Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Chainsaw Man vs. Fire Punch

Chainsaw Man

The new chapter of Chainsaw Man dropped yesterday, after a two-year break. I've read it three times already. It's not at all what I was expecting – whatever that was – and exacrly what I hoped for. It's a confident, triumphant return for probably the best manga I've ever read.

But in the run-up to the new chapter, I went back to mangaka Tatsuki Fujimoto's previous work, Fire Punch.

It's, uh… it's a lot.

But despite sharing obvious DNA with its successor, Fire Punch clarified, for me, what makes Chainsaw Man work, despite its violent and often juvenile tendencies. It's a deceptively simple change: empathy, both for, and from, its characters.

Fire Punch is unrelentingly bleak. Few of its characters could be described as good people; they're all capable of horrific, detached brutality. In its frozen wasteland apocalypse, people are enslaved, abused and tortured with a disturbing lack of malice. That dispassionate approach and the art's lack of prurient interest in the specifics save the manga from descending into outright pornography, but it also leaves a deep nihilistic streak running through every one of its characters.

By comparison, the characters in Chainsaw Man are distressingly human in their desires and actions. Denji's dream life is shallow and cheap, but that clear, simple goal, however selfish and juvenile, drives every action he takes; his naivete stands in stark contrast to most of the other characters. Aki's dreams are just as selfish as Denji's, even if he dresses them up in lofty terms, but at least Denji is willing to admit what he's really chasing after.

(It's also worth pointing out that while the other characters are driven mostly by fear or hatred, Denji is coming from a place where he had nothing and is chasing hope for something more from life.)

So while it might share its predecessor's penchant for horrific, bloody violence, the existence of humans (ish) with fantastical superpowers, and a single-minded protagonist drawn accidentally into a conflict larger than he realises, because their motives are easy to understand, even the worst devils in Chainsaw Man feel more human than anyone in Fire Punch, and it's much easier to root for their success, lament their failures, and mourn their passing.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Love and Thunder, signifying nothing

Is it just me, or are more and more movies nowadays feeling like they could use another draft or two before shooting? I've got the benefit of hindsight, obviously, but the last few films I've seen definitely felt like they had at least one subplot underbaked.

Thor: Love and Thunder is definitely one of them.

There's no real connection between the hero and villain's arcs, which is what would really make the finale work. Gorr's whole deal is just disjointed as a whole; he's so torn up about his daughter's death that he…kidnaps a bunch of other people's kids? I don't understand his behaviour. I feel like the film is trying to make his crusade feel morally grey, but he's just a bit too cartoonishly ghoulish.

Jane has been so notably absent from the recent movies that the attempts to flesh out her and Thor's relationship in flashback just feels cheesy. Is this a common MCU narrative problem caused by the franchise's insistence on only telling tentpole, world-shaking blockbuster stories? Not entirely, in this case -- politics around The Dark World's director is an undoubted contributor -- but the lack of any room to breathe has definitely hurt the emotional core of an MCU relationship before.

(You also feel this with the opening Guardians scenes — the film wants us to believe that there's been history made here, but we're not allowed to see any of it )

Likewise Valkyrie, whose dissatisfaction at being a mostly bureaucratic monarch is mostly told, not shown, and who doesn't seem to get any resolution in the end. Sif is here too, with little explanation or fanfare.

And as with the Doctor Strange sequel, it's hard to tell what the point of it all is. I'm wondering if Feige's insistence that there is a plan for Phase 4 is desperate ass-covering, because as it stands right now, I'm feeling absolutely no momentum for what comes next. And with a full slate of announced projects in both TV and films for the next few years, that feels like the Marvel machine night finally be running out of steam.

Saturday, November 06, 2021

Ranking of Kings

Everything I'd seen about Ranking of Kings before going in - admittedly, not much more than some promo images - had me expecting something light and fluffy. (Apart from the title, which sounds like a shonen battle anime.)

The bright, primary colours; the simple, stylised character designs. And the first episode delivered pretty much on that promise: a little slower than I expected, sure, fewer laughs and more big fat Ghibli tears -  but with enough unremarked-upon weirdness and fantasy window-dressing to entertain as it sets up its main characters.

And then comes episode two. An unrelenting emotional typhoon, dropping a backstory that has no business being this affecting for a secondary character after only one episode of setup. The opening act of episode 2 is devastating, and the second half doesn't pull any punches either, taking pains to methodically dismantle any sense of progress that Bojji might have felt he'd made in the season opener.

Oh, Bojji. The tiny, spheroid Prince looking down the barrel of his father's legacy, a legend even bigger than the man himself (and dad is a literal giant of a man). The disparity of stature isn't the only hurdle Bojji faces when measured next to the king, either: the diminutive prince is also deaf-mute. At least he can't hear the savage mockery his guards, subjects and teachers level at him – though, unbeknownst to his subjects, he can read their lips.

But the strength this boy displays! Bojji is sweet, compassionate and brave, endlessly, endlessly brave. His determination puts everyone around him to shame, facing up to ridicule and underestimation with regal poise. His sadness, when it comes, is vast, but his boundless joy is infectious, even cracking the nihilistic apathy of an orphaned shadow assassin (who begins their unconventional friendship by robbing the prince of his clothes and eating them).

The anger I feel on Bojji's behalf when he is slighted, the happiness when he's vindicated, God, I don't remember the last time I loved a character so unconditionally.

There's no ulterior motive to Bojji, no plans or politics at work. He is in the moment, pure and honest, doing his absolute best even as everyone tells him not to even try.

I am so proud of him.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Don't Say Goodbye

I'm writing this the evening before the Sonny Boy finale airs, surrounded by swirling fears and thoughts and hopes for how it ends. No small part of me is afraid that it will screw everything up, as so many promising shows have before it.

This fear is borne, mostly, I think, probably, of how deeply Sonny Boy's themes have resonated with me in some indefinable, profound way that I've yet to find words to express. Every episode has left me reeling – I might even say adrift, to borrow a term from the series itself.

Something in my own anxiety recognises the characters, their starting points, their struggles. I want so desperately to see them succeed, even as the definition of success and its consequences grow more vague and dangerous. I'm afraid of what it means if they can't.

I just don't want a conclusion, I think.

The profound losses the cast have experienced in the closing acts still catch in my throat when I remember them. I don't want that rawness to be tidied up and sealed with a ribbon.

In an ideal world, Sonny Boy will end with many unanswered questions about both the past and the future, but with their journey through many This Worlds having given the characters the emotional tools to deal with what they face next.

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

A New Low in Hi-Fi

I'm pretty sure I first heard of Brad Sucks in 2003, off the back of his Outside the Inbox project, a collaboration album featuring songs titled after spam email subject lines. I've still got the home-burned CD that I bought back then, as well as two copies of Brad's follow-up album, I Don't Know What I'm Doing (also from 2003) – there was a home-burned copy of that as well, before the professionally-pressed edition.

The releases since then have been intermittent, but I've been a big fan for the intervening 18 years(!). Supporters of Brad's Patreon have had sneak-peeks into the process behind the new album (coming nine years after 2012's Guess Who's a Mess), as well as getting to listen to demos and in-progress of several tracks, but with the full thing finally in my hands (well, ears – I've got a download, but the physical CD is still in the post), I'm still pleasantly surprised with the finishing touches added to them.

The subject matter isn't going to be to everyone's taste; there's a heavy self-deprecation streak running through the lyrics that often feels more genuine than the energetic arrangements might suggest, and mental health, medication and suicide are recurring topics. But much like Aimee Mann's work, there's also an optimism at play – "okay, things suck right now, but they can get better".

It's an album about seeing the value in just coping with difficult situations, and I kinda feel like that's a mentality we could all do with right now.

Thursday, June 03, 2021

My Next Life as a Villainess

My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!

What makes harem shows compelling, to the extent that any of them are, is the balancing act the series has to pull off to keep all of the "routes" viable. All the romantic options are broad archetypes without much real depth, so it's down to the protagonist's agonising to sell us on the dilemma and draw us through the implausible events that get them into this situation.

The biggest problem with My Next Life as a Villainess is that it goes out of its way to emphasise that none of the routes are going anywhere – neutering the normal dramatic tension that sustains the audience's interest – but doesn't compensate by giving the supporting characters any real personalities or arcs.

The show's protagonist, Caterina, has been reincarnated inside the world of an otome game that her previous-life otaku self was obsessed with. But rather than making her the heroine (which would be the approach taken by almost any other isekai, a genre rife with shallow wish fulfilment fantasies), Caterina realises – after a head injury causes her memories of our world to return – that she's been placed in the role of the doomed villainess instead.

Depending on the outcome of the various romances available to Maria, the game's heroine, Caterina is either exiled or executed, which prompts her to try altering her "canon" relationships with the game's conquerable characters so that they're less likely to dispose of her when they eventually fall for Maria.

But by the time the game plot kicks off, multiple episodes in, all of those conquerable characters (and a few others to boot) are already infatuated with Caterina – though she's so focused on mitigating her doom flags that she's failed to notice.

This unfortunately means that the majority of the series is pretty inert. The side characters are broad archetypes with no development, which is par for the harem course, but Caterina isn't agonising over which one to choose. In fact, she's deliberately holding them all at arm's length to minimise her chances of getting in the way of the heroine's romance routes.

(The heroine, of course, also falls in love with Caterina, after she inadvertently steals a handful of key plot events from the conquerable characters.)

There's an attempt at cranking up the drama in the latter half of the series with a shadowy plot to get rid of Caterina for other reasons, but it involves characters who've only been in the periphery and a type of magic that hasn't been mentioned previously, so it comes out of nowhere and falls a bit flat.

My Next Life as a Villainess is fun enough, and at 12 episodes doesn't outstay its welcome, but it's ultimately just a bit too fluffy for its own good.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Makibét, Ak 5, Sin 5

Makibét

Da livit im bera wa ting nalush ando du wok, wa *dorámawala mal,
Demang pasa ora im ere da mesa da *dorama wit lek bik unte wit seteráx,
Unte deng namang na pochuye im natim efa. Im wa setoriye
Deting wa *baka tili showxa, wit walowda walowda sownte unte walowda walowda gova-tet,
Wit wa senyawu nakangekeng.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Talentless Nana

Talentless Nana

To explain exactly why Talentless Nana is a show you should be watching would be to spoil its best moments1. Its premise, character designs and animation all bring to mind the kind of mid-2000s filler that eventually brought down ADV Films, but underneath that cheap veneer is an experience that's quite unlike anything I've seen before – even as it cribs elements from many, many other places.

Nanao Nakajima is a student at a school for the "Talented" – teenagers with various special mutant-style abilities, including pyrokinesis, healing, and teleportation. They're brought to a remote island to be trained to fight the "Enemies of Humanity", but Nanao's power is limited in comparison to his classmates', and he's constantly ridiculed for his ineffectiveness in battle. But the arrival of two transfer students, the telepath Nana Hiiragi and mysterious Kyouya Onodera, finally gives him an opportunity to demonstrate his power's usefulness.

And then, the first episode ends with the most confident shift in both tone and context that I can remember since at least SaiKano.

Even more surprisingly, it's managed to sustain its new premise easily so far, even exceeding that first cliffhanger multiple times. The pull-and-push between the protagonists and antagonists is held taught at all times, with every suggestion of an advantage expertly (and often, in the story, accidentally) disarmed, with the audience – at least this member of the audience – secretly hoping both sides somehow come out victorious, despite their mutually exclusive goals.

I've got no idea where this story is going to end up; only five episodes into the series, there's a lot more ground to cover and challenges for our… "heroes" to face. At some stage the balance is going to have to shift against the protagonists, which is going to be a fascinating needle to thread.

I desperately hope they pull it off, though. It's been a long time since I've seen a show that felt this fresh and unpredictable.

1 And as a result this is going to be awkwardly vague in places.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Bloom Into You

And Yuu/Tainted my entire world

There's something about the central relationship in Bloom Into You that I can't quite gel with. It's frustrating, because otherwise it's completely up my anime alley: a high school romance with a large dose of emotional turmoil and self-examination.

Spoilers follow.

Yuu, a high school freshman, has never fallen in love. She suspects she never will. When she meets Touko, an upperclassman with a similar attitude, they become friends, bonding over this shared aromatic outlook – until Touka confesses that she's fallen for Yuu.

Normally this would result in a fairly rapid reciprocation (and, depending on the decade, a bunch of angsty reflection on the part of Yuu), but here she just kinda… goes along with it?

She doesn't pretend to have feelings for Touka, and tells her as much, but she's willing to put her own discomfort completely aside to indulge the (at times frightening) emotional storm that Touka is going through.

There've been quite a lot of shows recently which have this kind of one-sided romantic interest, and there's even a tendency for the characters to explicitly state as much. Both Re:Zero and OreGairu's protagonists admit to themselves and others that their actions are driven by their feelings for the female lead, but that they are willing to disregard (or in some cases run roughshod) over her wishes in order to prove the strength of their affections.

It's pretty baffling, and more than a little alarming, that these monomaniacs are so commonly commended by these shows.

Where Bloom departs from this mould, is how we're allowed into the thoughts of the recipient of the fixation – but rather than fixing the problem, it somehow makes it worse.

It's disappointing that Yuu doesn't value herself, her time or her feelings enough to push back against the unreasonable demands Touka is putting on her. Yuu spends a not-insignificant amount of time wondering how to get Touka to value and accept her "true" self, all the while apparently denying herself the same courtesy.

Is it too much to ask for a show in this genre where both participants have some degree of self-respect..?

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Kowpelésh Ere da Vedipelésh

Mi finyish vedi ere fo translate wang mo sowngit fo langbelta: All Along the Watchtower

(I have tried to translate another song to langbelta: All Along the Watchtower)

(Asilik kowltim, sili tolowda mebi tenye wawe fo du im mogut, fodagut showxa mi!)

(As always, if you have any way to make it better, please tell me!)

Kowpelésh Ere da *Vedipelésh

Mogut fo desh wa we fongi
Da *dzhoka ta showxa fo da pirata
Desh walowda walowda govatét
Mi na kang ge pash natím

Inyalowda beve rowm mi
Imim leta kowlting mi
Namang na gonya natim du mi eka
Imim na gonya gif mi wowt imim

Na desh radzhang fo ge natét
Da pirata showxa nadura
Walowda walowda milowda xiya
Pensa da livit im kaka

Amash to unte mi finyish du im fore
Unte im na shukumi milowda
Mogut fo setóp fo showxa nasheng xitím
Da ora xiya kasi da nax

Kowpelésh ere da *vedipelésh
Inyalowda vedi fong
Detím kowl sésata ta kom unte go
Oso welwala nawit but

Fongi de ere da pelésh nawowm
Wa koyo ta showxa tet
Tu kapawu ta ando kom
Ere da kuxaku da belék

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Gleipnir

Gleipnir is a vaguely body-horror manga adaptation, about a guy who has, somehow, found himself with the ability to transform into a "monster" with the appearance of a Japanese prefectural mascot. After his secret is discovered by a classmate, she finds a zipper down the back which allows her to climb inside and pilot him.

Also, other "monsters" (with various other abilities and transformations) are trying to kill them, in an attempt to collect enough alien coins to unlock the power to destroy the world. (Not a word of this is an exaggeration.)

The season starts out strong, but I felt like it very quickly fell back on fairly predictable shonen tropes, without spending any time on the much more interesting psychological implications of the main characters' unique bond. They're very different people – a scared, reclusive nerd and a borderline-sociopathic gyaru – and the way they complement each other's issues and weaknesses, both in and out of the costume, had a lot of potential for interesting character work that was ultimately squandered.

But then, given the parade of obvious shonen villains in the OP, I was probably expecting too much from the get-go.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Dear Brother

Oniisama e

After some… let's call them recommendations on Twitter, I have started to watch the 1992 shoujo manga adaptation Oniisama e. It was described to me as "pure uncut black-market shoujo" and I honestly cannot find fault with that assessment.

This is melodrama in its concentrated form. Directed by Osamu Dezaki – whose better-known works include the sports anime Ashita no Joe and Ace o Nerae, as well as trashy assassin thriller Golgo 13 – this takes all his trademarks and crams them into a genre that is, frankly, not prepared for it.

Split-screens, dramatic watercolour freeze-frames, lighting cues that would make Edgar Wright sit up and take notes; all in the service of a story that has no rights being so intense. It's something of a credit to the direction here that in the first episode the tension around a teenager's first day at a new high school was ramped up to the point that I genuinely expected the third act to end with a horrific murder.

One of my favourite shows, Kyoto Animation's exquisite Hyouka, is a detective series about nothing of consequence, but does an admirable job infusing its ultimately-insignificant mysteries with dramatic tension and satisfying reveals. Oniisama e doesn't have that whodunnit structure to rely on, but manages (with the liberal application of over-the-top thunder-and-lightning) to make "my new friend seems overly concerned with her position in the social pecking order" feel like the kind of life-or-death situation that most anime shows could only dream of portraying.

In short: I don't know what the hell this thing is, but I love it.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

O Maidens in Your Savage Season

O Maidens in Your Savage Season

One of the principal characters of O Maidens in Your Savage Season, a 2019 anime based on the manga by Mari Okada and Nao Emoto, describes fictional stories as not simply escapism, but a way to experience emotions at a safe distance; by empathising with the characters in the story, we get a kind of a vaccination against emotions that we'll experience first-hand later.

The trouble I'm having, now that I've finished the series, is that it's made me re-experience a particularly potent, complicated cocktail of emotions that I've not had to for quite a while — and I'm not sure I'm handling it well.

I'm not going to get into spoilers, but in short I'm something of a mess right now. It's been less than an hour since the last episode ended, but the borderline-anxiety that built up as the complicated relationships tangled themselves more and more (a phenomenon that's not exclusive to O Maidens, but hasn't been this pronounced since White Album 2) is still swirling around and not yet entirely processable.

This is probably — hopefully — just a side-effect of the dangling plot threads that the show has left me with; I'm not usually bothered by open endings, but there were two characters in particular who I'd hoped to see get a little more resolution. They were the less conventional of the relationships, but that made them all the more compelling — I know what the other two characters' arcs would have looked like even if they'd been left open, but these two needed more definition.

It's been years since I bought any manga, but I've ordered the first two volumes with the hope that it can give me some closure…

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Mi ando xunyam fo showxa langbelta

Pashang fong, kopeng

Because I can't ever make things easy for myself, I've started running a second RPG campaign.

It's a sci-fi game this time, using The Expanse RPG rules and in that setting (albeit without any connection to the TV show or books), so it's a nice change of pace on the front—and it makes it harder to reuse any of the plot beats or influences from my 13th Age campaign, which is slso useful because it's for three of the same party members.

One of my favourite things in The Expanse is langbelta, the creole spoken by the inhabitants of The Belt and the Outer Planets. While the novels have just used a slap-dash approach of mixing words from various languages, the TV show hired a lingust to create an actual creole, with syntactical and grammatical rules governing it.

And because, as mentioned above, I can't ever make things easy for myself, I decided to learn how to speak it to give my in-game Belter characters a bit more flavour.

When I was studying French for A-Level, I found myself thinking in French during classes because that was easier for my brain than the two-step process of thinking of a thing in English and having to search for the words in French. I'm doing this again now with a constructed language designed for a science fiction TV show, and it's fun.

I'm noticing myself translating my thoughts, random sentences that other people say, TV dialogue, books… almost everything I'm encountering gets an internal langbelta pass.

Which is how I ended up translating the lyrics to The House of the Rising Sun into langbelta. I had to use English words for a couple of things that don't have official translations, as well as coin a couple of new compound words, and singing along take a little creativity, but it is more-or-less possible.

Da Imbombo da Sowng da Leva

Desh imbobo ere Seteshang Erosh
Imim du nem da Sowng da Leva
Unte im finyish du suchok fo walowda walowda beratna
Unte Got, mi fosho wang

Matna mi ta básengwala
Im ta xalte gut da *dzhing da belú da nuva mi
Papa mi ta *kasínyowala
Ere Seteshang Erosh

Deting kasínyowala du mowteng
Im bera kaxa ere kapawu
Unte detim im xush im bera
Detim im ando beve

O matna, showxa málimang tolowda
Fo na du lik mi finyish du
Na du livit wit papeka unte terístiting
Ere da Imbobo da Sowng da Leva

Mi tenye wang lek ere da seteshang
Da owta ere kapawu
Mi ando go bek fo Seteshang Erosh
Fo leta-go mi fongi fode

Desh imbobo ere Seteshang Erosh
Imim du nem da Sowng da Leva
Unte im finyish du suchok fo walowda walowda beratna
Unte Got, mi fosho wang

Or, back to English...

The Hole the Sun the Raise

There-exists (a) hole in/on Eros Station
(Non-specific third-person-plural) make name the Sun the Raise
And it (perfect aspect) makes problems for many many brothers
And God, I (certain-opinion) ∅ one

My mother (past) ∅ clothes-person
She (past) keep good the jean(s) the blue the new mine
My father (past) ∅ casino-person
In/on Eros Station

The-thing-that casino-person has need (for)
It ∅ just box in/on ship
And that-time-when he happy is only
That-time-when he ∅ (contibnuous aspect) drink

Oh mother(s), speak-to small-person(s) all-yours
To not do like I (perfect aspect) do
Not to live with sin and sad-things
In the Hole the Sun the Raise

I have one leg in/on the station
The other in/on (a) ship
I (continuing aspect) go back to Eros Station
To take-away me from-here to-there1

There-exists (a) hole in/on Eros Station
(Non-specific third-person-plural) make name the Sun the Raise
And it (perfect aspect) makes problems for many many brothers
And God, I (certain-opinion) ∅ one

Since langbelta is a "zero-copula" languaue—it lacks a "to be" verb—I've used ∅ in the translation above to represent where, in English, that would go.

1 The langbelta phrase "leta-go [X] fongi fode" is somewhat idiomatic, used mostly to mean "arrested" in the sense of the cops dragging you away, never to be seen again. "Wear that ball and chain" is similarly idiomatic for being trapped, in this case willingly, which I think I've managed to keep intact by making this reflexive.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

One Cut of the Dead

One Cut of the Dead is a 2017 horror/comedy directed by Shinichiro Ueda. It follows the cast and crew of a zombie movie whose shoot in a WWII military facility is interrupted by a real zombie outbreak. Its biggest marketing point is a 37-minute opening shot, filmed in a single take, but its most ambitious efforts don't become apparent until well after the first cut.

One Cut of the Dead might be the smartest film I've ever seen, and it's an incredible exercise in setup and punchline.

Without that 37-minute shot, there's not much chance One Cut would have made a big enough name for itself on the festival circuit for a UK Blu release, and that headline is certainly what drew me to watching it. But I was expecting something truly special from that opening 37 minutes, and I grew quite disappointed as it wore on.

Like most things in filmmaking, everything I know about "oners" comes from Tony Zhao. Using the background and foreground to keep a long shot interesting, how the camera movements give each scene a clear structure - One Cut does none of these things.

Its camera is constantly in motion, failing to properly give focus to characters or events. The actors stumble awkwardly over lines, seemingly improvising sections of dialogue; a couple of times the director character breaks the fourth wall in a way that the other actors seem to ignore. The camera work is haphazard, with an escalating number of crash-zooms towards the finale, where we spend over two minutes zooming in and out on the lead actress screaming while we hear a fight between two other actors off-screen. There's a "crane" shot at the end that looks like the cameraman is climbing a ladder instead of using an actual crane.

It's a slapdash, amateurish affair that can't really live up to either its own ambition or the marketing hype - and that's entirely the point, because One Cut of the Dead has the most impressive re-contextualisation of previously-held knowledge of any film I've ever seen.

To say more would spoil it, and you deserve to see the whole thing yourself.

Just trust me when I say that it is absolutely worth sitting through that sometimes-questionable opening oner.