Thursday, 17 May 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 35

Let's take a break from those themed review posts, which were a silly idea anyway, and go back to the usual randomness, huh?  And this one seems all the more random from my point of view in that I'm hopelessly far ahead on these things and I barely remember watching this stuff, let alone reviewing it.  Did I really have nice things to say about M. D. Geist II?  Was I really bowled over by a fighting game adaptation?  Now that I think, I'm not convinced I wrote this at all.

Well ... whoever did, here to do with as you please are their questionable opinions on Samurai X: The Motion Picture, Night Warriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge, M. D. Geist II: Death Force and Darkside Blues...

Samurai X: The Motion Picture, 1997, dir: Hatsuki Tsuji

I've encountered the Rurouni Kenshin franchise in a weird old order: firstly with the excellent Trust and Betrayal OVAs, which serve as a prequel to the main series, then with the wildly fun trilogy of live-action films released only recently, then with the terrific Reflection OVA, an epilogue, and now with this, the anime motion picture - also known under the fussier but more useful title of Rurouni Kenshin: Requiem for the Ishin Patriots.  Yet I still haven't seen the main series.  Given that the show ran to about ninety episodes and the films have a combined running time of maybe six hours, I suspect I've missed out on some of the finer details.

All of which is to say that I was a bit at sea with Samurai X: The Motion Picture, which I'd imagined to be along the lines of the OVAs - that is, more of a self-contained, stylized, mature take on the material - and turned out to be entirely a sidequal to the core series.  Unlike the stunningly gorgeous OVAs, this looks very much like a mid-budget TV show, with character designs and voice acting that are a huge step down.  Nor does it help that the plot takes a damn age to get going, especially if you're unfamiliar with the background details of the show and particularly with its supporting cast.  Even knowing different versions of these characters, I often found myself struggling to feel much involvement in their fates.

But it's bad practice to criticise something for not being what you expected, and on its own merits, Samurai X: The Motion Picture is - well, fine for the most part, and pretty good in its last third, once events finally grind into motion.  Despite the impression the opening scenes give, it actually tells quite a self-contained tale, as Kenshin and his friends find themselves mixed up with a samurai named Takimi Shigure, who's spent the years since the end of the war against the Tokugawa Shogunate bitterly nursing his grievances, and is now ready to settle old scores, with a fresh revolution to wipe out the failures of the old one.  Of course, he and Kenshin have personal history too - a fact revealed to we the viewer almost immediately, but which neither of them realise for a good long while - and inevitably the two are going to come to blows sooner or later.

As a spin-off movie for a well-respected TV show, this is pretty great stuff, and exemplary in a lot of ways.  It's not absolutely necessary, but it certainly adds depth to both the characters and the narrative, while essentially doing its own thing in a way that even someone new to the property could just about follow.  What it isn't is anything like on a par with the OVAs - which, to be fair, set a high bar indeed.  So while Trust, Betrayal and Reflection are indispensable if you're serious about anime, the movie is more along the lines of a solid ninety minutes of entertainment, which you'll probably find a bit exhausting unless you've experienced some other iteration of the Rurouni Kenshin universe.  Which feels a bit harsh to say, given that what's on display here would probably warrant a recommendation were it not book-ended by excellence, but so it goes.

Night Warriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge, 1997, dir's: Masashi Ikeda, Satoshi Ikeda

You remember that Dark Universe nonsense that Universal were so determined to get off the ground, an attempt to revamp all of their famous monsters that was foiled by a clear contempt for basically everything that made the originals great?  Well, pretend that hadn't been utterly misconceived from the ground up and you'd have something a bit like Night Warriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge.  Er, if the great Universal horror movies of yore had involved all of the monsters fighting each other with ludicrous special moves, anyway.

Because, yes, it's another fighting game adaptation.  But I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Night Warriors is probably the best of the bunch.  Though animation-wise it's perhaps not quite on a par with Street Fighter 2: The Animated Movie, it comes damn close, and for a three hour OVA that's saying something.  Meanwhile, on every other count it wins hands down.  For a start, the characters are infinitely more interesting.  Which I suppose is faint praise, so I should say instead that there are actual interesting characters here, ones that stretch beyond 'ethnic stereotype with particular move set.'  My favourites were probably the vengeful demon-hunting Chinese wizard sisters, one of whom is a hopping vampire, but there's probably enough information in that sentence alone to give you a sense of the lengths Night Warriors is going to.  And because it breaks its running time down into a series of sizable vignettes that sideline characters for long periods or even entire episodes, there's none of the frantic chopping and changing and making sure everyone gets to fight everyone else that normally comes with these things.  It has actual stories to tell, a fascinating setting to tell them in, and space to tell them well.

The flip side, I suppose, is that the overall tale is weaker than its components.  But it's still a fair bit more fun than you'd expect, especially since the plot to pretty much every other damn fighting game adaptation is "evil corporation creates international tournament to steal fighters' skills."  Night Warriors sticks two fingers up to all that and asks if you wouldn't rather hear about an alien sun god teaming up with sentient robots programmed to manipulate Earth's evolutionary history?  And while I can conceive of someone who might answer that question in the negative, I can't imagine they'd have stuck with these posts all the way through to number thirty-five.

The result is, of course, furiously silly, and perhaps sillier for how seriously it sometimes takes itself.  But I'll be damned if I'll grumble about over-ambition from a nineties anime fighting game adaptation.  So what if the makers wanted to dress up their ridiculous premise with a few meaningful ideas that probably don't belong anywhere near it?  Really, the worst that can be said of Night Warriors is that it leaves you craving to play games from a franchise that vanished an entire two console generations ago, because somehow people thought that Street Fighter and Tekken were more fun that making a zombie with extendable ribs battle a giant mummy.  Such is the fallen world we live in, but at least we're left with three bonkers hours of monsters philosophizing and punching each other, so it could certainly be worse.

M. D. Geist II: Death Force, 1996, dir: Kôichi Ôhata

If I recall correctly, my response to the original M. D. Geist was along the lines of us, "it's terrible, but not interesting enough to be a true nadir of the medium," which is about as harsh a critique as I have in me.  So you can see why I didn't exactly rush to watch the sequel.

In fact, here we are, twelve posts and over a year later!  And you know what?  It really wasn't that bad.  In fact, up until the midway point, I was suspecting that it might even be kind of adequate.  After all, ten years had gone by in the world of anime between the two titles, everyone had surely learned a bit about their craft in the meantime, and there was money to be spent, from none other than U.S. Manga Corps, the company that were so wedded to the original that they made its protagonist their "company spokes mecha."*

So yes, those first few minutes are almost kind of fun.  There are some entirely solid sequences, even; and somehow the nastiness and the gore, which have been cranked up to eleven this time, have a certain tacky charm that was largely absent the last time around.  It's not good, exactly, but nor is it shockingly bad in the way M. D. Geist was more or less from its opening moments.  The setup is even a little bit interesting, as we discover that there's a single haven of humanity holding out against the killer-robot threat of the titular death force - but one that's run by our "hero" Geist's predecessor in the Most Dangerous Soldier program, who may not be the out-and-out nutter that Geist is but doesn't exactly come across as sane and rational either.

Yet there are warning signs, both of weird cost-cutting measures and of weirder creative decisions: the first is an expository scene in which we never see anyone's mouths, because actually animating mouths when people are talking costs money, don't you know?  It's one of those details you can't help but notice, and having noticed, find inexpressibly cheap and awful.  Then we get near the halfway point, which feels so much like the end of a first episode that I wonder if that wasn't once the intention, and things really go off the rails.  An entire new plot starts up, which seems to contradict the previous one in a couple of essentials.  And the more time goes by, the more apparent it becomes that Ôhata simply can't tell this story worth a damn.  Crucial plot points are skipped over or delivered retrospectively for no apparent reason, and it's all very confusing in a way that feels deliberate, but to no discernible purpose.  I mean, it's not like the narrative is anything but idiotically straightforward!  How hard is it to tell an idiotically straightforward plot in a straightforward manner?

If you're M. D. Geist II: Death Force then the answer, apparently, is "impossibly hard."  But, I don't know, that fact just didn't bother me half as much as it should have.  In fact, I had quite a bit of fun with this sequel: it's so hilariously, self-consciously mean-spirited and nihilistic, and so in love with its impossibly horrible protagonist, that it's hard not to be caught up in its preposterousness.  And there's a certain eagerness that I found charming, as though everyone involved was daring each other to see how over the top they could go.  Like, "Hey, what if Geist used some guy's body for a shield and then shoved his gun through the resulting mess of bullet holes and shot everyone while guts showered everywhere!"  Which, writing it like that, admittedly sounds quite obnoxious.  And, yes, M. D. Geist II: Death Force is absolutely that.  So maybe all it comes down to is that the animation was a great deal better this time around, at least when it wasn't cost-cutting still frames.  Am I really that shallow?  I think I am.  And since it's not like I'm actually recommending that you waste your time with this rubbish, and I intend to sell my copy and forget about the experience as soon as I possibly can, I guess there's no real harm done.

Darkside Blues, 1994, dir: Yoriyasu Kogawa

We've seen quite a lot of author Hideyuki Kikuchi around these parts - or rather, adaptations of his works - and reactions have been somewhat mixed, but on the whole I'm happy to call myself a fan: Demon City, Wicked City and Vampire Hunter D (or at least Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust) are all titles I've enjoyed to a greater or lesser extent.  But while Darkside Blues has much in common with all of those - up to and including its blend of supernatural fantasy with science-fiction elements, its menagerie of monstrous enemies, and its general air of weirdness - it also feels quite distinctive.  What research I've done suggests a passion project, as does the sheer level of detail that's gone into the world-building and the cast of characters, which is intimidating for a movie that clocks in at under an hour and a half.

Even summing up the plots proves a challenge, though on its simplest level it boils down to the sort of 'plucky rebels versus evil corporation' story that was everywhere in anime at this point.  Strip away those supernatural elements and I suppose that's all you get; but then strip them away and you'd lose half of what there is here, and nearly all of what makes the film special.  For a start, there's the character of Darkside himself, who in the opening minutes rides out of some sort of space-time fissure in the middle of the city that acts as home for most of the narrative, and proceeds to make his presence felt in ways that suggest he has the power to be doing a great deal more than hanging around the sidelines being cryptic.

Speaking of being cryptic, there's an awful lot of that going on, and whether you love Darkside Blues - as I did - or consider it a load of nonsense will probably come down to how much slack you decide to cut the baffling pronouncements that Kikuchi gifts his characters.  I strongly suggest that you go along with him, because there are some thrilling notions here, including the idea that the entire setting may be some sort of psychic sinkhole created by an unbalance in our own "real" universe.  Or there's the hostel that automatically takes everyone to the room where they need to be, or Darkside himself, whose profession and motivation are equally nebulous.

Even if you decide that too much deliberate oddness isn't a good thing, there's still a lot to be enjoyed.  The animation is very good, but the design work and artwork style are absolutely splendid.  There's some excellent action for what's on the face of things a fairly cerebral affair, and the score is pretty much marvelous - indeed, the title track is, against all reasonable expectations, a truly fine blues number.  Really, the only significant complaint I have is that there was obviously intended to be more. The ending is a proper ending, in the sense that it wraps up what we've come to think of as the central narrative thread, but every one of the big questions is left hanging.  Which takes us back to that passion project thing; it's obvious Kikuchi was deeply invested in his characters and setting and wasn't ready to shut the door on the world of Darkside Blues by tying everything up with a neat bow.   And honestly, I can't criticise.  Those leftover questions are fun to guess at, and I don't know that I need them answering.  Unless you're the kind of person who has to have every last strand of a story tied off, or unless you've actively hated any of those other Kikuchi adaptations, I'm happy to give this one a serious recommendation.  It's a bit special, all told, and not too far off the absolute top tier of nineties anime moviemaking.


Okay, I clearly did write those, because no one else would waffle on for five paragraphs about M. D. Geist II.  And it's funny going back to these posts with the benefit of hindsight; I really didn't remember being that enthusiastic about the Samurai X movie, whereas Night Warriors and Darkside Blues I'm already itching to watch again.  The latter you can even track down for a reasonable price, so I guess that counts as a serious recommendation.

As for next time, who knows?  I have so many of these posts on the go now that it's anyone's guess!  A Gall Force special, maybe?  That 'anime that isn't anime' post I've been slaving over?  More random crap?

Yeah, it'll probably be that last one.

[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 33, Part 34]

* Or rather spokesmecha, surely, if you really have to make up such a dumbass neologism.  But no, that's how U. S. Manga Corps want it, and it makes me grit my teeth a little each time I see it.

Monday, 7 May 2018

The Top Ten Reasons I Reject Stories For Digital SFF

The topic of why stories get rejected is one I've been thinking about for an awfully long time, first as I tried to figure out what I was doing wrong to earn me endless rejections in the early days and then, over the last couple of years, as I found myself being the one behind those rejections in my role as Acquisitions Editor of fantasy and sometimes science-fiction short stories at Digital Fiction Publishing.  In the early days I tried to write a brief note explaining all of my 'no' votes, and I rapidly found that I was hunting for permutations of the same handful of explanations time and again; steadily it became apparent that, with a few rare exceptions, I was bouncing stories for a very limited number of reasons.

Now before I go further, I should say that the general standard of submissions we get is reliably high, and that we end up rejecting very many solid stories.  There's a definite advantage to only considering work that's been previously published in at least a semi-pro market.  (Of course, not everyone follows the guidelines, and that can be a reason for rejection in itself, though rarely on its own.)  My aim here certainly isn't to denigrate the work we turn away; it's simply to offer a little behind-the-scenes insight.  And to that I'll add that I've made every single mistake here at one point or another, so I'm certainly not one to judge!  In fact, I suspect I still make some of them.  Like this first, for example...

- No Sympathetic Characters
It's tough going to read about a protagonist who's totally obnoxious for however-many pages; then again, it's perfectly possible to make the most colossal asshat sympathetic so long as they're interesting.  The everyman characters tend to be the worst for this one: those who are just like all those boring people you know, only something wildly fantastical is happening to them.  That's fine and all, but I don't especially want to read about boring people, especially if there's nothing to give them a spark of inner life and I start to suspect that maybe their author isn't terribly attached to them either.
- Seen It Before
This is probably the hardest to pre-empt; what's overly familiar to me might be the freshest damn thing to another editor.  With that said, it's definitely the case that a writer's unfamiliarity with the genre they're working in tends to show itself quickly.  Often, however, it's not even the content necessarily, but rather a question of style and tone.  To put it another way, the stories that tend to spark my interest early are the ones that do at least something to surprise me: a turn of phrase here or an idea there.  When you boil it right down, there aren't a lot of truly innovative concepts left to be written, but any really good writer will bring a voice to their material that will make it feel fresh.
- No, Literally Seen It Before
Oh, and then there are the folks who actually just keep sending in the same story.  Pro tip: for this to stand a hope of working, you really need to make sure that the person who read your story the last time is out of the picture.  Try murder.  Or bribery.
Wait, no, definitely that second one.
- More Than a Couple of Typos
We're a reprint market, so we're not much for copy-editing, because that should have been done already.  So if I'm spotting obvious mistakes in a piece that's already been published then that's a major red flag.  Also file under this category leaving track changes on with an editor's comments visible in the margins.  Especially when you've ignored those comments, despite their being obviously correct.  (This has become so common that it's actually kind of weird.)
- Too Long
Actually, this arguably affects the majority of submissions we get.  And I'd urge any writer of short fiction to make trimming their story to its briefest reasonable length a priority.  I'll always look more kindly on a good four-thousand word story than a good six-thousand word short story, because the former makes less demands on my time and so allows me to get more work done.  And in the latter case, I'll likely be noting the points where cuts could have been made.  Generally they're not hard to find; often these are the tales that start a couple of pages before they should have, with a lengthy character-establishing preamble or a blob of direct exposition that really should have been worked in more subtly later.
- Fairies And / Or Blacksmiths
This is probably a subcategory of "Seen It Before" - in fact, it definitely is - but there always seems to be someone who assumes that everybody else out there has forgotten the roots of the genre and that it will be terribly daring to write something in which a random blacksmith's apprentice kills a dragon or gets tricked by fairies or whatever.  I don't know if there's an obvious sci-fi equivalent, but as a general rule, if you think you've rediscovered the long-lost wellspring of a genre, you probably haven't.  In fact, you'll be lucky if your 'blacksmith's apprentice vs fairies' story is alone in that batch of submissions.
- Not As Funny As It Thinks It Is
These tend to be the most likely to make me want to stop reading within a paragraph: the stories that scream their intention to be humorous from their opening lines and just aren't.  Which, in fact, is most of the ones that take a stab at being funny, because humour is perhaps the hardest thing to get right as a fiction author, and also because I'm a miserable git.  Unless you have cast-iron proof that you're a comedy genius, I'd argue for not taking the risk.
On the other hand, any story that really makes me laugh is almost a surefire recommendation, so make of that what you will.
- Not Actually a Story
A tricksy one this, but awfully common; these are the tales where five or six or a dozen pages in, I'm still not getting any sense of an actual narrative.  Twist-ending stories tend to fall into this category, at least the ones where the author has assumed that someone will endure a few thousand words of mundanity just to have the rug pulled from under them in the last paragraph.  Whatever the case, a story needs to be doing something awfully right elsewhere to get me to overlook the fact that I'm nearing the halfway point and still don't have a clue as to why what I'm reading about should matter.
- Not Enough Style
These are the stories that tend to get farthest along, only to be rejected at the last minute, or scrape their way to a hesitant 'maybe'.  They're fine, they're engaging, there's enough originality in the tale itself to make them stand out from the crowd, but there's nothing to differentiate them stylistically.  On the narrative level they're interesting, but on the level of sentences and words they're a bit flat.  Honestly, this is a really, really hard one to nail, but it's often what makes all the difference, and a sign that a further draft was needed to introduce that elusive spark.
- An Overabundance of Style
Then there are the stories that just don't know when to back off with their style.  It's there from the first line and never relents, even when it's getting in the way of such basic necessities as moving the plot forward or setting up characters.  After the stories that try to be funny and don't land it, these tend to be the most wearisome, and often its because they're the work of obviously talented writers - ones who are maybe just a little too aware of that fact.  Style is undoubtedly a way to catch an editor's eye, and I've recommended stories that wowed me that way, but it can also become exhausting really quickly; basically it's a tool like any other, that needs to be put away sometimes.
And there we have it: the top reasons I'm most likely to turn down a submission, or at least the ten that I could remember off the top of my head.  So what do people think?  Is anything here unreasonable?  Does the world need more stories about fairies and blacksmiths?  Is style overrated?  Or underrated?  Set me right in the comments!

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Hark to the Sign in the Moonlight

Implausible as it might seem, I can be a bit sneaky on occasions!  Like when it comes to news; I've been sitting on this particular piece for over a year now, even though it was a subject I was craving to discuss.  But I can also be sly when it comes to getting my books out in cool formats.  Today's case in point occurred somewhere around last Christmas, when, due to a contract mix-up, it turned out that my story The Shark in the Heart had been included in an audiobook adaptation of the Sharkpunk anthology though I'd omitted to sign over the relevant rights.  Editor Jonathan Green was immensely nice about the confusion (as he tends to be nice about everything, unless you're unlucky enough to find yourself up against him in a live version of Just a Minute at a convention, in which case he's a git) and offered to have my story removed.  But I'd already heard the recording of The Shark in the Heart by then, and it was a terrific take on the story, so that was the last thing I wanted to happen.  Instead, spying an opportunity, I asked if he would mind making introductions to the team who'd produced the audiobook version, studio Circle of Spears?

My goal, of course, was to talk them into producing an audiobook of my own short story collection The Sign in the Moonlight, which had been a cherished dream basically from the moment I started putting the anthology together.  And fortunately they didn't need a lot of persuading; in fact, they were flat-out enthusiastic.  The results, somewhat over a year later, are everything I could have hoped for, and something I suspect only a smaller, independent production house could have concocted.  For a start, Sam Burns and Tracey Norman split the male and female narrators up between them, which is a brilliant touch; but more than that, their deep roots in drama mean that these are more than mere narrations.  They've gone the extra mile to build on the characters I wrote, and to capture the period atmosphere that's crucial to so much of the collection.  Stories such as The Burning Room and The War of the Rats really do have the air of historical diary accounts read aloud; The Desert Cold really does have the sinister overtones of a criminal's confession; let your mind drift a little and it really is possible to believe that the teller of The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper's Karma is recounting from the distant past.  Sam and Tracey have found the bloody hearts of these stories and ripped them out for anyone to hear, and the result is something as special, in its own way, as the beautifully illustrated original or its lavish hardback cousin.

Anyway, no need to take my word for what a fine job Circle of Spears have done!  You can grab a digital copy here, or a physical copy here.  And full details of the collection, including the story listing, can be found on my website here.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 34

I swear, I'm not going to continue theming these posts, if only because no-one actually reads them and they exist purely to give me an excuse to waste my money on ridiculous nineties anime!  I mean, given that scenario, taking the time to come up with actual themes feels like a step too far.

Nevertheless, the last post had one, and purely by accident, so does this.  For your delectation, then, I offer - er, OVAs of an hour or less in length, for lack of a snappier title.  I'd built up quite a stockpile of these, solely for the reasons that a) they exist and b) it's sometimes convenient to have a film at hand that runs to less than an hour.  For those situations where you have less than an hour and you want to watch a film, you see!

Though, since at least two of the releases here are unfinished and another was most probably a pilot for a show that never got picked up, it's safe to say that I've possibly arrived at the wrong solution.  Not to be deterred, this time around we have: Ninja Cadets, Burn Up!, Wild Cardz and Shinesman...

Ninja Cadets, 1996, dir: Eiji Suganuma

I don't know why I was more bothered by Ninja Cadets not finishing its story than I've been by other, frequently better releases, and yet I was: it really did annoy me to get to the second of its two episodes only to discover that here, yet again, was an incomplete OVA that an American publisher had seen fit to sneak out, hoping no-one would notice.  Perhaps its only that, until the last moments, Ninja Cadets seemed like it feasibly could wrap up, if not its wider narrative of warring clans and mystical powers then at least its simple core tale of a bunch of ninja kids passing their entrance exam.

Because, yes, that title is to be taken literally: teenage trainee ninjas is where we're at.  And I confess, I'm down with the idea of teenage trainee ninjas.  It certainly helps that they're a tolerable bunch, despite some rather unpleasant character designs, and that for all their one-note personality flaws, they're extremely capable when it comes to the actual ninja-ing side of things.  Fortunately this makes for a couple of satisfying and imaginative action sequences, which are the absolutely best thing Ninja Cadets has going for it: they're weird and exciting and over the top, and while they're happening, its numerous failings are pushed into the background.

Other than the character designs - which, apart from one of the villains, really are objectionable - those failings include some fairly so-so animation and a score that manages to be anachronistic, boring, and incredibly typical of anime circa 1996 all at the same time.  The English dub is also pretty horrendous; where the hell did this notion that teenage girls in anime have to sound like they're out of their minds on helium ever come from?  But stick with the subs and what you're left with is mostly fine: modestly appealing when the characters are hanging out having comic japes and rather fun once the fighting starts and it's a bunch of ninja kids battling outlandish villains and freakish monsters.  The box description mentions Ninja Scroll, which on the one hand feels like reaching desperately, but on the other is by far the most obvious point of reference: if there was an intention here beyond "Hey, teen ninjas!" it was definitely to create something in the vein of that classic movie, but for a younger audience.

And really, why not?  If Ninja Cadets had wrapped up its story, instead of choosing to end by highlighting a load of loose plot threads, I'd probably give it a cautious thumbs up, at least of the "If you see it going for pennies then you could do worse" variety.  But somehow, all the good will I'd built up by studiously ignore its weaknesses evaporated the moment I discovered I'd have yet another nineties anime cliffhanger haunting me to my grave.  And if my last words on earth are "But ... what happened to Yume?" then you know that Anime Works are to blame.

Burn Up!, 1991, dir: Yasunori Ide

Few questions are more puzzling than the matter of which eighties and nineties anime shows would develop into franchises where so many others fell by the wayside.  Case in point, and perhaps also the most peculiar example, is 1991's forty-five minute OVA Burn Up!  We've already encountered one of its sequels around this parts, in the shape of the somewhat longer 1996 show Burn-Up W, but there would be yet more, two full series' worth in fact, the last of which would arrive as late as 2004.  And though all three iterations have basically the same core characters and essentially the same setup, within those parameters they vary from each wildly.

How all of this sprang from the slip of a thing that is the original Burn Up! is a mystery for the ages.  Not that it's bad; indeed, the animation is rather fine, as signaled early on by an incredibly convoluted shot of the protagonists' cool futuristic car going around a spiraling motorway ramp that's a clear piece of showing off.  There's an impressive attention to detail all through, and the backgrounds especially stand out, not only because they're beautifully painted but because there are some legitimately interesting choices of shots and locations, which carry much of the weight of conveying a just-slightly-near-future setting.  Add to that character designs I'd have sworn were by Kenichi "Gunsmith Cats" Sonoda, though the internet denies it, and an energetic score by the reliable and frequently amazing Kenji Kawai, and you have some thoroughly respectable production values.

But what's all that in service of?  A show that feels an awful lot like an awful lot of others, that's what.  We have three female police officers, and one of them's kind of angry and won't play by the rules, another one is ditzy and the third - um, likes technical stuff, I think?  And like I said, it's the future, though not so much so that you'd really notice, which perhaps only means that Burn Up! did too good a job in its predictions, now that I think.  Anyway, our heroines set out to crack a human trafficking ring, and lots of shooting and exploding ensues, along with a fair bit of sleaziness and bared flesh, though thankfully not quite so much as the DVD case would like you to imagine.

Burn Up! does all of this very well indeed, it has to be said; for what amounts to forty minutes of actual story, it gets the job done and does so with style.  And perhaps the problem, and indeed the answer to my conundrum, is that back in 1991 this seemed a heck of a lot more original than it does now.  After all, much of what I found Burn Up! so reminiscent of - the aforementioned Gunsmith Cats and its spin-off Riding Bean, and especially the much superior You're Under Arrest! - would come later.  If Burn Up! was ahead of the curve then I guess we should applaud it, even if it would subsequently be bettered by its imitators.  And in fairness, it's a perfectly fine, if brief, bit of anime in its own right.  Since, unlike so much of what I review here, it's actually under license and available pretty cheaply, I guess that means a hesitant recommendation.  If you can ignore the short running time and the fact that its formula would be refined in subsequent years, you could do a lot worse.

Wild Cardz, 1999, dir: Yasuchika Nagaoka

I don't claim to know much at all about the intricacies of Japanese culture, and certainly not Japanese culture in the late nineties, but nevertheless I found myself asking within about the first five minutes of Wild Cardz - just who was the intended audience here?  It's at heart a magical girl show, which would suggest girls, but the amount of casual fan service on offer seems to rather rule that out, and though the designs would appear to be aimed at a younger audience, there's a bit of swearing and some weird racism with a Chinese character who speaks in whatever the Japanese equivalent of Engrish would be.  Also, at the risk of sounding immensely dumb, it's a little hard to follow; I mean, it's not Waiting For Godot or anything, but there's a considerable cast of characters for what amounts to forty minutes of actual running time.

Of course, I'm being disingenuous; clearly I hoped that I'd be the audience for Wild Cardz, since I bought it knowing what I was getting into and having read some less than glowing reviews.  The thing is, it sounded like exactly the sort of absurd and convoluted nonsense that's been known to keep me amused when actual quality was off the table: a world themed around games, in which the heroines are based on suites of cards and the antagonists are giant chess pieces?  Sure, I'll give that a go.  Which makes it all the more disappointing that the whole card theme thing goes nowhere and does nothing; of the four protagonists, Jo Diamonds kinda has a diamond-shaped force field when she pulls off her respective superpower, and we get some weaponised playing cards - which seems a weird abuse of something you've based your entire culture around! - but that's about it.  I don't know that taking such an absurd gimmick to its logical conclusions, whatever those might be, would actually help matters, but still I felt a little cheated.

Elsewhere, the music is excitable and the animation is perfectly fine, but unable to salvage some of the more violently horrible character designs I've ever seen.  The box art isn't, as I'd hoped, a grotesque misrepresentation: that's how the gang appear all the time.  Nor do they look better in motion, and they certainly don't look better for the animators' attempts to persuade that anything going on here is remotely sexy.  I find it hard to imagine even the most Pavlovianally horny teenage boy getting turned on here; really, lifelong celibacy is a likelier outcome.  As with so much anime from the back end of the nineties, the tiny skirts and occasional nudity feel like they're there to fulfill some sort of quota, not because anyone was especially invested.

And here I am, talking like I didn't enjoy Wild Cardz, when actually it kept me moderately diverted!  It's crap, it really is, but it's enthusiastically delivered crap, and it's a bit mad in a way that's hard to hate.  Jo Diamonds, as the only character who gets the least bit of development, is fun enough to be around, and the action - which is basically all of the OVA - is well delivered, even when it's being mind-bogglingly strange on a fundamental level.  But none of these are arguments for watching it, of course.  In truth, the only reason I'd recommend you actually try and hunt down a copy of Wild Cardz is if you have some weird sexual obsession that combines women and playing cards - and hey, I just answered my opening question!  But now I wish I hadn't.

Shinesman, 1996, dir: Shin'ya Sadamitsu

Shinesman (or The Special Duty Combat Unit Shinesman if you're not into the whole brevity thing) is a parody of Power Rangers and its ilk.  This is apparent from the cover on downwards, even if, like me, you're not familiar with Super Sentai (the Japanese franchise that started it all, if Wikipedia serves me rightly) or any of its copious offspring.  I mean, I've never seen a single episode of Power Rangers, but I get the basics: five people - four male and one female seems traditional - with colour-coded uniforms and special powers and moves, fight with villains, monsters, and robots.  It's a straightforward-enough formula, and like any straightforward formula that's been done to death and then some, it's ripe for pastiche.

Except, while I'm conscious that I opened by calling Shinesman a parody, in truth that isn't precisely its game.  Its goal is certainly about comedy, but its main joke is an odd one, and basically boils down to this: what if our five costumed heroes were salarymen and a bit boring?  Honestly, I don't know how to explain it better than that, and I certainly can't put into words why it works.  Yet it does, if sporadically; every time the five announce their identities, which are also their colours and include such thrilling shades as moss green, grey, and salmon pink, I chuckled a bit.  It's very Japanese humour, I suppose, though a surprisingly good dub makes solid efforts at converting the material for an American audience without chucking the baby out with the bathwater.  But the core boils down to, "Boy, superheroes and salarymen sure aren't a lot like each other!"  And while the West has an inordinate number of the former, the latter is a concept that only translates so far.

Am I over-analysing?  I think I'm over-analysing.  What matters, surely, is that Shinesman is both fun and funny, and altogether quite pleasant to be around.  The animation is resolutely so-so, though the backgrounds are rather nice and the opening and closing themes are pretty hummable.  But all that's truly important is that you'll get some laughs out of its hour-long running time.  It's not exactly comedy gold, it's a bit too laid back for that, but on the other hand I found myself smiling over some of its gags afterwards, as their subtleties sunk in.  Like everything here, with the clear exception of Wild Cardz, I wish there was more: its two episodes wrap up well enough, but there are enough loose plot threads left hanging that it's obvious more was planned.  It's hard to seriously recommend an hour-long release that's funny but not that funny when finding a copy is nigh-on impossible, but hey, that's your problem, not mine!  Because Shinesman is definitely worth a look.


Is this the first of these posts without a clear recommendation?  I think it might be.  And the irony is that there was nothing here I didn't enjoy - even if in the case of Wild Cardz it was a somewhat strained and baffled form of enjoyment.  Shinesman and Burn Up! are certainly both worth a look if you should happen to stumble across them at a reasonable price, which perhaps isn't dreadfully likely in the case of the former given how severely out of print it is.

Ah me, this is an exercise in futility, isn't it?  But a fun one!

[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 32, Part 33]

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Eastercon 2018

The more Conventions I attend, the less it seems I have to say; after all, these things mostly offer much the same brand of entertainment, and the differences come down to ever-more-subtle gradations of content and quality.  This is particularly true of Eastercon, which has evolved a great deal in the few years I've been attending, from something quite specific (and specifically SF-oriented) to a more general, jack-of-all-trades role that places it somewhere between the sprawling excess of Nine Worlds and the homelier comforts of the average Fantasycon.  If the negative there is a certain lack of character, the positive is definitely that, when an Eastercon succeeds in its goal of being all things to all people - or at least comes as close as is reasonably achievable for a low-cost Con - the results can be pretty marvelous.  And so it went this year, which was clearly the result of a great many good decisions being made.

Like Harrogate; Harrogate is such a nice place, and such a perfect choice of location.  The Majestic had its ups and downs as a venue: it was seriously spacious and lived up to its name in terms of sheer grandeur, but the bar service was horrific and having the bar area itself split was frustrating; I feel like I missed an awful lot of people I wanted to say hi to simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong times.  Yet the minor deficiencies of the hotel never seemed to matter much because Harrogate town centre was all of about five minutes away, and it was brilliant to be able to nip out to a fantastic restaurant or do a bit of shopping or just get some fresh air.  This is something that goes wrong too often - I'm looking at you, next year's Eastercon that's back at bloody Heathrow! - and it's crucial: force people to spend every minute in your convention hotel and they'll notice its flaws a good deal more than if you give them somewhere enticing to rove around.

And yes, I realise I'm biased because it's on my doorstep, but still.

Really, the only other vital thing I ask for is varied programming, and this year's Eastercon got that right, too.  There wasn't actually a ton of stuff I wanted to attend, but that's me being a grump, not the convention being rubbish.  Had I wanted to dip into the content more, there was hardly ever a point where I'd have been stuck with nothing besides that most overused of programming items, the panel.  There were talks, there was live music, there was a disco that actually wasn't too horrible, there was croquet (which got rained off, but hey) and there was a board games room, though I failed to persuade anyone to go there and play Galaxy Trucker with me.  Again, though, not the organisers' fault; and the point is, they'd gone to a heck of a lot of trouble to make sure that, whoever you were, there was something to keep you amused.  There was a ton of programming for kids, a lot going on for the old-school Eastercon SF crowd, and no end of more general options, but it never felt like ticking boxes, as Nine Worlds sometimes has to me.

This is all very general, isn't it?  Truthfully, that's because my personal experiences are a bit of a haze; with three novel deadlines converging and a few not-so-pleasant personal bits and bobs going down, the truth is that I wasn't altogether in the right head space for conventioneering.  And I guess drinking enough wine to drown a small whale may not have helped, though it certainly seemed to be helping at the time!  But both of my panels went really well; the one on gaming was a ton of fun, because who wouldn't want to talk about gaming for an hour?  And moderating on the topic of The Boundaries of Horror to a large and quite crowded room was a good deal less intimidating than it might have been thanks to some excellent panelists.  (I know it's wrong to single anyone out when everyone was so good, but Ramsey Campell's awesome knowledge of the genre and sheer enthusiasm were a real pleasure to be around.)  That aside, my highlight was probably a delightfully nerdy hour and a bit watching Matt "D'Israeli" Brooker get terribly excited about Ray Harryhausen and the subject of physical special effects in general - a subject ridiculously close to my heart, and especially appropriate because I capped off the weekend by going to see Isle of Dogs.  Which is pretty much a masterpiece, by the way, and likely to be one of the absolute highlights of the year, so you might want to go see it too.

To close ... well, like I said, I was a bit strung out, so it meant all the more that I got to hang out with some really wonderful people, including old friends, new acquaintances, and a few in-betweeners.  Like so many of us, I suppose - and at the risk of straying into Sean Penn-levels of alliteration - it's the conversations and company that keep me coming back to conventions.  I won't list everyone, because that would require a lot of remembering and I'd never get it right anyway, but thanks to everybody who hung out with me and kept me amused.  And thanks to the organisers of what was one of the very best Eastercons, not to mention one of the better conventions, I've been to.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

My Eastercon 2018 Schedule

How can it be nearly time for Eastercon already?  Oh well!  At least it's practically on my doorstep for a change, in the delightful town of Harrogate, which is probably the Paris of the north or something.  Honestly, I'd check, but I'm supposed to moderating a panel on Saturday and I haven't got a thing prepared - not to mention the imminent novel deadline and the copy-edits and approximately a-million-and-a-half other things - so I really ought to be concentrating on all that instead of singing the praises of Harrogate, lovely as it surely is.  With that out of the way, here's what I'm up to:

Games: Story Versus Mechanics
30th March 2018, Friday 16:00 - 17:15, Syndicate 334 (Majestic Hotel)
Boardgames (and RPGs) all have mechanics, and most of them have a story or theme. Which matters more to players' enjoyment? When do they work well together? What happens when are they at cross purposes?
With: John Coxon, Kieron Gillen, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Esther MacCallum-Stewart (M), David Tallerman 
 The Boundaries of Horror
31st March 2018, Saturday 11:00 - 12:00, Reading Room (Majestic Hotel)
What makes a story horror? How far can creators stretch the definition? Are there stories presented as horror that aren't? Our panel analyses the genre.
With: Ramsey Campbell, The Fossil, David Tallerman (M), Woadwarrior, Neil Williamson
In case you missed it, I'm moderating The Boundaries of Horror, so please do come to that one.  And why not prepare a few questions in advance?  If I don't get my act together soon, I'll need all the help I can get!

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Breaking Into the Glass Slipper

It's been an age since I last did a live interview, and they're a ton of fun, so when Charlotte Bond asked me if I'd like to sit down with her and discuss the Black River Chronicles and any other stuff that came to mind, I jumped at the opportunity.  For those who've never encountered it, Breaking the Glass Slipper, the podcast that Charlotte co-hosts with novelist Lucy Hounsom and writer and critic Megan Leigh, has become a terrific resource over the last few months for digging into the feminist issues surrounding genre fiction in a fun, accessible, smart, and somewhat nerdy fashion.

With all of that said, probably neither of us had guessed what a multitude of weird tangents would end up being covered under "any other stuff"!  In fairness, I'm probably to blame; I mean, the lengthy digression about my cross-dressing habits in the Dark Souls games was definitely my fault, and so was the excitable speculation about a live-action Lilo and Stitch movie.  All told, though, for a half hour interview, I think we managed to touch on a few really intriguing subjects - which, needless to say, had more to do with Charlotte's questions than my answers.

In amid the ramblings about Disney movies and video games, the biggest pleasure was getting to discuss the Black River Chronicles in real detail for the first time.  If you're a fan of the books, there are lots of juicy details here, including a discussion of how the series first began and debate over the crucial issue of why we haven't seen any romance blossoming yet.  And towards the end we got onto the topic of The Bad Neighbour, my imminent crime debut from Flame Tree Publishing, which was also really exciting for me, since I've basically said nothing anywhere about that one until now.

But why am I writing about what I said in an interview when I can just post a link?  This is pointless even by my standards!  So I'll shut up now and simply suggest that you go have a listen here.  And while you're at it, why not try a few more episodes?  Judging by the ones I've sampled, Breaking the Glass Slipper is a reliably excellent listen.