Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Re:Creators - more complaints about 7/10 anime

In the first episode, there's a great scene where Selesia, a light novel heroine from a fantasy/scifi world, fights magical girl Mamika. Selesia challenges Mamika to consider how her claims of fighting for justice can sit next to the collateral damage (mostly caused by Mamika) that resulted from their battle. Coming from a kids' show, Mamika's fights have never endangered bystanders before - she's horrified. But the show doesn't go into the moral quandries or idealogical differences between the characters, and its disinterest in the inner lives of its cast ultimately damages the macro plot as well.

Re:Creator's fundamental flaw is that none of its characters seem to have any problem accepting the situation they've found themselves in.

Pulled violently from her fictional reality into our world, Selesia is forced to come to terms with the fact that her entire existence - every moment of joy or pain, every defeat and victory - is an invention purely for entertainment. I need her to react to this somehow, but her unflappable heroism in the face of this revelation blows a hole in any believability her character could otherwise have had.

It's not that every character needs to have an existential crisis - Meteora's ability to absorb information almost by osmosis from the world around her means she's going to process the situation faster than others - but no matter how unflappable their fictional character is (there's a recurring excuse about "that's how I wrote her! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯"), there should be stumbles. Only one member of the cast has a bone to pick with her creator, and even that's all but an afterthought.

In the most recent episode, Selesia has a conversation with the author of her novels about whether she would want to go back but there's an unanswered - actually, unasked - question of whether she can, and what that could mean for the story. She's found out that she's a literal fantasy and it doesn't occur to the show that this proactive, brave warrior might want answers from the person who put her entire world in harms' way for his own interest.

At every turn, Re:Creators shies away from digging into any of the interesting questions that its own premise raises, and as a result the things that it does bother to put the effort in for - highly-dramatic battle sequences, mostly - are airless, rote affairs between characters I just can't find a way to care about.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Love Tyrant and fanservice

Love Tyrant

Love Tyrant is a pretty generic, fundamentally unremarkable harem rom-com. Even its supernatural twist feels familiar, cribbing equally from Ah! My Goddess and (admittedly somewhat bizarrely) Death Note. I've given it a shot because a friend of mine wrote the dub script and on that front at least it does actually succeed at the comedy elements1.

I'd be enjoying it a lot more without the requisite fanservice, though.

It's not that I particularly mind fanservice - Lord knows you can't watch much anime if you have any serious aversion to rampant overuse of the male gaze, or improbably elastic breast physics (Love Tyrant makes the Gainax bounce look subtle). It's getting easier to avoid (in some genres more than others), but it still feels like there's a base level of objectification that these shows expect of themselves, that a viewer has to accept at the door.

What bothers me about Love Tyrant is that it acts like its fanservice is edgy and transgressive when really, fanservice is never either of those things. It's hard to be shocked or even surprised by this stuff - it's so… routine. Even the main character's over-the-top reactions are perfunctory, and not just in this show - it's a staple of the genre. It's tough to know who these guys are supposed to be a stand-in for, since it can be assumed that the intended audience is here for this stuff; their reaction isn't going to be one of panic.

It's minimally titillating, I suppose - in much the same way as nudity in 80s action movies. But at least there's an acknowledgement that Robocop and Total Recall's topless hookers are a relic of the past, and it's not deemed necessary to include similar "characters" in modern films the way anime continues to shove fanservice in.

Of course at some point I've got to accept that I'm not - and never was, and never will be - the target audience for this stuff. I'm not going to buy character goods, I'm not going to buy the DVD release - hell, I'm probably never going to learn any of the characters' names.

But there's still a gnawing disappointment that anime hasn't moved on from this, that the industry seemingly can't make a genuinely funny romantic comedy without stooping to raunchy tactics barely a level of respectability above a Carry On installment2.

1. Mild gay panic plot points aside, which can't really be the fault of any localisation effort unless they're willing to edit out entire shots from the visual part of the show. A complete remake could be condemned for retaining this stuff, but I've got a hard time criticising anime translators.

2. I'd maybe argue that B-gata H-kei is the exception that proves this rule, even though it still has its fair share of innuendo and bare skin. I'd give it a pass on that because it's a show about teenagers' obsessions with physical intimacy; fanservice is relevant not just to its characters, but to its point.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Saga of Tanya the Evil

Tanya

Tanya follows the wartime exploits of a nine-year-old military savant, rising through the ranks of a German-analogue Imperial army. Using her knowledge of our world history (Tanya is a salaryman, reincarnated as a girl in this alternate reality by a "god" when (s)he questioned this "Being X"'s divinity), our anti-heroine maneuvers her way to the rank of Major, commanding her own elite battalion of combat mages (yeah…).

But for all its window-dressing of trench warfare, there's little actual engagement with the grim reality of war. Tanya's sociopathy is a central part of her character, but it's rarely given a real-world display. She and her mages sit literally above the regular infantry, invulnerable to regular arms and detached from much of the day-to-day hardship. It could be a side-effect of the 12-episode run time, but there's very little down-time in which to show off just how detached Tanya is from the average soldier.

Her entire battalion, in fact, quickly adopts her gung-ho attitude and they offer slim opportunities to highlight how "evil" Tanya supposedly is. Second Lieutenant Serebryakov has a sunny, positive disposition that remains unchanged by Tanya's brutal training regime and psychopathic dedication to the extermination of her enemies. If there was ever the intent to make a point about how war changes people, the opportunity appears to have sailed past the writers, unnoticed. And her battalion makes it through every fight largely unscathed, when the occasional sudden fatality could drive a wedge between the indifferent commander and her troops.

Another recurring theme is Tanya's atheism - in the face of an entity which has proven itself to be omnipotent - versus her magic's reliance on prayer to a higher power. There's potential here for deeper character work, but it's never delivered. Every few episodes it comes up, in many cases unremarked upon, but is quickly forgotten until the next reminder.

Which is all a bit disappointing - Tanya is a great character. Self-reliant, unnaturally clever and utterly devious, with the dangerous addition of a short temper and unreasonably high standards. Her quick-wittedness is a hindrance as much as it's a benefit - her need to demonstrate her high intellect to a superior officer leads directly to her appointment at the head of a front-line battalion, in direct opposition to her goal of remaining as far from the war as possible. She's a lethal fighter and superior tactician, with a confidence bordering on recklessness in battle.

If it wasn't for the dub, I doubt I'd have finished this show. I've always found it easier to watch a show without also having to read it, so the various shortcomings of a given series are less of a hurdle in English. It's a solid if largely by-the-numbers effort, as is the series as a whole, but Monica Rial's performance as the eponymous lead is about as fun as an alternate-reality First World War could ever reasonably expect.

It's just such a shame the rest of the show never really does her justice.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Shin Godzilla (2016)

Shin Godzilla, Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi's 2016 update of maybe the most famous monster franchise in the world, is the series' most overtly satirical entry. It's also arguably the funniest, and much like Gareth Edwards' 2014 installment has gone straight to my top 3 - almost just for its atomic breath, which is the best in the franchise (as well as the most destructive).

In 1954, Godzilla was a warning symbol come to giant, rubbery life. Given the source of its powers, the common reading of the King of the Monsters as a specifically anti-nuclear reaction is really just a result of the atomic bomb as the only weapon of mass destruction the world had seen (yet). The Dr Serizawa subplot - and specifically its resolution - paint a broader warning about the misuse of science for destructive ends. (It's hard to think of a non-violent application for the Oxygen Destroyer, but Serizawa spends much of the film debating whether he should share the technology even to save his country.)

It's harder to draw a specific parallel for the role of the big G in Shin Godzilla. Really, the film is an idictment of the sluggish reactions of Japanese bureaucracy to disasters. The film opens with an increasingly ridiculous series of meetings about forming committees to hold meetings about dealing with what is, initially, a minor incident. When Godzilla does eventually appear on-screen, its rapidly-mutating powers instantly outpace the govermnent - whose eventual response is far too little, much too late. Tokyo is devastated around them while bureaucrats wring their hands about departmental responsibility.

There's an argument to be made that this Godzilla represents a much more modern threat - its sudden, devastating emergence and subsequent disappearance, coupled with its evolving capabilities, bring to mind terrorism. The origin of the monster - a side-effect of short-sighted convenience - could be an analogue for any number of Western governments' ill-advised meddling which resulted in a devastating, agressive response.

But this doesn't really hold up in the slightly saggy back half of the film, which loses a lot of the forward momentum that builds during and in the aftermath of Godzilla's emergence. A race between American nuclear bombers and a scientific effort to freeze the monster by cooling its blood is oddly airless, as it's mostly carried out by mid-level aides call in political favours to delay the US military response.

At the end, very little is resolved. The frozen body of Godzilla still looms over Tokyo, with the American countdown merely paused. For all the politicians' ambitious for their own future political glory, Tokyo is left in the shadow of its imminent destruction, and ultimately the people of Japan don't seem to have much say in the matter.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Ghost in the Shell preview

The opening four-and-a-half minutes of the upcoming Ghost in the Shell live-action movie was released on Twitter today, and… I'm not particularly impressed.

First, the good stuff: it looks pretty nice, if less grimy than the source material, and there are some great designs - the robo-spider geisha is incredible.

The rest feels very wide of the mark.

Broadly speaking, this clip follows a similar template to the first scene of Mamoru Oshii's 1995 anime film: the Major drops off a roof and engages is a brief firefight through a window. But the anime's opening four minutes set up a lot of stuff for the rest of the movie. the opening shot pans through layers of data illustrating wordlessly the extent to which everything is connected to the network; we're given hints of the rivalry between Public Security Sections 6 and 9; they namedrop Project 2501, the ultimate antagonist of the film; the surgical (and lethal) tactics of Section 9 get demonstrated; and while we're only really introduced to the Major there's also dialogue with Batou and Togusa that sketches out their working relationships.

By comparison, the live-action scene doesn't even seem to have a reason for the Major to be on that rooftop (one of a few things that leads me to believe that this isn't actually the very first scene in the film). While she begins the clip by announcing, "I'm on site," the presence of surveillance equipment seems to surprise her, and she's even unaware of who in the building might be the target. Where the live-action film has her responding to an unforeseen event, the anime makes the Major herself the event - which may seem like a small change, but moving them from active to reactive participants fundamentally alters the audience's perception of both Kusanagi and Section 9.

The relatively bloodless gunfight in the live-action film may be more visually inventive than its anime counterpart, but the number of cuts before the Major comes through the window - followed immediately by slow-motion wallrunning and a ponderous examination of the scene - makes the scene feel much longer.

Maybe the most surprising thing is the decision not to rip off maybe the most iconic shot of the anime's opening sequence: the first demonstration of the Major's thermoptic camouflage. On the one hand they've already lifted quite a lot of the original's key moments, but to draw the line at this feels weirdly restrained.

Everything I've seen of the live-action Ghost in the Shell puts me off it - the most egregious marketing error is the decision to use a san-serif font on the logo - but somehow I'm intrigued to see the final product, no matter how much I can already tell it's going to infuriate me.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Iron Fist

I cannot quite believe how big of a train wreck Iron Fist is.

Character motivations seem entirely fluid, changing scene to scene and even line to line. As if the white-man-as-martial-arts-messiah stuff wasn't bad enough, he listens exclusively to hiphop for some bonus cultural appropriation. The first episode might as well be called "Finn Jones harasses women". More scenes seem to take place in boring office space than Daredevil, which is set in a law firm. Its portrayal of mental healthcare is only slightly less enlightened than Terminator 2. I can't comment on the plot much yet because I'm only three episodes in but so far it's a garbage fire.

I want to like Colleen Wing more than I actually do. Hopefully she does something soon other than put up with Danny Rand's awful flirting and condescension. Never seen a sparring match as negging before, so that's new I guess?

But I'm determined to stick with it to the end. All the Marvel Netflix shows go to shit in the back half and I'm fascinated to see how much further off the rails this train can go.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Symphogear

Symphogear

Warning: Symphogear spoilers. Not that it really matters, because this show transcends mere plot.

The very first thing Symphogear does is lie to its audience.

Symphogear, or to give the show its ridiculous full title Senki Zesshou Symphogear - Meteoroid-falling, burning, and disappear, then..., is best described as Macross meets magical girls; a number of young women are given ancient magical relics which enable them to use songs as armour and weapons to fight the alien threat Noise.

The show appears thematically dense on a surface level. All the terminology is music- or sound-related, and there's some strong imagery in the idea of humanity's heroic melodies defeating the monstrous Noise. But, like KILL la KILL, none of these apparently important references actually mean anything to the... well, calling it a story might be overly charitable.

The biggest problem Symphogear has is trying to decide what it wants to be. None of the masks it tries to wear really fit convincingly, but it's so earnest that I couldn't help but love it for trying so hard.

It has one of the most obvious yet most understated gay relationships in anime. It has characters who sing their feelings while battling each other. It has full-screen, comic book-style freeze-frames for special attacks. It has a story about the genetic reincarnation of an ancient priestess trying to rebuild the tower of Babel so she can destroy the God who lives in the moon. It's a mess of ideas that never quite work the way you feel the writers and animators intended (hoped?), but still somehow I can't help but cheer for it.

Symphogear's whole first series is building towards an ending that's promised by the opening scene of the first episode - a lie that I bought into. Having that scene constantly in mind, particularly as the finale approached, gave much of the story more dramatic heft than it might have otherwise had. It's constantly pulling off a balancing act between the ludicrous spectacle of the Symphogear battles and the difficulties Hibiki has keeping this new superhero work secret from her girlfriend Miku. And with the implication that Hibiki wasn't going to survive the series, I was more worried about whether they'd part on good terms than if they'd defeat Finé.

The second and third seasons have altogether different problems.

Season two, Senki Zesshou Symphogear G: In the Distance, That Day, When the Star Became Music..., decides to jettison all the character stuff that made the first interesting and just turn the Symphogear to eleven. It's total nonsense, spectacle for its own sake, with a terrorism subplot that follows three new Symphogear users who all but have "eventual hero" tattooed on their foreheads. Hibiki and Miku's relationship, the beating heart of the first series' plot, is all but ignored for two thirds of the running time. The transformation sequences from the first season - quick, incredibly cool and highly stylized - are replaced with more... traditional fanservice-based sequences.

The third (and so far final) season - Senki Zesshou Symphogear GX: Believe in Justice and Hold a Determination to Fist. - swings almost too far the other way, with a plot that's somehow both complicated and dumb at the same time, and much lower-key battles. The fanservice is turned up uncomfortably higher. The primary emotional storyline involves Hibiki trying to figure out what to do about her deadbeat father.

To call Symphogear a disaster would not be inaccurate, though I do think it would be unfair. The first season, inconsistent as it is, still has a strong core and some great ideas that a more polished show might not take risks with.

I couldn't recommend watching the whole saga (though with a fourth season constantly rumoured, you might do well to catch up!), but the first 13-episode series is definitely worth your time.

Unfortunate Events

I wonder if I'd like Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events more if it didn't remind me quite so much of Pushing Daisies.

They have more than a few things in common; from an omnipresent narrator to a visual style right on the border of the uncanny-valley, to gleeful descriptions of the weird and macabre events that occur and a peroccupation with alliteration and repetition. Daisies jacked the saturation up where Unfortunate Events turns it down, but the art design and camerawork in one will be familiar to fans of the other.

But it's not quite right.

Daisies' nameless narrator was off-screen, always ready to offer a brief comment or witty rebuttal; while Patrick Warburton's Lemony Snicket exists in much the same role, it takes time for him to move on or off screen, which almost kills the pacing. (His leisurely delivery doesn't help matters.)

Unfortunate Events also seems to struggle with tone - Neil Patrick Harris is unreservedly great as Count Olaf, but the constant switching between careful enunciation and off-the-cuff banter feels less like a deliberate directorial choice than a mistake. That no other character does this only highlights the disconnect.

I also find myself wondering how many of the distracting touches are references for book fans; Mr. Poe's cough adds little to the character, and most of the stuff with the theatre troupe feels like padding.

I'm willing to see how Unfortunate Events finds its feet - only two episodes in, there's a lot to like and the little I know about the series' structure has me intrigued. But the promise (warning?) of no happy ending is a bit offputting. It's hard to see how it could reach a satisfying conclusion with the Baudelaires failing to ever find happiness.

Of course, Pushing Daisies never had a classically romantic ending on the cards for Ned and Chuck. Then again, as TV executives are wont to do with Bryan Fuller shows, an ending was never really on the cards for them at all.