Sunday, 26 February 2017

Level One on Sale

It seems like only yesterday I was last talking about The Black River Chronicles here.  Probably because it was only yesterday.

What can I say?  There's a lot going on right now.  Like the fact that I'm past the halfway point on the sequel, for example, and really excited by how it's going so far.  It's a pleasure to be back in the company of Durren, Tia, Arein and Hule (okay, and Pootle) and to start pushing the borders of their world wider, introducing them to new characters both friendly and not-so-much, and facing them up against the sorts of threats that even mighty level two students are hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with.  Honestly, I wish I could just talk about everything I'm flinging at our poor, beleaguered adventures - but it's maybe a little early for that.

However, in the meantime, and as the audiobook release suggests, Mike and I are still very much concerned with trying to get Level One into the hands (and ears) of as many people as we possibly can.  As such, and as part of a wider promotion, the e-book of The Black River Chronicles: Level One is going to be priced at that lowest of low prices, ninety-nine cents, for a couple of days, starting at noon today - i.e., just about now.*

So if you've been holding off on buying a copy, now's the perfect chance: you can find the US e-book here.  And if you've already picked up Level One then maybe you could help spread the word?  I mean, it would be a tragedy if I found myself having to crash an exploding dragon into Black River at the end of the second book and kill off the entire cast.

Okay, I'm not really going to do that.



* I'm assuming here, of course, that you're reading this post in the very instant I put it up.  And, er, not taking differences in time zones into account.  So let's just say that the sale runs from the 26th to the 28th of February, shall we?

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Hear the Chronicles!

Reading is great and all, but sometimes it can be hard work, right?  All of those letters and words!  And isn't it nice, sometimes, just to have someone read to you instead?  Especially someone who's really good at reading ... a professional narrator, say?

Okay, I'm joking a little; reading is brilliant and nothing can match it.  But I'm a big fan of audiobooks too, though not so much as a replacement but as an addition.  Certainly, as a writer, it's thrilling to have someone who really knows what they're doing read your work aloud - as close as some of us may ever get to a film or TV adaptation!  I've been peculiarly lucky on the audiobook front too, with all three Tales of Damasco books and even my novella Patchwerk getting the treatment, as well as a fair nothing of stories available as podcasts.

And now that goes for The Black River Chronicles: Level One as well - making it the first ever audiobook release from Digital Fiction Publishing.  Co-author Mike Wills, wearing his second hat as publisher, has done an amazing job of making this happen, and the results are, frankly, stupendous.  I can clearly remember how over the Christmas week we were both listening to samples of narrators, and it was no coincidence that we both independently (and with further corroboration from family members!) decided on Alan Ross.  From even a brief listen, it was clear that he had a real handle on the flow of the writing, on the cast, really on every aspect of the book; Alan is just plain fun to listen to, bringing his own character to the prose and clearly enjoying himself.  Again, I've been fortunate with readers, both of books and short stories, but I think it's fair to see that Alan's up there with the best.

Don't believe me?  Or do believe me but want to hear what I'm raving about?  Either way, you can listen to a brief trailer - here:

video

If that piques your interest then the audio version of The Black River Chronicles: Level One should be dribbling out across all good stockists in the very near future.  But, since audibooks.com are a little ahead of the game, they're certainly a good place to start: you can find Level One here.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Agent Hunter, A Review

A while back, I received a rather generous six month trial of the Agent Hunter service in return for the promise that I'd deliver an honest write-up of my thoughts here on the blog.  Agent Hunter, if you haven't come across it, offers more or less what it describes: it's a searchable database of literary agents, bolstered with a few interesting extras, not unlike what Duotrope's Digest is for short fiction.  Anyway, it's taken me a regrettably long time to gather my thoughts, but here's me keeping my word.

In the interests of honesty, I should probably begin by admitting that I didn't use the service all that much, partly because I wasn't blown away by the brief time I initially spent with it and didn't do any proper investigation until the last day of my subscription, so that I could make this write-up as fair as possible.  At that point I realised how wrong I'd been - or perhaps how much the service had evolved in six months, since a few problems with searches that I remembered encountering seemed to have altogether vanished.  Anyway, the more I dug into Agent Hunter, the more impressed I was.  It does most of what you'd hope, offering a plethora of comprehensive-seeming data in a way that's quick and easy to access, via a front end that's glossy, functional and straightforward to come to grips with.

Good data is, of course, worthless without a solid search engine, and Agent Hunter's is definitely that.  You can refine the quest for your perfect agent by  things like career length and whether they keep a social media presence, as well as through a particularly detailed list of genres and sub-genres.  The options are not so great for agencies, which is slightly strange, and for publishers they're barely rudimentary - but then the fact that there's a database of publishers at all is a pleasant surprise that I wasn't expecting, and one that practically warrants the price of entry alone.  Still, it would be nice to see this fixed; given what's on offer elsewhere, there's no question but that it could be done.

Rounding out the package, there's a page with some perhaps slightly dubious advice - I'd propose that you certainly don't have to have an agent to sell fiction professionally - that's made up for by the excellent bonus of a blog full of essays and interviews, which I only stumbled across at the last minute, having decided that was precisely what would be needed to elevate the site from good to great.  Compared with its closest competitor, the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, the site certainly wins out, for my money.  Having an electronic database, in this day and age, is vastly more practical, and there's also much to be said for their emphasis on helping authors weed out the less committed agents from those who are serious and active.  There's no pretense here that all agents are equally capable and valuable, which is a useful lesson to place front and centre.

I'll finish by pointing out that Agent Hunter is very reasonably priced, at £12 for six months and £18 for a year.  There's also the agreeable option to just subscribe for a month, which should be more than enough time to gather the information you need if you're able to focus some serious time on the process.  Lastly, for £145, you can also receive a critique of your submissions package; obviously I have no idea how good this would be, but the level of quality evinced elsewhere leads me to think that it might well be a worthy investment.  At any rate, the cost for a year is distinctly on the cheap side - take note, Duotrope's Digest!  All told then, a service I'm happy to recommend without hesitation, and one 

Monday, 13 February 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 20

As we reach the big twenty, let's all pause for a moment's silence, to think with reverence upon all the joy that nineties anime has given to the world: the giant robots, the normal-sized robots, the pervy tentacle demons, the super-powered cat girls, the pocket monsters and the endless Blade Runner rip-offs.  Let's bow our heads to appreciate Manga's early efforts in bringing some of the best - and much of the absolutely worst - anime to the West, and to consider the many others who've nobly endeavored to spread the word: MVM, ADV, US Manga Corp, Maiden Japan, Animazing, AnimEigo, Eastern Star, Kiseki Films...

Okay, that's enough of that.  There's anime to be rambled about, and it's a particularly good batch this time around, especially about the self-inflicted misery of the last entry.  For this special anniversary post, we have: Doomed Megalopolis, Slayers Gorgeous, Bubblegum Crisis and Five Star Stories...

Doomed Megalopolis, 1991, Kasuhiko Katayama

Wikipedia suggests that Doomed Megalopolis was greenlit on the back of the success of the - on the face of it, somewhat similar - Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend.  Given the production times involved in anime, and in particular in creating something as mammoth as the four part, nearly three hour Doomed Megalopolis, this strikes me as unlikely.  Nevertheless, it's perfectly possible that I'm just deluding myself, given how much I loathe Urotsukidoji.

For Doomed Megalopolis, which is very much in the same "demonic forces assault Tokyo" vein, is nevertheless a more appealing proposition right across the board.  That's not to say there are no similarities, and the presence of sexual violence as a plot point is the one I'd most wish we could have avoided - but, even there, Megalopolis is operating on a different level.  My biggest complaint with Urotsukidoji was that it had no notion that women were feeling, suffering beings, or that rape was a traumatic event; Doomed Megalopolis builds a considerable portion of its plot around those facts.

I don't offer this as a defense as such - what use, really, is there in me trying to defend a twenty-five year old work of Japanese horror animation? - but merely to illustrate that it's up to an altogether different game than its trashier, nastier counterparts.  It has an actual plot, based around the first third of the mammoth bestseller Teito Monogatari, a supernatural epic spanning a fictionalized history of Tokyo in the twentieth century; it has real characters behaving in at least vaguely believable fashion.  But most importantly, I think, it has goals beyond mere shock value: though certainly bloody and unpleasant, it's also in places unsettling, surreal, and, at its finest, genuinely disturbing.  It functions, in other words, as real horror - and to a greater extent even, as real dark fantasy - rather than as a compendium of bared breasts and blood for adolescent boys to coo over.

Though I can't quite reconcile the information on IMDB and Wikipedia (and am more frustrated than ever that I could only find the dubbed edition rather than the later special edition with actual extras) I suspect that the driving force behind all this unusual quality was Rintaro, of Metropolis and Galaxy Express 999 fame, who appears to have been something between director and producer on the project.  But whoever was responsible, the direction is lavish and eye-catching, and the animation, where it counts, is on a par with almost anything from the period.

Doomed Megalopolis, in short, deserved to be a classic of its day, rather more so than many a similar release.  It's bold, sophisticated stuff told by people who actually care about the story their telling, a lavish fantasy epic that even now feels surprisingly fresh, while at the same time never quite managing to hide how influential it's been.  It's far from easy to track down, but that's not to say you shouldn't try; while what it does isn't exactly my favourite thing, when it's done this well I find it awfully hard to complain.

Slayers Gorgeous, 1998, Hiroshi Watanabe

Ah, here we are at the point where the Slayers franchise officially ran out of sensible subtitles.  But any suspicions that we've slid even further down the cash-in pole since the merely okay Slayers Great are quickly put to rest.  For a start we're back in a cinematic aspect ratio (1.85:1, if my eyes don't deceive me) which immediately makes things feel more like a proper film and less like a TV episode that doesn't know when to stop.   And, even without that, the opening scene of Slayers Gorgeous is pretty damn great, in all the ways the rest of the film will go on to be pretty damn great: it gets the balance of comedy and action that's the foundation of the franchise as close to spot on as you could hope.  Right from the start, there are some strong gags, but it's the telling that really shines.

I've said before, but the basis for much, if not all, Slayers humour seems to involve taking a character or situation extremely seriously for just long enough to sucker you in and then revealing their essential ridiculousness at the last possible moment.  And this is something that Slayers Gorgeous does very well indeed, in a plot that sees our two roving sorceresses drawn into a conflict between a king and his daughter, which just happens to also involve a fair number of dragons.  Even on the basis of only three preceding films, the individual elements are wholly familiar - especially when Lena and Naga end up on opposing sides - but, unlike Slayers Great, that never becomes a problem, perhaps because the characters themselves are so keen to draw attention to the fact.

Elsewhere, the technical values are probably a step up from Great, though this is as variable as these movies have been: the general level is just fine, there are a couple of absolutely splendid action sequences towards the end, but there are also some noticeable bits of budget-skimping and animation recycling.  Both Lina and Naga have had some slight but noticeable redesigns, which after consideration I decided I preferred.  And, on reflection, I feel the same way about the third act climax, which comes out of nowhere and seems terribly serious for a while until it suddenly doesn't: if it's disconcerting in the moment, it's certainly in the Slayers spirit.  On which note, I'll say that I only have one more of these to go and it's a half hour spin-off from the Slayers TRY series, released in 2001, which means that from my point of view this is kind of the last of these Slayers movies.  I'm going to miss these things...

Bubblegum Crisis, 1987 - 1991, dir's: Katsuhito Akiyama, Yasunori Ide, Ken'ichi Yatagai, Hiroki Hayashi, Masami Ōbari, Fumihiko Takayama, Hiroaki Gōda

If there's one truism about nineties anime, it's that seminal isn't the same thing as good, so it's always a relief to come across a seminal show that's actually entertaining in its own right.  Such is Bubblegum Crisis, an eight part OVA series so significant in the development of the medium that a friend saw fit to import me the box set from the US just to plug one of the last big gaps in my knowledge.

And yes, I certainly see how Bubblegum Crisis was a crucial missing piece: I called Cyber City Oedo 808 the urtext for nineties sci-fi anime, but now I think maybe that title belongs right here, with a show that could not possibly be more of its time if it tried.  In theory, this should make it terrible: the pilfering is beyond blatant, to the point where spotting the references to Blade Runner would make for a compelling, if fatal, drinking game.  In practice, though, it's kind of amazing, like having all your fondest sci-fi memories from the back end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties blasted back at you, dialed up to eleven.  I mean, there's a point in the first episode where one of our heroes, the Knight Sabers - read, all-girl Power Rangers - rides her cool motorbike off a shattered freeway and it turns into a suit of powered armour, even though she's already wearing powered armour because that's the whole point of the show.  That's the first moment where you can either throw your hands up in disbelief or just admit that, yeah, that was pretty cool - but it certainly won't be the last.

You know what?  The latter reaction is definitely the right one.  Because Bubblegum Crisis is immense fun once you tune into its wavelength.  It may also be the perfect meeting place between Eastern and Western cyberpunk.  The episode where it just flat-out remakes Blade Runner and the result ends up being not much at all like Blade Runner is surely the perfect example.  And to that you can add some top notch production values.  The animation idles at good, but the action sequences are really splendid, never more so than when the Knight Sabers are on screen.  The character designs, from Gunsmith Cats creator Kenichi Sonada, haven't aged too well, but those suits are things of beauty when you see them in motion, and the show never lets you forget just how neat they look.  Also, the music is pretty splendid, at least if you have any sympathy at all for the wonder that is late-eighties Japanese hair rock.

If there's one obvious failing, it's that the show feels unfinished: these eight episodes tie together hardly at all, most being either standalone or two-parters, but there's a definite sense of a wider arc with no culmination.  Some of that would be provided in the Bubblegum Crash OVA and more in the follow-up series, Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040, but for our present purposes that's not terribly helpful.  However, nor is it as big a problem as it might be: this is one of those universes that's perfectly pleasurable to drop into without expecting some grand resolution.  And in fact, that's really what makes Bubblegum Crisis, even in an age when it feels terrifically dated and even a little campy: it's such a thing unto itself, and that thing is so fun and likable and cool that's it's hard not to be sucked in.

Five Star Stories, 1989, dir: Kazuo Yamazaki

As a thought experiment, try to imagine a cut of David Lynch's adaptation of Dune that ran to sixty-six minutes, but retained precisely all of its plot.  Is your head aching?  Then congratulations, you've accurately simulated the experience of watching Five Star Stories, a film that contains more material in its brief voice-over introduction and epilogue than in its running time and still manages to cram in a ton of narrative, or at least of world-building and mythologizing that fulfill largely the same function, while at the same time never gaining a great deal of forward momentum.

But there we have all the criticizing I'm willing to give, for Five Star Stories is terrifically strange, and I do like me some terrifically strange nineties anime, even when that strangeness keeps it from being entirely successful.  And, by damn, what Five Star Stories does well it does terrifically well: its universe, part sci-fi on a huge scale and part European middle ages, is a deeply involved place, and its plot absolutely reflects that.  In its barest terms, we have something like this: giant robots called (sic) Mortar headds require suspiciously female-looking androids called Fatimas to function, but the creator of the Fatimas has slipped a fresh ingredient into his latest batch, with the result that the robot about to be presented to the galaxy in a weird kind-of auction has emotions and an agenda all of her own.  Meanwhile, our hero, the epicene Sopp, is dithering about on the sidelines, and it's fairly obvious that, whatever his motives are, they don't line up with those of the local tyrant, the villainous, gluttonous Lord Juba.

It doesn't take much research to release that the central problem here is that what we have is an adaptation of only the first volume of a much longer Manga, a phenomenon so common in anime from this period that it seems barely worth commenting on.  But, as much as it's frustrating, it's also kind of endearing: there's a real sense of being plonked in the middle of a huge, mythic story, and at the end the fact that the resolution basically adds up to "and then things really started happening" is okay, in the same way that it's okay to dip into classical mythology and not find out where every character would end up.  In fact, that's probably as good a comparison as there could be, and one Five Star Stories courts openly: after all, the three Fatimas are named after the three fates.

All of this makes emotional sense in the context of medieval Europe and a degree of sci-fi sense in the context of a convoluted, planets-spanning empire, but the two line up in some puzzling ways.  The result feels like nothing else I've come across, though again, Dune isn't an inappropriate comparison.  For that matter, while its plot may not altogether land - every moment of conflict could be easily avoided if Sopp acted even a little differently - it accomplishes more on the way down that many a less ambitious work has dared dream of.  This is grand space opera stuff, concentrated to almost comical extremes and yet somehow taking the time to let its story play out organically.  How the hell any of that works I have no idea, yet it sort of does, and even when it doesn't it's pretty thrilling.

Meanwhile, everything looks marvelous, with odd moments that I'd count among the finest I've ever encountered in hand drawn animation.  I'm never going to be a fan of Nobuteru Yûki's pointy-chinned character designs, but at least they're well suited to a universe where practically everyone is effete or waifish or both, and anyway the mecha designs are so exemplary that I can't bring myself to care too much.  The score, too, is particularly grand and lovely.  I haven't been able to establish whether Five Star Stories was a theatrical release, but it would certainly have warranted one.

And finally, having devoted a great many words to it, I must admit that I've been largely wasting your time, because good luck finding Five Star Stories anywhere.  I bought it in a Korean edition, which is great - as they tend to be - and wasn't particularly expensive.  But I'm coming to suspect that I'm more committed to this nineties anime thing than most people!  Still, if you should ever stumble over a cheap copy then it's well worth a look: a work of bold quirks that feels distinctive not just by the standards of its time and medium.

-oOo-

Just yesterday I was explaining to a friend how I've nearly exhausted this whole nineties anime thing, having bought just about everything from the period that was released in the UK and much that wasn't.  Then today I found a website streaming a ton of out of print releases, many of which I've never so much as heard of.  And the to-watch shelf is still heaving, and by the time I get through all that, most likely I'll have stumbled over something else.  Oh, and there's still the post reviewing the true classics of nineties anime that I've been planning practically since I began.

All of which is to say, don't expect this series to end any time soon.  It looks increasingly likely that the day I stop reviewing nineties anime is the day they pry the keyboard from my cold, dead fingers...



[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18, Part 19, Part 21Part 22Part 23]

Monday, 6 February 2017

Time Alone Press, or, How to Spot the Time Wasters

 "How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?"

John McClane, Die Hard 2: Die Harder

I wrote a post here, not much over a year ago, about the dreadful experiences I had with an outfit by the name of Eldritch Press, who accepted my story Br(other) and then proceeded to muck me around for a very long time indeed, before finally admitting that they wouldn't be publishing my work - and had no intention of paying me a single cent for the months in which they'd tied up the rights while purposefully obfuscating the fact that they knew damn well the book would likely never happen.

What a rubbish experience that was!  And thank goodness these things happen almost never!  I mean, the odds of then selling that same story to another supposedly pro-rate anthology, and the editors again going suspiciously silent for months on end, with the occasional burst of self-aggrandizing nonsense, only to finally admit - in a narcissistic e-mail that suggested they were largely blind to the harm they'd done - that said anthology wouldn't be happening, while ignoring any suggestion that they might compensate writers, are, what?  One in a zillion?

Well, in this case they were precisely one in one, since that's just what happened with Time Alone Press, and their now defunct Let Us In anthology.

Now, my first thought was that there's nothing much you can do in these instances except name and shame: to wit, given that all traces of Time Alone have vanished, all I can say is that, if you should ever come across the improbably-monickered Karl Hexean Sumner, you'd do well to have your lying cat handy.  But then I realised that, since I got a suspicious vibe off of this guy pretty much right from the off, here was a useful opportunity to share some thoughts on how to spot the time wasters early.  And while this probably won't materially help anyone, since there's not a great deal you can do in these situations except hope for the best, at least it might save a little heartbreak when the letdowns finally come.

You Have To Think Anyway, So Why Not Think Big?
Ambition is great, right?  Everyone loves ambition.  Only, ambitious people tend to be ambitious in all directions at once, and hard-working people tend to leave no stones unturned in their pursuit of excellence, and ... look ... if a publisher is espousing their wildly optimistic plans but not doing a whole lot of anything that you can see then maybe they're the sorts of people that are better at daydreaming than doing.  For Time Alone that meant one anthology that turned into a three volume series that turned into a three volume series plus a magazine that turned into a whole boatload of nothing.
Show Me the Money
This one can actually double as a general life lesson: if someone is promising you money then take a moment to wonder where that money might be coming from.  I mean, I'm not saying you should start investigating their investments or anything, but - well, look, we're using Time Alone as an example, aren't we?  Time Alone had publicly promised to publish three anthologies of short fiction, to a total of some sixty or so stories, meaning an up-front investment of somewhere around the fifteen thousand dollar mark.  And yet their website looked like they persuaded a toddler to make it on the promise of a trip to the park.  The point being: does the amount you're being promised align with the sort of money the publisher is spending elsewhere?  Or is there a general air that their funding plans involve a significant lottery win?
It's. Oh. So Quiet
Short story publishing is, admittedly, not a business that requires constant communication; sometimes months may pass in which you'll hear nothing, especially if a market buys well in advance.  Still, there are certain definite circumstances where silence becomes suspicious.  Having had an acceptance, have you had a contract?  Having had a contract, have you had payment?  If the answer's no on either front and more than a month has gone by then something's likely amiss.  And when that gets to Time Alone levels, with websites and Facebook pages left for weeks on end without updates, it's safe to assume that something's going majorly wrong behind the scenes.
What Does God Need With a Starship?
Following on from all the earlier points: real publishers have plans about how they're going to achieve their goals.  That may mean Kickstarters or subscriber programs or being millionaires from the off, but there should generally be at least some sense of how those goals will become ends.  If a publisher's business plan appears to be along the lines of "make a book and then poof! magic, and also there will be unicorns" then there's a reasonable chance that they do not, in fact, know what they're doing.  By the same measure, you might want to look and see if they've previously published any books, and if so, how well they've managed them.  Lots of pending projects and few or no actual projects are another good warning sign, as are half-built websites staying half-built for months on end.
It's Not You, It's Me
Good publishers are enthusiastic about publishing.  Holy crap, that sounds so obvious when you say it like that!  And those good publishers tend to devote their energies to talking about their writers, their writers' stories, their projects, rather than - you know - themselves.  If every e-mail you get, and every Facebook post, and everything on the website, screams of a publisher that's terribly excited about their own existence and at best mildly interested in the writers they should be promoting then that right there is another flashing red light.
Needless to say, none of these warning signs mean a great deal in isolation; no-one's perfect, after all.  It's when you see two or three of them together that you should start readying for bad news - and when you see all five then you should assume that it's pretty much guaranteed.

And, hey, on a concluding note - if anyone wants to buy a horror story of just under 6000 words that is very clearly cursed then do please let me know.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 19

It's funny the tricks the human mind can play on itself.  Somewhere in the weeks before Christmas, I started pining for some really bad nineties anime, having come to the conclusion that I'd been having way too good a run.  This was, of course, madness, as anyone who chooses to consider some of the dross I suffered through in the earlier entries will testify.  Still, the thought stuck, and at around the same time I began thinking that I really should finish off Manga's mostly awful Collection series just because of - you know - being a completionist or whatever.  Again, despite the fact that the handful I had left where things I'd purposefully ignored because they sounded utterly awful.

The moral?  I'm basically an idiot.  And, thanks in large part to my idiocy, this time through we have Psychic Wars, Slayers Great, Golgo 13: Queen Bee and Project A-Ko...

Project A-Ko, 1986, Katsuhiko Nishijima

I understand that Project A-Ko is regarded as something of a classic, as one of the first releases to get serious attention in the West.  And, yeah, I can sort of understand that.  Like, you're trying to break a thoroughly Japanese mode of animation into a market that's only ever experienced it in the form of (often heavily bastardized) children's cartoons, so you go for a movie about super-powered schoolgirls that's basically a parody of the wider world of eighties anime?  Sure, that's ... well, it's definitely a choice that someone, somewhere, might make.

Perhaps the point here is not to focus on the plot - in which teenager A-Ko protects her horribly annoying best friend C-Ko from B-Ko, a super-villainous rival for her affections, until aliens invade and make all of their petty squabbles seem suddenly less important - and concentrate instead on the production values and the fact that at the time no one really had the first idea what would or wouldn't sell in American (and, to a lesser degree, European) markets.  And really, though Project A-Ko is undoubtedly a weird choice, it's not a bad one.  Its comic jabs are aimed widely enough to transcend cultural barriers - Transformers gets a laugh-out-loud skewering and you could read the whole thing as a send-up of Superman if you felt so inclined - and, maybe more to the point, the production values are pretty damn great.  There were no end of moments in Project A-Ko that reminded me of why I love hand drawn animation, and a couple that were damn near breathtaking, and the available DVD release capitalizes on those virtues greatly, with an excellent digitally restored print.  Not to mention that the dub is about good enough to justify the lack of subtitles, and the effort put into dubbing the film's three (rather marvelous, if indescribably eighties J-pop) songs pays dividends.

Project A-Ko, then, is a weird old thing.  Put it up against, say, Akira, which would land a mere two years later, and its classic status is somewhat bewildering.  On the other hand, it's aged pretty damn well, and manages precisely the things you'd hope a bit of comedic sci-fi would do: in fact most of its jokes have suffered hardly at all for the passages of three decades.  At any rate, I enjoyed it plenty and I've no doubt I'll be watching it again.  In the end, perhaps that's the most you can reasonably expect from a thirty year old classic that gained its status largely by having no competition.

Psychic Wars, 1991, dir: Tetsuo Imazawa

Psychic Wars is widely considered to be among the very worst of Manga's reliably lousy Collection range - which is to say, the worst of the worst when it comes to 90's anime - and contrarian that I am, I confess that raised my hopes a little.  After all, I've enjoyed things like Dark Myth and Landlock that are similarly reviled.  But no, this time around, the consensus is bang on the money.  Psychic Wars is dreadful.

What's more, it's dreadful in just about every meaningful way.  And for once, most of those don't have a great deal to do with Manga's shonky treatment of the material.  Oh, don't get me wrong, the dub is abysmal, possibly the worst Manga ever put their penny-scrimping minds to; the leads sound catatonically bored in a way non-actors could never hope to achieve.  And there are the usual idiocies elsewhere, like the typos on the packaging ... I don't think a single one of these releases lacks an obvious typo in its back cover description.  Though admittedly this is the only one I've spotted where they flat-out lie about the running time, rounding up dramatically from fifty-one minutes to sixty.

Frankly, that blatant fibbing is a mercy.  Ten minutes less of Psychic Wars is ten minutes not spent watching a singularly personality-devoid hero stabbing demons that look like orcs imagined and drawn by a twelve year old, or flirting with his similarly charmless girlfriend; it's ten minutes that don't require an unreasonable amount of concentration to unravel a plot that doesn't reward even the slightest portion of that effort, but needs it nonetheless thanks to incoherent editing.  It's ten minutes not spent gaping at weightless character designs floating across generic backgrounds at a teeth-grindingly low frame rate.  Frankly, if you spent those ten minutes staring at a blank TV then they'd be infinitely more rewarded.

At this point, I sort of wish I could come up with some positives, just to feel like I'd written something approaching a balanced review.  But no, there are none.  At its best, as with the inoffensive score, Psychic Wars rises to the giddy heights of wholly generic.  There are a couple of scenes where director Imazawa tries something vaguely visually interesting, but all those achieve is to draw more attention to how limp the film is everywhere else.  It really is awful, and if the Collection range has worse to offer then I'm yet to see it, though the possibility fills me with dread.

Golgo 13: Queen Bee, 1998, dir: Osamu Dezaki

I'm tempted to declare Golgo 13: Queen Bee the nadir of this whole experiment in nineties anime, and the only thing holding me back even slightly is that I sat through Legend of the Overfiend.  But, you know, Overfiend at least picked up in a small way towards its end.  And while I hoped Queen Bee might follow suit, on the back of some late game revelations and character developments that were at least faintly interesting, the material quickly retrenched into an ending every bit as foul-hearted, tiresome and misogynistic as what had come before.  So, if only for uniformity of terribleness, I think maybe this one edges it.

Plot-wise, a fair portion of what you'd need to know is there in the title: Golgo 13 is a master assassin* hired by a corrupt politician to take down Queen Bee, the mercenary and drug dealer who also happens to want said politician dead.  Meanwhile, Queen Bee is busily sleeping with every man she can lay her sweaty hands on - Golgo 13 included - to the point where I'm wracking my brains to think of a male member of the cast whose bones she doesn't jump at some point.  I have a dreadful feeling that the writer viewed this as some sort of affirmative, feminist portrayal; I refuse to say the same for the revelation that Queen Bee has been popping out a veritable army of children.

(This, by the way, has strangely had no effect on her figure, which very much represents how a man who'd never met a woman but who'd read a boatload of porn would represent the female form.  Nor has being pregnant pretty much constantly throughout her adult life - she's stated as 29 and has, like, a dozen kids - inhibited her ability to lead a gang of South American drug-dealing mercenary freedom fighters.**)

I don't know, maybe there are people out there who genuinely believe that the best way to portray a strong female character is to show her incessantly either having sex or killing people, and to give her a busload of children because, hey, having children is a thing women do, right?  Maybe, but I do hope not.  And even then, even then, Queen Bee is not the worst thing about her semi-titular movie.  Heck, compared with Golgo 13 himself, she's downright realistic and nuanced.  And compared to the rest of the cast, the two of them are like something out of Tolstoy.  In fact, if I had to single out a single, simple problem with this horrid mess then there it is: we haven't a single character to sympathize with.  Golgo 13 makes for a hateful protagonist, and that more or less leaves us with Queen Bee, but as written she's so weird and broken that it's impossible to find anything she does or says sympathetic.  It's not hard to conceive of a version of this character being interesting, but that would call for vastly less troubling notions of female behaviour than are on display here.

Thus I can imagine no take on this story that wouldn't be at least a little bit awful.  But the presence of Osamu Dezaki at the helm pushes the project from mere ugly mediocrity to a level of terrible that's nearly hypnotic.  Based solely on this and Black Jack, I'm happy to call Dezaki one of the worst directors to work in the medium of Japanese animation, and certainly he's my personal least favourite.  The man is a master of misapplied style, and nearly every decision he makes is clearly, wildly wrong; he has an abiding taste for flamboyant gestures and glaringly apparent effects and always they represent the most egregious mistakes imaginable.  Some of these - the freezing on a pastel-shaded version of a still frame, for example - he was already abusing in Black Jack. Others, like the incessant habit of repeating a few frames of animation three times, often while zooming in, are new additions to his arsenal.  Weirdest, and the only one that even flirts with success, is a variation on those freeze frames, except the character's face suddenly resembles a cadaver- because, you know, death and murder and all that.  It's atrociously heavy-handed, but at least it's interesting.  At any rate, this is the only anime I've watched that gave me motion sickness, such is Dezaki's commitment to wacky stylistic decisions and weird angles over actually telling his rotten little story.

Looking back, I see that, of all these reviews, I've devoted the most time by far to something I absolutely hated.  But then, perhaps that's as it should be.  Golgo 13: Queen Bee is poisonous crap, and if anything I've written here persuades even one person to avoid it then I consider this entire series of posts worthwhile.

Slayers Great, 1997, dir: Hiroshi Watanabe

Let's start with the obvious: Slayers Great, the third Slayers movie, is another step down in terms of production values - a fact given away immediately by the switch to a TV standard 4:3 ratio over the cinematic ratios of the first two entries.  But whereas a touch less in the way of ambition worked wonders for Slayers Return, here it means only that we're firmly in the realms of the cheaper sort of film-length spin-off - the kind that doesn't push beyond existing limits thanks to a previously unimaginable budget but that seems like an episode going on for twice as long as it really can justify.

That's harsh, maybe, but also not unfair.  There's nothing in the plot - which finds Lina and Naga stranded in a village whose economy is devoted to the making of golems and begins building fairly rapidly towards an inevitable showdown between golem versions of our two heroines - that wouldn't have worked just fine in twenty or so minutes.  And the extra forty don't add a tremendous amount, either; like I said, we know pretty quickly where this is leading, and though there are plenty of fun scenes along the way, they're ultimately just bumps on an overly familiar road.  Of course, this being Slayers, the climatic battle, once it arrives, is pretty good fun, and all the funniest moments are clustered in that third act.  It still manages to go on a little too long, but that's a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things; what amounts to a giant robot scrap between two of anime's best fantasy heroines is never going to run the risk of growing altogether dull.

Slayers Great represents a definite low point for the movies so far then, on just about every level; I'm not certain that the vocal performances weren't even less enthusiastic this time around, and certainly it's a marked step down in terms of animation and ambition.  Nevertheless, that's not to say I didn't enjoy it.  Certainly I wouldn't recommend going out of your way to find this one on DVD, but nor would I say skip over it if you're working through the collection.  It's not an hour of your life you'll regret, just one that won't prove terribly memorable.

-oOo-

Well, Project A-Ko was fun.  Perhaps rather weak sauce as classics go, but definitely fun.

But then Golgo 13: Queen Bee was horrible beyond reason, and Psychic Wars was utterly worthless as entertainment, and Slayers Great was mostly kind of okay, so I think it's safe to say that this entry wasn't any kind of a win.

Next time, then: less self-flagellation.  Though I do have one more Collection release to get through, and it promises to be every shade of awful, so perhaps not no self-flagellation at all.


[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17, Part 18, Part 20, Part 21, Part 22, Part 23]



* Though based on his bizarrely incompetent performance here, I feel no shame in declaring that I'm more of a master assassin that Golgo 13 is.  And I'm a pacifist.

** Here I'm hedging my bets: the organisation that Queen Bee works for never really makes a lick of sense and if I was supposed to know why they were doing the things they were doing then I obviously wasn't paying half enough attention.