Thursday, 27 April 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 23

I seem to have got into the unfortunate habit of reviewing mostly rubbish here again.  And I'd say that it's not deliberate, but I suspect that, in a way, it sort of is; not because I want to watch bad anime but because I'm worried that the good stuff on the shelf (some of which I paid more for than I sensibly should have to lay my hands on!) will turn out to not be quite as good as I'm hoping.  In fact, now that I really think, the uniting factor with everything here is that I managed to pick it up pretty damn cheap.

Clearly, this state of affairs can't go on - if only because I'm running out of shelf space.  But for the moment, I suppose we have to work with what we've got!  Which means that this time around we'll be looking at Black Magic M-66, Yurusei Yatsura Movie 1: Only YouProject A-Ko: Uncivil Wars and the deservedly infamous M.D. Geist...

Black Magic M-66, 1987, dir's: Hiroyuki Kitakubo, Masamune Shirow

Masamune Shirow would go on to become something of a legend, and adaptions of his works have already cropped up a couple of times here, in the shape of Appleseed and Dominion Tank PoliceGhost in the Shell has also had its fair share of mentions, like the one just above.  But Shirow would only turn his hand to directing - or rather, co-directing - the once, and that was with a loose adaptation of a single part of one of his lesser known works.

The result is an OVA of about 48 minutes, which tells the story of a couple of murderous androids that inadvertently get lost by a futuristic military and set about carrying out the test directive that's been mistakenly programmed into them: to kill their creator's teenage daughter.  Perhaps in acknowledgement that the movie he was most obviously ripping off benefited greatly from a strong female lead, Shirow offers us the same here, in the form of Sybel, the freelance reporter who just can't keep her nose out of the military's business, even when that means fleeing from killer robots.

It's hard to say how much difference Shirow's presence makes to anything - and of course he was only co-directing, though his involvement ran deeply elsewhere.  The direction is certainly beyond competent, in a manner that goes a long way towards elevating the material; the animation is far from great, with some shockingly low frame rates in places, but then every minute or two there'll be a shot of unusual ambition, like a fight scene in an elevator where the camera's constantly circling.  And it certainly seems likely that Shirow influenced the distinctive tone.  There's something rather adult about Black Magic M-66's approach that goes beyond the copious bloodshed and the fact that we meet our protagonist as she's stepping out of the shower.  In fact, that latter is a good illustration of the point; the nudity ends up working instead as a character beat, just as the violence is rather ghastly and never exciting for its own sake.  As much as the military are to some extent the villains of the piece, they're portrayed as professionals getting on with a lousy job, and we're encouraged to view them with a measure of respect that makes their deaths that bit more troubling.

Let's not overegg it, though, eh?  We're still looking at a less than fifty minute long movie made on a clearly restrictive budget that, once it gets its character introductions and setup out of the way, is basically one long action sequence.  And frankly, even in 1987, killer robot stories were hardly an innovative notion, which makes it all the more strange that Shirow's barely tries to differentiate itself; there are robots, they try to kill people, those people in turn attempt with varying degrees of success not to be killed and that's our lot.  That the first big chunk of action is pretty good and the culminating set piece battle leans towards the flat-out great certainly helps, and was enough to make sure that I enjoyed Black Magic M-66 while I was watching it.  It's certainly worth a look, let's put it that way - and good enough to make you wonder what Shirow might have accomplished had he continued to split his time between manga and anime.

Yurusei Yatsura Movie 1: Only You, 1983, dir: Mamoru Oshii

Another absolutely gigantic franchise, on a par with the likes of Ranma 1/2 and Ah! My Goddess, Yurusei Yatsura ran into 34 collected manga volumes and an extraordinary 195 anime episodes, not to mention OVAs and six whole movies.  Oh, and there was even a pretty good Scottish rock group that named themselves after the show (and were previously my only encounter with it.)  Since the films and OVA both theoretically fall outside the purview of these articles - Only You was released all the way back in 1983, midway through the show's run - I was ready to ignore them.  Then I discovered that the director of fully half the show's episodes and the first two films was none over that Mamoru "Ghost in the Shell" Oshii, and that his work on the second movie was considered something of an early masterpiece.

Only You is not that second movie, as I discovered only after I bought it* - and to call it a masterpiece, early or otherwise, would be an exaggeration.  Still, Oshii's fingerprints are easily spotted if you choose to look.  The whole business has an air of gravitas that seems ill-fitted to the material - Oshii, bless him, can't tell a joke to save his life - but the result is weirdly deadpan and somehow more amusing that it has a right to be.  In fact, by not treating its subject matter too lightly, Only You circumvents the shrillness that humorous anime from this period had a habit of slipping into.  And though there's no pretending that you're watching anything but an over-thirty-year-old animated movie made on a TV show budget, there's plenty to catch the eye: the colour scheme is surreal and lovely, there are no end of needlessly complicated shots, and the design work, particularly in the back half, is genuinely rich and special.

It helps that the story is basically good fun, and solid enough to stand up to Oshii's high-minded approach.  Yurusei Yatsura the series revolves around alien princess Lum who, for reasons too contrived to get into, has devoted herself to worthless philander Ataru Moroboshi; here it turns out that, as a child, Moroboshi also inadvertently pledged himself to marry another alien princess, a discovery that Lum is none too pleased with, especially when his reaction to the news is one of wholehearted enthusiasm.  There's nothing revolutionary there, to say the least, but Oshii's other significant achievement is to appreciate that he's making a film rather than a really long TV episode: there's less of the "and this happened then that happened" sense of, say, the Ranma 1/2 movies, and more of a clear three act structure, with proper development and even actual themes; in particular, things wrap up in surprisingly ingenious fashion.

All of which is to say that, as a way into one of anime's great mega-franchises, Yurusei Yatsura: Only You isn't a bad place to start; Fortunately, the peripheral characters are easily grasped, since they can be boiled down to those who are aliens and those who hate Moroboshi for being an undeserving lech, with considerable overlap between the two camps.  Possibly it's a stretch of auteur theory to suggest that Oshii's presence is what elevates the material from fine to genuinely good, but whatever; the fact is, the result is genuinely good, and genuinely well-made, and a thoroughly satisfying slice of comedy sci-fi anime.

Project A-Ko: Uncivil Wars, 1990, Katsuhiko Nishijima

The first thing you notice about Project-A-Ko: Uncivil Wars (or Project A-Ko Versus, to give it its inexplicably changed Japanese name) is that it appears to have not a damn thing to do with the original Project A-Ko or its previous sequels.  Now A-Ko and B-Ko are friends, of all things, and not only that but they're bounty hunters on an alien planet, and C-Ko is a kidnapped space princess, and really, how any of this relates to a show about three schoolgirls in modern day Japan is anyone's guess, though the cynical might suggest, "not a whole lot."

Now I actually found the notion of plucking out the heart of Project A-Ko and jamming it into a completely unrelated body quite an interesting one, but it's clear that it could go one of two ways: either the result will be an incisive examination of how much you can boil a franchise down to its essence and still keep that essence intact, or it's going to be a totally unrelated project where someone had the bright idea of doing a cut and paste on the script to produce a hasty sequel no-one was much asking for.  Guess which one we get in Project A-Ko: Uncivil Wars?

A trick question!  The answer is both, though certainly more of the latter than the former.  And in the first of two forty-five minute episodes, that balance is weighed furthest in the wrong direction: the only real points of reference are that C-Ko is a whiny, hyperactive brat, B-Ko is kind of bitchy and A-Ko is good at punching - though, devoid of her iconic sailor suit, she barely even looks like the character we know and feel some measure of affection for.  It helps not at all that the first part is dire, with no real plot to speak of, inert direction, questionable voice acting and lots of shrieking humour buoyed up with comically exaggerated animation that isn't very comical at all.  Where Project A-Ko had a broad enough joke at its core to be basically funny even when it wasn't doing a great deal, it's hard to say what this first episode is parodying, if anything.  Bad sci-fi anime, maybe?  By being bad sci-fi anime?

Fortunately, episode two is decidedly better in every way: even the animation improves noticeably, with at least the occasional really lovely shot.  It helps some that the story finally bothers to begin tying into the existing Project A-Ko universe, and helps a great deal more that events start being eventful and characters start being characterful.  Also, the whole thing briefly turns into a Moorcockian battle across realities, which is kind of great, and goes a long way to justify the sequel-that's-not-a-sequel approach.

But did my moderate enjoyment of episode two balance out my frequent boredom at episode one?  Not entirely, no, though I suppose it helped.  In the end, however, Project A-Ko: Uncivil Wars didn't do much except confirm my growing opinion that some things are better off left un-sequelled.

M.D. Geist, 1986, dir's:  Hayato Ikeda, Kôichi Ôhata

Among those with more than a cursory knowledge of pre-twenty-first century anime, M.D. Geist is legendary - though not for a single one of the right reasons.  It tops many people's worst-ever lists, and, perhaps more damningly, takes many more people's second worst slot; which is to say, it's not even considered interestingly terrible.  All of which makes giving an opinion on M.D. Geist here a more than usually futile task - especially when a practically definitive review exists, with plenty of juicy (and hilarious!) gossip about the forces that brought the fifty minute OVA to the West and helped establish its temporary popularity and abiding notoriety.

Still, fear of being pointless has never before checked my hand, and at least M.D. Geist is pretty easily found, particularly in the Director's Cut version that was funded by Western distributor CPM as an attempt to polish off some of the original version's rougher edges.  Which is a startling thing to be aware of as you're watching, because there are still more downright dysfunctional shots here than I've seen in any anime I can think of.  My favourite is probably a zoom where the animators have transparently just moved the camera lens towards a still image, but there are no end of other examples; whenever an object has cause to move across or into shot you can guarantee that something will go unpleasantly wrong.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  It's difficult to appreciate M.D. Geist's proper awfulness without having some idea of the plot - a fact that the special edition tacitly admits by refusing to translate the introductory text.  A little research tells us that it's the far-flung future, and the planet of Jerra has been torn by a war that we see a bit of in some new (and notably more competent) footage at the start, and which has pretty much burned itself out by the time the actual story begins.  This is at least in part due to the Most Dangerous Soldier program, which unwisely let a bunch of uncontrollable psychopaths loose and expected them to play nice.  One such was the titular Geist, who proved so unpopular with his paymasters that he was imprisoned in an orbital satellite, an idiotically un-foolproof plan that goes wrong when the satellite falls out of orbit and Geist somehow survives.

A summary of the story from there is especially futile, not because there's much to it - assume that Geist kills most everyone he sees in particularly bloody ways and you've grasped the essentials - but because it unfolds all but entirely at random.  There are at least three false starts; I'm tempted to go as far as five, if we count the additional director's cut footage.  There's almost no logical thread between the beginning, middle and end, though the creators sort of try and impose one with - well, I was going to say a love interest, but Geist transparently despises the female lead Vaiya, to a comical degree.  Ironically, Vaiya turns out to be the nearest thing we get to a protagonist, since Geist himself is basically a murderous plank.  But that's not really an argument in her favour, given how shrill and dim-witted and patently out of her depth she is.

Anyway, you've probably grasped that, with terrible animation shackled to a risible story, this isn't going to end with me being the lone voice in M.D. Geist's defence.  I'll say this, though, because I like to look for the good in things: there are some nice mecha designs, especially towards the end, and one in particular that's rather splendid.  The show wastes them utterly - the fights, which it seems to consider a big deal, are all but incomprehensible and hopelessly anticlimactic - but at least they're proof that someone had at least some idea of what they were doing.  And I'll go further to admit that I didn't actually hate M.D. Geist.  Its only really objectionable content is some lurid gore, but it's hard to be too shocked by a badly animated exploding head, even when the animators are obviously trying to be shocking.  And that's M.D. Geist all over, really: it's like an ugly, stupid, incontinent, over-excited puppy that you know you should probably kick out a window but can't because it just refuses to grasp how unlovable it is.  Or, put it this way: if you're going to watch one legendarily bad vintage anime, this is probably the least obnoxious one to go for.


I'll say this much: twenty-three posts in and with both Legend of the Overfiend and M.D. Geist behind me, I feel like the only way on from here is upward!**  Not that this round was a total washout - Black Magic was a small pleasure, and the Urusei Yatsura movie I actually liked quite a lot - but still, I've promised myself to stop ignoring the good stuff on the shelf for a while.  And thanks to some judicious abuse of E-bay, there's actually a fair bit of (hopefully!) good stuff there to be watched.  Fingers crossed, then, for entry number twenty-four, and the unearthing of some of those buried treasures I used to be so hopeful for back in the halcyon days of a few months ago.

[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 21, Part 22]

* That would be Beautiful Dreamer.
** Of course, this would be even truer if there wasn't an M.D. Geist 2, and on the same damn disk no less.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

We Want Your Dragons

Wait, you wanted dragon STORIES?
We're about halfway through the submissions period for Hic Sunt Dracones, the Digital Fiction Publishing dragon-themed anthology that I'm slush-reading for, and we've had a more than solid response so far, one that's included some pretty terrific stories.  But we don't have near the material for a full book yet, so I thought now might be a good time to spread the word a little.

Hic Sunt Dracones is reprint-only, with payment being one cent a word and enrollment into the Digital Fiction Publishing League, which would take way too much explaining here but basically means that there's a realistic chance you might see some royalties at some point; you can find the full details and the submissions form here.

And here's what editor Michael Wills has to say about what he's after:
Dragons - bad-ass dragons. Dragons that destroy things and eat people, and the people/robots/aliens/time lords that fight them or out-smart them - or get eaten by them. No story book dragons that live in forests helping orphans or peddling psychedelics. My dragons eat orphans for breakfast. Timeline and setting is wide open. Your dragons aren't necessarily getting stabbed by swords - but swords are welcome too. I want dragons - awe inspiring fear provoking monsters. They can be mechanical, mystical, steam-powered, alien, aquatic, from another dimension, or from outer space - but they must be terrifying beasts of destruction. Here be dragons.
For my part, I'd add that I could live with a dragon that wasn't wholly bad-ass, so long as it was contained in a story that was really splendid.  I mean, I think that in a pinch we might be flexible on that one; so don't let the fact that your dragon is only quite terrifying or destructive be too much of a decider.  For me, what we haven't seen enough of yet are those other kinds of dragon: the mechanical, mystical, steam-powered, alien, aquatic, from another dimension, or from outer space ones.  Lots of trad fantasy, absolutely; lots of comic fantasy, too, though not all of it terribly comic.  But I'm itching for some really good dragon sci-fi, or dragon horror for that matter.  It feels to me that there's more scope here than we've yet seen.  (And it's worth noting that those stories that have bucked the trends have frequently been among the best; or maybe that's just my tastes talking.)

Anyway.  The point is, we want your dragon stories.  And despite what I've said, they can be traditional as all get-out so long as they're good; believe me, I've put forward stories as old-school as anything, where they were genuinely excellent.  So give us your fantasy dragons.  Give us your science-fiction dragons.  Give us your tired dragons, your poor dragons, your huddled masses of dragons yearning to breathe fire freely.  Based on what we've seen already, this promises to be one hell of an anthology; wouldn't you like to be part of it?

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Black Rivers, White Thornes, and Other Novel News

I sure do seem to have a lot of works-in-progress!  But, at least until we get towards the back end of the year, 2017 is very much about just two of the however-many books I have at one stage or another, and about getting that pair finished and out the door.

First up, and the obvious one, there's the sequel to last year's The Black River Chronicles: Level One.  And the good news is, the first draft was basically a delight: I doubt there's ever going to come a point where writing a novel in under two months is less than a challenge, but this was as close as I expect to get, and a pleasure to boot.  There were so, so many things I wanted to accomplish with this book, and so many ideas that Mike and I kicked about, and I'm stunned to find that I feel like all of them are at least within reach: maybe not entirely there on the page just yet, but definitely waiting to be uncovered.

Sequels, I'm finding, are easier than beginnings, but that's not to say they're easy.  In this case, I had a whole laundry list of ways in which I wanted to move the groundwork of Level One forward: fresh arcs for Durren, Arein, Tia and Hule, and challenges that would really push them beyond their comfort zones; a new setting, complete with new characters; a greater sense of the Black River Chronicles world; more depth as to how magic works; and, of course, a ton of D&D jokes, because I can't imagine a day when D&D jokes aren't the lifeblood of this series.  The result is, I hope, a book that will follow on in exciting ways for anyone who's read the first but works just fine on its own - which, again, isn't exactly all that easy to pull off.  Anyway, there are a couple of drafts to go yet, and who knows what will change in the process?  Still, there's a great deal to be said for a successful first draft, given how, with the smallest of mistakes, they can go so horribly wrong; getting things more or less right on the first try always feels to me a little like avoiding a twenty car pile-up by the skin of my teeth.

White Thorne, my (in retrospect, stupidly overambitious) medieval, magical realist crime thriller, has been an altogether different prospect - but the news, somehow, is still rosy.  The first draft was soul-crushing and heartbreaking, as I tried to juggle too many balls and had to watch helplessly as half of them went flying about the room, smashing valuable ornaments and causing a few nasty concussions.  But, you know, one of the brilliant things about writing under your own steam is that you can keep at your work until you get it right.  In this case, that meant a long break, advice from some wise and trusted friends and then digging away over a six month period: really, digging is the absolutely best word.  That first draft felt like I'd managed to bury the intriguing plot and distinctive characters and months of historical research in my head beneath an inordinate amount of crud.  And the second became an exercise in aggressive archaeology, sometimes with a trowel but frequently with an excavator; by the end, I'd cut an entire novella's worth of wordage.

Over the summer I'll be returning for a third and (I hope) final draft, in which I'll mostly be trying to restore the polish to a book that's no doubt pretty raw and beaten-up from the brutality of our last go around.  And then, I guess, I'll have to starting thinking about trying to sell the thing.  Which, fortunately, isn't a worry with The Black River Chronicles: Mysterious Secret Title That I Can't Announce Yet But That Definitely Isn't Level Two, which I guess is yet another advantage of sequels.  You can expect that one before the end of the year - by which time I'm hopeful that all the stuff that's good right now will be really, really good.