Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 48

Nineties anime saw its share of megafranchises, those properties that for whatever reason managed to massively capture the attention and affection of Japanese audiences, and some of them we've touched on already; Urusei Yatsura, Ranma 1/2, and Ah My Goddess! to name but three.  Well, here's another, and indeed one of the most enduring: Tenchi Muyo!, which began life as a short OVA, would explode to the point where you can only really discuss it nowadays with reference to the Tenchiverse, a scope so broad that it takes in multiple series, incompatible timelines, and a handful of spin-offs.  In fact, Photon: The Idiot Adventures, which I reviewed favourably a while back, apparently exists within that very universe.  In short, Tenchi Muyo! was pretty damn huge, and pretty well loved.  But does that mean it's any good?

By way of answering that question, let's have a gander at the first two Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki OVAs, and the films Tenchi Muyo in LoveDaughter of Darkness, and Tenchi Forever...

Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki OVAs 1 & 2, 1992 - 1995, dir: Hiroki Hayashi

If I were trying to sell a nineties anime show to you, "It's one of the main progenitors of the harem comedy subgenre" certainly isn't the first place I'd go.  Yet here we are, and here Tenchi Muyo is, and there's no getting around the fact: this is a show about one guy surrounded by a bunch of women, most of whom have crushes on him to various degrees, and that's a formula that's because awfully ubiquitous.  The guy in question is Tenchi, you'll be shocked to discover, and the women who flock around him are many and varied: there's space pirate Ryoko, alien princess Ayeka, her little sister Sasami, ditzy space cop Mihoshi, and - my personal favourite - centuries-old mad scientist Washu.

Now, I've grumbled before about mere comedy love triangles in anime, so you can imagine my feelings on that convention with four female characters rather than two (Sasami, fortunately, is content to view Tenchi as more of a big brother.)  Thank goodness, then, that Tenchi Muyo! has an ace up its sleeve: it's terrific science fiction, and perhaps more importantly, feels no need to draw attention to the fact.  It's made clear, without ever being outright stated, that the space-faring races in this universe have develop to the point where they can do more or less anything they like.  Wooden spaceships that are basically sentient trees?  Other spaceships that turn into small rabbity creatures?  Organic robots?  Genetic manipulation?  Phasing through walls?  Sure, why the hell not!  It's tremendously high concept stuff, which the comedy elements sort of nestle inside and rub up against, as though Friends were taking place in the world of Banks's Culture series.  And though the former does sometimes get a bit tiresome, it always gives way to the latter just in time.

It helps, too, that with the exception of the dull and horridly designed Tenchi himself, the characters are rather splendid.  Ryoko, with her dodgy past, thoroughly screwy moral compass, and vague attempts toward moral reform, is a highlight, and one of the rare occasions I've seen nudity used to develop character: there's something kind of terrific about the way she doesn't give one ounce of a damn about whether she has clothes on or not.  Mihoshi the space cop is plenty fun, and as I said above, Washu is brilliant from the moment she appears.  She's the only character who flat-out sexually propositions Tenchi, which is something you almost never see in anime, and she's also an unapologetic scientific genius who happens also to be female, which is something you almost never see anywhere in film or TV.

In short, then, this first incarnation of Tenchi Muyo! is good stuff, and - while I didn't altogether fall in love with it the way I have some other major franchises from the time - well worth the effort of hunting out.  And that, as it turns out, isn't outrageously difficult, since it's all been re-released recently and the original set by Pioneer (or MVM in the UK) is still floating about too.  All incarnations seem to lump the first two OVA series together as one, which is why I've reviewed them together.  They certainly work well as a single thirteen episode story, at least if you ignore the brief cliffhanger that concludes that thirteenth episode.

Tenchi the Movie: Tenchi Muyo in Love, 1996, dir: Hiroshi Negishi

It didn't take the Tenchi franchise long to get its first movie: a year after the second OVA series wrapped, the incomprehensibly named Tenchi Muyo in Love arrived in cinemas.  And to its credit, a cinema release it certainly is: among its virtues, it's visually a step up from the already good-looking OVAs, with some stunning backgrounds, smoother character animation, and a couple of really knock-out sequences, particularly toward the climax.  It also has a proper movie plot, rather than something that feels like an elongated episode: the escape of a time-and-space traveling criminal finds the gang shunted into the past to try and protect Tenchi's mother, since she's disappearing from old images of herself and Tenchi's beginning to vanish along with her.

And okay, so that big movie plot is just the plot of Back to the Future, but what the heck?  It's a change of scene, and it gives some backbone and a note of urgency to the usual high-jinx.  Particularly fun are the early sequences of Ryoko, Ayeka, and Sasami trying to pass themselves off as new arrivals; whoever thought Sasami would make for a convincing substitute teacher, or that Ryoko and Ayeka could get along as a pair of new students?  It's silly stuff, but the meaningful narrative ticking away in the background helps make the comedy a relief rather than the clowning for its own sake that makes the odd weaker OVA episode something of a chore.

With all that, it's fair to say that if you have any affection for the franchise, you'll like Tenchi Muyo in Love.  Whether you'll get anything from it as a new arrival to the show is another matter, though I'm inclined to think not.  It doesn't do a thing to reintroduce the characters or explain crucial back story, and the fish-out-of-water comedy is going to resonate a lot less if you don't have the usual setup to compare with.  At any rate, while the film is definitely likable, it's perhaps not lovable.  Part of that is that the concept doesn't really hold up: there's fundamentally no reason for the villain to be striking at this point in the past, beyond an excuse to thrust the gang into high school and let them interfere with Tenchi's parents' attempts at getting together.  And the villain, though stunningly designed, turns out to be awfully nothingy.  I'd struggle to tell you what their motivations were or how they thought any of this would accomplish them.

However, the kicker is MVM's uncharacteristically crappy delivery: Tenchi Muyo in Love was spat out in a somewhat smudgy non-anamorphic print, meaning that unless you still have an old 4:3 TV kicking around, it's going to float in the centre of your telly looking like crap.  If you're in the US, you can shell out for the blu-ray box set, but it's not cheap, and I'm not sure if even that would turn a good movie into a great movie.  It's a fun, though flawed, diversion that both respects and adds to its source material, and it's only a shame that nobody thought to sit down and work out what the hell was going on with its disappointingly run-of-the-mill bad guy.

Tenchi the Movie 2: Daughter of Darkness, 1997, dir: Satoshi Kimura

I don't know what precise status Daughter of Darkness had at the time of its release, but considering it a movie in the sense that Tenchi Muyo in Love was a movie feels like one heck of a stretch.  It's barely an hour in length, does nothing to follow up on the established continuity, is somewhat less well animated than the OVA series, and apparently is barely even regarded as canonical due to almost none of the established creative team being involved.  Also, it isn't very good.

The central problem is the basic concept, which is rather a large central problem to have.  Essentially, Tenchi meets a teenage girl who, though she has no memory of anything else, insists she recognises him as her father.  Thanks to visions of a weird goblin creature living in some sort of interdimensional den, we have a fair idea that this is nonsense, and there's every reason to think that Tenchi and the gang would arrive at the same conclusion, especially given how the OVAs have established that cloning and the creation of robotic duplicates are roughly as easy to the scientific minds of the Tenchiverse as making toast is to us.  But of course then we wouldn't get the hilarity of watching Ryoko and Ayeka go nuts over the possibility that Mayuka really is Tenchi's daughter, perhaps from the future or another timeline.  And we wouldn't get scene after scene of Mayuka being brainwashed into getting into uncomfortably sexual situations with her supposed father.  Oh, the hilarity!  No, there's no hilarity, that was a lie.

It is, in short, a stupid concept that basically dooms itself to failure from the off, and it's somewhat surprising that the film does actually manage to milk the odd good scene from it.  In particular, there are some nice moments of character development, some of them rather mature and serious, that while they don't feel well-placed in this here story, are a meaningful addition to the canon as a whole.  And while the movie doesn't look especially good in general - subpar animation aside, it's another crappy non-anamorphic release from our friends at MVM - there's at least some terrific design work toward the end, when we get to see the dark dimension that's behind all this nonsense.  In fact, it's fair to say that Daughter of Darkness backloads its best material, which is always a wise course and leaves it looking a little better in memory than it probably was.  As such, while it's thoroughly skippable and certainly not worth a moment's thought if you're not familiar with at least the first OVA, it's not so bad as to be a waste of time if you're on a Tenchi binge.  All else aside, the fact that it succeeds on occasions to do right by its characters in ways the OVAs and first movie didn't always accomplish narrowly justifies its existence.

Tenchi the Movie 3: Tenchi Forever, 1999, dir: Hiroshi Negishi

I've suggested before that there are essentially two directions you can take a film adaptation of a much-loved property: the one that tries to recreate a successful formula as precisely as possible or the one that tramples that formula and kicks it out the window.  The latter, for obvious reasons, is rarer, though not half so rare in anime as elsewhere: you could argue that Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer is the pinnacle for that particular approach.  But Tenchi Forever comes awfully close, both in quality and for its insistence in refusing to do a single one of the things you might expect from the climax of a long-running and much-loved harem comedy.

And oh how I hate that term, and oh how I admire Tenchi Forever for apparently hating it too!  My least favourite moments in all of Tenchi Muyo involved two strong, smart, capable female characters bickering like children over a man who was essentially a child himself, and hadn't a drop of personality to justify their behaviour, and it's awfully telling that this third film has precisely one such scene: a particularly bratty bit of business in which Ryoko and Ayeka finally insist that Tenchi ought to pick between them, and Tenchi storms off, only to vanish mysteriously and so set in motion the entire plot.

The thing is, they're right: in the OVAs, Tenchi resolutely refuses to address a situation in which two women with openly strong feelings for him are living in the same house and constantly demeaning themselves in an attempt to get his attention.  He deals with the problem by ignoring it, and so the show can continue.  But this was to be the end of all things Tenchi Muyo, and that means something truly extraordinary can happen: Tenchi can grow up.  I don't want to spoil the plot, because it benefits hugely from being met with no foreknowledge, but suffice to say that it sees Tenchi in a complex and adult relationship, and immediately makes him a hundred times more likable and engaging as a result.  Even more shockingly, it allows Ryoko and Ayeka to mature, to put their ridiculous differences aside, and even to cooperate.

Oh, and it looks and sounds fantastic.  New character designs are a masterclass in keeping what works and kicking out what doesn't: Tenchi's is the biggest improvement, but Ryoko's is the best on its own merits, giving her both a grittiness and a hint of vulnerability and even making her slightly more alien.  Similar attention has gone into the backgrounds, which are reliably superb, and the animation, which is terrific but for the odd minor hiccup.  And Tsuneyoshi Saito's score, which sounds like it's wandered in from a breezy French drama, is perfectly attuned to the material in all sorts of interesting and unexpected ways.

In short, Tenchi Forever is great on all fronts except one: it's arguably a terrible Tenchi Muyo movie.  It distorts the characters about as far as it can get away with, gives most of them precious little to do, and devotes its attention to a character that hasn't been mentioned up until this point and a setting that's a world away from the show's familiar trappings.  There's precious little in the way of comedy, and it sidelines the space opera side of things too, which I probably ought to be bothered about.  But you know what, I'm not!  This is a genuinely excellent film - bar the odd OVA episode, the franchise's only real flirtation with genuine excellence - and awfully close to classic status, held back only by the fact that it would be unwatchable without some knowledge of what's come before and a suspicion that it will lose a lot on a rewatching, wedded to its central mystery as it is.  But hey, I may be wrong, and even if I'm not, this was an awfully exciting note to end my deep dive into the Tenchiverse on.


So that was Tenchi Muyo! huh?  Well, no, I barely scraped the surface here, even of what was produced in the nineties.  But within our already way too flexible rules, that's as far as we get: everything else was series that would take far too long to dig into.  And anyway, this seems like a nice place to walk away.  After slightly mixed feelings throughout the OVAs and the first two films, Tenchi Forever was a splendid note to end on, and I'd hate to spoil that.

[Other reviews in this series: By Date / By Title / By Rating]

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Black River Updates

Yes, updates plural!  It seems funny to have news on not one but two Black River books, but that's the situation we're in, and it's rather a nice position to be in.  Not only am I prepping the third book, Eye of the Observer, for publication as we speak*, I'm knee deep in the first draft of the as yet to be (officially!) titled fourth.  Actually, to be precise, I'm exactly at the halfway mark, assuming my chapter plan continues to survive contact with the enemy, as they do say no chapter plan does.  Though in this case, I guess we ought to make that contact with my own inability to gauge what I can reasonably cram into five or six thousand words!  It's one of those things you get steadily better at judging, but I doubt it's ever going to become an exact science.  At any rate, it's safe to say that book four will exist in some sort of a completed form by around the end of April.  Of course, that's only really the beginning of a long, long process, but getting the first draft done is one of the more satisfying deadlines along the way, and a good indication of what lies ahead, so there's that.

But probably if you're reading this you're more interested in where things are at with book three, what with that being the next in the series and all.  And the answer is, very close indeed!  Which is to say, the copy edit's done, effectively meaning that the book is finished, and I reckon we'll be revealing the cover any day now - I've seen an eighty percent done version and, yeah, Kim's knocked it clean out of the park again - and we've got an introduction ready from someone I'm awfully proud to be associated with. All told, the last pieces are slotting neatly into place.

So I guess the real news is, expect more news very soon.  And indeed, expect The Black River Chronicles: Eye of the Observer very soon.  We don't exactly have a release date set yet, but it's certainly narrowing down, and I'd be awfully surprised if the book's not out to buy before the end of May.

* Okay, not literally.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 47

Oh look, we're back to crazy randomness!  And frankly, this post is about as crazily random as any arbitrary gathering of four anime titles could hope to be.  Oh, I guess we have some more-than-familiar sub-genres - cyberpunk, demonic horror, zany fantasy parody, cute robot girls - but even then, the particular variations on those motifs are pretty out there.  So maybe this is a theme post after all, and the theme is, weird variations on well-worn vintage anime tropes.

No, that's rubbish, I just picked stuff off the shelf.  This time around: GundressSaber Marionette RDetatoko Princessand Vampire Princess Miyu...

Gundress, 1999, dir: Katsuyoshi Yatabe

The crucial detail to note about a release that the US DVD proudly proclaims to be "Masamune Shirow's Gundress" is that it isn't Masamune Shirow's anything.  And also that no-one at any point wears a dress made out of guns.  But really, that first point is the important one: what we have here is a cinematic feature by a small studio who lucked into getting Shirow to do their character and mecha designs, and also into letting them hint that this was somehow a prequel to his Appleseed series.  Given that Gundress isn't on a par with anything Shirow wrote, this fact has been frequently used as a stick to beat it with, and understandably so.  However, I confess I found it sort of adorable: despite their apparent belief that they were creating something wildly new and exciting, the writers lift to an astonishing degree from Shirow's CV.  Aside from the blatant Appleseed similarities, there's a ton of Ghost in the Shell, especially in protagonist Alissa, who at one point even gets to ride around on a pet robot that looks awfully like one of the Major's Tachikomas.

This is good news, because Shirow is great, and the recycled plot, in which a group of robotic suit-clad female mercenaries find themselves protecting a somewhat reformed black market smuggler from the shady influences who want him dead, needs all the help it can get.  The fact that you can squint and pretend this might be a lesser Shirow adaptation does it favours it urgently needs.  And mainly that's because Gundress is all sorts of ugly.  I've seen suggestions it was released unfinished, and it certainly looks like that might be the case: outside of M. D. Geist, I haven't seen any professionally produced Japanese animation that was so obviously broken.  My favourite example is a shot where one of the characters is climbing out of a locker and the animators forget to include her in the first couple of frames, so that she pops into existence like the assistant in a magic trick.  if nothing else is quite that inscrutably awful, there are no end of sequences where it appears the inbetweening has gone astray, so that characters jolt across the screen, and others where the perspective or proportions are subtly but horribly wrong.  Truly, the idea that this thing was released into cinemas in such a state is hard to credit.

Yet I come back to my point that, in its better moments - there genuinely are a handful! - you can just about comfort yourself with the lie that you're watching a piece of enthusiastic Shirow fan fiction.  Had this come out in, say, 1990, and had it been a low budget OVA rather than a feature, it would be sort of charming.  It reminded me of one of the better Manga Collection releases, admittedly in part due to AnimeWorks' rubbishy non-anamorphic release, but also because it has a scrappy charm that transcends its grosser faults.  Indeed, I wasn't altogether surprised to find that it's by the same team who made my beloved Landlock.  (Weirdly, Landlock, a budget OVA adaptation of a minor video game, looks approximately a thousand times better.)  Also, the voice acting and score are solid, at least in the original Japanese, so Gundress sounds the piece even when it looks disastrous.  I was inclined to give it a qualified pass for the bulk of its running time, as a likable homage to much better works; sadly, the big action finale, relying as it does almost solely on the weakest link of that dreadful animation, put the kibosh on that.  As such, the kindest thing I have to say is that it's no worse that the actual Appleseed adaptation made a decade earlier, and that's slender praise.

Saber Marionette R, 1995, dir's: Kôji Masunari, Kazuya Tsurumaki, Hidehito Ueda

It's fair to say that everything interesting about Saber Marionette R happens around the edges.  Because the plot, which sees young prince Junior on the run after his brother imprisons his father and sets out to snatch the reins of the kingdom, couldn't be a lot more boilerplate.  But that's okay: there's only three episodes here, somewhat less than an hour and a half if you ignore the credits, and a familiar plot is no great detriment when it's wrapped, as Saber Marionette R's is, amid interesting world building.  Set in the sort-of-futuristic land of Romana (or as the box hilariously insists, Romania) the setting is an intriguing mix of cultural influences and styles, with deeply bonkers locations that somehow still have the vague air of a functional, lived-in universe.

All of this is helped, no doubt, by having the wider Saber Marionette franchise to draw on: R, as I understand it, is something of a retelling, that's possibly also a sequel, to the longer, better known, and greatly more popular Saber Marionette J.  So there are plenty of big ideas ticking away in the background, and the show makes the right call in not explaining them beyond the bare minimum necessary to keep them from becoming distracting.  The same goes for the characters, apparently more or less the same characters as in J: they're simple and one-note, but in a way that feels right for the material.  The highlight is undoubtedly goofy, childlike bodyguard Lime, who manages to stand out even in the world of anime, where goofy, childlike female characters are approximately fifteen a penny.

It's also pretty damn weird.  You could probably write a lengthy essay on its sexual politics, or the rationale behind how the good marionettes resemble children and are made sentient by "girl circuits", while the bad androids are modeled after adult women, called Sexadolls, and dress like strippers at a bondage party.  But as with the world-building, that weirdness is arguably a bonus, adding shade and texture to what would otherwise by awfully straightforward.  Given the unspectacular technical values bringing everything to life, the fact that it's all basically interesting to look at is a handy diversion.

The result is a show with plenty of obvious flaws, but none of them terribly bothersome except for a couple: the print released by AnimeWorks is so dark that it's tricky in places to tell what's going on, and the ending veers into a spot of exposition at a crucial moment that makes no sense without a knowledge of the wider universe.  Neither fact is really that big a deal, and neither got in the way of me enjoying Saber Marionette R while I was watching.  It's unquestionably minor stuff, a spin-off OVA to a largely forgotten series, but rather than being the sort of knocked-off crap you might expect, it's told with energy, heart, and a healthy dose of oddness.

Detatoko Princess, 1997, dir: Akiyuki Shinbo

We meet princess Lapis of Sorcerland as she's blowing a mile-high floating garden out of the sky to save one small bird that might or might not be in danger, and that tells us most of what we need to know about her going in: namely that she basically means well but has all the good sense of a drunk water buffalo.  Oh, and that she has, through her magical eraser, the power to nullify the magic of others, a fact that's kept her safe when by all accounts she should have been dead a thousand times over.  Really, the only missing piece of the Lapis puzzle - and it's there, apparently, in the title, if you happen to read Japanese - is that she loves pudding to an irrational degree, so much so that she can't survive without it for more than three days.

Given that all the characters in Detatoko Princess are as thoroughly silly as Lapis is, that opening scene largely fills us in on what to expect over the next hour and a half, too: it's zany fantasy parody time, in the vein of Slayers and Maze and Dragon Half and oh so many other titles.  In essence, what Detatoko Princess does is to set up any number of absurd elements and then fling them at each other and see what happens: it's not what you could call sophisticated, but enough of those ideas are genuinely funny for the approach to work more often than not, and when it doesn't you can be sure there'll be something else along in a second.  This is pretty common of that branch of anime comedy that took delight in sending up the hackneyed conventions of fantasy, and I guess you love it or hate it.  Me, I really do like this stuff, and Detatoko Princess made me laugh a fair bit, while at the same time being pleasurable company: it's an affectionate parody that refuses to judge its ridiculous characters and their foibles harshly, wherever they fall on the notional scale between hero and villain.  (After all, Lapis is responsible for a good deal more death and destruction than any of her foes!)

I guess ultimately it's also fair to say that Detatoko Princess lacks much to distinguish it.  There's the bizarre obsession with pudding, and an affection for fourth-wall-breaking signs that flash up regularly and are perhaps its weakest joke, I suspect because they relied on wordplay that defied translation.  There's a gloriously dumb and catchy opening theme, a nearly as dumb and catchy closer, and the odd moment of animation that goes above and beyond the call of duty, maybe because director Shinbo seriously knows his stuff.  (His CV wasn't so hot in 1997, but he's since got the superb Puella Magi Madoka Magica under his belt.)  On the other hand, originality isn't everything.  Detatoko Princess takes a half episode to find its feet, and those dumb signs are a waste of space, but it's still a lot of fun: the characters are marvelous, none more so that Lapis herself, the comedy is just the right side of wacky, and it's so deliriously random that there's no predicting where it will go in the next minute, never mind by the end of each episode.  In short, a minor delight, but a delight nonetheless.

Vampire Princess Miyu, 1988, dir: Toshiki Hirano

It's hard to make animation scary, and it's hard to tell a genuinely excellent horror story in under half an hour, and the fact that Vampire Princess Miyu pulls off both four times in a row is very much to its credit.  Oh, perhaps it's more creepy than actually frightening, but that's fine, because it's creepy as as hell, with content, artwork, music, and some of the finest use of sound I've come across in anime combining to really crawl under your skin and stick there.  Miyu might not give you nightmares (though, heck, maybe it will!) but if you're remotely susceptible, there's sure to be the odd image that will lodge in your subconscious.

For me, it's the dolls in the second and finest of its four OVA episodes.  I've never found dolls remotely scary before, but then I never came across any that were - ah, but that way lies spoilers, and you deserve to come to Vampire Princess Miyu with as little foreknowledge as possible.  Suffice to say that our nominal protagonist is psychic investigator Himiko, who one day, while on a particularly weird case, happens across the titular Miyu and her masked servant Larva.  Miyu refuses to make clear whether she's an ally or an enemy, though it's apparent that she's no friend to the demonic Shinma that are taking an unhealthy interest in the human world.  Either way, she certainly has a chuckle that's guaranteed to send shivers up your spine, and she's intriguing enough that Himiko increasingly finds herself shirking her day job in the quest for answers, though it's obvious to us and probably to her that none of those answers are going to lead anywhere good.

Now, eighties and nineties anime is positively dripping with psychic investigators and spooky little girls and battles against invading demonic forces, and it's fair to say that Vampire Princess Miyu is up to nothing terribly new.  But it's even fairer to say that anything can feel fresh when it's done sensationally well.  And for that matter, it's a good deal more wedded to an earlier period of Japanese horror than to anything its contemporaries were playing around at: the film I was most reminded of was the 1968 classic Kuroneko, given the strong focus on mood over gore and on tropes of Japanese folklore over more modern trends.  Yet it doesn't feel dated, and in part that's due to how it finds exciting twists and nuance in ideas that at first glance are well past their prime.  I mean, in a world of about a million scary doll movies, it takes inspired storytelling to discover an original angle - yet Miyu does so with apparent ease.

There are problems, but they're minor.  In general, the show is strongest the furthest away it is from its arc plot, meaning that the first half is better than the second - though the second is still terrific.  And Kenji Kawai's score is fabulous because, come on, it's Kenji Kawai, but it was written in 1988 and that means more use of synthesisers than is strictly necessary or best suited for such material.  But that's all I've got.  Heck, even the cover art and menus on AnimEigo's DVD release are gorgeous.  Though that does bring us to one final problem, that of availability: inexcusably, AnimEigo felt it appropriate to split an OVA of less than two hours over a pair of disks, making it that bit harder and more expensive to find.  Don't get me wrong, it's absolutely worth the effort, but it's also the case that Vampire Princess Miyu is well overdue being picked up for re-release.*


As I was putting this together, it very much felt like a post that could go either way, with a couple of fun but hardly standout titles and then the barely-mediocre Gundress - but boy did Vampire Princess Miyu pull things back from the brink.  Now I feel it's been a great selection, and even Gundress was sort of okay, especially given how toxic its reputation is.  More like this, please!

[Other reviews in this series: By Date / By Title / By Rating]

* And having said that, I'm staggered to find that not only are AnimEigo apparently still trading, you can buy Vampire Princess Miyu and other vintage titles from their website at perfectly reasonable prices.  Given the hassle it took me to get a copy here in the UK, that makes me want to punch something a little bit, but if you're in the US then consider yourself lucky.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Announcing a Savage Generation

It always seems like the really big news you have to sit on forever and a day!  But okay, the cat's now out of the bag: The Bad Neighbour wasn't the only novel I sold to Flame Tree Press last year.  There was a second, and now it has a cover and it's up on their website, so I reckon I'm okay for me to announce it.

The book now known as A Savage Generation has been through rather a lot of titles and iterations since I wrote the first draft the better part of a decade ago.  For a long while it was just Funland, the first novel I wrote full time and the only one I've ever blogged regular progress reports on, what feels like half a lifetime ago.  Then it became War For Funland and sat on the metaphorical shelf for a long time, as the sale of Giant Thief and the need to write its sequels absorbed all my attention.  When I returned to it soon after I packed in the day job for good, it was with another new title, Degenerates, and a good deal more experience.  I wasn't wholly happy with what I found, but there was a ton of stuff that worked - so the only way forward was to tear what I had down to its foundations and build it up again.

Under any other circumstances, I'd feel wary about a novel that had gone through such tumultuous growing pains.  In this case, I genuinely think the result is something I couldn't possibly have written in any other way.  it's a sprawling, complex novel, stuffed with characters and ideas and plot threads, some of which belong to a much younger me, some of which came in later.  Perhaps it's not the most cohesive thing I've ever written, but it has an energy and sprawling ambition that I'm not convinced I could replicate if I just sat down and tried.  Possibly it's even two books by two different versions of me mashed together, but if so, I spent many a month neatening the seams until I was certain the results stayed glued!  In short, it's a crazy goddamn thing, but I'm proud of it, and I've glad it's found the home it has.

And here we are and I haven't said one word on what it's about, so here's the blurb:
Sickness is ravaging America, driving the infected to savagery.
Petty criminal Ben Silensky is determined to get his girlfriend Carlita and son Kyle free of the quarantined city they live in - determined enough to risk a foolhardy crime and then to team up with Carlita's equally desperate cop cousin Nando.  Once they're out, Nando is certain they'll find a safe haven in the prison, White Cliff, where his uncle works.  But unbeknownst to him, White Cliff has already become a survivalist colony named Funland under the management of entrepreneurial convict Plan John.
In Funland itself, guard Doyle Johnson is shocked when his ex-wife abandons his son Austin into his care.  Fearing the vulnerable position he's been placed in, he recruits the help of Katherine Aaronovich, the prison's doctor.  However, Aaronovich's traumatic past has left her with vulnerabilities of her own, along with a radical theory on the nature of the epidemic that will place all their lives in jeopardy.
As the last vestiges of civilisation crumble, Funland may prove to be the safest or the most dangerous of places, depending on who comes out on top - and what can't be held together will inevitably be torn apart.
Oh, and the fact that it ended up under yet another new title?  That's just because Flame Tree weren't thrilled with the previous one.  But hey, I'm happy with what we settled on, and it surely does look cool in bright blood red, smeared across that image, doesn't it?

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Finally Making Some Sense of These Nineties Anime Reviews

I swear that when I started reviewing vintage anime here on the blog, the intention wasn't for it to drag on to over forty-five posts, with no sign of stopping, let alone for it to take over as much as it has.  What can I say?  It's become a subject dear to my heart, and it's fun to write about, and frankly it's entirely slipped out of my control and taken on a life of its own.

I'd love to declare that I'm going to pack it all in, but I'm really not - there's still so much good nineties anime waiting to be hunted down and reviewed, I know it in my bones!  However, I have been realising that it was time to make some sensible changes.  My biggest misstep, other than starting this nonsense in the first place, was the way I've been keeping track of the posts: basically, adding a new one meant updating all of the previous ones, currently at forty-six and counting.  That's an awful lot of pointless work.

So I've finally got around to something I've been planning for a good long while now, which is coming up with a proper index.  Only, I can't work out how to do that in a way that covered all bases, so what we get instead is three indexes: you can now find any of the reviews I've written by date, title or score, should you happen to want to.

Yes, score!  There are scores now!  And that was an interesting exercise in itself.  Some came easily, others less so, and I found myself forced to admit that a lot of stuff I'd thoroughly enjoyed probably wasn't, by any objective standards, actually that good.  I mean, it broke my heart to give Battle Skipper a mere four out of ten, and it's all the harder for knowing that that's probably still over-rating it.  And what the heck grade do you give something like Adventure Duo, which is certainly terrible and entertained me more than many a cinematic classic?

Speaking of which, it's noteworthy that I can now say for sure just what utter masterpieces I've managed to unearth.  At first glance, the results are a bit dispiriting: only two titles get a full, flawless ten out of ten, and a mere five warrant nine out of ten.  Dip a little below that, though, and things pick up considerably: there are a ton of eights and sevens, and some absolutely wonderful stuff  in there.  In fact, let's face it, you really have to get down to the two or threes out of ten to find titles I actively didn't enjoy.  Oh, and I also now know that the highest scoring post on average was number eighteen, while funnily enough was immediately followed by the nadir of nineteen, and two of the three one out of ten marks I've awarded together in one place.  Frankly, the thought that there was a week where I suffered through both Psychic Wars and Golgo 13: Queen Bee makes me want to invent time travel just so I can go back and give myself a hug.

At any rate, should you fancy skimming through the great heap of these reviews I've somehow piled up - or just finding out what's actually worth the effort of tracking down - there are now three ways you can do so, and here are the links:

Drowning in Nineties Anime Reviews: By Date

Drowning in Nineties Anime Reviews: By Title

Drowning in Nineties Anime Reviews: By Rating

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Level One Free This Weekend

If for whatever reason you're not already on board with my ongoing fantasy series The Black River Chronicles then a) why the heck not and b) it happens to be your lucky day, or rather your lucky weekend, because for the next two days the e-book of the first volume, Level One, is completely free on Amazon.  And it's a great time to begin catching up, what with The Ursvaal Exchange already out and Eye of the Observer coming awfully soon and the grand finale ... well, about a year off, all told, and still waiting to be written, but it's going to be one big, crazy adventure, I promise.

Anyway, if you're in doubt, here's what you'll be getting - for free, mind you! - if you decide to dip a toe into Black River...

Three months into his studies at the Black River Academy of Swordcraft and Spellcraft, Durren Flintrand is shocked by the news that from now on he'll be assigned to a party, and that his only hope of progressing beyond the lowly rank of level one is to succeed with his new companions. However, Durren has a secret that may make that impossible, and his three partners have problems of their own. Wizard Areinelimus is terrified of her own magic. Rogue Tia has no patience at all with others. And warrior Hule is just an idiot. In fact, when a disembodied, floating eyeball is your most competent party member, you know you have serious problems.

To stand a chance of succeeding, they need to work together, and that means learning to tolerate each other, while surviving a world of angry rat people, murderous sorcerers and homicidal unicorns. But even if they can somehow find a way to get along, dark and ancient forces are stirring, ones no level one students should ever have to confront...

And hey, while you're downloading your free copy of The Black River Chronicles: Level One, why not grab Saurians by Tim Manley, Wolf Creek by Nikko Lee, and The Sword to Unite by Peter J. Hopkins?  Because they're all in this week's Digital Fiction giveaway too.  You can find the links to the US versions of the books all together here, and if you happen to not be in America, rest assured that all four are free on your local site too.  So why not go grab 'em, eh?  It would be daft not to.

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Guest Interview: Russell James

This week on the blog, I'm talking to my fellow Flame Tree Press author Russell James about his new release The Playing Card Killer, which looks something like this:

Brian Sheridan may be losing his mind. It’s getting hard to know what’s real.

He’s plagued by dreams of women strangled with a red velvet rope, their corpses left with a signature playing card. And while awake, he’s hallucinating a strange man who appears to be stalking him. Brian hopes all this is driven by his sudden withdrawal from a lifetime of anti-anxiety medications.

Then the victim from one of his nightmares shows up on the news. She’s been murdered and Brian immediately fears he may be the unwitting killer. Detective Eric Weissbard thinks the same thing, and starts to build a case to get Brian behind bars and stop the string of horrific murders by the man the press have dubbed The Playing Card Killer.

Can being proven innocent be worse than being found guilty? That may be the case as the truth about The Playing Card Killer sucks Brian into a whirlpool of kidnapping, torture, and death.

And without further ado, here's the interview...

- How much of yourself and your own life went into The Playing Card Killer? Do you like to draw on what you know or would you rather make it up from whole cloth?
I am proud to say that nothing about being a serial killer sprang from any real life experiences. And I’m going to stick to that story.

However I will admit to spending a lot of time in the story’s location, Tampa, Florida. It’s a great city and the varying locations make it a super background for the novel. Selecting the locations to wrap the story around grounded the tale in a level of reality and forced some of the storytelling into directions I hadn't specifically planned on. But I think that sparked more creativity, which probably gave a better result than if I’d just invented a convenient city from scratch.
- Do you have a favourite character in The Playing Card Killer? Who was most fun to write and are they the same person?
The killer (to be vague and avoid spoilers) was a fascinating character because of the twisted process that made him who he ended up being. But I really like Detective Weissbard. He’s a fish-out-of-water in his new job with the Tampa PD. Being a good detective, he’s dedicated to finding the truth, and follows the leads where they go. He gets to be almost as confused about the killer’s identity is as poor Brian is. I also got to give Weissbard more depth through his interactions with his wife, and that was fun.
- Did you have an elevator pitch, and would you be willing to share it?
Could discovering you aren't a serial killer be worse than discovering that you are?
- What most motivates you to hit the keyboard and get writing? If you had to pin your impulse to tell stories down to one thing, what would it be?
There’s always an itch to get a story down on paper. An idea I think is interesting or a certain storytelling twist that I want to incorporate into a novel. But the real kick-starter to writing it is getting some positive feedback from readers. Sometimes it’s a review, sometimes an email. The best is when I meet someone at a convention or signing who really enjoyed what I’d written.  Knowing that what I’d written made an impact on someone makes me want to stop whatever I’m doing and get back to work. 
A great example was when I got a note from a man who’d read my novel Sacrifice. In that novel, a bunch of high school friends get together after thirty tough years to vanquish a demon they thought they’d killed decades ago. He said it inspired him to look up all his old friends and get caught up. That made me very happy.
Q Island spawned a lot of other examples. I got a lot of positive feedback from parents of autistic children very satisfied with how I portrayed Aiden, the autistic child in that novel.
- You've worked across quite a range of genres. Was that a conscious decision or simply a case of telling the stories that came to you?
An idea tends to suggest a genre, and that’s the way the writing goes. I did specifically seek out a genre with the Grant Coleman adventure series through Severed Press. Some of my horror novels would earn a hard-R movie rating, and at conventions I would have to steer parents away from them when their kids asked them to buy it. But I had nothing to steer them to. So I decided that I wanted to write some monster books like the ones I loved as a kid, keep any sex out of them, and tame the language down to what can pass on network television. The writing style and plot twists aren't dumbed down, though. Severed Press has a fantastic fan base for giant creature books, and I specifically wrote one to try and crack that market. Lucky for me, and Professor Grant Coleman, I did.
- Do you have a dream project? Are there tales you've been itching to tell but not quite figured out a way into?
I have a story about  a teenager and an old priest who are battling demons across France and Italy to keep Lucifer from enslaving the world. The Exorcist meets The Da Vinci Code. Still trying to pull that one off.
- Of everything you've written, what would you most like to see made into a mega-budget Hollywood movie? And what are your thoughts on dream casting and an ideal director?
I’ll officially go on record and offer ANY of the stories I've written up as a movie or mini-series.
I’d really like Q Island to make it to the screen. In it a virus breaks out on Long Island, New York that turns people into crazed killers. The government quarantines the island. A woman is trapped there with her autistic son. He gets infected, but he does not get sick, and his autism gets better. She realizes he could be the cure to two things, if she can get him off the island. She had to get past the government, past the crazies, and past the gang leader who has his own plans for the miracle boy.
I think this would be a great miniseries with the big cast of characters, After seeing Bird Box, I cast Sandra Bullock as the hero mom. And put anyone who directed any Avengers movie in charge.
- You've written three books now following your paleontologist hero Professor Grant Coleman. Is that a profession that particularly interests you?
I've loved dinosaurs since I was a kid and thought it would be amazing to discover the fossils of ancient animals. When I needed a continuing character for my adventure tales from Severed Press, palaeontology seemed like the profession that could get wrapped up in a bunch of stories like that. So through Grant I could vicariously pursue a career that I could never do in real life.
- What’s up next? What are you working on and what’s in the pipeline that you’re allowed to talk about?
I have a short story coming out in March in the Flame Tree Publishing American Gothic anthology.  It’s wedged in there between Edgar Allen Poe, Ambrose Bierce and a bunch of excellent contemporary authors. I feel like a weekend jogger suddenly running the hundred meter dash in the Olympics.
The next novel is about two National Park Service rangers at Fort Jefferson National Park, out west of the Florida Keys. They encounter rogue spies, a conspiracy dating back to the 1960s, and end up in the fight of their lives with giant crabs. It’s the start of a new series set in our wonderful National Park system. I also have a couple of novels and a novella out making the rounds, and we’ll see what happens with those.

Russell James grew up on Long Island, New York and spent too much time watching late night horror. After flying helicopters with the U.S. Army, he now spins twisted tales, including horror thrillers Dark Inspiration, Q Island, and The Playing Card Killer. His Grant Coleman adventure series covers Cavern of the Damned, Monsters in the Clouds, and Curse of the Viper King. He resides in sunny Florida. His wife reads his work, rolls her eyes, and says "There is something seriously wrong with you."

Visit his website at, follow on Twitter @RRJames14, or say hello at

THE PLAYING CARD KILLER is available at:

...and everywhere else!