Friday, 31 July 2015

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 5

One thing I've realised in the last couple of weeks is that this blog series might conceivably never end.  Every time I think I've exhausted all of the nineties anime still available, I'll stumble over a new vein.  Once you start digging, its surprising what you can turn up; the more I go on, the more it becomes possible to imagine a future where I basically never stop discovering new stuff to watch.

On the other hand, it's even easier to imagine a future where I stop finding good new stuff to watch.  But I'm steadily coming to accept that, though a great deal of nineties anime has been forgotten for perfectly sensible reasons, that's not necessarily a reason to view it without a degree of interest and fondness.  If nothing else, it's thrilling to watch any art form develop at such a pace; asides perhaps from traditional film-making in its first decades, it's hard to think of any medium that's evolved so utterly or broadened its scope so widely in a mere handful of years.

Anyway, enough self-justification; there's nineties anime to be watched!  This week: Patlabor, Casshan: Robot Hunter, Geobreeders and The Dark Myth...

Patlabor: The Movie, 1989, dir: Mamoru Oshii

I should confess to a bit of a cheat on this one - and not for the usual reason, either, though this is indeed another late-eighties picture that I'm lumping into the wrong decade.  No, this time it's something far more insidious than that: I'm reviewing a movie I've seen before, and which is by one of my absolutely favourite directors, Mamoru Oshii of Ghost in the Shell fame.

Patlabor would be interesting work, in fact, if for no other reason than that you can practically see a masterly talent taking form over its hundred minute running time.  I don't know what Oshii's pre-Patlabor career was like, but it's difficult to imagine that anything in it was such a perfect marriage for his characteristic style and concerns as this.  As such, Patlabor is on its surface a giant robot movie, but one that once you delve even a little bit deeper turns out to be something considerably more interesting.  It spends a good deal of its running time posing as a rather sedate police procedural, before the last half hour transforms into a masterclass of an action movie conclusion, which constantly ramps its threat in imaginative, ever more exciting ways.  It does both of those things exceptionally well, but it's perhaps the first two thirds that bear most of Oshii's stamp.  There is, for example, a lovely, meditative sequence of the two police detectives going about their business, which does great work of visually emphasizing in light-handed fashion one of the film's core themes: that there'll always be places and people left behind by technological progress, and that the faster and more uncontrolled the progress, the deeper and more permanent the damage.

For a movie with doubts about the unchecked advance of technology, however, Patlabor had no qualms about being at the cutting edge of its field; given that it's now more than 25 years old, it stands up astonishingly well.  Few anime directors are as infatuated with detail as Oshii, and that tendency was already fully on display here; only the colour palette and facial designs really date it at all.  It benefits, too, from a typically marvelous score from Oshii's regular collaborator, Kenji Kawai.  And, impressively for its time, it's an early demonstration of Oshii's leaning towards highly capable female protagonists.  That epic finale, for example, neatly flips its gender cliches: while the men are holed up in the control room doing tech stuff and getting stressed, it's the women out there doing the actual giant robot fighting.

In short, Patlabor is a genuine classic, and a genuine milestone.  It's not, perhaps, as definitive or redefining as Ghost in the Shell would prove to be, but nonetheless Oshii's achievement here is tough to fault.

Casshan: Robot Hunter, 1993, dir: Hiroyuki Fukushima

Casshan, (or Casshern, depending on who you ask and when), has had a great many outings over the course of some fifty years, including a live-action film - which I remember as being entertaining, if not necessarily good - and a more recent short series with the cheery title of Casshern Sins.  But the one we're looking at is, to my knowledge, the character's second incarnation, which was a four part OVA revival of the seventies original.

Now I get the impression from my limited research that this re-imagining was intended to be rather more adult than that seventies take.  However, if you're sharp-eyed, a look at the poster will tell you exactly what passed for adult in the minds of the producers.  Yeah, it's that staple of nineties anime, stripping your heroine half naked for no damn reason other than the very cheapest titillation!  And boy does it stick out in Casshan, which otherwise is just about the goofiest thing you've seen.  Seriously, that needless flash of awkwardly animated bosoms aside, Casshan is not very adult at all - and frankly all the better for it.

It's hard indeed, for example, to dislike a series where the hero has for a sidekick a fire-breathing robot dog called Friender.  The presence of Friender alone introduces a giddy, kid-making-stuff-up-on-the-fly aspect that extends all the way through Casshan's most entertaining moments.  As such, it's worst when it's concentrating on its dour plot or its flaccid romance, and in the English dub at least, whenever Casshan is talking, since Steve Bulen inflicts on our teenage protagonist a voice that makes him sound like a forty year old ham actor in an amateur production of King Lear.  And since those elements take up quite a portion of the running time, it frequently threatens to not be too much fun; but then another absurd robot design shows up, or Casshan punches something, or Friender does anything at all, and suddenly it's entertaining again.

Does that qualify as a recommendation?  Probably not.  But you could do worse for a couple of hours of silly nostalgia-watching, and there are enough copies floating about that you can pick it up second hand for next to nothing.

Geobreeders, 1998, dir: Yûji Moriyama

Once again I have to admit to a degree of bias, in that Geobreeders was the first Manga I ever read, and as such has a soft spot in my heart that made me both giddily excited to discover that this anime adaptation was available and all but unable to consider it with any kind of objectivity.  It's also another slight cheat of my own rules for these articles, in that I've tried to focus on works that are fairly readily available, whereas Geobreeders is tough to find cheaply, (though it's worth pointing out that the DVD advertised as Region 1 is actually all region-compatible.)

With that baggage out in the open, what do we have here?  Well, Geobreeders follows the adventures of Kagura Total Security, an almost entirely female organisation devoted (in so much as they get paid for it) to the eradication of phantom cats, which are basically were-cats with the ability to infect and manipulate technology and some kind of secret, most likely evil, agenda.  And if a lot of stuff gets exploded in ludicrous fashion in the meantime, Kagura are absolutely okay with that.

Geobreeders the film, however, explains very little of this indeed - which could be a failing or a strength, depending on how you choose to consider it.  It opens with the false start of some comedy credits that won't make a damn bit of sense to anyone not already familiar with the property, then throws at us an in media res opening sequence that makes only a little more sense, then dashes straight on to its first big action set-piece, still with only the most tangential attempts made to fill us in on background, characters or anything much else.

All of this I love, and makes Geobreeders what it is, which is to say, hugely fun and absurdly fast-paced.  This is true of a lot of anime, but I've never seen it be truer than here.  Geobreeders really has no interest in anything that slows its forward momentum, it doesn't give half a damn about its own plot, and what's rarer, that carefree attitude is coupled with a director who actually seems genuinely in tune with his material.  It's fun and stupid and I can't help but adore it.  That said, a little research reveals that this first OVA is set quite far into the manga, and I can only imagine how little sense this would make if you hadn't at least a passing knowledge of the books; too, it should be noted that there's a fair bit of gratuitous female semi-nudity, for anyone who finds that bothersome.  Which I generally tend to, thinking about it, but I can't find it in my heart to climb on that high horse against a series where pretty much the entire cast are female, and all of them are, (whatever their comedic failings and tendency to needlessly blow things up), basically excellent at what they do.

The Dark Myth, 1990, dir's: Takashi Annô, Tomomi Mochizuki

Where do you even begin with a film like The Dark Myth?  Certainly not with the plot, for there's barely anything here that justifies the term; what we have instead is a series of conversations, mostly about either history or theology, crammed into a loose narrative framework that mostly serves to switch up the location every so often.  There are a number of characters but barely any characterisation, since no one does much besides spout exposition, (most of which is made incomprehensible by the fact that it consists of little besides names of Japanese historical figures, places and Asian deities), and there's only one, brief scene that comes close to deserving the word action.  There's also not much in the way of dramatic tension: things that we're told will happen happen, then more things happen, then it stops.

And here's the thing: I loved every confusing, expository, audience-defying moment.  Frankly, had there been no plot at all I could probably still have enjoyed it, for the animation is above average and well directed, a mix of more than usually realistic character designs with some frequently lovely painted backdrops, often of Japanese scenery.  Most importantly, there's some real imagination on display - the high point surely a sequence in which protagonist Takeshi walks in a daze and his state is represented by whiting out everything but him, which is hard to describe but remarkably effective in practice.  But really, there's a great deal to catch the eye here, and as much to catch the mind; even when it's not entirely clear what's going on, Dark Myth is frequently striking.  And to top it all off, we have another score by Kenji Kawai, the closing theme of which is one of my favourite pieces of anime music in quite a while.

None of this makes what's going on any less confusing, but it certainly does make it go down a lot easier.  And in fairness, once you get into the rhythm of what Dark Myth is doing - and assuming you don't find those first few, incomprehensible minutes an insurmountable hurdle - it's easy to be on side with.  The barrages of names, the theological conundrums, aren't terribly important so long as you manage to keep track of the broad strokes; whenever something actually significant happens, the film is quite happy to signpost it, and you sense that it isn't so much being deliberately obtuse as trying to fit a great deal in, or perhaps simply suffering in translation.

Which is rather a crucial point - for of everything that Manga Video chose to cock up with their shockingly unambitious DVD releases, Dark Myth suffers worse than most.  A few expository extras, maybe some historical notes, would have made all the difference, and the option to watch in the original Japanese - not offered here, as with all of Manga's budget releases - is surely nothing short of essential.  For that matter, if the transfer wasn't so brutally ugly, I suspect we might be looking at a film hailed for its above average visuals instead of one utterly ignored by everyone.

At any rate, I'm not certain where this leaves us.  I can't possibly not recommend something so utterly interesting and ideas-laden, but there's no getting around the fact that we're looking at a limited audience indeed.  I literally can't find one review with anything nice to say about The Dark Myth!  Then again, I'd read some of those reviews before I watched it, so perhaps the trick is to go in forewarned; which means that, if you've read this far and don't think it sounds utterly terrible then just maybe you'll get as much out of it as I did.


Are these posts getting longer?  They are, aren't they?  I mean, fair enough, I had a lot to say about Patlabor, but did I really need four paragraphs on Casshan: Robot Hunter of all things?  On the other hand, it would appear that this is the first time I've been at least tentatively positive about everything.  Clearly the series is heading in the right direction; or else whatever was left of my critical faculties has finally dissolved under the weight of too much nineties anime.  Which, come to think of it, is much more likely.  And probably for the best!  Because as I noted at the start, there's barely an end in sight...

[Other posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25Part 26 Part 27Part 28Part 29Part 30Part 31Part 32Part 33Part 34Part 35Part 36Part 37Part 38]

Thursday, 23 July 2015

My Nine Worlds 2015 Schedule

With this year's Nine Worlds just around the corner - well, two whole weeks away - I thought it was about time I got my schedule out into the world.  I'm fairly busy this time, at least in comparison to anything I've been at in the last year or so, and I'm also set for a pretty intimidating first.  I mean, having got my head around appearing on panels, then moderating panels, and then appearing on a game show with a live audience, (okay, I didn't even slightly get my head around that), I thought I'd faced all the fears I have to face.  But no!  Just like uncle H.P. taught us, there will always be new existential terrors to stare down, and I'll be doing some good, hard staring at this year's Nine Worlds.  But more on that in a moment.  Because before the really scary stuff, we have...

- How To Break Into Comics - But seriously, how?; 13:30 PM Friday

I specifically asked to be on this, because I have no idea how to break into comics and I'm hoping someone will tell me.  There must be a way!  I really thought I had it when I sent Stan Lee my severed ear, but no, not even a reply.  Although I'm pretty certain he was wearing it in place of his own for his Ant-Man cameo, the goof.  Anyway, I'm sure there'll be some great advice flying around on this one - but expect me to be the one listening to it, not giving it.

(Please don't tell the organisers this, I think I've got them them fooled.)

- The Humanitarian Element: Superheroic Ethics - Heroism, compromise & the reality of intervening under fire; 11:45 AM Sunday

Whereas this I actually have a serious interest in, and will probably be saying serious things in a very serious voice.  (You've probably never heard my serious voice.)  I've noticed in recent months that I'm getting awfully bored of superheroes who behave like thugs, and of seeing stuff get smashed for no good reason, and of vigilantes who never actually seem to help anyone.  I've got to a point where every time a house gets 'sploded or a car gets trashed I start worrying over insurance policies.  I am, in fact, so dubious about needlessly destructive superheroes these days that I'm about to write a damn novel on the subject.  So come, hear me rant!  (Or else hear me get shouted down by people better informed than I!)

- Monsterclass - How to really write a short story; 13:00 PM Sunday

And here, at the end, we get to the really alarming bit.  Yeah, that would be me teaching an hour-long workshop on how to write a short story.  Which, okay, is at least something I can claim a limited degree of knowledge on, having knocked out over a hundred of the things and sold somewhere around seventy.  But have I learned anything through that process?  If I have, can I possibly convey it to other human beings?  For that matter, are there other human beings irresponsible enough to listen to me talk at them for a whole hour?  And if I can't even answer questions like these, what chance do I have of teaching an hour long workshop?  Ha!  Well we'll see, all right.  Seriously, though, I'm determined to do a good job on this, if only because it's quite the privilege to be asked.


So there we have it: my Nine Worlds itinerary.  I have to admit, I'm looking forward to this one; I get to talk about some interesting stuff, and as much as it's a bit frightening, I'm buzzed about the idea of having a go at running a workshop.

Which, come to think of it, I really should be planning, instead of writing this...

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

EdgeLit Impressions

This Saturday just passed was my first experience of Edge Lit, which I'd gone out of my way to make
it to this year having been told repeatedly by a fair number of people that - despite being just the one day - it was one of the better UK conventions.  And lo and behold, that was entirely true, though I'm still not one hundred percent sure as to why.

Certainly the content was the usual mix of launches, talks, readings and panels, and at least when it came to the last of those, it would be a stretch to suggest that there was anything being said that hadn't been covered elsewhere.   The only one I made it to was pleasant enough; a polite chat amongst some excellent writers saying interesting things, albeit at a volume that wasn't quite up to the task of such a big space.  Honestly, speaking as someone who's desperate to see the convention scene get the shake-up it's long overdue, the content side seemed to me a bit above fine - and under other circumstances, that would probably have left me grumbling.
Me, Del and Kim Lakin-Smith, a bar.

In the case of Edge Lit, though, it just didn't bother me a great deal.  And despite what I said above, it occurs to me that I actually have a really good idea why that was: it's absolutely the right size for the thing that it is, and it has absolutely the perfect venue, in the shape of Derby's Quad.  That space was just right to make everything feel friendly and intimate, where so many conventions are sprawling and anonymous and kind of intimidating.  And that sort of consideration ran through a great deal of Edge Lit.  Why aren't more conventions towards the centre of the country, where folks from both north and south can attend?  In cities where you can get a cheap room for the night in a good hotel?  And where there are plenty of places to pop out for food and drink nearby?  The Quad was just a damn fine venue, and the scale of everything was exactly right for the event it was, and the event used the available space exceedingly well.  With all the program items within a couple of minutes walk and a large, well-staffed bar for any quiet periods, it was downright tough to get bored.

Now, if some of what I've said sounds like damning praise then it isn't meant to be; or rather, it maybe is, but of UK conventions in general rather than Edge Lit specifically.  And though there was a considerable proportion of professional authors there, I can absolutely see that I wasn't the target audience; with its welcome emphasis on workshops, Edge Lit is clearly aiming primarily at up-and-coming writers, and I've no doubt that a few years ago I'd have found it to be just about the most useful and enlightening thing imaginable.

These days, however, my requirement for a convention has a lot more to do with a nice big bar and a location that doesn't cost me a fortune to get to, and like I said, Edge Lit nailed that stuff right to the table.  Also, as someone who's always impressed when people get the little things right, I feel I should mention that it had by far the most professionally produced program I've yet seen and the first goodie bag to contain something I actually really wanted, in the shape of a downright marvelous CD compilation put together by author John Connolly.  (Seriously, if you were there and haven't given it a spin yet, do right now.)  And lastly, since I still feel like this praise has been a little on the watered-down side, let's finish by pointing out that I had a bloody good day, that I got to hang out with a whole bunch of terrific people, and that I will certainly be going back again next year.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Novel Update, Mid-2015

It seems like a while since I've talked about my multifarious ongoing novels here, (or indeed about anything much besides nineties anime), and so I thought that June drawing to a close was a sensible enough reason to stop and think loudly about just where everything's at.  It's a good time for a little retrospection and forward-thinking, too, as it turns out, since some long term projects are finally drawing towards a close, whilst others are in the process of blossoming from half-formed ideas into actual, real work that I have to figure out how to begin in the near future.

On the endings front, I literally just finished with the second draft of my first attempt at a crime novel, The Bad Neighbour.  Of everything I've done, I can't think of a project where the first and second drafts were such completely different experiences.  I wrote the first draft at - what was for me, anyway - high speed.  I'm coming to learn that the first drafts of novels aren't my favourite part of the writing process on the best of days, but this felt like four and a half months of yanking my own teeth out, and by the end I wasn't hopeful for what I'd accomplished, only grateful it was done with.  So that when the feedback from my beta-readers came back as almost entirely positive, I felt nothing but confused; had I somehow sent people the wrong manuscript?  Maybe e-mailed out a copy of someone else's book?  But as it turned out, no.  Going back to Bad Neighbour, I was shocked by how well it held together.  I still am, really.  The second draft work felt like what I'd normally expect of a third draft, lots of tidying and polishing and not much in the way of surgery, and I liked what I ended up with.  It's a vicious, pulpy little beast, not even slightly like anything I've attempted, but I'm not sure if it isn't the best novel I've written.

Mind, maybe I shouldn't say that, because I'm about to embark on the final draft of Degenerates - the novel once called War For Funland, though it's changed immeasurably since those days - and I'd hate to hurt its feelings.  Overhauling relatively old work into something I can be happy with has been a hell of a thing, and not only has it involved adding a new viewpoint character, greatly enlarging the role of others whilst removing a few more, excising huge chunks and adding others and an overall staggering amount of editing, but in the last draft I completely rejigged the basic structure and changed the entire damn book from past to present tense.  Which is not a thing you want to do to a one hundred and thirty thousand word novel, I tell you.  But, you know, worth it - I think.  I mean, I've just read over the last draft and felt pretty good about it.  If I feel the same in three months' time then that's novel number five in the bag.

As for number seven - that being my medieval noir fantasy White Thorne - it's at almost exactly its midway point.  And so far, if it's taught me one thing, it's that writing historical fiction is really damn hard.  I mean, writing about the First World War was no easy thing, but at least I felt like I had some fundamental things in common with the folks I was trying to make real; technologically, psychologically, sociologically, we had enough shared ground that it seemed like I could find a way into their heads.  But the Middle Ages?  Those people were basically aliens.  Months of research have taught me that they didn't live like us, they didn't think like us, and I'm at a point now where if someone tried to convince me that they all had four arms apiece I might believe it.  So - White Thorne is not going smoothly.  However I just got through explaining how an agonising first draft can yield solid results, and damn but I'm clinging to that belief, while I shovel on with what is absolutely, definitely the most difficult thing I've yet tried.  All I'm saying is, this book better turn out great, because if not then I'm going to punch it in the mouth.

Last up, and next on the horizon, there's the project currently going under the tentative title of The Uplifted.  It's been bouncing around my brain for a long while now, ever since I wrote a short story called Wunderkind, which appeared to minimal attention in a fanzine called Bards and Sages Quarterly.  The core idea - of superheroes in a world ravaged by an apocalypse that they, with their unfamiliar and unchecked powers, inadvertently brought about - somewhere along the line combined with the classic story-line of Red Harvest - which if you haven't read it, you've certainly come across in one of its guises, as A Fist Full of Dollars or Yojimbo or the original Django or Last Man Standing - and then suddenly I had this thing that I kept referring to as my Post-Apocalyptic Red Harvest Superhero Novel, to the confusion and consternation of everyone.  But hey, if you're a writer and you're not causing confusion and consternation then you're probably not doing your job properly.  Or so I'm telling myself, as I try to put together an outline of its increasingly tangled plot, with the (perhaps slightly optimistic) view of starting work before the end of this month.

Is that everything?  Well, no, not quite; but it's enough to going on with, and I'm sure I'll be getting to the other stuff soon enough.  Now back to the all-but-impossible task of trying to invent superpowers no one's thought of before...