Sunday, 30 July 2017

Level One Recovered

I remember writing a while back about how I've always been insanely lucky with audio adaptations.  If anything, I've been even luckier with covers.  To have seven books (and a comic) out and not have a single one I wasn't totally happy with is quite the thing.  Heck, even the covers to the German editions of Giant Thief, which had barely a thing to do with the actual book, were still pretty cool.  And really, who's to say that Easie Damasco doesn't look like a sexy ninja guy?  Not me.

I was thrilled with the original cover to The Black River Chronicles: Level One.  That's probably the one the most discussion went into, as Mike and I worked with Xerx to figure out exactly how these characters would look, even down to the sorts of little details that probably only we would ever notice.  It was a cool image, and it got right so much that was crucial to the book.  More than anything, I liked how nervous the gang looked: these weren't hardened fantasy heroes, they were basically a bunch of kids, and while they were trying to act tough, they weren't altogether succeeding.

But like I said, I'm insanely lucky with covers.  And now Level One has a new one, by the magnificently talented Kim Van Deun, and it's really a thing of beauty.  I mean, it's right there, I don't need to tell you!  I can guarantee it won't get any less great, too, because I've been staring at it off and on for the last two weeks and it's still really great.

I love how Tia's being all too cool for school there in the background.  I love how Hule's looking off in just the wrong direction, like that kid in the school photo who got distracted by a bee.  I love how Pootle looks like a crazy flying eyeball!  But maybe the biggest difference is that this time we get to see the gang out in the wilds, and somehow that feels exactly right to me.

To close, here's a look at the full image in all its glory.  And as ever you can purchase The Black River Chronicles: Level One from Amazon UK here and Amazon US here.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

One Website, Finally (Mostly) Finished

I feel like I've been working on my website since approximately the day, more than a decade ago,
when I first started selling fiction.  Back then (and probably today) it was one of those pieces of advice always given out to writers who were just starting out: you've got to have a website or no-one will ever take you seriously!  This turned out to be largely nonsense, of course*, and for a long time, Writing on the Moon - as I called my site for no discernible reason that I can remember - was a horrid, rotting albatross corpse around my neck, as I struggled with shambolic design software to try and produce something that didn't utterly embarrass me.

Things got better when I moved my business from Streamline - may their name live in infamy until the last star burns out in the sky! - to Wix, who are actually pretty great, despite some occasional ups and downs.  Since then I'd like to think that the site's been basically okay.  But I was still hamstrung by some older elements that I couldn't find the time or the energy to redesign, and at the end of the day my graphic design skills aren't exactly the greatest.

Short story long, I've finally managed to get around to the last bits of overhauling.  That mostly means I've fixed the banner to a degree that I'm actually happy with, but there's been a lot of less visible tweaking under the hood too.  And really, there's a fair bit of content up there, if I do so say myself: details on all of my books and short stories, links to anything remotely relevant that can be linked to, samples for all three Easie Damasco books and Level One, a trailer for Giant Thief, a free (albeit ancient!) story and details of every other story that can be read or listened to for free, not to mention a bio that tells you basically nothing except an obvious lie that I'm hoping no-one will pick up on.

Nevertheless, I won't kid myself that it's anywhere near perfect.  And a part of the reason for this post is to ask: What am I missing?  What isn't working?  Should I delete the whole thing and just post kitten pictures?  (I'm not doing that.)  If you have a minute then maybe take a look, and if you have another minute I'd love to hear your thoughts: you can find the site here.**




* After all, it's not like anyone takes me seriously with a website!
** Of course, it's perfectly possible you're reading this on my website, in which case this post must be really confusing!

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 26

Say what you like about this batch, it's a varied selection.  We've a surreal comedic sci-fi franchise movie, a swords and sorcery OVA based on a computer game, demonic horror manga adaptation and a surreal mockumentary spliced with the re-imagined history of its animation studio.  And okay, including that last one, Otaku no Video, is a bit of a cheat; there's nothing much like Otaku no Video anywhere in any medium.  And I suppose we also can't ignore the fact that three out of four of those are adaptations of one thing or another.  But let's not expect miracles, eh?

This time: Urusei Yatsura Movie 4: Lum the Forever, Wizardry, 3x3 Eyes and Otaku No Video...

Urusei Yatsura Movie 4: Lum the Forever, 1986, dir: Kazuo Yamazaki

I went into Lum the Forever conscious of its reputation as the Urusei Yatsura movie that's all but impossible to parse, the one that's little more than a collection of random scenes strung together by the ghost of a plot, the one that was a hefty but muddled bout of fan service to see the then-concluding series off in something approaching style.  But truth be told, none of those things especially bothered me.  There certainly is a plot and I can even more or less summarize it for you: stirred by to the chopping down of an ancient cherry tree, the town of Tomobiki gains a sort of sentience formed from the collective subconscious of its inhabitants, recognises Lum's alien presence and attempts to erase her from existence.  Indeed, once the film managed to stumble through an aimless first third, I found that plot quite engaging.  And though there are scenes that seem intended to do justice to individual characters rather than the given story, they're in the minority.  No, while the narrative wasn't up there with the best, it certainly didn't ruin Lum the Forever for me.

You know what did?  The crappy animation.

For the first time we're slap bang in the realms of telly moviedom - note the 4:3 TV standard ratio! - and my goodness but it shows in just about every shot.  Really, even back in 1986, I'd be willing to believe that TV anime could muster better efforts than this.  Even elements that traditionally stand out despite a limited budget fail to do so here; the backgrounds are muddy and uninspired, and the action sequences are about as crummy as everything else.  From top to bottom, Lum the Forever looks as though it was made in a rush.  If this really was the end of Urusei Yatsura, it would be a hell of a shameful way to send the franchise into the hereafter.

With all of that in mind, it's tricky to say whether Yamazaki's direction is up to anything terribly impressive.  It's possible to imagine a version of the film with animation on a par with, say, Beautiful Dreamer, that would be pretty interesting to look at, and that alone suggests that the visual storytelling is there in at least skeleton form.  Nevertheless, of everything I've seen by the director, this is certainly Yamazaki at his least inspired, which again makes me think that the movie was a rushed job.  All that argues against is a strong score by seeming franchise newcomer Yukio Kondô; apart from that, not one element fails to suggest that speed above all was the driving imperative.

And here I am making Lum the Forever sound terrible, which it certainly isn't.  Really, if my theory's right and this was rushed together to capitalize on nostalgia roused by the end of such a long-running and much-loved show, it could certainly have been a hell of a lot worse.  There are some fantastic ideas floating about, and the whole level of weirdness appealed to me; Lum the Forever is only less strange that Beautiful Dreamer because it's less successful in sustaining a mood.  I'd rate it as the least of the films so far, but then bad animation makes me cross; if you've watched and enjoyed any of the earlier movies, I wouldn't argue for skipping this one.  At its best, it's delightfully mad, and at its worst it looks rubbish but is at least still delightfully mad.

Wizardry, 1991, dir: Shunya Fujioka

First, a disclaimer: the 1991 OVA adaptation of the seminal Wizardry role-playing video game series was never released in the UK or America, so that the only way to watch it with English subtitles is via a fansubbed version that's easily found floating around on the internet.  I feel the need to get that out of the way because, not being a fan of piracy, I try and track down legitimate copies whenever I can, but also because in theory it gives an idea of the level at which to set your expectations, given some of the things that were picked up for release outside of Japan.

That already offers us a few reasons to assume Wizardry might be awful, but there are others.  Take director Fujioka, for example, who according to IMDB had never worked in anime before and would never do so afterwards.  Or take the Wizardry games themselves, which, though seminal, are more or less precisely what you'd expect from a D&D-inspired game series at the dawn of the last decade of the twentieth century and didn't exactly offer up a wealth of intricate plot.  For that matter, a couple of minutes of watching are enough to establish that the budget wasn't mind-blowing, nor the ambition to break any molds: clichéd fantasy heroes hack and slash at clichéd fantasy monsters in a quest for a big clichéd chest of treasure, and really the only detail that isn't a cliché is the fact that two fighters and a ninja makes for an awfully weird party.

Yet what should doom Wizardry to mediocrity or worse is actually what makes it a bit delightful: it's just so damned literal.  Our heroes are actually adventures who really do spend their days looting a ten floor dungeon with a fearsome boss antagonist at its lowest level.  An early plot-splurging tavern sequence reveals that there are other parties who do the same.  Healing spells can reattach severed limbs, and characters can even be reincarnated, so long as their corpses are dragged to the right temple.  Wizardry is faithful to its source material in a way that feels shockingly rare and almost daring; the degree of thought that's gone into taking a nonsensical world and making sure that it functions enough to be plausible for the span of just under an hour is rather commendable.

I'm biased, of course, on any number of levels.  I have a soft spot for early fantasy video games, just like I have for nineties anime, and I'm in the middle of writing a novel series that attempts something not wholly dissimilar with the tropes of classic fantasy.  Nevertheless, there's no denying that Wizardry does what it does more than adequately.  At its worst, it's at least functional; the frame rate, for example, is obviously low, but Fujioka has enough of a handle on his material that it's never bothersome.  The characterization is largely nonexistent, but the voice acting and designs are good enough to compensate.  The music is pleasant, if not memorable.  Nothing is actively bad, much is pretty good, and most importantly, the sum total just works: not as any kind of a masterpiece of course, but as an amiable, surprisingly determined stab at using one medium to bring another to life in a way that's neither ironic nor condescending.

3x3 Eyes, 1991, dir: Daisuke Nishio

The four part OVA of 3x3 Eyes marks a landmark of sorts, as the first time I'm reviewing something with which I have more than a passing acquaintance with the source material; I actually read and enjoyed a good portion of the 3x3 Eyes manga back in the day. Which is to say, for once I had some meaningful expectations going in beyond "this is meant to be good" or "oh no, not more tentacles."

Though, thinking about it, both of those would have been sensible preconceptions.  3x3 Eyes has a solid reputation, and it does get a bit tentacle-y in places, though thankfully not half so much as it might.  At any rate, we're firmly in the demonic horror tradition that characterizes so much work from the period.  Teenager Yakumo stumbles upon Pai, apparently a girl of about his own age, who reveals that despite appearances she's a member of an extraordinarily long-lived mystical race known as Sanjiyans.  But before he can ask much in the way of questions, the pair discover that Pai's pet pterodactyl-monster Takuhi is terrorising the city, and when they try to intervene, it focuses its terrorising on Yakumo by killing him stone dead.  That is, until Pai reveals that she shares her body with another much less friendly consciousness, one that restores Yakumo to life as her immortal servant.

From thereon we have Pai questing to become human, the threat of another, evil Sanjiyan reawakening (well, more evil, Pai's alter ego is pretty mean) and lots of Yakumo dying, generally in astonishingly gory ways.  3x3 Eyes may have a bit more plot than the average 90's horror anime, but that's not to say it skimps on the blood and guts.  In fact, the horror is pretty effective in places; in particular, the second episode genuinely took me by surprise, and then genuinely freaked me out.  I mean this as praise, by the way: some of this stuff, like Legend of the Overfiend, is shocking, but not much stands up as effective horror.  Perhaps because it bothers with things like story and characterisation before diving into the demons and evisceration, 3x3 Eyes manages more punch.

On the technical front, the animation is of the reliably good sort, to the extent that nothing really blew me away; the odd shot of Pai in the last episode, maybe, and I'm always glad of a show that fusses over its character moments.  Anyway, the compensation is that reliably good means just that.  The same goes for the largely instrumental score, which is effective stuff, full of pleasing nods to Pai's Tibetan heritage, but also content to support the drama without too much calling of attention to itself.  Again, this is no bad thing; really, it's nice to see such a focus on solid storytelling.  And that, thankfully, is something 3x3 Eyes offers in spades.  For once we get an interesting narrative with some genuinely original ingredients, and if the characters are more familiar, they're at least worth spending time around.  Particularly cheering is the fact that, despite being an early chunk of yet another hugely long-running series, the OVA manages to reach a resolution of sorts.  Nothing really gets wrapped up, but the status quo gets enough of a jolt and the last moments are enough of a new beginning that we're left with the sense of an ending, if not quite the thing itself.

Of course, not everything is perfect.  The odd bit of goofy humour is misplaced, and a more serious issue is the burgeoning romance between Yakumo and Pai; she's portrayed as so childlike that it comes off as more creepy than cute, and never becomes a satisfactory motivation as the creators seem to believe it should.  But while a useless central romance proves quite a flaw, especially in the final episode, it's also not enough to undo the good work done elsewhere.  3x3 Eyes remains a real standout, good enough to get me caught up in a subgenre I tend to be pretty cold towards, and I'm eager to dip into the sequel.

Otaku no Video, 1991, dir: Takeshi Mori

Okay ... this one's going to take a bit of explaining.

Probably anyone reading this already knows, but just in case, Otaku crudely translates to nerd - though importantly, you can be an Otaku on just about any subject so long as you're sufficiently obsessive.  And what Otaku no Video is above all else is a tribute to Otaku, though it's nearly as much a mockery, and also something of a critique.  Most of the more negative stuff is clustered in the documentary footage that makes up roughly half of the two fifty minute episodes, and which consist of a series of interviews with anonymous Otaku.  Oh yes, and those interviews are most probably faked, with the interviewees really being members of the studio, Gainax, behind the film.  Which sort of makes sense, because the animated portions of Otaku no Video, following an innocent named Kubo who gets lured by his geeky friend Tanaka into the dark waters of Otaku-dom and eventually sets his sights on becoming the ultimate Otaku, is also a thinly veiled and heavily fantasised telling of Gainax's own origins.

Got all that?

At any rate, it makes more sense while you're watching it, at least once you settle into its odd rhythms.  The interview footage and anime segments comment on each other in clever ways, creating a neat dialogue between fiction and reality (even if that reality wasn't all that real.)  And the ambition on display is remarkable; Otaku no Video really feels like an attempt to be the last word on its subject, not so much because it's comprehensive but because it lurches in so many different directions.  It's at once history, overview and prediction, homage and pastiche, a catalogue and a deconstruction of Otaku-ism.  And from the perspective of 2017, it's an extraordinary piece of cultural archeology.  After all, what's covered here is the birth of a new means of consumption and appreciation of culture, and something similar was happening at the same time in both Europe and the US - enough so that I found myself alternately cheering and cringing at much of what was on screen.

It's disappointing, then, that as a work of anime it can't be just a tiny bit better.  Given the knowledge of what Gainax could do - this is the studio behind masterpieces like Wings of Honneamise, Gunbuster and the mighty Neon Genesis Evangelion - the fact that the animation is, until the last few minutes, resolutely used to represent real world scenes that aren't especially visually interesting feels like a missed opportunity.  (Though the animators do manage to cheekily insert some footage from their legendary opening to the Daicon IV convention, which if you haven't seen it you should watch right this second!)  At least Kôhei Tanaka's parody score is terrifically good fun.

The inevitable question, I suppose, is what appeal a half-documentary, half anime OVA from 1991 chronicling the rise of Japanese nerd culture has to offer to the modern viewer.  As a work of entertainment, I've already highlighting a couple of imperfections; to that could be added that the story told in the animated sections is interesting more than fascinating, though it gains from knowing how it's mirroring real events.  But the truth is that time has been generous to Otaku no Video, more so than to most anime from two and half decades ago; what was recent history when it was made now feels indescribably ancient in a multitude of subtle ways, a candid glimpse into a reality long gone and in many ways almost forgotten.  Yet what's equally striking is how much what's presented here is the foundation of our current age, in which so many of the niche hobbies presented are now thoroughly mainstream.  All of which is to say that, as anime, Otaku no Video is pretty good, but as a time capsule of a cultural epoch, it's priceless.

-oOo-

So what will next time bring?  More of the same, most likely.  My nineties anime buying has slowed considerably; I think this time I really have picked up everything that can be found for a reasonable price in the UK, and though there are a few titles I'm still curious about, it's a case of watching out for those super-rare affordable copies that pop up every few months, or perhaps never.

Does that mean there's an end in sight?  Given how often I've claimed there might be and been wrong, I think the only possible answer is "Um, maybe."  At any rate, I suspect I'll hit the big thirty without too much trouble!  There are certainly a few things left on the shelf that I can't wait to get to...



[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24, Part 25, Part 27Part 28]