Thursday, 9 August 2018

The Voices in the Moonlight

This year is proving crazily busy, and that's the sole excuse I can offer for not having listened to the audiobook adaptation of my own short story collection until now.  It certainly wasn't through a lack of wanting to!  But what I needed was the perfect opportunity, and an immensely long drive down the length of the country for a weekend of kayaking in the gorgeous Wye valley provided just that: what better way to make four hours in a car on a boiling hot day more bearable than listening to your own short stories being read to you?

Okay, not to everyone's tastes maybe, but for me it turned what could have been an afternoon of horror into - well, still an afternoon of horror, but in a good way rather than a bad way.  The point is that I now know for certain what I'd only been assuming based on the odds and ends I'd heard: that Circle of Spears did a stunning job in adapting The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories into an audiobook.  Or more specifically, Sam Burns and Tracey Norman, who handled the male and female narrators respectively, did a stunning job.

It feels a bit mean, not to mention a bit silly, to have picked favourites from the audiobook adaptation of my own short story collection.  But I did it anyway, and here they are...

The War of the Rats
What could be better suited to the audio treatment than an epistolary narrative?  Really, the fact that so many of these tales involve the narrators speaking directly to the reader in one form or another is the main reason I had my heart set on making an audiobook of the collection happen.  But nowhere does that work better than here, and nowhere is Sam's voice a more perfect fit: the story's protagonist is, after all, an amateur playwright, and though I don't think it's ever mentioned, he was always also an actor in my head.  So it's absolutely right that he should deliver his tale with a little drama and bombast, and Sam nails both, without missing the sadness and tragedy at its heart.
Caretaker in the Garden of Dreams
I don't know that I really took this into account when I first started considering Circle of Spears for the Sign in the Moonlight audiobook, but there's a big difference between actors and narrators, and if you can get people who can do a terrific job of both then you ought to consider yourself properly lucky.  Caretaker in the Garden of Dreams was one of the stories that brought that home to me, in that there's a point in the second half that requires a bit of genuine acting and Sam completely runs away with it.  In fact, it was disconcerting to hear a character I'd always thought of as pretty much a plot device suddenly coming to life.  Now I almost wish I'd treated them better!
A Study in Red and White
By the same measure, it never struck me until I listened to the audiobook quite how creepy and weird the dialogue I'd given to A Study in Red and White's monster was.  So I got a shiver down my spine when I heard how Sam had given voice to the antediluvian nightmare that is the Santa Thing.  The words "Happy Christmas" have never sounded so sick and wrong!
My Friend Fishfinger, by Daisy Aged 7
With no disrespect to Sam's brilliant efforts, this one is my favourite of the lot.  Tracey absolutely nails the balance between humour and horror, while all the while pulling off what, to my ears, is a perfect impression of a seven-year-old American girl.  The result is so much better than the story has ever sounded in my head, sweet and charming until it's suddenly all dark and horrible.  It's a piece that relies entirely on the dissonance between what the character knows and what the reader suspects, and that works even better when we're listening instead - but only because Tracey sells it so completely.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 38

If these posts could be likened to wandering in a desert with nothing but a belligerent camel for company and nary a landmark in sight, it's reassuring to know that at least it's still possible to stumble over the occasional oasis out here upon the blazing sands.  Which is to say that, perhaps astonishingly given the degree of barrel-scraping we're reduced to these days, I've managed to find a couple of real pleasures this time around - along with a couple of titles that, if a long way from any sensible definition of classic, were a thoroughly acceptable waste of ninety minutes.

That surprising desert watering hole, then, looks a lot like a combination of: Voogie's Angel, Legend of Crystania: The Motion Picture, Magic User's Club! and Battle Skipper...

Voogie's Angel, 1997, dir's: Masami Ōbari, Aoi Takeuchi

What an odd creature Voogie's Angel* is!  A three episode OVA that's obviously telling one chunk of a bigger story, it's wildly all over the place in terms of tone, and really in everything else as well.  A brief prologue promises us a bleak tale of Earth's last defenders fighting a losing battle against the alien Space Emigrants, but that impression is rapidly dispelled when we meet Voogie and her all-female cyborg crew, and the bulk of the first episode is occupied with goofy comedy that conveys not much besides how lightly the four of them take their responsibilities as defenders of the human race.

Then part two comes along, and gets very grim indeed - a late-game character death is particularly ghastly - and by the third part we're well into nightmarishly despondent territory, as we learn the back story behind these characters we've been hanging around with and never really got to know.  It's odd is what it is, and effective only in spurts.  The script is crummy, despite the best efforts of the leads to inject a bit of life, and the characterisation is so not there that I literally didn't know what two of the main characters were meant to be about.  Only Voogie herself and the trigger-happy Rebecca come to much, and some angsty stuff about whether the gang are truly human falls hopelessly flat.

None of this is especially good, but lest I be too harsh towards a title that's actually pretty innocuous, I should add that none of it's ruinous either.  The plot and characters are boilerplate, but it's a fun boilerplate, and the production values are solid enough to keep things ticking along.  There's a peppy opening theme that I can't stop listening to and some derivate but effective incidental music, and on the visual side - well, Masami Ōbari was never a great director, but his work feels more enthusiastic here than elsewhere, and a few sequences, particularly in the second part, are genuinely thrilling.  (He also manages to tone down his usually hideous designs, thank goodness!)  Writer Aoi Takeuchi, who I can find no details about anywhere, takes over for the third episode, and does better work all round, leaving things on a stronger note than the show quite deserves.  He even manages to retrospectively hammer out the character arcs that Ōbari left flapping, and to make some sense of the uneven tone.  As such, I'm probably remembering Voogie's Angel as being a little better than it was.  But what the heck!  It was a fun enough ninety minutes, and there's a decent chance I'll watch it again one of these days, so I'm giving it a pass.

Legend of Crystania: The Motion Picture, 1995, dir: Ryûtarô Nakamura

For me anyway, good, original high fantasy films are a bit of a treat.  I mean, can you list more than a dozen Western fantasy movies with half-decent budgets, which aren't adaptations of door-stop novels, usually by a certain Mr. Tolkien, and which don't suck at least a little bit?  The point being, I consider the huge influence of D&D-inspired fantasy upon the world of nineties anime to be basically a good thing - and then I tend to get my hopes up far too highly for what generally ends up being derivate, by-the-numbers crap.

Legend of Crystania is derivative and by the numbers: it's a spin-off of the popular Record of Lodoss War series, which I've never seen but looks very much like someone writing their role-playing campaign (which, indeed, is precisely what it was.)  Legend of Crystania is also pretty great.  And perhaps that comes down to the difference between a creator slathering their plot in clichés and one who knows the tropes of the genre and wields them with precision, effectively making of them a nifty shorthand to keep his narrative moving at breakneck pace.

At under 80 minutes including credits, the film tears by swiftly enough to give you whiplash, building a dense world and a huge cast with enviable economy.  It helps that the beats are almost all familiar, but it helps more than the voice cast (at least in the original Japanese) do sterling work to pluck out enough notes of originality that such utter stereotypes as the scholarly wizard and the hot-headed young warrior and the grizzled, morally grey veteran actually feel distinctive.  But it helps most that the animation is lovely.  Not expensive, mind you, and the frame rate is distinctly choppy, not to mention a stripped-down art style that's rather a shock at first.  But get used to all that and you'll notice some real craftsmanship.  Generally, cheaper anime tends to stint on character details in favour of a few big, showy sequences, but Legend of Crystania goes almost entirely the other way: the thought that's gone into capturing human motion, and in making those motions expressive and distinctive, and using them to gift the viewer with insights into who these people are, is a joy to behold.  And this, I think, we can put down to director Nakamura, who'd later give us another work that did wonders on a restrictive budget, the bonkers cult classic Serial Experiments Lain.

Also, in fairness, it has to be said that Legend of Crystania isn't half so hackneyed as I've made out.  If many of the ingredients are recognisable, enough aren't, or are presented differently enough to feel fresh.  Crystania itself, an enclosed world of battling gods and warring, shape-shifting tribes, is a particularly fun and novel setting.  And there are legitimately interesting themes too, rotating around knotty questions of responsibility and leadership; in general, this is that rare breed of fantasy that's actually paused to consider what living in its world might be like, regardless of whether you're a lord or a were-tiger or a hired thug or some bloke propping up the bar.

With all of that - and with a rather lovely orchestral score, and some solid action sequences, drawn by people who actually appreciate that swords are pretty damn heavy, and a couple of moments with real emotional heft, including a late-game death that left me thoroughly gutted - I suppose that we're ultimately still talking about a cheesy, mid-budget piece of D&D-pastiching fantasy anime here.  Like I said, personally I happen to like cheesy, mid-budget D&D-pastiching fantasy anime when it's done exceptionally well, as it almost never is.  As such, I really did enjoy the hell out of Legend of Crystania, and I'm at a loss to explain its rather lowly reputation.

Magic User's Club!, 1996, dir: Junichi Sato

I grumble enough about familiar ingredients here, but sometimes it's nice to be reminded of the things you love.  And though my mind went to numerous other works while I was watching the six episodes of Magic User's Club!, it was always in the show's favour.

The initial point of reference was the marvelous Little Witch Academia, and not just for the obvious reasons, though obviously there's a fair bit of overlap here: both have very literal titles, after all!  But actually it was more to do with the character designs, which have a similar certain something that sets them apart from a million other big-eyed, outlandishly dressed designs; it's to do, I think, with some rather more humanly shaped faces than we're used to.  And in both cases, those designs are brought to life with superlative animation, though that's perhaps a bit more impressive in Magic User's Club!'s case, what with the intervening two decades and all.  It's a fine-looking show, and worth a watch for that reason alone.

But lo, there's more.  Because, although there's a definite ongoing plot, Magic User's Club! spends the majority of its time in the sort of light-hearted, slightly raunchy romantic comedy territory that so much anime occupies.  And there too it's not content just to tick the usual boxes.  In that sense, it reminded me of my exemplar for this sort of thing, the mighty Toradora!  Like Toradora!, it finds meaningful depths in characters that appear rote at first glance, then uses that to inject a bit of real emotion and humanity amid the jokes.  There's an extraordinary scene, for example, where the heroine's best friend Nanaka declares her love to the club's vice-president, Ayanojyo, even though she's pretty certain he's gay, that doesn't remotely go the way you'd expect if you were judging by the usual nineties anime standards.  I mean, in part because having a sympathetic, openly gay male character has already kicked most of those standards out the window, but also because it's just really well handled.  And if that's a stand-out moment, it's not an atypical one.

Which would all be well and good, but the last show I was reminded of was the clincher - because this isn't just a cute, goofy rom-com about teenagers getting up to high jinks with magic, it's all of that crammed together with a bit of high-concept sci-fi.  And it does that well too!  That overarching plot I mentioned revolves around the gang clumsily trying to defend the earth from a very unusual alien invasion: a year ago, a single, gigantic craft appeared and eradicated every weapon turned against it, but the massive object - named the Bell - has done little since, to the point where the robot drones it sends out even politely obey traffic signals.  And because those drones get some brilliant and deeply weird designs and animation, my last point of reference was the seminal Neon Genesis Evangelion.

So, yes, Magic User's Club is like some weird hybrid of Little Witch Academia, Toradora, and Neon Genesis Evangelion.  But it's also very much it's own thing, and rife with it's own charms, right from the joyously boppy opening theme to the ending that actually wraps its core drama up to an extent I wasn't remotely expecting.  It's immensely fun, its missteps are few - really, not much more than some crummy CG that was probably pretty fine in 1996 - and I liked it enough that I'd decided to order the subsequent series before the last episode was done with.  Highly recommended.

Battle Skipper, 1995, dir: Takashi Watanabe

So imagine the scenario: you've been assigned to create a three-episode OVA to promote a new toy.  And not just any new toy, but a startlingly crummy one, so crappy in every aspect that there's not a cat in hell's chance of it proving a success.  Heck, the toy company have even produced a few anime snippets of their own for the adverts, which are just about the worst thing ever.  Do you a) accept the poisoned chalice you've been handed and make some generic piece of garbage that hopefully will vanish immediately and without trace, or do you b) jump on the opportunity to produce something thoroughly silly and nonsensical, that throws a bunch of bonkers, incompatible ideas in a blender, ignores any groundwork already laid by that dreadful trailer, and sidelines those stupid toys as much as possible?

In fairness, there's probably no right answer here, since Battle Skipper appears to be fairly widely despised, despite opting firmly for option b) and despite being an immense amount of fun as a result.  And it's possible, I suppose, that writer Hidemi Kamata and director Takashi Watanabe were earnestly trying to craft a product that producers Tomy would be happy with, but it really does seem more likely that they were having a bit of a laugh at their expense, and at mecha and magic girl shows while they were at it.  I mean, just look at Saori's impossible hair, while is like Sailor Moon's dialed up to eleven, or observe how little screen time the stupifyingly ugly titular robot vehicle thingies get.  For that matter, consider a plot in which rival clubs at a posh catholic girls' school either plot feminist world domination or battle crime, in a manner that the show barely even tries to make sense of.

To accuse this frivolous nonsense of being derivative is, I think, to miss the point: it is, but it knows it is, and refuses to take that or anything else too seriously.  The result is utterly daft and bubbly, even when things are happening that might theoretically be a bit serious.  And I suppose it helps that I like the clichés it's indulging; I like canned magic girl transformation sequences and high-school students who can figure out who to pilot advanced military hardware in a matter of minutes and silly robots that combine into even sillier robots and gravity-defying hair styles.  This is the raw stuff of nineties anime, and if Battle Skipper wants to have jokey fun with it then who am I to argue?  Wrap all that up with some solid production values, and add in some surprisingly decent DVD extras from the usual hopeless U. S. Manga Corps and you're left with - well, a daft bit of fluff that kept me entirely happy for an hour and a half.  It's not good in any of the traditional senses of the word, but it's a new favourite nevertheless, and perhaps more so because of than in spite of its flaws.


Hold up, was that really a nineties anime post where I basically recommended everything?  All right, I hedged my bets heavily on Voogie's Angel - and rightly so! - but still, there's an awful lot of positivism in this post, such as we haven't seen around these parts in a good long while.  What can I say?  I stumbled over some excellent stuff.  The Legend of Crystania movie and Magic User's Club! both immediately shot into my favourites, and so did Battle Skipper, sort of, despite probably being not altogether deserving.

Well, I have no idea of where we go from here.  If only because I've got, like, eight of these posts on the go right now at various stages of completion.

[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 31Part 32Part 33Part 34Part 35Part 36, Part 37]

* And why exactly is it Voogie's Angel, not Voogie's Angels, eh?  If you're going to rip off a title, surely you might as well go all the way and at least make sense.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

The Black River Chronicles and the War For Female Superhero Supremacy

Not a superhero book.
I wouldn't normally comment on a review, let alone on an Amazon review, let alone on a one star Amazon review, but recently one came along that was just too good (or too bad?) to let go.  It was from our perennial friend "Kindle Customer" and it read as follows:
 Misleads readers, supports "girl super hero storyline"
This is a "girl super hero book". It's written in the harry potter style but lacks the quality of character development common with them. It uses subtle narratives to bring the reader to the realization that females are, quicker, smarter, brighter, more heroic than males. If you like a "girl super hero book" you will like it. If you dislike veiled references to female supremacy in the guise of a fantasy novel, then you wont like the book.
Well, you saw right through me, Kindle Customer - if that really is your name! - but now that my plotting is out in the open, let's fight the man.  Even though I am one!  In fact, I'm literally punching myself as I left-handedly type this.  In your face, the patriarchy! what I'd have liked to reply.  But instead, I'm writing this blog post.  And sarcasm aside, I don't want to dig into why I try hard to write capable, convincing female characters, because frankly I find the whole question idiotic beyond words.  Suffice to say that when we talk about female representation, we're discussing half the human beings who've ever walked the Earth, and who, despite generally wretched treatment by their male counterparts, have proved endlessly and beyond reasonable doubt that they can be in every way as able, as strong, as intelligent, and as every other damn thing you care to come up with.  If you're genuinely horrified by the notion that a female character might be quicker or smarter or more heroic than a male character then I'm willing to concede that you might not get on with my work, Kindle Customer - and that's okay.  I reckon I can get by without you.

No, actually, only one thing about that review bothered me as a critique of Level One, and that's that it simply isn't true.  To claim that the female characters, or any of the characters, are superhumanly able misinterprets something that was at the core of what I've tried to accomplish with the Black River Chronicles.  Though different characters have their moments in the spotlight, these aren't Tia or Arein's books, any more than they're Durren's or Hule's.  And not one of these characters could accomplish alone what they manage together.  Tia may be essentially a ninja and always nine steps ahead of everyone else in the room, but put her in a situation that requires proper cooperation or good social skills and she's a lot less effective.  Arein is great at the academic side of things, but when you're a wizard who's actively afraid of casting spells, that's never going to be enough.  They're not perfect, because no-one is.  But they are a good deal better at a lot of things that Durren or Hule, because of course they are, they've been studying those subjects and honing those skills for years.

Actually a female superhero.
The long and the short of it is, while I wasn't offended by that review as a writer - heck, I suspect I even sold a few copies off the back of it! - it did make me sad that anyone could get the wrong end of the stick quite so badly.  And that's not because the Black River Chronicles aren't actually a codified manifesto for female supremacy, it's that their very heart is the notion that nobody's supreme.  These kids need each other. They rely on each other.  Without any one of them, they'd none of them have survived to midway through the first book.  And really, that's as close to a moral as there is: it's okay for people to be better at things than you, whoever and however they are, and it's okay to rely on others when you're already pulling your weight in other ways.

So there we go.  I've no issue with the notion that I might write a "girl super hero storyline" one of these days; heck, I'd be honoured to give it a go, and if Marvel are looking for someone to pick up Ironheart, my favourite new comics character of recent years, then I'd take that job in a millisecond.  But that ain't the Black River Chronicles.  Though Tia and Arein are absolutely, unquestionably heroes, they don't have a single superpower between them - and like no end of women throughout the history of the world, they don't let that hold them back for a second.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 37

This time around, a couple of nice surprises meet with a couple of sizable disappointments - and certainly the release I got most joy from was the one I'd have least expected even to like if you'd asked me beforehand.  Possibly there's a moral here about prejudging catastrophically odd fantasy hentai that literally uses the bombing of Hiroshima as a trivial plot point?

Or maybe the moral is that I have dreadful taste and a really warped sense of humour.  At any rate!  This time through, we've got: RG Veda, City Hunter: .357 Magnum, Urusei Yatsura: Inaba the Dreammaker, and Adventure Duo...

RG Veda, 1992, dir's: Hiroyuki Ebata, Takamasa Ikegami

Let's be fair: it can't be easy deciding what, or how much, of a longstanding Manga series to adapt into an OVA of limited running time.  After all, unlike most of their Western counterparts, Manga can tell a single story for years and even decades, and are frequently adapted midway through their runs.  Yup, difficult decisions to be made indeed, and I'm sure the pressure was considerable when it came to RG Veda, the debut of acclaimed studio Clamp, who we've seen around these parts often already and come to be rather fond of.

Nevertheless, the choices made here were still awfully dumb.  And I don't know, maybe there was supposed to be more to come, but that doesn't excuse beginning so deep into a narrative, with so little introduction to characters that mostly start and end as tepid cyphers.  Nor does it excuse the fact that, with two forty-five minute episodes to work with, the decision was made to open with a side story and only engage with the main plot after the midway mark.  Although, since the first episode is marginally more interesting, and the plot episode goes nowhere - indeed, makes quite a show of going nowhere, until its closing minutes and a revelation that might have been a big deal were it not also the end - it's easy to suppose that ignoring the grand good-versus-evil narrative would have been the wiser call.

After all, it's not like it's a very interesting good-versus-evil narrative!  It's not like it isn't something we've seen a thousand times before, within anime and without, and it's certainly not like it's a patch on the sort of complex, twisted tales that Clamp would go on to produce.  Despite a name lifted from the Sanskrit Vedas, this is stale stuff, and only the occasional notion or scene - a magical attack swan, a swarm of demonic butterflies - hints at later imaginative accomplishments.  Nor is the material up to anything very exciting on the level of animation; neither director brings much character, the animation is stilted and constantly off in small but obvious ways, and - astonishingly for a Clamp adaptation - the character designs are mostly on the bland side.  Heck, even the music never rises beyond pleasant.  Taken altogether, RG Veda is a heck of a disappointment: a thuddingly standard fantasy title with just enough spice to occasionally remind you of how much better it could be.

City Hunter: .357 Magnum, 1989, dir: Kenji Kodama

City Hunter is another one of those megafranchises that were so prevalent in anime in the early nineties, so perhaps it's odd that my only encounter with it so far has been the bizarrely-Jackie-Chan-starring live action movie, which must have made very little impression, since I can't recall a thing about it.  But I discovered recently that there was an animated movie, too, and while I failed to track down a reasonably priced copy of that, I did stumble across a couple of cheapy straight-to-DVD releases, of which .357 Magnum is the earliest.

So what was this City Hunter lark that inspired not only countless episodes, but multiple TV movies and a Jackie Chan film of all things?  Well, based on what I've seen - eighty minutes worth of .357 Magnum, plus a random episode provided as a DVD extra, in a pleasing touch for what's normally such a mercenary corner of the industry - I'd say that it's a lot like any number of other eighties detective shows, with one important twist.  Our hero, Ryo Saeba, is a total letch.

Imagine The Equalizer, if Robert McCall was replaced by Urusei Yatsura's Ataru Moroboshi and you'll be most of the way there.  What differentiates Ryo Saeba from other anime creeps is that, when he's not being a sex pest toward distressed female clients, he's actually really damn competent.  And this allows City Hunter to take a fair stab at having its cake and eating it.  There's plenty of goofy comedy, as Ryo behaves like an utter pervert and is repeatedly, violently punished for it by his assistant Kaori (who secretly has a thing for him, presumably because she hates life and herself.)  There's also tons of action, which is played pretty much straight, including an over-the-top finale worthy of any dumb action movie you can care to name.

Unfortunately, neither element is particularly engaging here.  Even if this particular brand of comedy hadn't dated hideously, there aren't a great many laughs to be had, and the thriller plot, which starts out threatening to be convoluted before ending up very simple indeed, is more diverting than exciting.  As for the production values, they're resolutely in keeping with the TV series itself, which looked fine for a long-running eighties show but was nowhere near what you'd expect from a theatrical release.  The result is mildly diverting, and amusing in places, but certainly not a great introduction to the franchise or any real insight into why it lasted for so long.

Urusei Yatsura: Inaba the Dreammaker, 1987, dir: Satoshi Dezaki

Speak of the devil!  Or in this case, of Ataru Moroboshi, appearing in the second of Urusei Yatsura's two OVAs that are long enough to warrant the effort of reviewing.  The first turned out to be a clip show, and a pretty incoherent one at that, but fortunately that's not the case with Inaba the Dreammaker.  In fact, with a running time barely shy of an hour, it's up there with plenty of anime that passes itself off as feature length.  And sure enough, while it's not quite on a par with any of the six movies, this one proves itself a more than worthy addition to the franchise.

The plot largely revolves around side character Shinobu, who seems destined to a life of spinsterhood due to her tendency toward punching any men who approach her into orbit.  However, an encounter with a strange young fellow in a rabbit costume who announces himself as Inaba proves fateful: Lum happens to notice that his trip through the sky ends with his disappearing into some sort of portal, and since he's left a suspicious key behind, what is there to do but investigate?  Soon it transpires that Inaba is one of a bunch of inter-dimensional caretakers who are responsible for all possible futures (the rest of them appear to be actual giant rabbits, which begs questions the show never seems remotely interested in answering) and the result is that Shinobu, Lum, and Moroboshi witness a vision of what might lie in store for them, before deciding they'd rather make some changes, much to the consternation of those leporine supervisors.  All the while, Inaba is developing a colossal crush on Shinobu, while the fact that not a single future finds them married to each other begs obvious questions about Lum and Moroboshi's hideous train wreck of a relationship.

That's a weird, busy old plot, right?  And it's certainly nice to see that Dark City wasn't the only American movie to lift from Urusei Yatsura*; yeah, I'm looking at you, Donnie Darko.  This being Urusei Yatsura, it largely devolves into a lot of running (or flying) about and goofy comedy, but that's fine as it turns out: some of these OVAs went too far in that direction, but Inaba the Dreammaker gets the ratio right, perhaps because it has a bit of heft behind its silliness.  Inaba and Shinobu play off each other nicely, and we get some surprisingly meaningful insights into the show's central relationship, indeed more so that many of the films managed.  And while we're obviously looking at a TV show budget, it's one the creators knew how to make look respectable by this point.  The same goes for the music, which is mostly reused pieces, but enjoyable ones.  I'd go so far as to say that Inaba the Dreammaker is about as good as you could hope for something of this ilk: an amusing, charming, ingenious bit of fantasy that finds a significant story to tell in a universe that could easily feel tapped out this late in the game.  It's probably not good enough to warrant tracking down on its own, given how rare it is, but it's inclusion makes the frequently great collection of all eleven OVAs something of a must buy.

Adventure Duo: Yôjû Sensen, 1993, dir: Hideki Takayama

Adventure Duo (or Adventure Kids as it was disturbingly known in the US) is goddamn bewildering.  And that's not solely because it's a blend of horror, fantasy, science-fiction, and hentai, though goodness knows that's certainly a factor.  And before we go further, I have to state categorically that I'm not going to start reviewing hentai here on the blog, either from the nineties or otherwise, because that's something I have no desire to get into.  But I have a certain weakness for Kiseki Films, you see, whose incredibly hard-to-find releases have a tacky charm I seem unable to resist.  Well, except for their most famous release, Legend of the Overfiend, I can resist that just fine - and wouldn't you know it, Adventure Duo proudly declares itself to be from the creators of that selfsame "classic".  Which makes it all the more bizarre that I thought it would be a good idea to sit myself through this madness.

Oh but I'm glad I did!  Like I said, Adventure Duo is bewildering, but in the fashion that only truly, wildly misconceived attempts at entertainment can be.  As much as I despise the concept in general, it really is so bad that it's good, or at any rate so bad that it never ceases to amaze and fascinate.  The hero has somehow managed to make his home computer interface with a world war two supercomputer, you say?  One possessed by the brain mush of a murdered scientist?  Who's brought his murderer back as a zombie monster for some reason?  But now they're all in hell, only it's a tacky fantasyland hell with sex-starved elves and shape-changing trolls?  And, wait, where's she inserting that magic key?  Oh, it's okay, they're just time traveling to Hiroshima minutes before the release of the atomic bomb, and - hold on, Adventure Duo, are you certain this is appropriate subject matter for a not-very-sexy bit of genrefied soft porn?

Yes, Adventure Duo is sure, or at any rate doesn't care.  You get the impression that no-one at any stage in the creative process hesitated for even an instant to ask those sorts of questions, or for that matter worried themselves about silly things like plot coherence or continuity or telling the same story over all three of the show's thirty minute episodes.  And the result is delirious, in a largely entertaining fashion.  There are traces of the sort of unpleasantness that made Overfiend so hard to stomach, and even with its extraordinary goofiness, there's a degree of sexualised violence that can be off-putting.  But it's at least not vicious, and it at least recognises that women are people, with actual thoughts and emotions, which already puts it head and shoulders above Overfiend in the watchability stakes.  More, it understands that sex isn't something merely done to women, and if we should never have to hold that up as a progressive viewpoint, nevertheless it kind of is by the standards of far too much nineties anime.

And here I am, talking as though anyone should actually go out and hunt this thing down, which obviously you shouldn't, because it's gibbering and terrible and at best only moderately well made, despite the box claiming against all evidence that Gainax were the production studio and despite a surprisingly solid print from the fairly disreputable Kiseki.  All I'm really saying is that, if you do have a desperate craving for a bit of fantastical nineties hentai anime, one that's not out-and-out horrid like the dingier corners of that very dingy subgenre, and you want to have an exceedingly good laugh while you're at it, Adventure Duo is the release for you.


I guess that if anyone was paying attention, I'd probably never live down the fact that I gave Adventure Duo a sort-of-positive review, so let's all keep quiet about that, eh?  And also bear in mind that finding something hysterically weird isn't the same as recommending it!  Which I suppose means that it's one of those posts where I don't recommend anything at all, though Inaba the Dreammaker is awfully fun if you're into that whole Urusei Yatsura business.

Next time - absolutely no hentai!  I promise!

Well, probably not, anyway.

Okay, there might be.

[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 31Part 32Part 33Part 34Part 35, Part 36Part 38]

* Watch the second Urusei Yatsura movie, Beautiful Dreamer, and tell me I'm wrong!

Friday, 22 June 2018

Short Story News June 2018

Here's a post I've been holding off on for a while now, I guess because bad news only becomes actual bad news at the point when you share it.  Or at least because I've kept hoping that the horrendous dry spell I've been going through these last couple of years on the short fiction sales front might finally come to an end, and then I could spread a little good news instead.

To put that in perspective: since January 2017, I've literally sold more original novels than I have original short stories!  And honestly, this bites.  I mean, not the novel-selling part, that's great news.  But I know with utter conviction that I'm sending out some of the best short fiction I've written - indeed, maybe the best work I've written full stop - and the creeping certainty that some of it might never see the light of day is pretty gutting.  But what can you do?  Only give up or try that bit harder, and I'm not giving up yet.  So I've been submitting with all the energy I can muster, and more importantly, making a concerted effort to edit the remainder of the work I've got sitting about at first draft stage.  Because maybe something in that lot might fare better, right?

With that grumble out of the way, I have to admit that things could be worse.  At least I'm still selling the odd reprint, and at least I've landed them in a couple of really exciting markets.  The nicest surprise was when I was approached by the editor of Nowa Fantastyka to see if they could buy my story Jenny's Sick for translation into Polish.  Now that it's out, I'm probably safe to admit that I'd have likely let them have it for free; my family immigrated from Poland a generation or three back and it was extremely cool to have that link to what my dad jokingly refers to as "the old country."  Plus, Nowa Fantastyka is an utterly wonderful magazine.  I mean, I can barely read a word of it, but the presentation is fantastic, and the illustration for Jenny's Sick - rather, Jenny Choruje - is one of the very nicest I've had.

But family heritage issues aside, the bigger news is surely making it into a third of Flame Tree Publishing's utterly gorgeous gothic fiction anthologies (after Science Fiction and Lost Worlds).  This one's titled Lost Souls, and the story, Casualty of Peace, is one of my personal favourites, which I'm really pleased to be getting to yet more readers after its appearance in Eric Guignard's excellent Horror Library Volume 6 collection.  It's one of those rare tales that turned out just the way I intended, after a gestation period of months or maybe even years, and I'll be thrilled to see it between lavishly engraved hardback covers.  I'm not sure of a release date on that yet, but I'd guess it'll be towards the back end of the year; in the meantime, there's a full table of contents here.

And, thank goodness, there's always Digital Fiction Publishing!  I've already had one story out with them this year - Twitcher, in the Heinous Concoction horror anthology released back in February - and I've a couple more pending.  Again on the horror front, Great Black Wave will be coming up at some point, as will another personal favourite, my science-fiction tale of well-intentioned alien oppressors Free Radical.

Last up, I guess I should admit that there are one or two other things on the horizon, and those are original pieces.  But I don't know that I'm meant to be talking about them yet, so I won't.  Still, I do sincerely hope that things turn around before this year is out, because the way it's going, it's getting increasingly untenable to keep pouring time into writing and trying to sell short fiction - and it would break my heart to give it up.  So on that front as on every other, here's to the second half of 2018 sucking less than the first has!

Monday, 11 June 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 36

Apparently I've been watching a lot of supernatural horror anime lately, which might seem odd on the face of it, since I'm not always that enthusiastic about the stuff.  But there's just so damn much!  How do you avoid it?  And also, in fairness, for someone who'd not a massive horror fan these days, I've actually found a fair number of titles that I'm fond of.  Which makes it less surprising, I guess, that here we are with four releases that on the face of things are pretty similar and yet I've good words to say about all of them.

Plus, it's an excuse for another theme post!  This time around: Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma, Ninja ResurrectionSpirit Warrior: Castle of Illusion and Guardian of Darkness...

Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma, 1989, dir: Takashi Annô

Horror!  Ninjas!  Demons!  Medieval Japan!  At first glance, Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma is nothing if not familiar.  Coming six years after the classic Ninja Scroll, the feature-length, two part OVA is definitely mining similar territory, with its shinobi protagonist tracking the childhood friend who betrayed him through a landscape infested with war, occult monstrosities, and general malaise.  Chances are, if you've seen any vintage anime, you've seen something a bit like this.

However, if Blood Reign has a most valuable player, it's certainly director Annô, who treats his none-too-fresh material with far more gravitas than it probably deserves.  He doesn't pull back from the pulpier elements: it's extraordinarily gory in places, all the more so because of the unflinchingly clinical manner in which the blood and guts are displayed.  But whenever Blood Reign isn't being flat-out horror, or action, or a meld of the two, it's up to greatly more interesting things.  For something so unrestrainedly violent, it's surprising not only how much Annô is invested in building atmosphere but how often he succeeds.  There's genuine creepiness here, and it makes the horror elements a good deal more satisfying.  You suspect that in his heart Annô was more interested in making a straight-up period drama, and one film I was frequently reminded of was Mizoguchi's masterpiece Ugetsu Monogatari.

Now, Blood Reign ain't that.  But in its better moments, it's at least exploring similar territory.  And though the animation isn't top-notch, with a noticeable reliance on stills, its above par on a frequent basis, rising to the challenges of its material; likewise, the artwork is generally superb, and the intricate backgrounds are a big part of that above-mentioned creepiness.  There's a real sense of a world gone fundamentally wrong that seeps into every crack and corner, and Annô's stubborn insistence that this is all terribly important pushes elements that could be campy close to being genuinely nightmarish in places.  Really, the only production element that wildly drops the ball is the score, which is every bit as incongruous as you'd expect eighties synthesisers to be.  That said, though it could hardly be a worse fit, I did kind of adore the ending theme.

Blood Reign was released as part of ADV's Essential Anime series, and they were fibbing: it's by no means essential.  But it's not that far off; I just wish there was a little more meat on its bones.  Annô's flourishes and certain elements of the narrative, including some disorientating time skips and the presence of two characters who appear to be the same person despite the fact that they can't possibly be, hint at a deeper narrative than the straightforward tale of good versus evil on offer.  Nonetheless, let's not get too sniffy.  A mediocre story told well - sometimes exceptionally well - is still better than being kicked in the head by a giant aquatic demon horse.

Because, oh right, that's a thing that happens in Blood Reign.

Ninja Resurrection, 1997, dir: Yasunori Urata

There's a lot of hatred out there for Ninja Resurrection, for what at first glance seems a highly unfair reason: essentially, the established logic is that publisher ADV purposefully misled fans into believing this was a sequel to Ninja Scroll, by giving it a title with the word Ninja in and not taking sufficient care to establish that the protagonist isn't precisely the same as the one in the earlier work (though that Jubei was in fact a deliberate reference to the historical figure presented here.)  Am I the only person who finds this tenuous?  I mean, I don't doubt that ADV - or for that matter, the original creators - were eager to emphasise similarities with a film that had proved to be one of the biggest breakthrough anime in the West, but I've seen vastly more shameful attempts to cash-in.

None of which is to say that there aren't reasons to hate on Ninja Resurrection.  And the biggest is one we've seen around these parts far too often before: it doesn't end.  I mean, there isn't the faintest shadow of closure, and the second of the two OVA episodes presented here is effectively all setup, with no hint of the self-contained narrative that the first manages to offer.  And this I found more annoying than usual because I really quite liked what there is.

Heck, by the end of that first part, I was willing to go further.  It's an appealingly grotesque slice of warped history, centered around the real-life Shimabara rebellion, which saw peasants and ronin turning against the Tokugawa government in resistance to tax hikes and religious persecution of the local Catholic population.  The latter is the focus here, though as with a lot of anime, Christianity ends up being portrayed in a manner bound to rub a few Western viewers up the wrong way.  Personally I was entirely down with its bewildering central conceit, whereby Jesus returns in seventeenth-century Japan, with the caveat that if his plans go awry he's doomed to turn into the Antichrist instead.  I don't know if I was just in the right mood, but the fact that this story was presented with some genuinely outrageous gore didn't bother me either.  It helped that the character designs are appealingly different, with a style that put me in mind of Mike (Hellboy) Mignola's work.  Really, it felt less like a rip-off of Ninja Scroll and more like a sleazy Italian-style bit of eighties Grand Guignol, à la Demons or The Church, only with Mignola's art style and a truly outrageous ninja battle climax.  Again, maybe I was in the right mindset for such madness, but that sat fine with me.

However, the second part is more of a mixed proposition.  For a start, the character designs get very weird indeed, with a more traditional, big-eyed anime aesthetic rubbing up against the stark angularity of what's been established.  Moreover, in two set piece sequences, the violence is directed at women in a fashion that recalls some of anime's nastier corners.  In fairness, the second of those scenes, while gobsmackingly unpleasant, is a genuinely inspired bit of horror; but the first is unnecessary and crass on practically a Legend of the Overfiend level.  And as I said, there's no real narrative, only odds and sods of story clearly setting up a larger plot.  It's fine, and the gore is effective if that's your bag, but it lacks the impact of part one.

With all of that said, and even with the severe lack of a conclusion, I'm inclined to call out those contemporary reviews for their bad practice - review what something is, not what you thought it might be, dumbass! - and suggest that, if you want some nineties horror anime and have a strong stomach, you could do worse than Ninja Resurrection.  It pulls no punches, it has style to spare, and at one point a guy transforms into an armoured missile to try and take down a giant stone dragon summoned by Christ, which I'll warrant you're not likely to see anywhere else.  Sure, it's not Ninja Scroll, and if I'm honest it's not a patch on that seminal work, but you can grab it cheaply and there's nothing else quite like it.

Spirit Warrior: Castle of Illusion, 1988, dir: Ichirô Itano

Having been underwhelmed by the first of these Spirit Warrior releases, Festival of Ogres' Revival, I decided to give the franchise - which spans a further three volumes after this one - a last try before condemning it to the lowest ranks of the slew of supernatural horror anime that came out of Japan in the eighties and nineties.  The good news is, I'm glad I did.  The bad news is, I now really want to track down the remainder, which are absurdly hard to find.

Still, Spirit Warrior: Castle of Illusion (which has nothing to do with the Mickey Mouse game of the same name, that I can tell!) is satisfying enough in its own right.  It's more or less the same thing as the first release, with heroic Buddhists teaming up to fire off what amount to magic spells in an action-heavy quest to quell an ancient evil, which this time turns out to be Oda Nobunaga, who's popped up in so much damn anime by this point that I envy him his agent.  Only, every element works better this time through.  The plot is busier, the action is more exciting, and the horror is a good deal freakier.  One monster in particular, apparently designed by special effects genius Screaming Mad George, is legitimately fantastic, and gets the best of some frequently strong animation.  The titular castle is another standout, a horror of organic architecture that we first see rising from a lake of blood and never stops being weird and wrong.  Even the running time is a touch longer, scraping past the mark where it feels like a proper film with a real beginning, middle, and end.

Needless to say, it's not perfect.  The U. S. Manga Corps release has a tendency to look like crap in the talky sequences, which may or may not be a fault with the original print, but in any case is hard to ignore.  And there's next to none of the sorts of thing you'd generally expect from a film, even a dumb one that basically wants to showcase monks fighting icky monsters: seek for meaningful characterization or plot development and you'll come away empty-handed.  Still, within its narrow niche, Spirit Warrior: Castle of Illusion manages a solid hour of entertainment, with enough excellent scenes and genuine bizarreness to stand out from the crowded pack.  It's a keeper and it turned me around on the whole series, so I guess that's a definite recommendation.

Guardian of Darkness, 1990, dir: Osamu Yamasaki

Guardian of Darkness is full of surprises.  Which is not to say it's full of originality.  Its visible influences are many and obvious, and at times it feels like a patchwork quilt of popular Japanese properties and subgenres.  There's a bit of Ultraman, a hefty dollop of The Guyver, for a while it looks like it plans to be a high school drama, and all of that's built upon a spine of horror-tinged dark fantasy that recalls a whole heck of a lot of shows from the nineties in which events out of history or mythology threaten the present.  There's nothing truly novel in a story that finds two teens possessed into fighting on opposite sides of an ancient conflict, with on the one hand shy, bullied Terumi being empowered by wrathful dragons and on the other the boy she has a huge crush on, Susanoo, learning that he possesses the power and cool, size-changing bio-mechanical armour to stop them.

All of this rattles along merrily for the first of three lengthy episodes, but the first sign that something more interesting might be going on comes when those forty-five minutes wrap up a good chunk of what looked as if it was going to be the plot.  Sure enough, by part two we have a radically changed status quo and a renewed focus on character over action, as well as a widening cast and scope.  The elements remain familiar, but none are used in quite the fashion you might expect.  And as the show progresses, the more apparent it becomes that it's at least trying to carve out a distinctive corner for itself, even if it's not mustering any brand-new ingredients.

To some extent, that's Guardian of Darkness all over.  It does nothing amazingly well, nor is there any aspect that lets it down significantly.  The characters are interesting, even if Susanoo threatens to be the sort of overly moody teenage male that populates so much of anime; Terumi gets to grow considerably and in satisfying ways, taking over the story in a manner I wouldn't have dared hope for based on her early scenes.  The design work and animation is solid without being great, though there are some lovely backgrounds and Yamasaki uses his budget to good effect.  Seikou Nagaoka's score has some terrifically minimalistic pieces for the slower, more atmospheric scenes, but grows generic when the action kicks off.  The only real letdown is another dire print from U. S. Manga Corps, which is so dark and muddy that it's often an active effort to keep track of what's going on.  Nevertheless, Guardian of Darkness gets a solid thumbs up: it may not be original or terribly outstanding, but it hits enough unexpected notes, develops in intriguing enough ways, and combines its elements differently enough that it ends up feeling unexpectedly fresh.


I guess the standout here was Blood Reign, which perhaps was the only release not getting props for being better than I expected; it's genuinely a bit special, if frustratingly imperfect, and I'm still listening to that awesome, utterly inappropriate closing track.  As for the rest, it's well worth keeping an eye out for and diving on a reasonably priced copy - or in the case of Ninja Resurrection, grabbing for a pound or two and watching the first episode when there's nothing that takes your fancy on Netflix.

Next time, perhaps we'll get the post that Blogger decided to delete and autosave over, if I can bring myself to rewrite it!  Or if not, one of the seven or so others I seem to have on the go!  Honestly, this whole thing has got a bit out of hand, he says, about three years too late...

[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 31Part 32Part 33Part 34, Part 35Part 37, Part 38]

Saturday, 2 June 2018

The Black River Chronicles Book 3: May Progress Report

I swear I'm not going to get into monthly reports on the new Black River Chronicles book or anything
like that.  But now that we're out of May, I did want to share some good news while there's good news to be shared.  I'm considerably past the halfway point with the second draft now, and things are going well, despite my concerns around turning in a way-too-long first draft.  However many books you have under your belt, it's a little scary trying to wrangle a bloated novel into shape: there are all those words, and many of them are the wrong ones, and they're going to need carving out or else replacing with ones that work.  Plus, with all that dead wood, it's hard to see what shape the trees are in.

But two thirds of the way through and the trees are looking pretty respectable.  Eye of the Observer is a very different book to either Level One or The Ursvaal Exchange, for a whole variety of reasons.  It kicks off with a bang, both literal and metaphorical, and a great deal of what follows is spent picking up the pieces of what's gone badly wrong, though of course our intrepid gang don't necessarily realise that's what they're doing.  From their perspective, they're mostly just muddling through, and even more so than usual, Durren tends to be oblivious to the bigger questions.  That leaves the sort of narrative where it's tough to see the exact shape of what's been going on until after it's happened ... which, frankly, isn't easy to get right!  There's no neat three act structure here, but there's a lot ticking away in the background.

That flabby first draft made it difficult to judge whether crucial character beats and plot points and those sneaky bits of foreshadowing were falling in the right places.  Now, having already hacked away the equivalent of a couple of chapters, what remains is a good deal more reassuring.  The underlying story is definitely the one I set out to tell back at the end of last year, and that's a story I'm still really excited for.  In particular, I love where this book takes Arein, who, between you and me, has always been sort of my favourite character.  And isn't your job as a writer to put your favourite characters through the wringer without mercy?  I think it is.  So while I feel bad about what our resident wizard has to endure, I don't regret it for an instant.

Of course, I've still got the better part of a hundred pages to go, and the easier stretch is behind me.  There's definitely some significant re-writing ahead.  But there again, I'm feeling confident: I know where I've gone wrong and what needs changing.  In particular, I know what needs fixing for the big climax - and it's a huge big multiple-chapter-spanning climax this time! - to really come together.  So while the next month isn't likely to be easy, I'm not so nervous anymore.  There's a long way to go before our end-of-the-year release date, but I'm confident that come December, Eye of the Observer will be the book I've always hoped it would be.