip into the past.) But still you have the Shrine God's curse, which is that someone will die every year. You have the demon that descends from the mountains to take one person every year. There are other elements of the mythos, but I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't watched the series. (And really, go watch this show. It's still available in it's entirety in fansub form, and since it's one of the Geneon titles that's in limbo, I don't have deep ethical reservations downloading it.)

What I found interesting while I was watching it was the fact that the entire mythos felt alien. Granted, not quite as alien as amorphous, tentacled blobs that live under the sea, but still it felt unusual and unusually cruel. The powers that be didn't care about the lives of the villagers as much as they cared about their own machinations. Now part of that might be part of being an American viewer who isn't really steeped in Japanese religion and folklore, but that is how it struck me.

So what does moe have to do with all of this? (Well other than the fact that moe drives at least one character crazy.) In general, the cutesy character designs acted as a reflection of the "sane" world. Much in the same way that educated (or non-educated) first person narration reflected the "sane" world of Lovecraft.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Otakusphere: Micro-blogging, Identity and an unhealthy dose of navel-gazing.

So I'm going to try to avoid too much navel gazing in the post.

But recently there have been at least a couple posts about the nature of micro-blogging and its place in the Otakusphere.

What I found interesting about both Hige's and Michael's posts is specifically the idea of identity, both the identity of the writer and the identity of the blog. Now everyone takes on different characteristics depending on the role we're playing at a certain point (some people do this more than others.) We're different depending on whether we're at work or if we're at home or if we're with friends or talking to teachers. Now these changes are greater or lesser depending on how drastically different the roles they play are.

Or at least that's how I think about it.

But every writer has an identity. We generally refer to it as a voice, but largely it's something we cultivate. To be honest, I think that's where The Animanachronism's micro blog comes in. It's a little more personal, and it doesn't really fit his identity as a writer (I can't say anything about Owen's because I haven't really read it.) It might provide a scratch pad of sorts for ideas in later posts. But largely, it wouldn't fit into the type of writing that we'd expect from him.

(If you'll permit a little navel-gazing here, I'll try to make it quick.)

Now, this is largely where I fit in. I have an identity as a writer. If someone pinned me down and made me describe it, I'd probably call myself an intellectual plebian. Basically, I'm smart enough to get myself in trouble, but I'm nowhere as smart as say, The Animanachronism, Martin, Hige or Michael. I'm not as good of a writer as bateszi, Hidoshi or CCY. I'm not as funny as Baka-raptor or lolikit. (I apologize if I left anyone out there, because I do think there are an awful lot of good writers in these circles.)

In fact, I'd say the strength of my writing identity comes from two major points. I try to state my point clearly (and forcefully). And I generally take a radically moderate point of view (although sometimes I just take a radical point of view.)

But largely, writers should cultivate a writing identity. Because, most readers read a blog or a column or anything because of the writer. (Or at least I do, so I might be generalizing here.)

Now a blog identity is a different thing. I think there is a good case for having a blog identity. Say if you write episode recaps and that's what people come to your blog expecting to see. Essentially people are creating a brand. This way they'll attract loyal readers. Or as Daniel states in his post, there's a necessity of having standards.

Ironically, by accident and design, this blog doesn't really have a brand in the same way. As most people point out, I tend to cover a wide range of topics. Now I do think that my identity as a writer sometimes shifts a little depending on what I'm writing about, but I'd like to think it remains fairly consistent. In a lot of ways, I'd attract a more loyal crowd if I picked a particular brand for my blog like bateszi has (with Bateszi, Afterimage and his posts in Nakama Brittanica). But unfortunately, I can't seem to reign in the different parts of my brain so I can consistently write one type of piece.

In general though, I'm not sure if it's a good thing to get strangled by your own blog. Because honestly, I'd read what bateszi wrote if he writes it on Afterimage or on Nakama Brittanica or on… well... Bateszi's anime blog. I don't think his identity as a writer shifts enough to really warrant three different blogs.

But that said, I'd read any of those three blogs anyway, so I doubt that it matters.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

In My View: My war against derivative

That is it. I've had it.

I'm declaring war against the word, "derivative."

At first, I thought it would fade away. That it would be one of those words that popped into the general lexicon and then fizzled away. I had hoped that smarter minds than mine would prevail. I had secretly prayed that someone, somewhere would raise a red flag and say, "Wait a second here…"

But this word is insidious and I've heard it used more and more often like some sort of mantra to describe why someone didn't like a show. I don't know what murky depths this word crept out of, but it is time to beat it back.

The problem with it is that it is by and large a MEANINGLESS word when it's applied to fiction. Every story on a basic structural level is the same. There's a problem, rising action, climax, resolution and denouement. But maybe that's too general; perhaps I should say almost every mecha show is the same. There's a teenager who encounters a robot who must use said robot to defend the world against the forces of evil. I can trace a direct link from Amaro Rei to Shinji Ikari to Lelouch Lamprouge much like I trace a direct link from Pyramus and Thisbe to Romeo and Juliet.

But no one ever calls Shakespeare a hack, now do they?

The thing is that people use this word as some sort of code sign meaning, "Well it's too much like everything else." But even that is a lame excuse. Honestly, I have to quote iknight from a comment (I think the first he ever left on my blog) on a post I wrote comparing Evangelion to RahXephon.

I'm not convinced that the clone issue is really the key one: RahXephon could be a clone of Eva and still be good, and it could be perfectly different and be awful

And that's the fundamental point these people seem to be missing. A show shouldn't be judged on how much like other shows it is, but on the strength of its characters, plot, themes and things that actually matter. A show can be fundamentally similar to another show and still have things that make it interesting and worth seeing.

But what makes this plague so worrisome is that it sets up an expectation in people's minds that by some magic the show they're going to watch will be something completely new, untainted by the tropes and conventions of whatever genre it might fall into. Those great story ideas come out of some magical spring that is isolated from the rest of the world. And creators would remain uninfluenced by the works that preceded them.

Because of course, they don't need to know how people act, or how a story is structured, or how to create tension. I mean why would they need to know that stuff.

They're creating something new.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

An ethical dilemma: A minor problem with Library Wars Episode Three

Here's an ethical situation for y'all:

You're a reporter standing at an edge of a lake. In the distance, you spot a boy drowning. You have the means and ability to save him and saving him will not have any unintended consequences (he isn't a child Hitler or anything.) There's also no one else around who could save him. What do you do?

Believe it or not, this is really an ethics question I was asked in one of my journalism classes.

Now the ethical thing to do is to save the kid. He IS drowning after all. You can't just let someone drown in the lake. But there's always a follow-up question to this one.

Do you cover the story?

Make no mistake, it is news. If you're lucky it'll be front page, maybe even above the fold. Because as cold and callous as it might be, "If it bleeds, it leads." Now it won't necessarily be the type of story that would make or break a career, but it'd definitely make cutting out the clip a lot easier. And you could probably do a sidebar about water safety. Maybe you could spin it out into a whole week extravaganza.

But ethically, you shouldn't write it because the moment you hit the water you stopped being a reporter and started being part of the story. This means that there isn't any way for you to be fair about it. So while you might get you're fifteen minutes, you aren't getting the byline.

Now the whole reason I brought this up is that there's a moment in episode three of Library Wars where the reporter offered the military the use of the news heliocopter.

Um… yeah.

I know a lot of people think that the media are profiteers off of war. (And make no mistake they are.) That is a line that just shouldn't be crossed. At that point the reporter stopped being an observer of the story and became part of the story.

And trust me, there's no good way to get out of that sticky situation. Once the media actually starts actively funding the war, (which they are. I mean this isn't a humanitarian mission or anything), they can't start funding the other side of the war. So for all intents and purposes the reporter is screwed.

I'm sure there's somebody right now who's saying, "Um… why are you making a big deal about such a small thing?" And in a way that person is right. It's not like I can expect reality out of fiction. But geez. It'd just be more interesting if the media didn't help out.

The thing is that there is an ideological tension in the show between people who believe that a medium should be censored and people who believe that they shouldn't. By having the reporter blithely offer the use of the heliocopter, the show is saying, "Well the news media wants freedom." But if they did the ethical thing (and not gotten involved) that would produce a far more interesting tension between people who want freedom and fight for it. And people who want freedom but don't (or this case shouldn't) fight for it.

But maybe that's just me.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Last Frontier: The reason for my love affair with Macross

So I just finished up episode six of Macross Frontier and I like it.

But I shouldn't.

Not only do I like it, but it's been one of the three shows that I'm following religiously (Amatsuki and InK, being the other two.) It doesn't have the self-referential charm of Tower of Druaga. It doesn't have the weird mind games of Real Drive. And it certainly doesn't have the strangely cute, dystopian view of Library Wars.

Like I said previously, "It's Macross." It definitely has everything that a Macross show should have: an invading alien race, a catchy J-pop soundtrack, dogfights through asteroid fields. But I don't think it's just the action that makes me want to watch every episode. Action is great, don't get me wrong. But I could get action from any shounen fighting show; I don't need space battles to get that.

On top of that, I can't say it's the characters. Sure, Alto is a rebel. But he isn't a Steve McQueen "I'm the epitome of cool" type of rebel. Instead, he's more like an "I'm 18 and I want to go fight in this war, so I can fly" type of rebel. Don't get me wrong, I still think he's a citizen solider (which is interesting), but he doesn't have the moral contradictions of a Lelouch or Suzaku, or the type of heady idealism that I find in Library Wars. In a lot of ways, Alto isn't surprising. And if he's not surprising then Ranka and Sheryl are downright true to form. The entire cast seems like it was lifted straight out of a paint-by-numbers sketch of how a mecha show should go.

But still, I like it. And it's bugging me.

That was until I thought about one of iknight's old posts (complete with a Warren Zevon reference at the end, I might add). Now for a large part, he's right. Macross is a space opera and Macross Frontier is no exception. It comes complete with giant allies, faster than light travel and downright mystical singing abilities. But on top of that, it has something else:

A Camelot.

Now, I'm not sure if Camelot is really the best term for it, but the more I think about it, the more I become convinced that Frontier is a magical place. The streets are clean. Everything is bright and shiny. People are happy and dreams really do come true.

Now one of the big reasons why I think of Camelot, instead of say Avalon, is that Frontier isn't perfect. The government is crippled by red-tape. Mercenaries make up the best equipped fighting force. And there is definitely heart-ache and a touch of pathos.

But I'd still want to live there.

Which is what I think is the big draw for me. It's not necessarily the characters or even the society. It's the fact that there's this place where people coexist peacefully, where music does change lives, and love exists floating through the depths of space in a fragile glass shell.

And somebody wants to destroy it. More than anything else, it's that tension that draws me into the show.

Related Links

Anime wa Bakuhatsu's comparison between Do you Remember Love and Frontier.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Otakusphere: Impz’s brief history of the world (or at least all of the world that matters)

You can blame Impz, Martin, Bateszi, Hige, Lythka, Author and Michael for this post.

Really, I know a collective groan goes up anytime someone starts talking about "the community". But after reading Impz's brief history of the Otakusphere (that's still my word for the anime blogosphere), Kabitizin's interviews and Os's new blogging initiative (which is really cool by the way), it has made me wonder.

Why do we blog?

And I'm not going to talk about why I blog, because frankly, no one cares, but I'm curious about the stories from everyone else. How did you get started? Why did you start? Did you do research or did you just jump in? What type of niche do you try to get into? And probably, most importantly:

What do you get out of it?

As far as the readers of the blogs, who don't have blogs of their own, what do you get out of reading them? Do you normally read for news or opinions or both?

Really, I'd like people to leave comments or leave links to posts of their own. I'm curious.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

In My View: Much ado about a loli

Talking about the industry is like having an itch in the middle of my back. I want to scratch it, but I can only reach the edges.

That said, I still want to do it.

Usually I can trust Author to cut through the BS, but even he is jumping on the "What is FUNImation doing?" bandwagon (at least from what I can tell.)

All because they licensed two shows that no one has heard about, and they're releasing one as a box set for the half dozen people who will buy it. And the half dozen more people who will buy it because it's a box set.

Okay… so let's put this into perspective. Yes, licensing Mamotte! Lollipop! doesn't make a whole lot of sense, especially with the way the anime industry is going. But there are at least a few things we don't know. A) How much they paid for it. B) Whether or not they're going to dub it. C) How much they're going to sell it for. On top of that, there's an entirely different way of looking at it. Maybe they licensed it BECAUSE no one's seen it. So it hasn't been tainted by fansubs.

But beyond that, comparing ADV and FUNImation is reasonable. They both throw as many titles against the wall and see whether or not they stick.

Except in FUNImation's case they have (at least twice in the last year.)

One look at the recent, ICv2 list of the "Hottest Titles of early 2008" shows, the company has four of them. And if that's not enough proof, they've reported that the losses to their division weren't because of FUNI, but because of BCI Films. They also have 27 percent of the market share. Now they could be lying about all of that. But somehow (in this post-Enron world), I doubt it. If there's one thing FUNImation isn't doing right now, it's hurting. Well at least not anymore than the rest of the industry is hurting right now.

Now since BEI seems to be everyone's darling at the moment, let me remind people of some facts. First, Haruhi flopped. At least that's what Eric Sherman said back in November and I haven't seen any change in that. Lucky Star (no matter how good or bad it is) will likely follow suit. (It is number 71 on Amazon.com's list of top selling Anime and Manga, for what it's worth.) In fact, I'm curious why they even bothered licensing it. So they have two titles that are likely to do well, Code Geass and Gurren Lagann. I mean has anyone stopped to wonder why a company which has licensed maybe two things a year for the past three years suddenly is releasing so many titles?

But I can't say they're really hurting either.

But really, I like playing this game. So my big winner so far:

VIZ.

Yes, VIZ. Right now, they're releasing Death Note, Naruto, Bleach and Pokemon. Not to mention that they have a pretty firm foothold in the manga market. I mean if I were a betting man, that's who my money would be on.

But that's just me.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Otakusphere: Civil Liberties, Dead Titles and Living Monkey Armor

Yeah, for those of you who don't know, I'm a radical Civil Libertarian. And when I say radical I mean "no closed door meetings, destroy the FCC, try the prisoners in Gitmo and let the Nazi's march" type of radical Civil Libertarian.

So when I read usagijen's post on Library Wars, I just about got up ran around my apartment screaming, "Yes, yes, yes, you fricken rock!"

And then I remembered that my roommate's asleep.

Working at six o'clock in the morning must really suck. It's been a long time since I had to do that, but what must be worse is going into work and finding your job has been replaced by a monkey. And not somebody who looks like a monkey, but a real monkey.

Alafista has a report (with video) of a bar that just started having a monkey serve drinks. Really, now if they could just train them to simultaneously link hands to form living monkey armor, the world would be a better place to be.

Just imagine being guarded by a horde monkeys at your beck and call.

Anyways, in the WTF category, Borderline Hikkomori has a post up about FUNImation releasing some show that no one has heard about, and the people who have heard about it, don't care. Really though, I have a sneaking suspicion that they picked it up for bargain basement prices. As much as I'd like to suspect the industry of stupidity, for the most part FUNI's been pretty smart about their licenses. I mean they do have at least four of the top selling anime of the beginning of 2008.

Now if they could just start working on that living monkey armor.

And on a more painful note, I just came across this post on How a Girl Figures. I'd heard about how much money figurines sap out of you. But Jiminy Christmas. See this is why I appreciate super_rats and Happy Soda - all of the fun of seeing a figurine, none of the pain.

And one final note… living monkey armor, just think about it. All of the cool of monkeys, all the use of armor.

Wait, no. Okay, so on a real final note, voting for the Anime Blog Awards is wrapping up. And vote for DrmCshr0 for best Dorama. It's certainly some of the most intelligent.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Case of the Invisible Parent: A Mother’s Day Post

(Note: This is part of the ABC Mother's Day Extravaganza)

So a while back, CCY did a post about the reasons why parents seem to be missing from anime. Now, I think he laid out a reasonable explanation. Anime (at least the anime most of us watch) is geared at a 15-23 year old demographic. But I also thought the answer might be even simpler than what he laid out.

Those parents simply aren't important in most of these stories.

I mean if you have six to twelve hours to tell a fairly complex story, adding in the extra complication of parents could derail the story, or just add another subplot that doesn't get fully developed and ends up hanging around at the end of the tale without a resolution.

Then I started thinking about Beck.

When I initially watched the show, I was struck by the fact that Koyuki's mother was quite literally invisible. Even though he's living with her, he hardly seems to talk with her. The few times when we hear from her, it's her telling him to turn down his music. And the one time that we see her we don't even see her face.

Now overall, the show has a tendency to avoid face shots of characters, which aren't important any more. In a lot of ways it reminded me of Dickens conveniently killing off characters who didn't serve a purpose anymore (as opposed to Red Shirts whose entire purpose is to get killed.) On a completely story telling level, this makes a lot of sense. I mean they WERE just dead weight in the story.

Then I started thinking about a short story I read a long time ago called Obst Vw (it stands for Obstructed View).

It's been a while since I read the story, but basically it follows two teenagers who are estranged (in the non-legal sense) from their parents. Now most of the tension occurs between the two teens, but there's this invisible presence in the story of the main character's father. Even though we barely see him throughout the course of the story.

This got me to wondering; maybe she was important after all. I mean, she's a definite presence in the story. In fact, it becomes a running theme that we'll get a Walton's-like shot out of the outside of the house with Koyuki's light on, and then her saying to turn down the music. The people, who sneak into the house, don't just come in the front door, but creep up through his window. And the one time we do see her (still faceless) she's trying to impart some pretty sage advice.

That's when I realized, it wasn't that she wasn't important. It was just that she wasn't immediately important.

In fact, it's trying to get at something that seems to get truer the older I get. That these people, who drift in and out of our lives like ghosts, are important. And although they may seem like part of the faceless masses surrounding us, they still have a presence (whether we see it or not.)

And at the risk of being sappy, isn't that what Mother's Day is all about.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Impressions: Saiunkoku, Kurau, Baccano!, Amatsuki, Real Drive, Druaga and more.

So I went to smoking roll-your-own cigarettes so I could buy more anime. I'm not sure if it's a good thing, but I sure do have Haruhi sitting on top of my TV just waiting for me to watch it, but anyway on too some impressions.

Saiunkoku Monogatari: Since it seems that no one has seen this show, I figured I'd give people a little heads up. It's a show about a girl who's family has fallen on hard times. She's decided that she wants to buck the system and become a government official. So I finished the first season of this and… it's okay. On the good side, it has some awesome characters, a fairly interesting "love" story and enough tension to pull me pretty effortlessly through every episode after episode fourteen. On the other hand, reverse harems are about as tiring to watch as actual harems. Towards the end, it's just a bunch of them standing around saying, "Oh Shuurei is so great." It got old, fast. And it has the tendency of getting right up to the climax and then skipping it. So good enough that I'd watch the second season. Not good enough that I feel like gushing over it.

Kurau: Phantom Memory: You know BONES could take crap and make it sparkle (at least from what I've seen.) Now, Kurau's not anything special plot-wise. It starts like a superhero story and right now it's a superhero story mixed with The Fugitive. But the characters are still interesting. And the credits say the story was by BONES, so… take that for what you will. But the director seems like this is really his first time directing, but he's done a lot of storyboarding and other stuff for the studio.

Baccano!: I don't think I ever did a proper statement on this show. But on the one hand, it's awesome and I really don't know why this show hasn't been licensed in the United States. I mean it's practically made to sell to a Western audience. On the other hand, the multiple plotlines and massive cast of characters does end up making the show feel like it's trying to do too much with too little space. It's a fun watch, but I can't say it's an amazing show.

Amatsuki: And now for a show that didn't come out years ago, but still no one's talking about. So far this is one of my favorite shows of the Spring season. Its got swords. Its got demons. Its even got classy fanservice (if such a thing exists.) And it has a complete and utter lack of a whiny boy hero. I know that I don't have any taste, but seriously, this is a solid show that doesn't try to do more than what it sets out to do. And surprise, surprise the director on this one worked on Rurouni Kenshin (both the TV series AND the OVAs). And ironically… Real Drive.

Real Drive: I'm still not completely sure about this one. So far, I've watched the first four episodes and they're solid. I just don't know how they're going to support another 22 episodes with it. But I really like the main character, who was a diver who got into an accident and slept until he was an old man. I kind of like the sidekick girl. She's cute, but a little flat so far. But so far, not bad, not great, but definitely watchable.

Tower of Druaga: I have to agree with Coburn on this one. This show is awesome. I mean its tongue-in-cheek funny. And thankfully it never takes itself so seriously that I can't enjoy it.

Itazura na Kiss: Honestly, I shouldn't like this show. I mean Kotoko is so incompetent it's downright insulting. Naoki is a jerk. The little brother deserves a solid kick in the rear end. But… I still keep coming back for more. And I'm not sure why I enjoy it so much, but I do.

Macross Frontier: It's Macross. It's cool. Sheryl is one of the few anime women who I will say is hot. Enough said about that one.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Madlax and nature versus nurture

So recently I finished watching Madlax again. Now, I was really tempted to try to apply some overarching "industrialized world versus less-industrialized world" theme on it. (Personally I'm not a big fan of the phrases "First world" and "Third world" and I think "Developed world" and "Developing world" are equally bad.)

But I found that I couldn't. I mean no matter how I struggled with it, I kept coming around to the fact that the show was pretty plain about what it was talking about.

It was talking about a different duality all together. Whether or not ethics are a natural thing for humans or if they're an artifice that should be stripped away.

Now, I will probably go on as far as that point, but it's got me thinking a lot about duality and anime. I mean as far as story structure it makes a lot of sense. You have two competing ideals that the hero has to struggle with, so it provides an internal tension. So I get why it's fairly common in anime.

But I think there's something more to it. It's not that dualities aren't common in Western Literature and other thought. I mean we have The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, more recently, Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, Thomas Covenant in Stephen R. Donaldson's books. In religion, we have Calvin and Arminius, Perseverance of the Saints and Good Acts. In psychology we have Freud and Skinner (granted there's a whole lot that I left out there.) But in the end, there's a whole lot of opposition going on.

But I'm going to start with Madlax because in a lot of ways, I think that gets at the roots of a lot of dualities.

(Please note: I am about to completely spoil Madlax, thus guaranteeing that no one will finish this blog post. If you ever had any intention of watching this show, then I'd suggest watching it first. If you don't, then by all means keep reading.)

All right you have been warned.

So anyways, the two main characters of this show, Margaret Burton and Madlax, were once the same person. They split at the moment when Margaret's father pointed a gun at her. As the main villain pointed out, they represent two competing desires in the girl at the time – the animalistic need to survive and the need to uphold social mores. Basically they're a duality brought to life, and representative of the larger duality question of the piece: Are ethics an artifice or are they natural?

Trust me, that question is going to come up again.

Now in a lot of ways, this reminds me of the basic nature versus nurture debate that goes through social science circles. To be honest, it's a tricky question at best. But for all of its other faults, Madlax does provide an interesting answer. A bit of both.

When Margaret initially answers this question, she states that these things may be artificial but people still need them. In and of itself, that's a satisfactory answer. I agree that ethics are an artifice that humans have created so what we can survive in groups (in lieu of fangs and claws.)

But I don't think that's the true answer Madlax was going for. The big answer comes in the form of Madlax's own duality: she's a kind killer. Granted, the first time I watched the show I wasn't really all that interested in that duality (or rather I didn't really notice it.) The thing is that no matter that she started as a manifestation of Margaret's will to live, she also took on part of her ethics too. So that even though she killed often, she still felt bad about it. Basically, the show is hinting at the fact that empathy is a natural human emotion.

So why have I prattled on for 700 words about this? Mostly because I'm trying to get at the root of the idea of being a monster in anime. And I think Madlax provides a good starting place for that discussion. In essence, a basic question, from which I hope I can form other questions.

Robber Barons and Mercenaries: A look at Itazura na Kiss and Macross Frontier

You know, I'm not even going to talk about Code Geass and Pizza Hut.

Well other than I think the slogan, "This Revolution is brought to you by Pizza Hut!" is really funny.

But anyways, itsabun and later Hige mentioned how Kaiba depicts a fairly Marxist ideal of what a capitalist society is. And I have to agree, but I've noticed a couple of other fairly subtle nods to the capitalist system in a few other shows this season. In particular two of them come to mind right off the bat.

The first one, Macross Frontier, really shouldn't come as a shock to most people. Let's face it, the main character becomes a mercenary. A mercenary for a company that has better weapons than the military, no less. A while back, I did a piece on the nature of democracy in mecha anime. And Macross Frontier seems to hit all of the points, so far. The central government is crippled by red-tape, bureaucratic infighting and popular opinion. The only thing that seems different here is that Alto is actually a citizen solider, something which I find interesting.

And add in a "rags to riches" sub-plot worthy of Horatio Alger, and there seems to be a message coming out of the first five episodes of the show – follow your dreams and don't expect anyone else to help you out with it. Now I don't know how much of that is an artifact of the story-telling and how much of it is intentional. But it's an interesting message, especially when there are so many monolithic companies present in anime (Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040 comes to mind right off the bat.) It's a nice change to have a show that features capitalism in a good light, even if democracy does get the shaft.

Well at least so far.

The other critique that I've spotted comes from an interesting place – Itazura na Kiss. One of the first things I noticed when I started watching this show was the stratified school system. To be honest, it's not a particularly uncommon idea in anime. But usually both of the characters are from the same social strata as it were. In Itazura you have one guy from the elite and one girl from the lower class. What makes this show interesting as far as that goes is that the usual theme is: "Oh my God, we can allow these two to date. That'd be unthinkable." And then they fight against society to be together and everything ends happily.

Strange enough Itazura na Kiss does exactly the opposite. Instead it's the parents who are trying to play matchmaker and Naoki who seems against it. In fact, it reminded me of the Industrial Revolution around the time of the muckrakers, with Naoki playing the part of the disinterested robber barons.

At least until, episode five. (I'm not sure if this is going to be a spoiler. If it is than avert your eyes, or go promptly to your nearest brainwashing center of your choice to remove the memory of this post.) Now at least a few people complained about how Naoki isn't really interested in Kotoko To be honest, I was a little put off by it too. Well that and the fact that she isn't capable of doing ANYTHING by herself. Now to be honest, it's not any more flattering if you replace Kotoko with the working masses and Naoki with the robber barons. In fact, it becomes the polar opposite of a Horatio Alger story. No matter how hard the lower classes work they're never going to achieve the status of the higher classes because of a sheer lack of talent.

Well unless the higher classes decide to practice a little bit of corporate citizenship. To explain, once Andrew Carnegie got tired of making his fortune off of the backs of the workers, he grew a conscience and said, "Wait, we should give something back." What was funny is that is exactly what Naoki does in the fifth episode of Itazura na Kiss. Now the message isn't necessarily any better. Now it's, "The lower classes can't achieve anything without help from the higher classes." But it is a bit more interesting.

Related Links

CCY's awesome Shoujo Showdown.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Impressions: Kaiba – somewhat better than five fingers and a palm

Oh Kaiba… how people will lavish over you. How you will stroke people's brains and make them think about things. How you will bring together people.

Okay, so enough of that. When I read one of the first reviews of Kaiba, I'll admit I was a bit skeptical. Call it Curmudgeon's Law. Call it "Cameron is a contrarian and will disagree for the sake of disagreeing." Call it whatever you want to call it. But I promised some folks that I'd give it at least three episodes.

And I have.

Now, Kaiba follows the idea of most hard sci-fi. You take a scientific development (the fact that people have their memories stored in capsules and transplanted between bodies.) Then you examine the effects on society. And I'll admit freely that part is great. I mean you have a Marxist society. You have a very visible "afterlife" that might not really mean death. You have the idea that there is a "sanctity" to being an original, but copying yourself is illegal. And you have it all without any of the visual confusion that I get from a show like Ghost Hound or Serial Experiments Lain.

In fact, the amount it can tweak my brain makes me interested in the show.

But you know there's always one guy every season, who stands up in the middle of the parade and shouts: "The emperor has no clothes."

Well, I guess this time that guy is me.

Because for everything that this show does well, it has one major flaw: Kaiba.

Good lord, this guy isn't a main character. He isn't even a plot device. He's a piece of equipment. He's a camera for the plot to happen to or around. The only time he actually ACTS is late in the third episode. Otherwise, he's running away or peeking into people's memories or getting dragged around. What's worse is that he doesn't actually HAVE a personality. He hardly asks questions. I mean he has his body stolen from him and what does he do? Oh, peeks into the room while his body is having sex with a stranger. Good lord, am I supposed to believe this guy is for real?

The thing is that without a character who I can invest myself in, who I care about, all the great world development doesn't mean squat.

It's just something that provokes a whole lot of mental masturbation, without the benefit of actually getting off.

In My View: On the art/entertainment divide

A while back, I did a rant about Art. Now, I still stand by my statement that "Art doesn't exist." But something Hidoshi wrote in the comments has been niggling around in my brain for the past few weeks:

I should note in addendum that I think art is the most useful of all labels in anything considered culture. Art serves as the axle of the cultural wheel, and without it there are no standards by which to create — no mental or emotional tools, as it were.

This has been bugging me. Not necessarily because it's wrong, but because I don't necessarily understand why something has to be Art to create the standards that are used to create. Now don't get me wrong, I respect Hidoshi's viewpoint. I mean he's a smart guy who can manage to write like he's an average Joe and that's no mean feat.

But I'm still struggling with why Art as a distinction is important.

Okay, so here's how I see it. On the one hand, you have Art, which is held out as something to be admired. To borrow Hidoshi's words, it's the standard by which anything creative should be judged. Now, I'm not going to touch the subjective nature of that, simply because well… I shouldn't need to. But I can understand that certain creative works should be held up as benchmarks of what a medium or a genre can do.

On the other hand, you have the crass pandering to the masses called entertainment. Basically it's meaningless throwaway garbage that you use to turn off your brain (or at least that's the argument.) Okay, I can understand that some stuff might not seem like it's important. Or just seem like it appeals to some baser instinct in people.

But, and it's a big but, that assumes that entertainment is meaningless. Which it isn't.

Let's take Rome for an example. What's the first thing people think about when that word comes up (well other than Julius Caesar)? I can bet it's not Virgil's Aeneas. It's probably not Ovid's Metamorphoses. I doubt it's the Roman comedies. And I'm pretty sure no one's singing, "There's something for everyone –"

Nope, they're probably thinking about the Coliseum. And if there's a bigger entertainment fest then watching two grown men face off against each other with swords, I'm not sure what it is.

The thing is that the Coliseum (and any of the bread and circuses programs) is important when you're looking at Roman culture. In fact, I would say that they're a defining factor. I mean what it says about daily life in Rome that people flocked to see people try to run each other off of the tracks at the Circus Maximus or that they wanted to see people face off against lions in the arena.

Not only that but it says something about humanity that we'd want to see slaves try to kill each other. Or that we'd create a business. Or that politicians would set something like that up to distract the masses of people who were unemployed because of the large wave of slaves that were coming into country.

The same could be said about a show like The Simple Life, which follows the follies of two very rich girls trying to do very common things. Do you see a parallel here? Because I do. America has a tendency to want to tear down its idols. The middle and lower classes content themselves with the idea that "Well those people couldn't do my job." And a show like The Simple Life comes around to reinforce it. Is it pandering to the baser instincts of people? Sure. Does it show any type of creative drive behind it? No, of course not. Is it still important to wonder why something like that is popular? Yes.

In fact, I'd go as far to say it's just as important to look at the message that a show like Speed Grapher is trying to convey, and what it's trying to appeal to as looking at a show like Kaiba and seeing what it's trying to say. Or to put it another way, it's not as important to figure out what the creator is saying to the viewer as why the viewer is enticed with the show in the first place.

But then again, I might be a Philistine.

 

Sunday, May 4, 2008

In My View: Naruto and Witchblade? What exactly is this world coming to?

So I think I might just be out of touch with the average anime fan. I was perusing through ICv2, mostly because they actually release numbers (or at least sort of release numbers) and I came across this list:

ICv2 Top Ten Anime Properties—Early 2008:

Appleseed Ex Machina

Dragon Ball Z

Naruto

Devil May Cry

Death Note

Pokemon

Witchblade

Bleach

Fullmetal Alchemist

Afro Samurai (emphasis added)


 

Okay so we've got five shows that have been released within the last year (or so), which honestly is a lot better than last years list. So I mean that's looking up. More people are buying new stuff than they were. But… what am I missing here?

I think it's that, with the exception of Death Note, none of these shows look particularly good. I mean don't get me wrong, I don't expect much out of Witchblade. The comic book was about T and A, I don't expect much more from the anime. In fact of any type of comic that the anime industry could pick up that's the one that surprises me the least of all. And Afro Samurai? I mean good lord Samuel Jackson hasn't done a good movie since Formula 51 (and that's using good in the loosest possible terms). But him, Robert Deniro and Al Pacino could all get together and make a movie titled "SUCK" and people would still buy it. So… I guess that doesn't surprise me much.

And ironically, I really thought losing the Gurren Lagann license would put ADV into the sinkhole, but Devil May Cry was an actual hit? What kind of messed up crazy world am I living in?

(Please note: What follows next is pure speculation on my part and has no relevance to facts past or present.)

In all fairness, the article did say worldwide sales were down. Then it propped it up with a hopeful line right afterwards. But looking over that list, it leads me to one of two conclusions.

The first is obvious. People aren't buying DVDs. Now I don't really want to speculate why they aren't buying DVDs. I could come up with four or five right off the top of my head. The economy is down. Food and gas prices are up. The housing market in the United States is in a free fall. Consumer confidence is down. In fact a quick trip to the front page of CNN pretty much told me that the best news out there in the last two weeks is that London stinks (quite literally). I can't blame fansubs for it. At least not all of it. But I'm pretty sure they play a part too.

The second is a little less obvious. This might actually not be that bad.

Yes, I said it. I'll say it again. It might actually not be a bad thing that animation companies in Japan have to cut back. Despite what the BitTorrent trackers and the convention numbers might say, I think the market hit saturation about three years ago and has been slowly shrinking since then.

It just depends on the lesson that they take away from it is. A while ago Ryan over at Nakama Brittanica wrote a fairly long piece about economics and guessing about what will happen in the future. And while I agree that people like me are definitely stabbing at shadows, I can't help doing it. He also brought up the idea that there was a "golden age" of anime stretching from the time of the first Ghost in the Shell movie to Fullmetal Alchemist.

In a way, I agree with him. There was definitely a rennesaince in anime that happened during that eight year stretch. But there's something else important to note about shows like Fullmetal Alchemist, Cowboy Beebop, Trigun and even FLCL. They had an appeal outside of the standard fan community. I've talked to more casual fans that have watched those shows than have even heard of Beck or Haruhi or any of the dozens of shows that are arguably just as good, but didn't have that kind of appeal.

But that's what four of those shows have in common. They appeal to a broader market than the average fan. Now in some ways, I'm sad that shows like Witchblade and Devil May Cry are the ones that are finding that larger audience. Because it may send the message that "Hey, if you through in some easily recognizable franchise then it'll do well." To be honest, I'm not convinced that's the way to go.

What they need is a great show. Something that reaches across genre lines and niches, something that anyone can enjoy. Now I'm not sure if Gurren Lagann or Code Geass will be that show. I'd be guessing if I said they'll hit it big. But I'd be surprised if they do.

In fact, I just haven't seen the series that going to do it yet. But hopefully Ryan's last paragraph is more prophecy, than wishful thinking:

Looking toward the horizon, we can't predict what will be good or successful with too much accuracy - or what will befall us in artistic and economic circles, so as far we know, the next golden age is right around the corner. I hope that will be the case, and wish all the companies in the industry the best of luck during these harsh times.

-----

Related Links

The Pink Slyphide did a piece about the possible re-emergence of a dual market. (I mean for those of us who remember the VHS days.)

Densetsu Shoujo's take about recent complaints on the encoding for Crunchyroll downloads.

Orz-Swiss Cheese Porn's attack on trying to pander to the audience with fanservice.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

In My View: Elite elitists and their elitism

I'm afraid I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with Owen.

(I know, big shocker. Maybe next time, I'll tell you that the sky is blue and that fish swim in the ocean.)

But that said, I really can't wrap my head around the idea that elitist might actually become a "good" word. And no amount of semantic reconstruction is going to change the fact that the root for elitist is not elite but elitism. Which has a slightly different definition than Owen proposed. From dictionary.com:

  1. The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.

2 a. The sense of entitlement enjoyed by such a group or class.

b. Control, rule, or domination by such a group or class.

Simply put, elitism is snobbery. Not just snobbery in some sort of passive "I don't watch that kind of show sense" but snobbery in its most vile form. In the form that says, "I'm better than you and it does matter." It's the fundamental belief that somehow the pedestal that you're on is well deserved and frankly been touched by the hand of God almighty.

Yeah, I get kind of angry about it.

But that's because I'm a bit of an elitist myself. I mean I certainly think my viewpoint is important enough that I should write blog posts about it. And I even think I have some good points that I'd like to voice to the vast chasm that is the Internet. In fact, I'd say that every blogger has a little elitism to think that.

That doesn't make them elitists though. It's funny because TheBigN's post about elitism reminded me of my own experiences with role playing. And when I say role playing, I mean table top gaming. The type with all of the strange dice. And why do I have to explain that? Because there are people out there who get dressed up in funny costumes go to hang out in nightclubs and pretend to be vampires. They give me the heebie jeebies partly because I don't like crossing that line between fantasy and reality.

And because frankly, I worry that they're going to give role playing a bad name. (I mean a worse name than it already has.)

Even that though, doesn't really qualify me for elitism.

It's that next step. The one where I say, "What's wrong with those people? Don't they understand that what they're doing is stupid? Shit, I wish Gary Gygax was still alive to kick them in the ass. They should just act normal."

You see, true elitism isn't a preference (even a loud or particular preference). I'm sure a lot of people prefer quality or a particular genre or age of show. In fact, it isn't even just saying that my anime is better than yours. True elitism is taking the next logical step and saying not only is my anime better than your anime, but it's adding on, "So you should sit down and shut the fuck up because you're not worthy of having this argument with me."

This ironically is why I think most bloggers aren't actually truly elitists. Sure we've got opinions. Sure we think we're right. And occasionally we might yell or rant or rave at each other. Even Owen, who might occasionally be a little low in the tact department (or high in the brutal honesty department, take your pick), generally respects other people's opinions or at least their right to have them.

But in the back of our heads, we know that it isn't that important that we're right. I mean it's not like we're professionals.

Unlike some people.

---------

This was mostly inspired by reading Martin's interesting post on elitism, whose title really says everything I just said.