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.