Monthly Archives: October 2006

When Character Development Pisses Me Off…

Sometimes a great story pisses me off because of one little thing. The fly in the ointment.

L stands for Lame

When we’re talking about a movie or a TV show, there is more room, more possibilities to annoy. With a written piece, at the very most, the pensmanship can get in the way. In an anime it can go from terrible music to voice acting to an odd character design.

But there is something worse than all of that. Something much more fundamental. In fact, nothing pisses me off more than a strawman that is not only not disguised, but obviously elevated, highlighted, and having neon lights pointing at it, saying “LOL WATCH MY CARTHARTIC MOMENT 20 EPISODES LATER!” that is typical of the mainstream, serious genre of action and drama. It’s like the show first kicks me in the groin and then reassures me I’ll feel better after I finish the show. Right.

What do I mean by that? Like Ed from FMA; or Light from the recent favorite Death Note. I’m going to use these two as examples, but there are many more out there. I’m also going to contrast it with an example to the contrary, like Yoko from Twelve Kingdoms.

Let’s look at Light first. He is passionate about his notion of justice and his notion of idealism, but obviously out of boredom he takes those ideas way too far. As the main character, his drama will drive the story as well as the various themes to the show. These motivations are fine and all, but I think every time when he mentions anything about crime, punishment, or justice, a little bit of me died inside BECAUSE IT IS SO DUMB.

To dwell on this point a little more, when I said strawman a few paragraphs up there, I mean it exactly that. The writer to the story sets up a character or a symbolic concept within the story that mirrors a position on a grey, moral issue. However when it’s established in a “round” character, this character has to grapple with this position and over the course of the story, change his opinion on this moral position and gain a better understanding behind the overall topic. The writer, knowing that there will be this change, will often set up the main character on a basis that is outright wrong, or overly idealistic or emotional, because this position is just a strawman for the story to attack and abandon later on.

Likewise in FMA, as the story progresses, Ed learns more about what his world is all about, and uncovers things that changes his understanding. Yep. OHNOES SCIENCE > J00? Give me a break.

On the other hand, Yoko Nakajima, as we all know, is kind of this sheltered girl with the same problems similar to Light’s problems. The differences in their abilities may give them different reasons to respond to the same, commonly critiqued Japanese school life experience, but both are annoying characters at first. I think Light goes as far as to embrace from one bad stereotype (the phony, perfect good-doer) to a worse one (a remorseless criminal), while Yoko goes from one common stereotype (whiny, irresponsible girl) to something that’s much more “well rounded”–a person who knows her place and has her moment of carthasis.

Of course, it’s expected that Light will run into the same, and Death Note is just building it up; but when the bulk of the story is about Macbeth fighting off his eventual fate rather than his spiraling down into corruption, to draw a parallel example, it acts as if the story is walking away from resolution and into the void. There is nothing that holds me to be sympathetic to Light. Yoko, on the other hand, is a mostly-helpless girl in a strange land and has to fight to survive, and she wises up accordingly.

To sum it up:

1. Hubris is to be realized over time, not explained from the onset.

2. Sympathy is important if you want the audience to care.

Of course, the fact that both Death Note and Full Metal Alchemist are very popular shows would suggest that my view is wrong, or a minority view. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, of course, since both shows boast large marketing efforts, high production value, as well as interesting plots, set-up, and secondary characters. But I just can’t get past the highly artificial, semi-predictable, kick in the groin. It’s sooooo 3rd rate. It’s what you expect from crappy Hollywood summer blockbuster-wannabes.

Kanon: あさだよ~

Kanon isn’t having its first bandwagon with Kanon 2006. This is probably the third time it has happened.

But life with Web 2.0 is different than life without. There’s this Kanon tracker for starters.

Monday Night Football

I know Mariko Kouda has done several rendition of “Asa, asa da yo~” and I could have swore that I have a clean copy somewhere from back in the days when Kanon was hot stuff, but I can’t find it now. While it’s too bad that I can’t just loop that little clip of moe history on my playlist, I want to check if that clip is the same as the one Kyoani used in their remake. Admittedly by episode two I was weirded out because you could tell the room reverb in the show between when they were talking in the open areas inside school versus inside the classroom or hallways. I suppose some kind of “alarm clock recorder” filter got used there too, but I wanted to check.

So, if you got a copy of that somewhere, help a brother out? You can have this slightly cleaned up “WHAT ALL MY BASE ARE BELONG TO NAYUKI?!” in exchange.

[update: yay now you can listen how Mariko Kouda gets slower over time: all three in a zip]

From Pettanko Running-Board to Gothloli Mode, a Plea for Familiarity–Analyzing Appeal

What’s valuable in today’s TV anime is invariably the means to an end. The end is to sell eyeballs–get a large audience–so you can move those home video releases, sell model licenses, CDs, DVDs, radio shows, and adds value to the franchise when you get it licensed out to foreign distros and other derivative producers. But that’s just the cynical view; we watch anime because we get something out of it. It has some value to us.

I watched all of Zero no Tsukaima just a while ago. It is an utmost well-executed package of … something. I call it appeal. It has appeal. It’s not like the music is wonderful. It’s not the designs are wonderful. It isn’t really either that the artistic direction is wonderful. The characters are admittedly flat, expected, and just as exciting as its predictable, third-rate plot. Its humor is just as third-rated. People may call it “fun” or “guilty pleasure” or whatever. Fair enough, I have a hard time finding the right word to describe the whole thing, as I often do.

In retrospect I don’t regret watching something so lame. Not only because it was a bit of a guilty pleasure, but it gave me a chance to look at something with the focus of what exactly made the show tick. And it really ticked–lots of people watched this little thing. And as much as I may be trashing the show, I think Zero no Tsukaima did something really well. What is it? What is its appeal?

[Pettanko jokes? Tsundere? A really tsun-tsunderekko? The Harry Potter suspension of belief? Boobs and nudity? A very good girl? Camaraderie? A combination of several things? The arrangement of several non-offensive elements? Its mood? Good-alignment characters? The romance? Humor? Compromising situations? Uprising of the lowly common folk against an arrogant aristocracy? Gothloli outfits? Repeat villains? Predictability? Magical talking weapons? I know why I liked Nanoha, I don’t know about you…]

Maybe somewhere on that list I skirt what it really is what makes Zero no Tsukaima, objectively, a fun watch. Maybe there’s more to it. But looking back to the show I feel while I liked some parts and pieces of the overall construction, the whole of it was a totally unimaginative familiarity. It is repackage in a very inoffensive presentation which made it easy to pop down episodes after another, with very little in terms of fillers past the first handful of episodes. We love Kirche’s charm without being overbearing. We love Siesta’s boobs and primness. We love Henrietta for the tragic figure that she is and that regal physical appeal. And knowingly or not Louise is the magical active ingredient to the entire sloshy mix of appealing positive goodness wet dreams are made of, so we actually have a story.

Perhaps that is all there is to Zero no Tsukaima?

But is that all there is to, say, Negima!? Maybe. I hated the original Akamatsu incarnation, and rightly so. I applaud what he created, and I think it is a very divisive piece. But perhaps equally controversial is Akiyuki Shinbo‘s animated remake.

And I think this is much worthwhile of a subject matter to dwell on than Fat Taiyaki Girl or something to do with mornings. An alternative anime. I love alternative anime. And I mean it both ways–a derivative work as well as something that evokes the un-mainstream.

But is the Negima remake all that unconventional? Actually, aside from the fact that I see more of the darker parts of Tsukuyomi and SoulTaker than Pani Poni Dash (an observation that probably betrays my interest to the franchise, expectedly), I think it evokes more, in me, the familiarity of Akiyuki Shinbo’s signature works. It’s like stumbling on something you thought you lost ages ago. It’s comforting, perhaps, even satisfying a deeper longing caused by his earlier works that I didn’t know I had. In fact I think the only radical thing about the Negima remake is that it is an off-beat remake at all.

All this merely illustrates the point about appeal and familiarity. Akiyuki Shinbo speaks a language that I understand, in his direction. And Zero no Tsukaima speaks yet another that more of us understand. It’s a bit like finding a familiar face who speaks your tongue in a foreign land, and no matter if this familiar face is a toddling 2yo or a professional comedian, it’s good stuff.

Blogging 102 – The Community of Peers

The Web 2.0 generation is the iPod generation. It is the MySpace and YouTube generation. It is the self-centered model of information production. These days are the days where one of my crazy rants can be read by dozens of people unrelated to me.

As bloggers, we are the grunts of a new faction. We are producers of information, may it be entertainment, news, public action, or just as an artform for self-expression. The table has turned from the large, centralized corporate information producers–the mainstream press and the media cartels–to you. And you can do basically whatever the hell you want.

Don’t be fooled for a second that we can exist without these big media guys. Still, life with people who blog, people who comment, people who aggregate blogs, links across them, and most of all–everyone who reads these things, contributing things, building up more things from the bare bones of everyday life (or even from the mass media) to form this new information ecology–makes a better world. Instead of caring for Tom Cruise, you get to care for your fellow bloggers, commenters, or just care about Tom Cruise all together (for example). It’s no longer about random things as much as it is about a group of people caring about random things. A community. An ongoing dialogue.

It may just be that I’ve been stuck in school for way too long, but this entire process reeks of academic peer-review publications, and how professors and researchers use these publications to build your next idea…it just seems natural. People critique each other in publications this way just as well as they collaborate to work on the same idea. This is a different community than, say, BBC and CNN; or TNT and Oxygen; definitely not FOX or NHK. It’s closer to 2ch or Slashdot, but not quite. What’s the difference? The long tail.

The ability of the internet to bring geographically isolated people who share similar interest together is the crux. I think in a macrocosm of American anime fans (for example), topically you’ll see a lot of people into Yugioh, Digimon, Final Fantasy, or what have you. Zooming in to any random segment and you’ll see the Naruto, FMA, or old fashion Ninja Scroll and Akira folks. Zooming in even more and you’ll see the digisubbing viewer mixed in all of that, the diversification of fandom expressed in cosplayers, fanartists, web comic people, and online personalities.

But is the anime blog community a reflection of that? Not quite so. I think within these sites there’s a conflict of sites who tend to “centralize” and sites that “diversify.” It’s a reflection of an instinct of people who wants to “syndicate” and people who relinquish that kind of editorial power to their readers. We have sites like Something Awful or Blogsuki which acts like filters, yet at the same time as censors. The Slashdots and Diggs today get around that by aggregating some kind of democratic response, but invariably they compromise on the same as well.

I suppose the criticism I have is that the lone dissenters today, just as they would decades ago, are still unheard. It is vastly improved in that they could be heard today, but the democratic process of filtering will still wash them out, and there’s no guarantee that a tightly-controlled, power-to-a-few-editors kind of process will improve exchanges of thought.

Then again, I think that’s also the case in academia. But somehow, merit speaks volumes more than appeal when the purpose is to discover truths rather than to entertain? Are there truths to be harvested in this medium, or are we just drones spewing meritless trash so we can claim we update regularly? Just because anime bloggers, invariably, flock to new stuff, is that why we don’t have much in terms of blogging older series? Is this the fingerprint of the god of Relevance? What is the state of the anime blog nation today?

Perhaps, the answer is a simple, “it doesn’t matter.” Perhaps it does; I don’t know. Maybe we’re at the right stage of the game given the size, but you can see it happening in various online communities even today. Still, a pinch of selfish interest is the way to go.

This is a continuing series of random stuff about blogging. Hit the “blogging” tag to see some of the previous entries!

Megumi Hayashibara Is Paprika

So thanks to friends, news services, and the New York Film Festival, I got to see Paprika. Needless to say, this Satoshi Kon fan is pretty happy, being able to watch the film before it actually comes out. Plus it’s something interesting to blog and it doesn’t involve Kanon…

Paprika is a spice, as you know. A spicy name for a woman, perhaps. If you can imagine that Megumi Hayashibara was only so spicy to be paprika and not, say, jalapeño, then you’ve got the right image for Paprika, the character concept in the film. It’s not to say Hayashibara can’t crank it up, but that’s not her role in the film–a woman of every man’s dream. The woman of many faces is a underlying drive behind Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress, and Hayashibara does a wonderful job with it.

In fact, you can see the underlying drive of all Satoshi Kon’s previous works in Paprika. The one that’s utmost obvious is Paranoia Agent. It’s a bit of a spoiler, so you can skip this paragraph if you’d like, but the underlying story of Paprika is fully explained (or unexplained) in the same fashion that Paranoia Agent is explained (or unexplained). The framework is really the same, although Paprika does offer us a lot more. I think if you can grasp what happened in Paranoia Agent then you’ve at least got the mental wherewithal to grasp the story in Paprika.

But even if you were spoiled, no word is enough to treat you to what Madhouse has lined up for your eyes and ears. To get it out of the way, despite that he’s perpetually stuck in the 80s, Suzumu Hirasawa’s soundtrack in Paprika is by far the least grating and least obnoxious. It’s not overly powerful compared to some of his earlier works in Kon’s shows, and I also think it’s just better arranged here. I rather like it.

The visuals, well, is what you’d expect of a movie featuring psychedelic dream sequences merging with reality and a feature film budget. It’s weird at times, it’s scary at times, it’s awe-inspiring at times, and at times it makes you wonder why Paprika is naked and huge.

Then you remember, hey, Megumi Hayashibara, yo!

(Is she playing a tsundere? Satoshi Kon has the otaku by his balls! Watch out!)

As with all of Kon’s works, they are visually imaginative. And as with the typical tools and conventions of anime storytelling, clever exaggeration works wonder to bring laughter. I should say Paprika is not exactly a LOL film, but it’s got some comedic highlights. Kon’s gotta work in some of that linear-branched narrative best seen in Tokyo Godfathers, after all.

Perhaps the most charming aspect of the film itself is the homages. From Roman Holiday (Aka is a Paprika knockoff?) to Kon’s own films, Paprika is a dialogue between Satoshi Kon and his viewers. Since Paprika is a novel adaptation, I’m not sure how much of that voice carries across from him and how much of it carries across from the original author, Yasutaka Tsutsui. But either way the film is passionate about film-making itself.

That said, even for me not all things about Paprika is glowing. I think if you’re unfamiliar with Kon’s works, you’ll likely to be pretty lost upon first impression. I think if you don’t have a keen grasp of the otaku underpinning, you are not going to get all the jokes. Heck, if you’re not a minor film buff (or someone who’s been watching movie and of a certain age), you’ll not get all the references. In as much as the barrier, I think, is high, Paprika is not too hard to understand substantively. It just won’t make it so surreally pleasing as it can for the hardcore Kon fans.

One other bone I can pick with Paprika is its pacing. Admittedly most of Satoshi Kon’s devices are tense. If you’re a follower of progressive, postmodern rock, or an anthem electronica fan (and others), you might be familiar with the whole buildup-release pattern. Paprika has some of that, but it doesn’t really break so cleanly. Part of it has to do with the jokes, but part of it has to do with the audience being unable to catch up to the film. As an result, while its 90-minute was well-used, I think it did not have the right timing in some of the key scenes.

If I had to use one meaningless cliché movie reviewers use to describe Paprika then I’ll call Paprika a “tour de LOL.” This is a must watch for Satoshi Kon fans and admirers of his work. Sadly, I cannot guarantee your safety if that’s not the case–watch at your own peril. If you live near the Windy City you can catch it next week at the Chicago International Film Festival (Who also is hosting Tomino right as I enter these texts). Other than that, it’s due an early 2007 release in Japan and over in the US.

For my solace, at least Paprika is the kind of film that leaves a longing aftertaste upon a powerful first impression. Like a spicy dish. Or a bad pun.