Monday, 19 March 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 33

It's about time for a themed post!  I mean, a theme beyond "dodgy, old-school anime, with occasionally a bit of really good old-school anime."  So this time around, in a blog series titled "Drowning in nineties anime," I'm going to be focusing on - er - eighties anime.

Look, no-one ever said that themes have to make sense.

So here, for your eighties-tastic delectation, we have: The HumanoidOdin: Photon Space Sailer StarlightHarmagedon and They Were Eleven....

The Humanoid, 1986, dir: Shin'ichi Masaki

My original intention with these posts was to only review releases that were relatively available in the UK, since that seemed a sensible way to limit the scope of what could easily turn into a rabbit hole with no bottom.  Needless to say, here on review number a hundred and twenty eight, it's a decision I've failed spectacularly to stick to.  So I'm pleased to announce that The Humanoid can be bought very cheaply indeed.  There even seem to be brand new copies kicking about for next to nothing.

Here ends the good news.  Because there's a reason everyone is trying urgently to ditch their stock of this thing, and that reason is that it sucks.  And, look, I don't say that lightly; it's not like I've set a precedent for high standards here.  So when I say that The Humanoid is dreadful in that specific way where you can't figure out why anyone involved would have thought for an instant that it was worth creating, and judging by the available evidence none of them did, you know I mean it.  No sneaky flairs of animation genius here, no flashes of directorial imagination, no redemptively brilliant theme tune, oh no.  This is the work of people doing their absolute best to provide the minimum of artistry possible while still keeping their jobs.

Then again, I suppose it would be more tragic if anyone had lavished their best efforts on The Humanoid.  And while I sort of feel like I should explain the plot here, I really don't know that I can; or maybe the problem is simply that if I were to try and wrap up all the narrative threads and characters into a cohesive paragraph, I'd give the impression of something a lot more sophisticated than the forty-five minutes of drudgery on offer.  Basically: there are some humans cohabiting with some aliens who look like humans, and one of the aliens is trying to start up a crashed spaceship, for reasons that don't entirely make sense, and since doing so will likely blow up the planet and kill everyone (see what I mean?) the humans are forced to intervene, with the aid of android Antoinette, who's learned some lessons about nature and love along the line and so is willing to put herself in grave danger on the behalf of these squishy meat-sacks.

Even in 1986, I refuse to believe that a single ingredient there was fresh, and the fact that Antoinette's design is evidently ripped off silent masterpiece Metropolis is good evidence on that count.  Honestly, I can't imagine a version of The Humanoid that would be particularly good; even the most lavish animation couldn't make its ginned-up crisis or its tale of yet another robot discovering the virtues of human emotion into something wildly inspired.  For that matter, I suppose it's just about possible to conceive of a worse version than the one we got: one where the last five minutes weren't sort of okay, relatively speaking, or that didn't have the sense to stop while it was behind.  And the fact that one of the main characters has no character traits other than a truly devoted obsession with coffee is worth a smile, I guess.  But if we're honest, not so much so that I don't want the forty-five minutes of my life that I spent watching this sloppily made, derivative crap back.

Odin: Photon Space Sailer Starlight, 1985, dir: Takeshi Shirato, Toshio Masuda

From the opening scene of Odin: Photon Space Sailer Starlight, I was convinced that I'd be on its wavelength: when an animated movie clocking in at well over two hours feels that the best way to introduce itself is with a lengthy prologue summarising the history of nautical exploration, you can at least suppose that ambition isn't lacking.  And here's a thing about nautical exploration: it takes place on the sea, and there's no environment in animation more difficult or costly to depict well.  Odin's hugely unnecessary prologue does very well indeed.  Not only is it showing off, it's showing off with some of the finest craftsmanship the medium had to offer in the far-gone year of 1985.

To put that (and indeed this whole post) in perspective: in 1985, Disney would put out the decidedly pre-Renaissance The Black Cauldron, and Studio Ghibli, who'd be founded that very February, were still a year off releasing Laputa, the film that would not so much set the bar for subsequent Japanese animation as kick it into the stratosphere.  Which is to say that, if Odin wasn't quite cutting edge for its time, it was damn near, if only because the edge wasn't half so sharp as it would soon become.  At any rate, though the character designs have dated, and certain motions, particularly those of people, are frequently stiff, its for the most part an impressive piece of work, with many a scene that genuinely dazzles.  Rare is the shot that looks like it was picked because it would be the cheapest solution; indeed, more frequent are those that are vastly more complex than they need to be.

Which is all to say that production values aren't at issue here.  The soundtrack is a thing of wondrousness too, at least if your tastes extend to baffling Japanese soft metal and prog rock; and really, if they don't then what's wrong with you?  Odin feels in every way like the work of people with resources, talent, and enthusiasm to spare.  How else would you explain that insane running time?  You don't make an anime film that's two hours and twenty minutes long if you're hedging your bets.  And you certainly don't let scenes run on with such giddy abandon, even when all that's happening is, for example, the crew of your implausible space galleon prepping for their first test flight.  There aren't many true cinematic epics in anime, not when every second of film is so damn expensive, but this is one of them.

Therefore it's all the more baffling that Odin: Photon Space Sailer Starlight is built on such flimsy foundations.  The story is trivial and rambling, the characters are ridiculous and inconsistent, and scene-to-scene continuity and internal logic are negligible; until way past the halfway point, it's difficult to even guess at where the movie imagines it's going.  Moreover, it gets less interesting the more the narrative comes into focus: early scenes that are effectively just flashy world-building have more pull than later massive battles, because the stakes aren't there.  Oh, and it doesn't end, because the creators were so confident of success that they planned to spread their derivative tale over two sequels that would never materialise.

There's probably a lesson to be had there.

Odin is basically the Star Trek: The Motion Picture of pre-twentieth century anime, with all that entails.  Wildly overlong, too invested in a story that isn't really that interesting, and slow as all hell, it's nevertheless undeniably fantastic in its finest moments, some of which are also its slowest and least consequential.  With that in mind, I can only imagine what the savagely cut version that was initially released in the US must have been like; I watched enough to know that the nautical opening was vanished in its entirety, and a version of Odin that focused on narrative rather than flashy, extravagant nonsense is truly a depressing notion.  In its full cut, it's a colossal mess, but a mess that's weirdly absorbing in the way that only ambitious misfires can be.  So if you plan to seek it out - and you should, I think - that's definitely the version to go for.

Harmagedon, 1983, dir: Rintaro

Harmagedon has a reputation for two things: firstly, for being a major landmark in the career of director Rintaro and a hugely significant chunk of anime history that would give Katsuhiro Otomo his first break in anime, and so lead directly to Akira and the revolutionising of how the medium was perceived both within and without Japan - and secondly, for being totally rubbish.

The first point is difficult to argue, especially given how many of Harmagedon's themes would reappear in Otomo's own masterwork in greatly more polished form.  And the simple fact that anyone would spend significant amounts of money on an anime film in excess of two hours aimed at at an adult audience was no small thing back in 1983; had the movie failed, we'd no doubt be looking today at a very different anime landscape.

As for the second: well, Harmagedon certainly isn't perfect, that's for sure.  Adapted from the first three volumes of a series of novels, it tells a snip of a story at exorbitant length.  An ancient evil that's destroyed endless galaxies is heading towards Earth, and a handful of psychics from across the globe must awaken their latent abilities to confront the threat with - um, the power of love, or something.  There are seven of them, I think, but it's hard to keep track because the film only really cares about a couple: Princess Luna of Transylvania (which the film, in all seriousness, seems to think is an independent country) and Japanese teen Azuma, who as we meet him is in the process of failing to make his school's baseball team and about to be dumped by his girlfriend for being overly fixated on his sister.  I kid you not.

They're both awful characters - Azuma more so than Luna, but it's harder to take her seriously, since she's the princess of a goddamn nonexistent country - and yet there's infinitely worse to come.  Around the midway point, for example, we'll meet the somewhat legendary Sonny Lynx, who's the only black character and therefore a roller-skating gangbanger dressed in a manner that I don't even have the words to describe, because presumably neither Otomo or Rintaro had ever met any actual black people in their entire lives.  But really, to pick on one ethnic cliché is to ignore how the film trades in nothing else.  There's the Native American character, the Indian character, the Chinese character, and they are uniformly the exact stereotypes you'd expect if you were asked to imagine the most deeply tacky of stereotypes.

All of this rather scuppers Harmagedon on the macro level, it's true, and these are far from the only storytelling problems.  Rintaro makes the baffling decision, for example, to open by presenting identical information to us in two different ways, even using some of the same footage.  I'm now confirmed in my opinion of him as a director, which is that he's capable of greatness on a scene-by-scene basis but largely hopeless at telling a movie-length story.  However, the flip side of that, and the thing that the detractors appear to ignore, is that individual sequences are flat-out excellent.  Rintaro may not be able to make his hackneyed tale of one-dimensional characters into anything much, but he surely does have visual imagination to spare.

It helps that the animation is mostly spectacular.  And here I really have to differ with some of the film's fervent critics; hate on Harmagedon all you like, but to deny that it looks fantastic is to be deliberately obtuse regarding the state of early eighties animation.  Is it dated?  Of course, it was made six years after bloody Star Wars!  Heck, even Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind wasn't a thing in 1983.  But by the standards of the early eighties, and indeed by the standards of the following couple of decades, the attention and level of detail here is exemplary.  Rintaro makes the point in a brief interview snippet included on U.S. Manga Corp's twentieth anniversary DVD release that realistic backgrounds based on real places were an innovation at the time, and knowing that going in is a handy reminder of how impressive those backgrounds are.  However, the character animation is fluid and lifelike too, and the more fantastical elements - like Azuma psychically defending himself with the aid of an entire construction yard, or a giant fireball tearing its way steadily through New York - are quite stunning.

And, I dunno, maybe it's solely because it's frequently very pretty, but I feel like we ought to cut Harmagedon a bit of slack.  It wants to be an epic story of universal love overcoming cosmic darkness, even when it keeps accidentally being casually racist and immensely stupid; it exudes ambition all over the place, and sometimes, if you're willing to exercise a little selective memory, that results in scenes that are pretty damn splendid and images that are pretty damn mind-blowing.  Dramatically its hard to see the film as anything other than a failure, however much you allow for it being over three decades old.  But as a landmark of early anime, it's at least work a look.  Lower your expectations accordingly and you may even find that there's pleasure to be had.

They Were Eleven, 1986, dir's: Satoshi Dezaki, Tsuneo Tominaga

They Were Eleven has one heck of a high concept.  In the far-flung future, a group of space cadets, whittled down from a vast number of applicants to be among the final candidates, face their last test aboard an abandoned interstellar vessel with a decaying orbit that stands to send it dangerously near to the local sun.  They have to survive for the fifty-three days of a single planetary orbit, which means that, though they've never met before, they need to cooperate and learn to trust each other.

There's only one problem: when they arrived there were ten of them and now there are eleven.

I mean, that setup isn't entirely original, sure, but it's awfully strong nevertheless; if it sounds a bit like The Thing in space then it really isn't in practice, and anyway, the Manga the movie was based on predates the Carpenter remake by over half a decade.  They Were Eleven is much more about introducing us to its characters (six of them anyway, the rest get little more than names and a personality trait or two) and then chucking them into increasingly high-pressure situations that are exactly what nobody needs when they're all feeling severely paranoid anyway.

You'd need to go a hell of a way to live up to a concept that potentially great, and They Were Eleven doesn't quite get there; its ending is somewhat weak and too easy in its ultimate resolution.  But there's a lot of good work on the way, aided by a script that does an excellent job of staying one step ahead of the viewer.  A couple of times I thought I'd spotted a plot hole or was worrying over some detail that felt under-explained, and both times the writers were quick to cover their bases.  On top of that, the movie is satisfyingly determined to be a proper piece of science-fiction: there are plenty of intriguing notions bubbling away, and a real sense of a broader universe that we're only seeing snippets of.  There's only so much that can be done in an hour and a half, but at no point does They Were Eleven feel underdeveloped or quick to fall back on tropes.

Perhaps in one aspect, for modern audiences anyway, it might have been better being less ambitious: rather surprisingly for 1986, and indeed for anime, one of the characters is intersex, a fact that becomes increasingly significant as things go on.  I imagine the handling of that particular hot potato was relatively sensitive by mid-eighties standards; viewed through modern eyes, it's more problematic.  My own feeling, much as with Harmagedon, was to appreciate the good intentions while trying not to cringe too much when they went astray.  And the same went for the animation, which is more than solid work for the most part but is dated badly by its character designs.  Dan Oikawa's electronic score has aged relatively well, at least, and its bips and bleeps like the ideal accompaniment for the material.

Often I feel like an apologist for older anime when it comes to plot, an area in which originality rarely seems to have been prized.  By the same measure, if you strip away the bonus points for luscious animation or great music or the sort of high-quality design work that makes so much vintage anime endure, there's little that stands up entirely as a film.  But there's a genuinely good, original, well-told story here, and if if it's possible to imagine an even better version of that story, that's hardly a damning criticism of the one we get.  They Were Eleven has dated in the more than three decades since it was released, because of course it has, but it's still a genuinely novel science-fiction movie, and those are rare enough as to be worth hunting for.


Reading back over this one, I feel like I've spent a lot of energy being negative about things that I pretty much loved.  I mean, not The Humanoid, obviously, that was a train wreck, and of the sort where one train was carrying toxic waste and the other was full of nuns and orphans.  Please don't every watch The Humanoid, I have it on good evidence that every time you do, a kitten explodes somewhere.

But Harmagedon and Odin: Photon Space Sailer Starlight, as much as I'd feel bad to wholly recommend them to other human beings, I really did enjoy.  They feel like time capsules of an age before anyone had decided what anime could or couldn't do and be, and there's something awfully thrilling about that.  No-one told Rintaro or Takeshi Shirato or Toshio Masuda that you couldn't blow huge bundles of cash on making gorgeous-but-derivative animated genre movies for adults.  And if the results were failed experiments by any number of metrics, they're still awfully special viewed through the lens of the subsequent three decades.

Oh, and They Were Eleven is just genuinely good.

[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25Part 26Part 27Part 28Part 29Part 30Part 31, Part 32]

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Black River 3: The First Post

Is it too early to start discussing a book that I only began writing five weeks ago today?  Well, maybe, but I'm over halfway through, I have it planned out to the finish, and anyway, what the heck, right?  I want to talk about the next Black River novel.  I'm already excited about it, and there's no reason I shouldn't try and share some of that excitement!

So here are a few small teasers that I think it's okay for you to know at this early stage.  Rest assured that nothing here will meaningfully spoil your enjoyment of the third book (or even the first or second, if you haven't read those.)  But of course if you really want to come to this second sequel blind then you should probably stop reading right now.

For everyone who's left, here are six insights into what will be coming at the end of 2018:

- This One is Arein's Story

Astute readers may have spotted the fact that, while each of the two books so far has been about Durren, Tia, Hule, and Arein as a party, they did tend to focus in on one character in particular.  In Level One it was Durren; in The Ursvaal Exchange it was Tia.  Well, this time around it's Arein's turn.  And she's in for a rough ride.  You know how Arein's always been a bit scared of her own magic?  Now imagine how she'd feel if a spell ever got really, wildly, disastrously out of control.

- But it's also Pootle's Story, Kind Of

Where Arein goes, Pootle is sure to be following close behind.  And Pootle's a little mysterious; we've never really delved into just what's going on there.  How do observers work?  Why do they work?  Everyone's favourite floating eyeball may not have done much but hang around so far, but it's about to make its presence felt in a major way.

- It's a Dungeon Crawl

At least in part.  I've been intrigued for a long time with the notion of what a dungeon crawl would really be like; in D&D campaigns and video games, you spend days or even weeks underground, and not once does anyone get claustrophobic, or trapped by a cave-in, or stress about lugging a tent around or the practicalities of starting a campfire when you've been under the earth for so long that you barely remember what sunlight looks like.  And since I'm the kind of person who worries unduly about those sorts of practicalities - and since this series could hardly go on forever without some serious time spent in a proper dungeon! - that's a little of what we'll be delving into.

- There's a Scene That's (Loosely!) Based on My D&D Campaign

A small confession: before I began writing the Black River Chronicles, my hands-on experience with D&D extended to one afternoon at the house of a friend of a friend.  And since I insisted on playing as an alcoholic dwarf bodyguard who wouldn't lift a finger unless his client was in danger, it didn't go tremendously well.  But finding myself writing a series that draws from the game so heavily, I felt it was time I gave it a proper go, and I've been with my current group, under the not-so-tender ministrations of dungeon master Jimi Jibodu, for a few months now.  The scene in question was not, however, from Jimi's campaign but from a fill-in session DM'd by another member of the group.  I've modified it heavily, of course, to make sure that it slots comfortably into the book (and to not be a big plagiarist!)  Nevertheless, it's my first instance of D&D life influencing D&D art, and that warrants a place on this list.

- Book Three is Going to be a Bit Longer

Of these points, this is perhaps the one I'm least certain about right now; but midway through the chapter plan, the wordage was already at nearly two thirds of The Ursvaal Exchange's final count.  That doesn't necessarily mean a great deal, since I tend to write verbose first drafts and then hack them up heavily when I return.  Still, I've a feeling that this one might come in around the one hundred thousand words mark, which equates to a couple more chapters than the last.  It's a big, ambitious story, with an awful lot to cover.

- It Actually Already Has a Title

Last but certainly not least ... the third Black River book has a working title, which may or may not end up being the final title.  Currently it's called Eye of the Observer - which might raise some interesting questions for readers who've followed the series so far!


So there we are: a tiny glimpse into what's coming in, oh, about eight months time now.  There's a great deal still to be written, and a vast amount of editing to come once the writing's done, but for all that, it's safe to say that The Black River Chronicles: (maybe!) Eye of the Observer is beginning to come together.  I'm certainly having a ton of fun writing it, which always tends to be a good sign!

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

The Black River Chronicles: The Trailer

A few weeks ago, my good friend Lawrence Axe, who I've known for an embarrassingly long time and who works as a video editor and filmmaker, volunteered to cut together a trailer for the Black River books.  On the one hand, I was excited at the prospect; anything Black River-related tends to get me excited, since not many projects are quite so much fun.  But on the other, I was wary of doing something that might sell the series short; we had limited artwork available and not much (well, not any!) of a budget, so we couldn't exactly go out and hire a bunch of actors and costumers and set designers, awesome though that would have been.

Long story short: I shouldn't have worried so much, and Lawrence is pretty much a genius.  Here's a look at what he cut together:
Cool, right?  I honestly can't stop watching it.  In fact, I'm going to watch it again right now.

By the way ... if you happen to be an author in search of a book trailer, or anyone else who needs a video putting together, then I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Lawrence (otherwise known as Ody Films) is available for hire.  If you'd like an introduction then drop me a note on my website contact page and I'll pass your details along.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 32

I'm still writing these posts in rather retrospective and haphazard fashion, and coming back to this one, it certainly does seem like a random selection.  And all the more so because the next couple have themes of sorts.  Yes, themes!  That's the sort of mad ambition you don't normally see around these parts.  But there's none of that here, unless you consider "totally unrelated nineties anime" a theme in itself.  And even then, Ys buggers that up royally, what with being from the eighties and all.

Oh well!  Best to embrace the chaos, I suppose.  At least it's a solid batch, which feels like something that's been rather rare of late, and at least we have a couple of proper standouts.  As a fun game, you might as well try and guess what they are from among: 3X3 Eyes: Legend of the Divine DemonPhantom Quest CorpYs: Legacy (Book Two) and Elf Princess Rane...

3X3 Eyes: Legend of the Divine Demon, 1995, dir: Kiyoko Sayama

It's funny that I ended the review of the first 3X3 Eyes OVA by saying how much I was looking forward to part two and that it's only now, many months later, that I've got around to watching it.  Blame the running time for that: three forty-five minute episodes in a row requires a chunk of time that I don't often have, and it would be a shame to split up what's effectively one long movie.  Though in the case of Legend of the Divine Demon, it's a touch more complicated than that, given that the first episode stands on its own as a relatively self-contained story, in which we're dumped unceremoniously into a mystery that won't really get answered until the very end.  Why is Pai, the last of the mystical race known as the Sanjiyan Unkara, living a mundane life as a Japanese schoolgirl, cared for by two elderly grandparents?  And why doesn't she recognise Yakumo, the human she previously turned into her immortal servant, when he finally tracks her down after what we learn to be an absence of four whole years?

It's an intriguing setup, and that first episode is kind of a belter, all told.  But it's really only a warm-up for the main feature, in which the pair join the hunt for an artifact that acts as a gateway to Pai's otherworldly home, all the while trying to restore her lost memories.  It's great as a sequel to the original OVA, solid as a standalone story, and excellent as a chunk of a wider narrative, even if this would be all there'd ever be; we get enough answers and sufficient resolution not to feel shortchanged, and there's a definite (and pretty epic) story being told here, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Looking back at my review of the first OVA, these are very much the same virtues I was talking about there, and that goes for the rest as well, though the animation is a bit more impressive this time.  I grumbled a little that the 3X3 Eyes OVA had no really stand-out moments, but that isn't the case this time around, and there are, in particular, some terrific action sequences.  Another new virtue is that Yakumo has somewhat come into his own as a protagonist, especially given that he's picked up some kick-ass martial arts skills to compliment his inability to die, and though Pai is still a bit dull, at least there's a solid plot reason for that.  In fact, it's one that gets resolved in quite a heart-tugging fashion, which I certainly wasn't expecting from a mid-nineties horror anime.

In short, this is really good stuff.  And since you're only likely to pick it up in the Pioneer box set that contains both releases, it really is worth the effort of tracking down: 3X3 Eyes, in all of its incarnations, rises head and shoulders over similar titles, with its fantastic central conceit, its enticing mythology, and its knack for generating proper shocks by taking the time to invest in its characters and narrative first.

Phantom Quest Corp, 1994, dir's: Morio Asaka, Kôichi Chigira, Takuji Endo, Junichi Sakata

If you should happen to have seen the Ghost Sweeper Mikami OVA then I can keep this one awfully simple: Phantom Quest Corp is that, except rather better on all fronts.  Want a comedy action show about a young, ghost-fighting redhead with a taste for short dresses, a weakness for money, and a posse of kooky sidekicks?  Then Ayaka Kisaragi is your girl.  Coincidence?  Plagiarism?  Who knows, or - twenty-some years after the event - much cares?  Personally I'm willing to pin this on one of those weird cases of parallel inspiration that sometimes comes along, and leads two comic book teams to simultaneously tell tales of humanoid swamp creatures or two animation studios to conclude at roughly the same time that films about anthropomorphised bugs are just the best damn thing.  If only because, otherwise, Phantom Quest Corp would be the most obvious of rip-offs and surely no-one could imagine they'd get away with it.  For that matter, it's not as though horror anime wasn't already screaming to be pastiched in such a fashion by this point in time; it's no great leap to assume that two separate creators watched one too many self-serious tale of moody male exorcists battling evil spirits with a predilection for the fairer sex and concluded that the whole business needed flipping on its head.

And that was a very long diversion to stave off admitting that there's not a huge amount to say about Phantom Quest Corp.  The animation is strong, and excellent in the action scenes; the character designs are pleasing, and the characters themselves, while shallow as a bunch of particularly shallow puddles, are entirely acceptable to spend time around.  Really only Kisaragi gets anything by way of development, and then not much.  By the fourth episode, we know more or less what we knew by the end of the first: that she likes to drink too much and has a penchant (though no discernible talent) for karaoke, that she's awful at keeping her business in the black, and that she's very good indeed at kicking the crap out of vampires and demons with her magic extending lipstick.

Okay, so that's not a character trait.  But I'd have been remiss in not mentioning the magic extending lipstick.

Point being, if there's one thing seriously missing here, it's depth; that and some sniff of an ongoing plot that would stop Phantom Quest Corp feeling as if you'd just watched four episodes at random from a fairly aimless series.  Then again, at least all four episodes deliver fun and moderately novel stories, and at least the animation quality never dips.  These things don't make Phantom Quest Corp the least bit special, or even worth the effort of hunting down; but they do make it worth a couple of hours of your time if you should happen to stumble across a cheap copy.

Ys: Legacy (Book Two), 1989, dir: Jun Kamiya

There was no reason to imagine that the last three episodes of Ys: Legacy would magically become meaningfully better than the first four, and sure enough, every failing I noted there is present and correct for the action-packed climax: stiff acting, clunky animation, uninspired music, bland designs, and a plot that could not be any more the plot of a hugely generic nineties JRPG if it tried - which in fairness, it does in fact seem to be devoting a great deal of energy to.  Perhaps the most exciting innovation here from a narrative point of view is that the villain's kidnapping of a significant character means that two of agonisingly dull hero Adol Christen's fetch quests get rolled into one, saving us yet another episode of him going somewhere and fighting some monster and grabbing another MacGuffin.  Though it's worth noting that if said character had been less of a jerk and hadn't withheld crucial information, the same result could have been accomplished in a fraction of the time, and they probably wouldn't have been kidnapped.  Because, yes, that's the sort of story we're dealing with here.

And yet Ys does end in marginally better fashion than it began.  The locations and monsters feel a little more fresh, the pacing picks up somewhat, and there's even a glimmer of something like originality, as we begin to suspect that the reason the villain Dark Fact refuses to just kill his damn nemesis and be done with it is something more than the usual villainous overconfidence.

Oh, right, did I mention last time that the villain is called Dark Fact?  I guess that's another small fact in Ys's favour.

If we were really to reach, I'd add - and I strongly suspect I'm giving too much credit here, or that my brain was overthinking madly due to lack of meaningful stimulation - that by the end I felt Ys was saying some moderately interesting things about religion, as we're left wondering why any creator would build obvious flaws into their universe, let alone why they'd be surprised when said obvious flaws lead to everything turning out terribly.  Even if Ys chances upon its themes rather than seeking them out or even earning them, they're themes nonetheless, and that's something.  Oh, and I really love the closing track on the later episodes; it's nineties Japanese hair rock par excellence, and it almost makes me want to hang onto the DVDs.  But, you know, I probably won't, because one good song (that I can just listen to on Youtube here) and a bit of inadvertent theological deconstruction aside, Ys was basically dreadful.

Elf Princess Rane, 1995, dir: Akitarô Daichi

If you ever want to sell me on a sixty minute, two episode OVA that never got so much as completed, comparing it to Dragon Half, as one reviewer did, is an excellent place to start.  And as it turns out, it's not the unfairest of comparisons either; while Elf Princess Rane is parodying a wholly different set of tropes in an entirely different fashion, there's definitely a spirit of high-energy lunacy and anything-goes physical comedy that binds the two at least a little.

For something so patently absurd, Elf Princess Rane is surprisingly sophisticated in its storytelling.  We basically have three interconnected plot strands: there's our kinda-hero Go Takarada, a teenager who fancies himself as a treasure hunter but doesn't have the first clue what he's doing; there's Rane, the titular elf princess, who Go finds when she comes to Earth in search of some sort of mystical treasure, and who is in turn being tracked by another elf, Leen, at least on the rare occasions when she remembers to bother; and lastly there's floppy-haired nominal villain Takuma Zenshuuin, who's in love with Mari Yumenokata, who's in love with Go, but is also the architect of a nefarious plan to turn the entire city into an amusement park, against the best efforts of the fire department and their top employee, who's one of Go's numerous identical sisters.  (Another one, incidentally, works for Zenshuuin.)

You know, I'm not sure how I figured that to be three plot strands!  Perhaps the point is more that there are essentially three major protagonists / antagonists with their own significant plots, none of which are especially privileged.  And the way they intertwine without derailing each other is really rather clever, while also being the heart of Elf Princess Rane's humour: in its crudest form, Go will do something, which Rain will misinterpret (because the two of them can't communicate) and which will inadvertently factor into Zenshuuin's plans - but crucially, none of them are ever disillusioned that they're the centre of the story.  And I have to stress that I'm grossly oversimplifying here: quite a number of the cast also get significant narrative threads.  For something both so short and so busy, it's quite the little triumph of elaborate storytelling.

Of course, ingenious storytelling isn't necessarily what one goes to a two episode comedy OVA for, so let's be thankful that Rane is also damn funny in places.  There are gags that fall flat, at least in part because the material is borderline untranslatable; the most irritating is Zenshuuin's habit of talking nonsense, which Anime Works represent with reversed subtitles that necessitate pausing the DVD (unless you're much better than me at reading backwards quickly) and which are mostly just plugs for their other releases.  But you can always opt for the splendid dub instead, most of the jokes land, and perhaps more than that, there's a baseline of silly good-naturedness that's amusing in itself.  Elf Princess Rane is the sort of release that's funny almost by osmosis; just hanging out with these absurd characters and watching them bounce off each other is a pleasure.

I'm running the risk of making this sound like some sort of masterpiece, and in all fairness, it's not that; I didn't even love it in the way that I do Dragon Half.  But it is a heck of a lot of fun, and its flaws are largely inconspicuous.  The animation and music are considerably better than they need to be, for example, and show a proper degree of affection; even the fact that there's no real ending is sort of okay, since the show just turns it into another gag.  There's a surprising degree of unnecessary nudity, which certainly might bother some people; there's the aforementioned subtitling joke, which gets real old real fast.  But that's it; Elf Princess Rane is a rare pleasure, and I dearly wish there was a bit more of it.


Looking back, that was actually a really solid batch.  I mean, Ys was kind of awful, but it's wasn't awful awful.  And just possibly it suffered for the fact that I was knackered during most of January and kept nodding off while watching things, which normally I'm pretty good at not doing.  Actually, just between you and me, down here in the conclusion that surely no-one ever reads, I actually drowsed off a bit in 3X3 Eyes: Legend of the Divine Demon, too.  But I'm ninety-nine percent certain that was my fault more than its.

Next time around, I think, we're likely to have the "nineties anime that isn't from the nineties" special, because this blog series is nothing if not confusing and inconsistent.

[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25Part 26Part 27Part 28Part 29Part 30, Part 31, Part 33]

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The Bad Neighbour Sold to Flame Tree Publishing

I think I mentioned in my end of year round-up that there was big news on the way, of the sort that I couldn't reveal at the time.  Well, now I can, and it's of the immensely good sort: Flame Tree Publishing, as part of their opening foray into novel publishing, have picked up my crime debut The Bad Neighbour.

But let's unpack that a little, since it's all sorts of exciting beyond the basic level of "I've sold another novel and people are going to get to read it."  Flame Tree first: I've talked about them a few times here on the blog.  We ran into each with their Gothic Fantasy anthology series, which I've been in a couple of now, and which are also the two single loveliest books I own.  I mean, they're beautiful; they're the books that I show off to visitors, even if you've only come to read the electricity meter or deliver the post.  They're the sort of books that, when you find out that those same publishers are opening to novel length fiction, you make damn certain you have something to put in front of them and hope that they'll bite.

They bit.  And on a book that - this is the other exciting part, by the way - is absolutely nothing like what anyone might consider a 'David Tallerman book.'  If you're one of those people who's followed my career through it's many twists and turns then, firstly, thank you! and secondly, this one's still going to come as a shock.  And I mean that, I hope, in a good way.  It's an exciting prospect as a writer to get to move wholeheartedly into a genre you've hardly more than glanced at before.  That genre, in this case, being an urban crime thriller, one set in present day West Yorkshire and drawing on elements of my own life and experiences.

I've never been much for writing what I know, not when I can make stuff up and get paid for it.  However, I'd been thinking that I wanted to try my hand at writing crime for a long time, rather than merely flirting with it as I had in the Easie Damasco books and elsewhere.  And a number of factors, including a surprising discovery about the house that I bought back in 2011, happened to come together and form the seeds of a story that I knew I really, really wanted to tell, and sooner rather than later.  Thus was born the tale of Ollie Clay, the twenty-something supply teacher who makes a dreadful mistake when he invests an unexpected windfall into a battered terraced house in the outskirts of Leeds without pausing to wonder just who he might find himself living next-door to.

But let's not say any more than that; it's early days, after all.  While we already have that splendid cover up in the top right, there's still a long way to go with The Bad Neighbour, and though I'm expecting it to be out this year, I don't have a solid release date as yet.  More news as I get it, then, and expect me to be talking about this one a lot in the coming months!

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 31

I'm so far ahead with these posts now that I'm in the rather weird situation of having to write up the summaries weeks after having written the reviews; heck, I say weeks, but I don't even remember when I watched this stuff!  I guess Christmas, since I found the time to get through Sol Bianca: The Legacy, which had been on my shelf forever, and there's only one time of the year when you're guaranteed three whole hours in a row to sit down and watch anime.  Man, wouldn't it be great if it was Christmas all the time?  I mean not all the rubbish stuff, like the crap songs and the weird food and the indiscriminate tree murder.  No, just the bit where you get to hang out for a week watching all the anime that you otherwise can't make time for.

So in the spirit of Christmas, possibly, unless I've just got my dates mixed up, let's dig into some not-remotely-seasonal nineties anime.  This time around: Gestalt, MadaraUrusei Yatsura: Ryoko's September Tea Party and Sol Bianca: The Legacy...

Gestalt, 1997, Osamu Yamasaki

It seems to me that there was always something a little sleazy and exploitative about the way that anime was released outside of Japan prior to the twentieth century - and I'm not talking about the likes of Legend of the Overfiend here.  I'm referring more to the rough-and-readiness that companies like MVM, US Manga Corp and ADV brought to the scene: though evidently there was at least some earnest desire to introduce good-quality anime to the US and Europe, that was never to say that anyone would ignore the possibility of a quick buck, even when it wasn't strictly deserved.

And so we get to Gestalt - or rather, the first two episodes of Gestalt, since that's all that was ever released.  I am assuming that MVM knew this when they committed to releasing the title on DVD, and I'm further assuming that the decision to not mention the fact that this was two episodes of a canceled miniseries (or series, for all I know) was not an accidental one.

It's useful to know this going in, because it certainly does sugar the pill if you don't expect any answers, or even for our intrepid heroes to do more than talk about the country in question, which dashing young priest Oliver is seeking when he gets sidetracked into rescuing sexy and initially mute sorceress Ohiri, who may well come from the land of Gestalt and certainly knows a great deal more than she's letting on.  What any of that is we're unlikely to ever know - I've no idea if the Manga got a release outside of Japan - and what we get instead is a bit of an introduction and what amounts to a side quest.  And this, on the whole, is probably a good thing.  I mean, the many questions raised are tantalizing, but this isn't like Sol Bianca, where the prospect of never discovering how things will work out is legitimately painful.  Gestalt is silly and fluffy and not terribly concerned with its own plot; it would much rather spend time parodying other anime and JRPGs, with gags such as the way Ohiri's initial voicelessness manifests in her talking in rectangular dialogue boxes that look exactly like something out of Final Fantasy.  Really, that's about the level we're operating at here, and if the idea makes you smile then you're probably on Gestalt's wavelength.

I certainly was, on the whole.  The animation is resolutely mid-budget TV quality, but the characters are charming, the action sequences are fun, the spell effects are pretty cool, and by the end I was left vaguely sad that there'd never be any more episodes, but not so much so that I felt I'd wasted an hour of my life.  I paid about £2.50 for Gestalt, and I'd say that was precisely right: it kept me amused, Oliver and Ohiri were likable company, and there's every possibility I'll want to watch it again one of these days.  For an utterly dispensable, unfinished, comic fantasy OVA that MVM dropped out for wholly mercenary reasons, I'm willing to call that a win.

Madara, 1991, dir: Yûji Moriyama

Beyond a certain point, it's the little things that count.  I mean, if you were to try and persuade me that Madara was hackneyed crap then I'd have a hard time fighting its corner.  There's a chosen-one hero, there's an evil lord, there's a village full of kindly folks who all get slaughtered early on enough to kick the plot into motion; there's a fair maiden who turns out to have powers of her own, and eventually the hero's brother turns up.  Would you be astonished to hear that he holds a grudge against Madara and blames him for the death of their mother?  I suspect you wouldn't.  No, it's easy to see how someone might take a cursory look at this and determine that it was a damn sight like every other nineties fantasy movie, anime or no.

But let's focus in on a few details, shall we?  Because for all the ways that Madara feels achingly familiar, there are a couple more where it's surprising as all get out.  Madara's chosen-one power?  Why, that would involve shooting rockets out of his shoulders and firing off his own hands like little punchy missiles.  And heroine Kirin's special ability?  Well, she can control two giant mecha.  Oh, and at one point, Noah's arc turns up.  It's kind of a spaceship.  Piloted by a guy with monkeys.  And none of this is explained at all.  Like an awful lot of Madara, it just sort of happens, and you're expected to rock along with it.  Probably this has a fair bit to do with the disadvantages of adapting the manga into two hour long OVA episodes, but the result in the moment is a certain fever-dream quality, along with a gleeful sense that just about anything might happen next.

This is helped no end by a sparse but superb soundtrack - the punky end song is marvelous - and by the visuals, which, though not extraordinary in terms of budget, are exemplary on the level of ambition and design.  Again, it comes down to the little things, those details of character and small touches that are frequently the difference between mediocre and really good animation.  But there's also some exciting design work going on - the monster designs are enticingly weird - and, what really sets Madara apart, an ambition in the colour scheme that's especially rare.  The show overwhelmingly favours reds, blues, and some of the most gorgeous shades of purple you're every likely to see, and a surprisingly excellent print makes the colours pop.  Madara has moments of genuine beauty, and that's not something you have any right to expect from a cheesy nineties fantasy OVA about a guy who rocket-punches monsters.

I suspect the crucial different here can be traced to Yûji Moriyama, who has immediately entered the pantheon of my nineties anime heroes.  Moriyama wouldn't have such an amazing career as a director (though he was behind my beloved Geobreeders) but, taken as a whole, his CV is astonishing.  Project A-Ko, Wings of Honneamise, Evangelion, Gunbuster, Robot Carnival, Macross Plus, and, for the coup de grâce, All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku!  Seriously, if you ever need to win a nineties anime game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, Moriyama is your man.

As is probably obvious by now, I had great fun with Madara; really, it ticked all of my nineties anime boxes.  None of that quite adds up to it being any sort of classic, because that would require a great deal more originality than we get.  But then, sometimes a classic isn't what you're after.  I had a joyous two hours reveling in Madara's craziness, its refusal to explain the basics of its wacky universe, and its endless shades of purple, each more gorgeous than the last.  In fact, while I'd recommend Madara to anyone who wants a couple of hours of bonkers but undemanding fantasy, if you're a fan of purple then it really is an indispensable release.

Urusei Yatsura: Ryoko's September Tea Party, 1985, dir's: Keiji Hayakawa, Junji Nishimura, Mamoru Oshii, Tsugio Ozawa, Iku Suzuki, Osamu Uemura, Kazuo Yamazaki, Naoyuki Yoshinaga

Did I enjoy the Urusei Yatsura movies enough to watch the eleven OVAs that were also released?  Er, it seems that I did; or at least I managed to find a reasonably-priced copy of the box set and couldn't resist, which amounts to the same.  At any rate, only two of them were even close to feature length, so we're all spared the bother of me trying to find interesting things to say about nearly a dozen more Urusei Yatsura releases.

Except that I don't really have anything interesting to say about Ryoko's September Tea Party either.  The thing is, it's a clip show is what it is, though I didn't know that going in: apparently there's about fifteen minutes of new footage here, though it feels like less.  The arc plot, if you're feeling generous about using words like "arc" and "plot", finds Ryoko - a character I'm not confident I've run into in the movies - suffering from such ennui with her life of crushing wealth and inactivity that she orders the army of ninjas who apparently look after her to organize a tea party and invite a select few of the inhabitants of Tomobiki, including Lum and her obnoxious darling Moroboshi.  Ryoko then precedes to tell them stories about how she first came to town, which presumably they all already know, and then interrogates her guests for anecdotes about their own bizarre lives.  The result is eight or so sequences plucked apparently at random from what I assume to be the first season of the show, since this was the first of the OVA releases.  Some of them are pretty funny; others don't stand alone at all.  All of them rely on a knowledge of the characters that would utterly defy the casual viewer.

At least the production values are solid: the new footage is especially good, but the scenes from the show are hardly shoddy.  And there are two or three presumably new tunes, too, if you're the kind of person who hunts down vanishingly rare anime releases from three decades ago to hear a bit of J-pop you've never run across before.  Um ... I'm reaching here, aren't I?  The truth is, while Ryoko's September Tea Party started pretty well, by the end I was eager for it to be over.  All its best material is clustered in the first half, and after that it's a bit like - well, like watching a load of people you barely know hanging out at a party to which you weren't invited.  So definitely one for the fans, I'd say, in so much as that means anything thirty years after the event.

Sol Bianca: The Legacy, 1999, dir: Hiroyuki Ochi

Perhaps the most curious thing about Sol Bianca: The Legacy is that it exists at all.  The original, two-part OVA that this rather longer entry is a sort-of sequel to and sort-of reinterpretation of underperformed sufficiently that it was never finished, despite being all sorts of fantastic.  So did its reputation grow in the intervening eight years?  Did Japanese audiences realise they'd dropped the ball in dismissing one of the most gorgeous, unusual, and engaging slices of anime ever and begin to clamor for more?  Or at least for some closure, since Sol Bianca did a frustrating business of raising questions that would never be answered?

Perhaps!  I guess stranger things have happened in the world of anime.  But at least on the latter count, The Legacy was sure to be a disappointment: it's not much of a one for question-answering, and its universe and themes are sufficiently different-seeming that they're hard to square with Sol Bianca in any meaningful fashion.  Nor does it quite look the part: eight years was a long time in nineties animation, such a long time that the seemingly short gap between the two releases was enough to usher in a computer-assisted approach that, while probably nigh-on cutting edge for the time, stood no hope of being as pretty as the truly lovely original.  The style reminds me more of American animation, or specifically of what certain video games were getting up to in aping that style.  It's terrifically smooth and the characters look great in close ups, the CG is surprisingly well integrated and certainly warrants its inclusion, but there are enough shots that appear flat-out wrong that its hard to be consistently impressed.

To some extent, that's Sol Bianca: The Legacy all over.  It's never bad and occasionally really good, certainly on a par with most of what was around at the time.  If the cast feel a touch watered down - their response on finding a young stowaway this time is not, for example, to start looking for the nearest airlock - it's still great to see a show where most of the characters are adult women who act at least somewhat in a manner that real adult women might act.  Meanwhile, the arc plot takes a couple of episodes too long to find its feet, but when it does, it's actually pretty novel and exciting, hinting at a wider universe in satisfying ways and tying off enough loose ends to not aggravate.

But it's not Sol Bianca.  In fact, more than anything, it feels like a piece of really solid Sol Bianca fan fiction made by people who obviously have a ton of affection for what's come before, even if they don't altogether get what made it work.  Yet at the same time, the results are good enough to leave you wondering what might have been; how might these characters and this setting have developed given another OVA or even a full series?  In that sense, Sol Bianca: The Legacy doesn't so much as fill the hole left by the original as dig another, somewhat smaller hole nearby.  It's a worthwhile addition to one of the great anime franchises to never remotely reach its full potential, but not quite a worthy one.  Nevertheless, there remains a smart, original show here, one with a fine cast brought to life with solid production values, and the excellent music alone makes it worth a punt.  By all means give Sol Bianca: The Legacy a go if you ever get the chance, there's a lot to like and a fair bit to love.  Just know that, despite what its title may think, it's not quite the legacy that the marvelous Sol Bianca truly deserved.


Again, what with the whole time lag thing, my memory is a little blurry here, and you know what's weird?  The thing that I remember with most fondness is Gestalt.  It can't possibly have been half as good as I remember, and yet I really want to know what would have happened.  Meanwhile, the disappointment of Sol Bianca: the Legacy has decreased with time, to the point where I'd already quite like to give it another go.  Which leaves Madara as the only thing my opinion has stayed exactly the same on, even if all I can remember is how damned purple it was.  Oh, and there was that Yurusei Yatsura OVA, wasn't there?  Man, I hope that buying the entire Yurusei Yatsura OVA collection was a better investment than it seems to be on the available evidence!

Next time around?  Who can possibly remember?  But it's a safe bet that some of it will be utterly terrible and at least one thing will be kind of great!

[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25Part 26Part 27Part 28Part 29, Part 30, Part 32Part 33]

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Corporate Cthulhu Open For Business

If there really are merciless elder gods from beyond time and space hovering on the fractured fringes of our reality, it makes perfect sense that they would find themselves in the world of big business.  I mean, really, where else would they wind up?  Why sleep away the eons in the frigid depths of the ocean when you could be drawing down a six figure salary just for turning up to a few meetings?  Why spread madness and horror from some dingy cavern or dream-dimension when you can wreck the sanity of whole nations with a little malpractice in the world of high finance?  Why scour the earth of sentient life yourself when you can set up a corporation to do much the same and rake in a buck or seven trillion while you're at it?

Yup, as strange as the tales gathered within the anthology Corporate Cthulhu: Lovecraftian Tales of Bureaucratic Nightmare surely are, the strangest thing is that it took so long for someone to put the two concepts together.

Well, okay, this certainly isn't the first time - though to my knowledge it is the first time anyone's thought to use the combination for a themed collection, so credit is still due to editor Edward Stasheff and publisher Pickman's Press for taking a good idea and running with it.  But I know for a fact that the concept isn't one hundred percent new because I wrote my own story pairing the twin nightmares of the Mythos and rampant capitalism way back in my early years as a writer.  The God Under the Church was born out of the same impulses that led to many of the stories in my collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, and was even a near miss for that book, due to the fact that I didn't have the time at that point to polish it up to my satisfaction.  But I didn't want to miss another opportunity to get it back out there, and there couldn't have been a more perfect fit for a tale in which a new corporate director starts to discover the very-sinister-indeed history of the company in which he's worked.

If that sounds like your idea of fun, you can pick up a copy of Corporate Cthulhu here on Amazon UK and here on Amazon US.  And here's the full table of contents:
SHADOW CHARTS by Marcus Johnston
CASUAL FRIDAY by Todd H. C. Fischer
DAGON-TEC by Adam Millard
ESOTERIC INSURANCE, INC. by Evan Dicken & Adrian Ludens
CAREER ZOMBIE by John Taloni
TINDALOS, INC. by Charlie Allison
FORCED LABOR by Peter Rawlik
THE SHADOWS LENGTHEN in the Close by Ethan Gibney
IT CAME FROM I.T. by Gordon Linzner
RETRACTION by Marie Michaels
APOTHEOSIS by Darren Todd