Sunday, 11 November 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 42

So you know that thing where you've spent eight hours working on a blog post and then using the keyboard shortcut to undo a change somehow deletes it, at which point Blogger autosaves and makes damn certain you won't be getting any of those hours of work back.  No?  Then you're lucky, or at least not stupid enough to draft in Blogger.  Point being, if you get a certain sense of deja vu from this post then it's because you're me and you've already written it once.  And if you do and you're not me then you're probably in the matrix or something.  Make the most of it, I'd say!  And take whichever pill it was that let's you keep on keeping on, because the real world is mostly just dodgy CGI and crap raves.

Wait, what were we talking about?  Oh right, nineties anime!  Here then, for a second time, let's take a look at: Photon: The Idiot Adventures, Domain of Murder, Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture, and Agent Aika: Naked Missions...

Photon: The Idiot Adventures, 1997, dir: Kôji Masunari

For its first two episodes, Photon is awfully close to being the best version of the sort of thing it is that you could reasonably hope for.  That thing being science-fiction comedy, in which the science-fiction is genuinely ideas-laden and the comedy is genuinely amusing, and most importantly, in which neither sabotages the other.  We're rapidly introduced to quite a barrage of characters: on the desolate Sandy Planet, we have the eponymous Photon, who's both fantastically strong and dumb as bricks, and whom we first meet trying to track down his adopted sister Aun, who's also wildly stupid and currently preoccupied with stalking the latest in what we're led to suppose is a long series of random crushes.  Meanwhile, out in space, a clash between rebel pilot Keyne and the preposterously villainous Sir Papacharino Nanadan causes her ship to crash-land on a world familiar to us if not to her - and we learn enough to suspect that this is all part of a much bigger piece of cosmic-level chicanery, as is Papacharino's prospective marriage to the innocent Lashara, daughter of the Galactic Emperor.

That about gets us to the end of the second episode, in a flurry of dumb jokes and cool sci-fi spectacle and adroit action sequences and intriguing world-building.  It's marvelous stuff, really, balancing tones to perfection and wrapping it all in a unique aesthetic and some often fine animation.  By the last minutes, however, Photon's big problem is present in embryonic form, as a series of misunderstandings finds Photon and Keyne married, much to Aun's displeasure; it turns out she's been harboring a crush on the dumb lunk.  And the result is a couple of episodes that lean way too heavily into comedy, and at their lowest points into the worst sorts of comedy anime has to offer.  Episode three's cooking contest between Keyne and Aun, mixed with increasingly absurd attacks from Papacharino, are actually pretty fun, though they do neither of our female protagonists many favours.  But four nosedives into my least favourite of anime scenarios, and not even three episodes of good work can save that crushing nadir of wit that is the hot springs episode.  Probably Photon's is no worse than any other, but it feels like such a dip in quality that it's that bit more painful.

Fortunately the show picks up from there, if never quite to the high level of the opening.  And I confess that on a second viewing the flaws were less galling: that rough patch isn't the catastrophe I took it for.  I remember struggling with the conclusion's switches of tone, too - it gets hellaciously dark in places - but then some of the biggest laughs come from the sheer shock of humour after something particularly bleak has occurred.  The only criticism I really stand by is that Keyne and Aun are disappointingly mistreated as characters.  They're both tough and capable when we meet them, so to see them become damsels to be saved by Photon is a colossal waste.  And the fact that the two are fawning over someone who's effectively a child, and so dim he can't tell real people and inflatable people apart, is disappointing too.  In fact, some of his scenes with the noticeably older Keyne are awfully creepy - though you do wonder if that might have been deliberate.  In a show that features quite astonishing amounts of nudity, both male and female, and much cringe-worthy violence played for laughs, you start to suspect that making the audience uncomfortable was just one more joke.

At any rate, a second viewing left me deciding that I like Photon: The Idiot Adventures a heck of a lot.  Even at its worst, its characters, humour, and imagination keep it on the rails, and at its best those qualities truly shine.  It's easy to imagine a version of Photon that would be among my absolute highlights of nineties anime - heck, you could hack it together from the existing footage, snipping that hot springs crap would do most of the job - but even the one we have is mostly wonderful.  Add to all that the fact that, thanks to Discotek, you can actually find the thing for sane money, and it becomes awfully close to essential.

Domain of Murder, 1992, dir's: Hiroshi Morioka, Iku Suzuki

Say what you like about U.S. Manga Corps, and I certainly have on numerous occasions, but I'll never cease to give them credit for the variety of their releases and the efforts they went to - deliberately or not! - to break down some of the stereotypes in the West around what anime was.  So here, for example, we have a roughly fifty minute episode adapting the ongoing crime Manga Hello Hedgehog, released under the infinitely less awesome title of this particular episode, Domain of Murder.  I'd call it a detective whodunit, but in fact we find out who did it within the first five minutes.  No, the question confronting private investigator Goro (nicknamed Hedgehog, y'see) is more one of whydunit, as a distraught woman recognises the husband who vanished from her life three years ago, after the death of their daughter, on a wanted poster for the murders of a yakuza and a bar hostess.

Actually, thinking about it, even the why of the matter gets resolved in relatively short time, leaving a thorny tangle of moral questions and escalating tragedies, all of which culminate in a well-handled showdown at an amusement park.  Domain of Murder is a cracking little thriller with surprising depth and some serious backbone, told with urgency and economy and still finding the time to keep a handle on its characters.  Hedgehog himself is a refreshing different protagonist for this sort of material, a nice guy who's that bit more tough and perceptive than he lets on.  He feels thoroughly grounded in reality, and that extends right through the material.  The animation, which I remember being critical of the first time through, is certainly stilted in places, but does a persuasive job of capturing the reality of its cast and locations, thanks especially to its detailed backgrounds, of which there are an unusual number.  In short, the budget obviously was far from huge, but it's put to use the right way, in making its drama feel real and plausible.

The result, ultimately, is nothing terribly special in a certain sense; it reminds me of the sort of feature length versions you'd get with shows like Columbo, though with the added benefit that the medium of animation means that, at a couple of crucial points like that amusement park climax, we get scenes that would have been prohibitively expensive on a TV movie budget.  But there's another sense in which Domain of Murder is a genuine treat: a fine little thriller, told at the ideal length for its material.  It's easy to imagine this plot dragged out to an hour and a half, yet as a short OVA it's precisely right, and I actually found myself appreciating that even more on a second viewing.  Another one for the "If you stumble upon it cheap" pile then, I suppose, yet I'm thoroughly glad I got to see it and I suspect it will stay with me more than a few releases I've been more openly enthusiastic about.

Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture, 1994, dir: Masami Ôbari

Let's start with some positives.  Masami Ôbari isn't a director with what anyone could consider a stellar reputation, but Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture seems to be regarded as among his less bad efforts, and that's a fair assessment.  His work here is definitely on the right side of competent, and it helps that he has a bit of a budget to muck about with; not a feature film budget by any meaningful definition, but enough for the odd genuinely impressive sequence, anyway.  And all of this is at the service of a narrative that - shock, horror! - manages to buck the interminable fighting game adaptation trend and tell something approaching an actual story.  There are no island martial arts tournaments to be seen anywhere in Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture, and that's the sort of achievement that shouldn't be taken lightly.

Um, I'm running out of positives.  The thing is, once you get past the giddy excitement of a story that doesn't just rip off Enter the Dragon and consider its job done, you start to realise that it's only because writers Yuji Matsumoto and Takashi Yamada have gone to a different well, full of equally stale water.  And weirdly, it's precisely as video-gamey: a competitive fetch-quest for six bits of magic armour isn't exactly revolutionary, now is it?  Do you think our heroes will manage to stop the villainous Laocorn from collecting them all and so turning into his ultimate super boss mode?  Do you?  Well, they won't, and if you consider that a spoiler then you really don't play video games.  The result is a plot with little to do but spin its wheels for the better part of ninety minutes, bouncing from scene to scene and chucking in the odd scrap and trying hard to develop characters that would need at least half a note more before they could fairly be described as one note.

And, look, Ôbari might have been a competent enough director on his better days, but he was still the worst character designer ever to have lived.  All of the cast look like aliens.  You can tell the men and women apart because the men have impossibly wide eyes and the women have impossibly wide eyes that are also huge.  Oh, and ginormous breasts.  Did I mention that Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture is really sexist?  I mean, by nineties anime standards, that sexist.  Like, the only female fighter is Mai Shiranui, and apparently she learned to be a ninja by correspondence course, because her sole notable ninja ability is to be saved by men.  In fact, in the edition I bought, she's literally being saved by a man on the cover of the box.  At one point she starts doing a sexy dance in a nightclub for no discernible reason.  Her character arc is that she throws herself at one of the male protagonists for ninety minutes, without success.  Her clothes fall off roughly every thirteen minutes.  I know, I timed it.  Because that's how bored I was.

There are people who consider Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture to be the best of these nineties anime fighting game adaptation things.  Those people obviously haven't seen the legitimately excellent Night Warriors: Darkstalkers Revenge and therefore should keep their foolish opinions to themselves.  Heck, I don't know that it's even Ôbari's best stab; personally I had a lot more fun with Battle Arena Toshinden, which for all its flaws was at least enlivened by a spot of genuinely interesting animation.  I wasn't exactly positive about this one the first time through, but on a rewatch it was, frankly, a right old slog.  If you skipped the middle two paragraphs of this review then let's just say that neither "not the worst Masami Ôbari film" nor "not the laziest nineties anime video game adaptation" should be taken as a recommendation.

Agent Aika: Naked Missions, 1997, dir: Katsuhiko Nishijima

I'm tempted to suggest that Agent Aika does itself no favours, but I suspect that its creators knew exactly what they were up to and that the end result is more or less precisely what they had in mind.  Which is to say that, as much as any rational adult will find its levels of cheap titillation silly and distracting, they're nevertheless the sole reason the thing exists.  And ludicrous as it seems that the plot has to be arrested every seven seconds for a glimpse of panties or down a character's cleavage, there was surely a producer somewhere grumbling about all that plot nonsense getting in the way of his ogling.

And look, lest it appear I'm being prudish, that seven seconds wasn't any sort of exaggeration.  It really is staggering the lengths that Agent Aika puts itself to in service of ensuring that we the viewer be treated to as much underwear and nudity as we can possibly stomach.  This becomes abundantly clear in the first minute, when an expository scene on a tour boat is filmed from some impossible angle that allows us a good view up the announcer's skirt.  Mere seconds later we're being introduced to our two heroines, Aika and Rion, with shots of their crotches and a fakeout wherein we're led to believe that one of them is performing oral sex upon the other, when in fact they're just piloting a submarine in awfully impractical clothing.

Yet like much anime that swears blindly it's just here to let us gawp at under-dressed ladies, Agent Aika insists on distracting itself with some decent storytelling.  For the world that the announcer at the start was introducing us to is an interesting one, wherein much of Japan lies underwater in the wake of a catastrophe and teams of salvagers - Aika and Rion among them - hunt through the ruins for whatever technological wonders can be recovered.  It's not rewriting any rules, but it's a fun concept, and Aika and Rion are fun characters among a fun cast, and really the only thing that isn't fun is the unrelenting faux-sexiness of it all, which is just too damn much.  Even for the presumed target audience, I refuse to accept that there wouldn't come a point when the umpteenth shot of underpants would grow wearisome.

But here we are, three paragraphs in, and I haven't even mentioned that Aika has a bustier that's actually a symbiotic technological life-form, which temporarily strips her so that she can turn into super-Aika and then runs out of steam at the most inopportune moments.  Or that the villain is sleeping with his sister and has a ship that can turn into a space rocket.  Or that the whole thing feels like a James Bond pastiche made by someone whose knowledge of the franchise extended solely to Moonraker.  If that all sounds terribly stupid then it certainly is: Agent Aika isn't good by any possible stretch of the word, and the only thing that could have really edged it in that direction, some properly superlative animation, is nowhere to be found.  Yet it's certainly committed wholeheartedly to being the thing it is.  And I don't know, maybe it's the presence of Project A-Ko helmer Katsuhiko Nishijima at the tiller, but that thing could be a hell of a lot worse if it tried.  Let's put it this way: if something like Agent Aika truly has to exist, I'd rather it be as gleeful and campy and self-indulgent as this is, and as often as it annoyed me, I couldn't bring myself to actually dislike it.


The weird conclusion of this story is that it was kind of nice to have to rewatch four titles I wouldn't necessarily have paid that level of attention to otherwise, and even sort of okay to have to rewrite these reviews.  To the extent that, when I made the same stupid mistake a couple of weeks ago and deleted another basically finished post, I only screamed a little.  The moral?  Nineties anime is great, Blogger is a goddamn travesty, and I've finally got it through my thick skull that I need to back up draft blog posts.

As should be obvious from the reviews, Photon, Domain of Murder, and even Agent Aika really did stand up to being revisited.  And the Fatal Fury movie, which I'd thought was about okay on a first viewing, did not remotely endure for a second.  Then again, out of the four, Photon is probably the only clear-cut recommendation: I liked it the first time but was overly conscious of its flaws, whereas by the end of the second watch I'd concluded that it's actually something of a treasure, albeit a minor one.

Next time, we'll hopefully be back to normal levels of abnormality, since it's going to be a fair old while before I rebuild that second post - which thankfully was mostly made up of stuff I genuinely want to rewatch anyway!  Though one of them was four hours long...

[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 24Part 25Part 26Part 27Part 28Part 29Part 30Part 31Part 32Part 33Part 34Part 35Part 36Part 37Part 38Part 39Part 40, Part 41]

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Everything I Have Out On Audible

It struck me recently that I have an awful lot of books available on Audible, and that maybe people don't realise just how many of my books are on there, since I myself didn't, or indeed that almost everything of any length that I've written is out in at least some kind of audio format, (as is a good chunk of my short fiction, but that's probably another post!)  And what got me thinking about this is that my collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, recently released in a rather nice CD pack by studio Circle of Spears, is also now out there in download format.  But more on that in a minute!  Because there's all this other stuff what I wrote too...

The Bad Neighbour
Honestly, I haven't even received a copy of this one - in fairness, I only got round to asking today! - but I have heard a sample of Paul Tyreman's reading and he's certainly a terrific fit.  I do believe he's from Leeds, if the internets aren't misleading me, and if he isn't then he certainly does a damn fine impression of a Yorkshire accent.  Anyway, what else can I say about The Bad Neighbour?  It's my newest book, my first foray into crime-writing, and I'd love for more people to be experiencing it in whatever manner they see fit.  A recent review that described it as Northern Noir pretty much hit the nail on the head, so if that sounds like your sort of thing, or if you just fancy what that same review described as "a well-written and cleverly imagined crime thriller with a knife-sharp edge" then why not give it a go?
Giant Thief, Crown Thief and Prince Thief
I've often joked that my perfect reader for the Damasco books would have been Inigo Montoya actor Mandy Patinkin, and okay, I wasn't really joking, he would be perfect.  But in the absence of Mandy Patinkin, my second choice would have been James Langton, because that's who I got and he absolutely owned it.  Listening to James elevate Easie Damasco's adventures and make them more witty and charming than my writing alone ever could was my first inkling that I was going to be pretty damn lucky with narrators, and so it's consistently proved.
There's basically only one occasion when I get to listen to audiobooks, and that's when I go on holiday somewhere in the UK and have a really long drive to get through.  So it was that poor Patchwerk languished for years waiting for a suitable break, and finally got the attention it deserved this summer, when I went kayaking for a friend's birthday.  Anyway, nobody really needed to know that!  But it explains why I didn't get more excited by this at the time, because it really is an exciting adaptation.  Patchwerk's reality-hopping was a heck of a challenge for any narrator, and Tim Gerard Reynolds goes well beyond the call of duty, adopting a fresh (and reliably convincing!) accent for each section.  Honestly, it's so much fun to listen to, and I can't believe I haven't gone on about it more before now.
The Black River Chronicles: Level One
Another one that I haven't had a listen to, though it's entirely my fault this time; in the absence of a CD version, I'm yet to figure out a way to get through it in the car, with it's lovably old-school technology.  But I really do need to figure something out, in part because Alan Ross is my first (and so far last) American reader and that's sort of exciting in itself, but mostly because - and I'm probably not allowed to announce this, but what the heck, right? - there's an adaptation of The Ursvaal Exchange on the way in the not-too-distant future, and you can only get so far behind on listening to your own series.
The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories
And here we are, back to where we started, with The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories and Tracey Norman and Sam Burns of Circle of Spears Productions doing an absolutely splendid job of bringing my first short story collection to life.  I talked about it a fair bit recently here, and there's not a great deal to add, except perhaps that of all my books I think this is the one that's gained the most from the translation into audio.  And, given that it's coming from a smaller outfit rather than the likes of Angry Robot, Tor or Flame Tree, I guess also the most worthy of support!  So despite appearing at the end of the list, maybe this is the place to start?

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Fantasycon 2018

The British Fantasy Awards
It's much harder to say anything useful about conventions you've enjoyed than ones you spent seething in rage at the dreadful inadequacy and incompetence of everything and anything, which leaves me with little to say indeed.  I had a brilliant time at this year's Fantasycon, as good as any I can remember.  And while you can put a lot of that down to a marvelous hotel with genuinely helpful staff and a reasonably big bar space all contained within a rather nice city with a bunch of good restaurants, that's obviously unfair on the organisers.  I've seen enough conventions to realise that these things don't run themselves, let alone run themselves smoothly, and I've learned to appreciate the extent to which those that appear to do so are precisely the ones receiving the most massaging behind the scenes.*  Also, let's face it, great venues in nice cities don't simply choose themselves.

Befriending the hotel cat
With all of that said, I have a little-known medical condition that means if I don't grumble in a blog post about at least something then I'll burst into flames, so I suppose there's going to have to be a dash of negativity.  The past complaints I've had about panels were all pretty much true here, and if this absolutely has to be the main form of programming at conventions then I strongly believe that a lot more thought should be going into it.  We had a great time on the Griminal Criminals panel, for example, my panelists did sterling work and it seemed like the audience were enjoying themselves, but I still don't really have the faintest notion of what it was meant to be about.  Elsewhere, I heard complaints about the Women in Genre Fiction panel - along the lines of, "a Women in Genre Fiction panel in 2018, what the holy hell?"- and agreed that was certainly one of the more cringe-worthy examples.  But there were a lot of topics that were either done to death or hopelessly vague or ghettoising or just not very interesting, and not many at all that were genuinely new or fresh.

Also, frankly, I'm coming to think that the issues run a little deeper than a lack of inspiration.  I don't altogether get the widespread refusal to acknowledge that conventions, and therefore panel debates, are a form of entertainment that people are paying good money for.  For me, appearing on panels, and especially moderating them, has always felt like an exciting privilege and a responsibility rather than any sort of a right.  But others appear to view things differently, and I'm coming to wonder why they're allowed, year after year, to get away with it.  Naming no names because I can't be bothered to get into a public row, but the person on one of my panels who refused to use the microphone even after a member of the audience pointed out that they couldn't hear, and indeed make a point of leaning back as far as they could and mumbling into their shirt collar, does not in my opinion deserve to be invited back for more.

But it feels meaner than ever to moan at a Fantasycon for getting the things wrong that damn near every Fantasycon, and the bulk of conventions, tend to get wrong, and especially so when so much went very right indeed.  More than that, it was more evident than ever that the convention has grown in real and meaningful ways in recent years.  What when I first started going was famously cliquey and insular and blatantly a horror convention despite its name is much less of any of those things these days, and there were even odd moments when the bar's shifting currents randomly threw up what felt to me like a genuinely varied mix of human beings.  Funnily enough, those moments were also when all the most interesting conversations happened.  It would be amazing if this was a glimpse of the future and Fantasycon could grow into something truly inclusive and broad and forward-looking - and putting more thought into panels would be, I think, a major step toward that.  In the meantime, what we got this year seemed to me a positive lunge in a number of right directions.

Lastly, I won't try and remember everyone I spoke to because a week's gone by and my memory sucks at the best of times, but huge thanks to everyone who kept me amused, even when that meant staying up long after the bar had kicked us out.  And thanks too to everyone who was part of the events I was in on, with an extra special mention to David Thomas Moore for whatever the heck that Dungeons & Dragons thing was.  After that and last year's one-minute flash insanity, the bar is set awfully high for whatever terrifying weirdness I manage to talk myself into in 2019...

* Although the lack of programmes, lanyards, and goodie bags on the first day was, it has to be said, something that could have done with a bit more massaging!

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

My Fantasycon 2018 Schedule

Is it really Fantasycon time already?  I guess it must be, since I keep getting e-mails about panels and stuff I'm supposed to be attending.  Here's everywhere I'll be that's not the bar:

Dungeons & Disorderly Module B2: The Sheep on the Borderlands - Friday 9pm (Panel Room 1)
Dave Moore (Moderator), Nate Crowley (Moderator), Eliza Chan, Anna Smith Spark, Helen Armfield, Phil Lunt, David Tallerman, Ed Fortune
Dungeons and Disorderly is back! Join another troupe of hapless adventurers in a rambling, incoherent mess of a pseudo-roleplaying game. The Terrifying Sorcerer of Terrifying Evil is finally slain, but our heroes have no time to rest on their laurels! At the edges of the Empire, in the wilderness beyond civilisation, hushed rumours speak of a new threat: a sheep of vast size and power, consuming all in its path…
[I don't entirely know what this is.  I think I volunteered for it while drunk.  Or possibly while sober, which come to think of it is when I make most of my worst decisions.  After last year's misadventures at the hands of Lee Harris, it would seem that my new Fantasycon tradition is to publicly humiliate myself in the company of Anna Smith Spark.]
Saturday Noon - Fantasy Readings (3)
 David Tallerman, R J Barker, Joel Cornah
[At which I guess I'll be reading from the soon-to-be-released third Black River book, since I can't very well pass The Bad Neighbour off as fantasy.
Or ... can I?
No, I can't.]
- Saturday 5 PM - NewCon Press Book Launch
Ian Whates and Co 
Best British Horror 2018 - Various
The Scent of Tears - Adrian Tchaikovsky & Friends
Assassins' Endgame - Ian Watson & Andy West
Novella Set 4 or The Land of Somewhere Safe - Hal Duncan
[I'm one of the "& Friends", with my Shadows of the Apt short story The Promise of a Threat, which I'll no doubt be talking about more here sometime soon, because, hey, I wrote a story set in my favourite fantasy universe and now it's canon!]
Saturday 9pm (Panel Room 1) - Up, Up and Away! Superheroes in Genre Fiction
Eric Ian Steele (Moderator), Allanah Hunt, Ginger Lee Thomason, Mike Chinn, David Tallerman
Once solely the preserve of the comic book stand, superhero fiction now dominates our cinemas, permeates our television screens and commands a sizable computer gaming fan base. With the franchise dominance of the DC and Marvel universes, in these mediums, is there room for new heroes to emerge? Has the superhero novel lagged behind, and if so, why? Our panel explore the place of superheroes in genre fiction and examines the possibilities for new takes, new stories and new ideas in new mediums.
[Well, look, there was a panel that I really wanted to be on to discuss the new Black River book, and then I thought that just in case I got turned down for that, I might as well volunteer for this one, since I have a superhero novel all written and ready to send out, even if no-one but me has actually read it.  Anyway, here we are!]
Sunday 1.30pm (Panel Room 2) - Griminal Criminals!
David Tallerman (Moderator), Tom Johnstone, Kit Power, Rob Boffard
There are villains and villains. Some of the worst self serving ruffians are pretty endearing in their way. These rogues have a strange charm to them. Maybe they can be redeemed, maybe they can’t. Join our panel to discuss the best down and dirty characters who breathe new life into their stories.
[Yeah, I'm moderating this one, which is awkward since I really don't know what the question is.  I mean, that's more of a series of statements, right?  But I'm sure it'll be fine, I've got me some awesome panelists, and in any case, anyone who's anyone will be at the banquet, so we'll probably just end up playing Cards Against Humanity or something.]
 And there we have it!  My Fantasycon 2018 schedule.  Man, I really did want to be on that panel about when magic goes horribly wrong, since that's literally the entire plot of Black River 3.  Maybe I could be that guy who sits on the front row, asking questions that are really just lengthy, rambling statements and annoying the hell out of everyone?  Anyway, I really ought to be prepping Griminal Criminals.  It'll be great, I promise!  Come watch us, eating is overrated and potentially fatal.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 41

I keep swearing off these themed posts, only to get sucked in, as I realise that nineties anime is inimically suited to this approach.  After all, why spend so much time grumbling about how similar certain titles are when I can make the same point by just bunching them together?  And let's face it, if there's one thing we keep stumbling over here, it's those really short releases that look a bit embarrassed when lumped in with proper films and OVAs.

So, unified by the fact that not one of them runs to more than an hour, we have: Queen Emeraldas, Samurai: Hunt For the Sword, Black Lion, and Maze...

Queen Emeraldas, 1998, dir: Yûji Asada

Above all else, the word I'd pick to describe Queen Emeraldas is romantic.  And not in the lovey-dovey sense, though I suppose it is that a bit, but in the sense of dashing adventures full of sword fights and chivalry, along with lashings of outrageous idealism and preposterous bravery.  All of this, as I understand it, is very much in keeping with the works of Leiji Matsumoto, a creator I've only encountered with his science-fiction hat on once up until now, via the - rather disappointing, it has to be said! - classic Galaxy Express 999.

But Queen Emeraldas didn't disappoint one bit, despite being heavily set up by distributor ADV to do so.  I've been frustrated at many an OVA that was never allowed to finish, but this is that bit worse, in that there are a concluding two parts that the company decided not to pick up, meaning that what they sold as Queen Emeraldas is but half of the real thing.  In any other corner of the industry that would probably have been regarded as somewhat criminal, and it should be agonisingly frustrating, so it's a good job that the two parts we did get wrap up in such satisfying fashion.  Other than the clear implication that our heroes will go on to further adventures, there really are no obvious threads left hanging - and thank goodness for that.

None of which explains what exactly Queen Emeraldas is, so let's backtrack to that opening paragraph: what we have here is space opera of a particular lavish, rather silly, and, yes, romantic sort, in which women with hair down to their ankles fly around in giant blimps with sailing ships hanging from their undersides and angry young men hitchhike on gigantic galactic vessels in search of adventure.  And those two - Emeraldas herself (the Queen Emeraldas is her wildly impractical ship) and young Hiroshi, whose fate becomes entwined with hers - happen to be our protagonists.  Hiroshi is fine, as young male leads with massive chips on their shoulders go; he has lessons to learn about not being a jerk to everyone around him, but he learns them fast enough to not be too annoying.  Emeraldas, however, who drifts in and out of his plot, usually to do something outstandingly cool, is a delight in every second she spends on-screen: a creation of utter style, from her design to her ridiculous laser cutlass to her Bond-esque theme tune, which adorably points out that "My name comes from a green jewel / But the path I travel is red / The red of burning blood."

All of this is presented with some terrific animation, in which unusually heavy line weights give one of the more convincing impressions of Manga in motion that I've come across, ginned up with some intelligently used (and, in fairness, occasionally terrible) CG.  Director Asada has a whopping sense of style that seems to have been exploited nowhere else in his career; he managed to land on precisely the right tone for this material, and to keep it from straying into the silliness that always hovers around the edges.  I mean, blimps in space!  Honestly, it is silly - of course it is! - but it's also delightful and thrilling and satisfying.  And while it's a heck of a shame ADV decided to screw international audiences over the way they did, we can still be glad for the two episodes we have.

Samurai: Hunt For the Sword, 1999, dir: Masahiro Sekino

The question I keep coming back to with Samurai: Hunt For the Sword is, what is it?  I mean, I know what it is: a two episode OVA in which, at some point in history that I didn't bother to make precise note of, young hero Shinjuro finds himself both stuck with running his dad's sword-fighting school and embroiled in some murky business surrounding the quest to steal a magical sword and so ultimately topple the shogunate.  More than that, it's easy to identify the elements on display here: likable teen protagonists, some bubbly comedy that largely revolves around the relative sizes of breasts, a couple of surprisingly deft action sequences that are at least in the ballpark of what actual sword fights of the time might have been like, and a bright, appealing art style that's weathered surprisingly well.

So really, when there's nothing at all shocking or puzzling or significantly out of place here, I guess that it's more the why of Samurai: Hunt For the Sword that's throwing me.  Why this story, told in less than an hour?  Why, given that limitation, go to so much effort to introduce so large a cast, devoting meaningful time to characters that serve no function whatsoever when, midway through the second episode, the conflict that's been bubbling along in the background finally shifts to centre stage?  Why end in a manner that wraps absolutely everything up and yet feels more like the beginning of some other story?  I mean, what actually was the goal here?

Ultimately, I suppose that what I'm asking for is the bigger picture, which the internet - strangely silent on an inconsequential anime OVA from nearly two decades ago - fails to provide.  I suspect a clue might lie in the show's alternate title of Kaitouranma, but...

Well, this is awkward.  Two and a bit paragraphs into this review and I've answered my own question!  It's not Kaitouranma, it's Kaitou Ranma, as in Kaitou Ranma Miyabi, a game for the original PlayStation long forgotten to history.  And really, that does solve the whole damn puzzle: the sense of a prologue that's also an intact story, the obsession with introducing characters that serve no discernible purpose, the striking but unmemorable designs, the way that most of the female characters talk about nothing but their breasts.  Wait, perhaps not that last one.

Anyway, I'm glad we got that figured out!  Unfortunately, it still leaves Samurai: Hunt For the Sword as nothing more than a mildly pleasing diversion that manages to be a teeny bit boring despite its brief running time.  Oh well.  I imagine the game was quite fun.

Black Lion, 1992, dir: Takashi Watanabe

Poor Oda Nobunaga!  It's one thing to get constant flack for being evil and having a sinister mustache, but you'd at least expect to be acknowledged for being a bit of a talented military strategist, what with that whole "unifying Japan" business.  But no, not if anime is to be believed; cleverness had not a thing to do with it.  Clearly Nobunaga just had an unfair advantage, whether it be demon hordes or magical powers or, in the case of the short OVA Black Lion, hugely advanced technology stolen from the future.

Now, while I feel like Nobunaga probably deserves more credit than he tends to get, I admit that I'm down with that notion.  And there's something fairly compelling about the opening scenes, in which a bunch of ninja find themselves ludicrously outclassed by minigun-toting samurai, among other high-tech horrors.  It's a preposterous setup, but it's fun - and woe on Black Lion for squandering that fun as badly as it does.  All the really interesting material gets bundled away in the first third, presumably to be developed in further episodes that would never come to pass, and for the most part what we get is a remake of The Terminator in 16th century Japan, as all the ninjas who aren't dead go up against Nobunaga's seemingly immortal ninja-killer Ginnai Doma.

And still I'd not complain about forty-five minutes of historical ninja versus cyborg action, except that it just isn't terribly good.  The animation is resolutely half-arsed, the protagonist is a brat, the direction is lifeless, and the story amounts to scene after scene of "ninjas think they've killed Ginnai Doma and then realise to their cost that they haven't."  There's some truly unpleasant gore, but the lazy art can't sell it, so that all it evokes is the odd "Ew!"  And that's a shame, because a touch of genuine horror would do much to lift the material.  I'm reminded here of the similar Ninja Resurrection, which, while far from great, at least managed to mine some impact from comparable material.

The result is frustrating more than it's anything else.  There's a far better version of this, so close that at times you feel like you could reach out and grab it, and that Watanabe so reliably dodges it is disappointing; while far from a top tier director, he was provably capable of better work.*  Black Lion isn't terrible, and I certainly wasn't bored by it, because you can only go so badly wrong with a premise like this one.  Ginnai Doma is a solid baddie, the action scenes are interesting on paper, even if they could have been done a good deal better than they are, and it's not like it looks terrible or anything.  But honestly, how you make something so resolutely mediocre from that concept is beyond me!  Shame on you, Black Lion, not to mention a definite thumbs down.

Maze, 1996, dir: Iku Suzuki

If you're going to steal, steal from the best.  And if that fails then steal from everyone, because you're bound to get something good, right?  Or so the creators of Maze appear to have decided: if ever a show was a compendium of just about every property that was being remotely successful in its vicinity, it's this one.  If you've wondered what Slayers would have been like with the gender-swapping of Ranma 1/2 and the lecherous protagonist of Urusei Yatsura (but also the tough but sweet-natured female protagonist of oh so many other shows) and also some mecha action and a fair bit of bloodshed because why not? then here's your answer.

If Maze pushes any boundary at all, it's in the level of raunchiness - which, okay, mostly just means lots of bare breasts, but there's a generally high level of gags that are in some way to do with sex, too.  Which I suppose isn't surprising when your female lead transforms into a perverted male character by night, though curiously this is something the show bothers with nary at all.  And thank goodness for that, because the gender-swapping thing really isn't funny, but the rest of Maze is.  Whether it's being crude or silly or merely surreal, there are some really good gags tucked away.  So it's a shame that the show is so bent on self-sabotage: the requirement to see every female character topless at least once grinds the action to a halt, and the couple of occasions when we meet male Maze are plain painful.  Actually, Maze-the-character's entire plot is pretty unsatisfactory, and it's what goes on elsewhere that provides all the laughs and drama.  The creators make the wise call to start heavily in media res, dumping back story via an adorable intro (complete with puppet show) narrated by the show's other main character, Princess Mill, and so we get a nice, self-contained dungeon crawl of a tale with a big old boss fight at the end, which is just right for a couple of OVA episodes.

The thing is, Maze gets a lot wrong, but when it's not doing, it's a heck of a lot of fun.  A couple of gags are genuinely brilliant, and even when it's not operating at that level - excepting male Maze, anyway - it's entirely daft and pleasurable.  It's the sort of thing I could happily have watched a lot more of, and I was grateful that Central Park Media chucked in the first episode of the series (though having it before the OVA set midway through the story would have made a damn sight more sense.)  I guess that makes for another vague recommendation, of the "If you like this sort of thing and you happen to see it cheap" variety?  Unless you have a scholarly interest towards the subject of where anime was at in the latter half of the nineties, that is, in which case its achievement of maximum possible derivativeness makes it pretty much indispensable.


I guess the fact that it's woefully hard to justify recommending these obscure, super-short releases means that the fact that I seriously do recommend hunting for Queen Emeraldas mean a little bit more than it otherwise might?  It's certainly turned me on to Leiji Matsumoto in a way that Galaxy Express 9999 didn't manage to do.  As for the rest, I think it's safe to say that Maze is the only title that might cling onto a spot in my DVD collection; looking back, Black Lion and Samurai: Hunt For the Sword weren't much cop at all, and I sincerely apologize if I gave the impression otherwise.  I mean, I don't think I did, but I can't be bothered to go back and check.

[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 24Part 25Part 26Part 27Part 28Part 29Part 30Part 31Part 32Part 33Part 34Part 35Part 36Part 37Part 38Part 39Part 40, Part 42]

* Even if that better work was only Battle Skipper.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Gods Is (Really) Dead

It's possible that if you have a really good memory you'll recall my comic book miniseries C21st Gods, which debuted at the back end of 2016 from Rosarium Publishing.  But probably you won't, since it sold all of about a dozen copies and the subsequent issues never materialized.  At any rate, if you're one of that handful of people who splashed out for the first issue, and have been desperately hanging on, waiting to find out what happens next, then - well, sorry about that, factors outside of my control and all that, and it would honestly have been pretty cool.  But I'm afraid that neither of us will ever get to read the remaining two parts, so you'll just have to take my word for it.

Not being a total idiot, I'd suspected for a while that the book's artist, Anthony Summey, wasn't intending to stick with the project; the many months of silence were a definite clue.  But I eventually figured I'd better raise the question, and sure enough, C21st Gods is now without an artist and so effectively defunct.  This, by the way, is the second artist the book has lost, and if you want a truly gruesome, grueling horror story then click on the "C21st Gods" label down there at the bottom of the post and read from start to finish the whole damn odyssey of how I've tried and failed and failed and failed and briefly succeeded and failed to make this goddamn project happen.  Trust me, it'll turn your hair white!

I guess that if I learned one lesson as a writer from the whole experience, it's that you can't save your best material.  There was some really interesting stuff coming up in the remaining two issues, and especially in the closing third, including one particular scene that's been lodged in my head for years now and which I'd really have liked to see on the page.  That said, the truth is that I wrote the script for C21st Gods as a graphic novel, the decision to publish it as individual issues wasn't mine, and it would have been impossible to restructure it as a miniseries by that point.  The reviews for the first issue weren't great, and I think they were generally fair in their not-greatness, but it was immensely frustrating when I knew that most of the criticisms would have been addressed by the remainder of the story.  Which is all the more gutting now that the first issue is all the story there'll be.

Actually, that's a bit defeatist, isn't it?  And I try not to be that, especially when I have a shiny new novel out and should really be feeling quite chipper.  So I think what I'll do, if I can find a minute somewhere, is slap the entire script up on my website.  That way, if anyone wants to know what they missed, they can find out.  And hey, at least that first issue is a thing, one I'm still kind of proud of.  While I'm not exactly thrilled with Anthony for walking off the book a third of the way in without feeling the need to tell me, there's no getting around the fact that he did some seriously nice work in bringing C21st Gods to life, and if you're one of the approximately seven and a half billion people who haven't read it, it's worth a look purely for the artwork.  If you'd care to grab a copy, you can do so from Amazon and Comixology.  And if you'd rather just read the script then keep checking back, I'll get it up there eventually!

Thursday, 6 September 2018

The Bad Neighbour is Out Today

Today sees the release of my sixth novel, The Bad Neighbour - also known as The Bad Neighbor, since I was fool enough to come up with a title that wouldn't work on both sides of the Atlantic!  It represents a lot of firsts for me, and a huge departure from everything that's come before.  My first standalone novel.  My first novel to get a hardback release.  My first serious stab at writing a thriller, and my first significant dabbling with writing crime.  My first book to be set wholly in the real world, and my first to draw significantly on aspects of my own life.  In fact, The Bad Neighbour is a good deal more personal than anything I've put my name to before now.  One of the early reviewers found it a little implausible that somebody would spend all of their money on buying a run-down house in an unfamiliar, impoverished area, as my protagonist Ollie Clay does, but that's exactly what I did seven or so years ago, and the reason I had a base from which to write this very book.  Of course, it worked out a hell of a lot better for me than it did for Ollie.  My neighbours haven't always been brilliant, but I've never had to deal with anyone like Chas Walker, the right wing thug who makes Ollie's existence a living hell, and I've certainly never gone quite so far off the deep end as Ollie ends up doing.

Which reminds me of another first: I don't know that anything else I've written has addressed current affairs quite so directly.  I wrote The Bad Neighbour in what seems, now, to be a very different and rather more innocent time.  When I conceived the book, and when I decided to write in a small way about some of the toxicity I saw bubbling away beneath the nation's surface, Brexit wasn't even a rumour, and I'd no way to guess how much of that bile would soon be gushing forth.  Less than a year after finishing the final draft, I came home from holiday to find out that my local MP, Jo Cox, had been murdered in the street by a far-right domestic terrorist, and suddenly what I'd written didn't seem half so dramatic or implausible.  Ollie's story has become, for the most part, shockingly likely, though I dearly wish it wasn't.

On a far happier note, one last first: this is also my debut with a new publisher.  Indeed, a new publisher in both senses: today marks the true birth of extremely exciting upstart Flame Tree Press, who also happen to have five other books out today, the first wave of what's set to be a truly astonishing catalogue.  So you might want to grab a copy of Tim Waggoner's The Mouth of the Dark, J. D. Moyer's The Sky Woman, Hunter Shea's Creature, Jonathan Janz's The Siren and the Spectre, or the legendary Ramsey Campbell's latest, Thirteen Days by Sunset Beach, while you're shopping for The Bad Neighbour.

Which is totally a thing you should do!  You can pick it up from Amazon UK and Amazon US in paperback, hardback, e-book and audio formats, and Waterstones have it here.  And as ever, early sales are especially crucial, so if you fancy it, don't wait!