Friday, 29 May 2015

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 3

As we enter part 3 of this interminable series (it's perfectly possible that I'll keep going for as long as I can keep finding nineties anime, and there's still a fair bit on the to-watch shelf), the lows actually seem to be getting lower; but that's okay, because the highs are getting correspondingly higher, to the point where I've stumbled across a couple of things I'd never even remotely heard of before all this began and which are genuinely great.  I mean, really, objectively great; not like Landlock great, and definitely not like Virus Buster Serge great.  [Checks previous article to confirm he didn't really try and convince anyone Virus Buster Serge was any kind of good.  Breathes sigh of relief.]

Okay, onwards and upwards!  This week: Vampire Hunter D, Dangaoih, Orguss 02 and Roujin Z...

Vampire Hunter D, 1985, dir: Toyoo Ashida

All right, I should probably stop claiming that these articles are about nineties anime.  Vampire Hunter D hails from all the way back in 1985, and if it has one absolutely terminal problem, it's that: low-budget animated pictures from thirty years ago do not look great, or even much more than adequate today.  (To put that time period in perspective, Disney released The Black Cauldron in the same year, with The Little Mermaid, the beginning of the Disney Renaissance and what we tend to think of as modern animation still a good four years away.)

Anyway, I'm assuming here that Vampire Hunter D was low-budget, but since my knowledge of eighties anime is even more scant than my knowledge of nineties anime, perhaps it was absolutely cutting edge at the time.  It hardly matters now, since it still looks horrible: dark colours, dull backgrounds - or frequently no backgrounds at all - and stilted animation.  What salvages it, somewhat, is the design work, the inherent appeal of which often manages to bypass the actual production, and the sheer goddamn weirdness of so much of what it's representing.  Vampire Hunter D takes place in a distant future that mixes high technology and Gothic grotesqueness, and there are points where it plays that concept for all it's worth; in those moments, the movie almost seems recommendable.

There is, however, one flaw with that logic, and that's the fact that sequel / follow-up Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust would be released fifteen years later.  Bloodlust contains everything that's good in Vampire Hunter D, has few to none of its failings, and is a tremendously good bit of gory action sci-fi that I'd recommend without hesitation.  If Bloodlust didn't exist, Vampire Hunter D might skirt by on its limited charms; since it does, it's hard to think of any reason to go back.

Dangaoih, 1987, dir: Toshihiro Hirano

Not so long ago I was debating the virtues of the company Manga Video with a friend.  He had a soft spot for them on the grounds that when he was getting into anime into the late eighties and early nineties they were about the only ones importing it; I countered that if it hadn't been them it would surely have been someone else, and that whoever that someone might have been, they couldn't possibly have done a crappier job.

I wish I'd seen Dangaoih at that point.  If I had, I'd have sat him through it and won the discussion hands down.

Dangaoih surely has to be - at least, I hope it has to be - the single shonkiest thing Manga ever stooped to.  Not so much the animation itself, which is at least watchable, and bursts into life during its action sequences.  No, the reason the western release of Dangaoih simply has no reason to exist is that Manga saw fit to release only parts two and three of a three part OVA, with the first episode crammed into a brief prologue that roughly conveys the effect of having a third of a movie conveyed to you by a hyperactive, imaginative, but not especially bright child.  This, needless to say, does it no favours at all.

But as if that weren't enough, Dangaoih also suffers from, hands down, the worst dub I've yet to encounter.  I mean, it's bad in all the usual ways a dub can be bad, but then on top of that there's the copious swearing, presumably added to earn a 15 certificate for a film that wouldn't otherwise have come close to warranting it.  It's jarring, not so much because it's witless and gratuitous - though it's absolutely both - but because it's clearly not what the characters are saying.  It doesn't synch up, or make much sense in context, or fit even slightly with the general tone.  Nor does it stretch to the levels of being comically bad, which you'd think should have been a given with material like this.

To be honest, though, as despicable a treatment as Manga gave Dangaoih, it could have been dubbed by the finest vocal cast ever assembled and presented in the most polished release imaginable, and it would still be a merely functional bit of nonsense.  As such, it becomes the first film in this blog post series that I'm going to wholeheartedly not recommend.  If you see Dangaoih for pennies in a budget bin, don't be tempted by that shiny giant robot or those - um - sexy, bodysuit-clad ladies!  Just walk on by!

Orguss 02, 1993, dir's: Fumihiko Takayama, Takahiro Okao, Hiroshi Tamada

I said in part one that a principal aim of this binge-watch was the hope, partly inspired I think by rediscovering the magnificent Wings of Honneamise, of finding some little-known classics that had previously passed me by.  There have been a couple of near misses, but it was beginning to seem a hopeless dream until I came across Orguss 02.

I'm genuinely surprised that Orguss 02 isn't better known, because it's very good indeed, and very reminiscent of work from the same era that's now unanimously acknowledged as classic.  With its tale of an early industrial society drifting towards war, it reminded me principally of Honneamise itself,  but also of Miyazaki's early feature-length efforts Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa; enough so that it's easy to imagine all three as conspicuous influences.  Yet it doesn't feel derivative, and though there are familiar elements - giant mecha, teen heroes, robots - Orguss 02 doesn't seem greatly concerned with any of them.  Certainly, I'm struggling to think of any other anime that calls itself after a mech that then fails to appear for fully half the series and is only mentioned by name for the first time within minutes of the end.

In short, Orguss 02's main interests clearly lie elsewhere.  It's mostly about war, a subject it treats with a lack of sympathy that more than warrants that Miyazaki comparison.  It's also hugely cynical about politics; it presents the leaders of its two rival nations with such outright contempt that in places it plays like Games of Thrones-lite - and just like Games of Thrones, their conniving is thoroughly compelling and ends badly for all involved, up to and including any innocents caught in the vicinity.  Yet, though it views human nature bluntly, it's not a depressing show; there's a lightness of touch here that much anime that deals in dark and serious themes often lacks.  Perhaps the drift, late on, into wacky high-concept sci-fi will disgruntle some - if there's one thing that isn't in Orguss 02's favour, it's that it's a semi-sequel to an earlier show that it largely forgets about until the end - but it doesn't come at the expense of the good work done before, and like every element on display here, it works just fine on its own merits.  In short, if you're interested in somewhat older anime and have exhausted the usual candidates, I can't recommend this enough.

Roujin Z, 1991, dir: Hiroyuki Kitakubo

Having had my expectations lowered by a month of noticeably failing to dig up any lost classics, it was clearly too much to expect that I'd stumble upon not one but two.  Yet here we are, and here Roujin Z is, and I'm a happy bunny indeed.

In this case, the fact that the film appears to be barely known is that bit odder given the extraordinary array of talent behind the scenes. Its director, Hiroyuki Kitakubo, was key animator on Akira, and that unassailable masterpiece also provided Roujin Z with its scriptwriter, in the shape of the legendary Katsuhiro Ôtomo; but as if having the main talent behind Akira wasn't enough, we also get early work for one of the ten - maybe five? - greatest anime directors of all time, Satoshi Kon, who acts as art designer here.

On top of all that combined brilliance, Roujin Z has an irresistible premise: an elderly man is assigned to a revolutionary mechanical hospital bed that's supposed to fulfill all of his requirements, social, physical and mental.  But a combination of technical error, its occupant's stubbornness, the interference of the old man's former nurse and the fact that the bed is built on a foundation of experimental military technology (because of course it is!) leads to the bed gaining a life and agenda of its own, one that only grows more outlandish when it becomes possessed by its patient's dead wife.

If that also sounds like a distinctly anime-like set up, it's worth pointing out that Roujin Z's wider social message is very much overlaid by an affectionate assault on the tropes of its medium; that the bed, codenamed Project Z, ends up battling its military equivalent (codenamed Alpha, of course) should come as no surprise.  Yet if Roujin Z has a failing, it's this; the earlier satire of a culture that wants nothing to do with its aging population and the increasingly over the top parody of the second half don't exactly mesh.  Still, both are great fun, both contain some really exciting moments of animation - there's a glorious physicality to the action that you only seem to get in hand-drawn animation, and then only rarely - and if the end result falls somewhat short of the best work by all involved, it's still quite clearly a passion project made with vast enthusiasm by tremendously talented people.


So, a fifty-fifty success rate, or maybe even fifty-five percent, since Vampire Hunter D was just about worth watching.  And while I'll never get the minutes of my life that I wasted on Dangaoih back, at least it's set the bar so low that it's hard to see anything else limboing under it.  Can the next batch possibly beat this one?  Almost certainly not, but it won't stop me hoping!

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

Friday, 22 May 2015

Writing Ramble: How I Write Novels Now, Part 1

This is not how I write novels.
It's an obvious point that no two people write novels the same way, and an even more obvious one that there's no right way to go about it - though it's surely the case that there are all manner of wrong ways!  At any rate, even within the space of one career-so-far and a few short years, my own method of going about such things has changed completely.

That change was started by chance and necessity, as I realised after Giant Thief got signed that I had exactly two years to write exactly two books and then flailed around trying to figure out some way to make that happen when my first novel had taken something like five years and more drafts that I'd been able to keep count of.  Out of that flailing, though, came the beginnings of a process that worked for me, and that's worked ever since - ever since in this case meaning, for my recently completed fourth novel To End All Wars, two more books currently midway through redrafts and another that I've just begun.  It's seen some refinement over that time, and there's undoubtedly room for more, but it definitely has its virtues too.  And so, because I find this stuff interesting and therefore conceivably other people out there do too, I thought it would be worth sharing here.

Skimming lightly, then, over the very early stuff - an idea that digs in like a tick, that comes to feel like it has meat enough on its bones to stretch to novel length - we get to the preparation stage.  Before even a word gets typed, there's a period of planning, floating ideas around, and depending on the subject matter, of research.  So far this has varied from a few weeks to a year, (that being the book I just started, White Thorne, which is set in the Middle Ages, a time period that turns out to be even less like the current day than you might think.)  The aim here is somewhat hard to define, and equally hard to set a timescale on, but basically involves reaching a point where the next stage feels like a practical possibility.

This is not how I write novels.
For that next stage is writing the entire plot out in synopsis.  By this point I'll at the least have a few major scenes in mind, characters, an idea of the tone I'm aiming for and the mental outline of a beginning, middle and end.  In small snatches over the course of perhaps a month, I note down what I have and work to fill in the gaps, figuring out significant plot mechanics as I go.  The end product here is a document of somewhere between five and ten pages that tells the story crudely but coherently from start to finish, that contains all the characters I'm likely to need - though not necessarily by name - and which another human being can read and take away a solid sense of the story from.  In fact, that's one of its main purposes; with White Thorne especially I jumped on the opportunity to get feedback on plot mistakes before I made them, and it was such a huge help that I rewrote the synopsis heavily on the back of the feedback I received.

Either way, once the synopsis is at a point I'm happy with, it will get broken down into a chapter plan - this being the key reason why it needs to be so detailed.  This stage generally only takes a day or two, and basically involves figuring out all the little climaxes that would make for suitable chapter end points and then balancing that against what I can realistically cram into, say, five thousand words.  One of the reasons it's a valuable process is that it flags up the structure, in so much as there is one at this point, and emphasizes any weaknesses.  If there's a leg of what might be three chapters where not much happens, or a stretch of constant action without much exposition, say, it will definitely show itself here, and with luck I can juggle scenes accordingly.

Which feels like a sensible place to break, if only because all this talk of writing novels is making me stressed about all those novels I should be writing.  In part 2: all of that stuff!  And everything that comes after...

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Short Story News, May 2015

I've been a bit remiss in keeping up to date with short story news this last month or so, which is unfortunate because I've had an unusually large amount of stuff out.  But it's nice in a way, in that now I get to post about it all together and it looks like I have a ton of stories out in great venues every month!

Truth is, though, that even by the standards of the markets I've been lucky enough to sell to, this has been a really excellent selection.  Taking them in chronologically reverse order, it was a mere couple of days ago that my weird horror tale Caretaker in the Garden of Dreams appeared in The Drabblecast.  This is a story that's been around a bit, and this isn't even the first time it's been podcast - that honour goes to the now sadly defunct Shadowcast - and everywhere it's appeared it's been treated more than decently.  Caretaker was editor's choice in the issue of Necrotic Tissue it appeared in, made their all-time best of anthology, got a terrific - and terrifically grotesque - illustration from The Shadowcast and this time around receives an absolutely brilliant rendition, with not only an evocative reading from David Cummings of the No Sleep Podcast but some perfectly chosen sound effects.  All bias aside, this thing is weird and creepy and I urge you to give it a listen!

Then, a mere few days behind that, and wrapped within that glorious cover over there, we had Jonathan Green's anthology Sharkpunk, which has been a part of my life for so long now that I'm almost sad that it's out.  Still, it is, and it's brilliant, surely the definitive take on a beastie that was crying out for its own definitive anthology, and it's already garnering some gushing reviews.  There's this at The Eloquent Page, and particularly nice from my point of view, both The Ginger Nuts of Horror and Geek Planet Online pick out my The Shark in the Heart for special mention.

Next is a bit of cheat, in that I suspect it's been out for a while now, but due to the tectonic slowness of the US to UK postal service I only recently got my contributor copies.  Anyway, it's the anthology of Clarkesworld's seventh year, unexpectedly titled Clarkesworld Year Seven, it contains my Across the Terminator, and of course it's amazing because it's bloody Clarkesworld

Then, lastly and not at all leastly, in that I'm only talking about it so late because I somehow hadn't entirely realised it was out, there's Mark Teppo's XIII anthology from Resurrection House.  A curio this, in the best sense of the word, and perhaps more at the literary end of the genre spectrum than the kind of markets I tend to appear in, but in a world where there are people who still think editing yet another zombie anthology is an exciting prospect, it's so damn nice to see a theme anthology where the theme - transformation, rebirth and that titular number - is so unabashedly weird. XIII really is a treasure, and it received about the most thorough review I've ever seen at Tangent Online, which by the way has extremely nice things to say about my Twilight For the Nightingale.

Oh, and speaking of people saying nice things ... let's end by pointing out that David Steffen recently picked out my story Ill-Met at Midnight for his top fifteen Beneath Ceaseless Skies podcasts at SF Signal!  If you haven't listened to it yet then it's still available here.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 2

A month on and my inexplicable obsession with tracking down and watching nineties anime shows no signs of abating, even as the hope of discovering rare gems amidst the brightly coloured dross looks increasingly desperate.  Still, it's proving an educational experience, and also a deal of fun, because say what you like about nineties anime but even during its worst excesses it's rarely less than entertaining.

This week, the animated self-flagellation continues with Bubblegum Crash!, Virus Buster Serge, Amon Saga and Rayearth...

Bubblegum Crash!, 1991, dir's: Hiroyuki Fukushima, Hiroshi Ishiodori

This came as a pleasant surprise after watching things like Ninja Scroll, in that it had mostly female protagonists and it didn't feel the need to treat them entirely like crap.  But in retrospect, that perhaps gained it bonus points it didn't fully deserve, since none of those cast members were developed much beyond 'this one's a pop star, this one's a stock-trader' and - maybe more importantly - they were still fighting in mech suits with built-in high heels.  Still, it wasn't awful, and as I get deeper into this self-dug hole, the more I appreciate just how good 'not awful' can be. The characters are likable, the action sequences energetic, and each of the three episodes is noticeably better than the last, until it all wraps up in satisfying fashion - though one that relies a little too heavily on familiarity with the series, Bubblegum Crisis, that Bubblegum Crash was a spin-off from.

At any rate, of everything I've watched so far, Bubblegum Crash felt somehow most typically nineties-anime, and it's also my favourite example of the titling convention of flinging unrelated words together and expecting them to make sense, so that's something, I guess.

Virus Buster Serge, 1997, dir. Masami Ôbari

I can't quite rationalize my affection for Virus Buster Serge.  Objectively I know it's barely a jot better than, say, Bubblegum Crash or Detonator Orgun, the latter of which it even has the misfortune of sharing a director with, the apparently somewhat infamous Masami Ôbari.  And it's not exactly difficult to list its faults, which include a plot that starts at barely comprehensible and then proceeds to be as obtuse as it can, and some of the most eye-watering character design you're ever likely to witness - yes, her eyes are really that big! - which gives the entire twelve episode series the vibe of some twisted alternate-universe YMCA video.

Still, I enjoyed it, and there's no question but that it gets a few things more or less right.  In fact, it begins extraordinarily well, with a creepy introductory dialogue between disembodied voices that sets up the back story and a credits sequence with one hell of a good tune attached.  Sadly, from there on in, things get more hit and miss: you have those ghastly characters, but the mecha and monster design is rather nice; a genuinely intriguing plot suffers from being delivered in nuggets of cryptic dialogue that pop up about once in every two episodes; the animation quality is hopelessly inconsistent, with terrible sections around the middle and a noticeable upswing towards the end.

Taking all of that into account, I suspect that much of my unreasonable fondness for Virus Buster Serge has to do with the fact that it feels, in a few specific ways, like a demo reel for one of my all-time favourite series, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex - and however many qualifications I might heap upon that statement, it remains a compliment.  There's a vast gap between the edgy cyberpunk masterpiece that Virus Buster Serge wants to be and the camp, cryptic oddity that it is, but for ambition alone it remains an intriguing failure.

Amon Saga, 1986*, dir: Shunji Ôga

Another film that get's bonus points for being not awful, your tolerance for Amon Saga will likely depend on how passionate you are about hackneyed, eighties-style fantasy plots.  For Amon Saga has barely a dash of originality about it anywhere, with the possible exception of the fact that the main bad guy travels around on the back of a gigantic turtle - a notion that would soon afterwards be ripped off, to slightly better effect, by arcade game Golden Axe.  (Though the chronology makes such a thing impossible, Amon Saga feels exactly as though it was written while playing Golden Axe, which is probably an excellent measure of much you'll get out of it.)

The frustrating thing is that it all starts quite promisingly, with a first act in which our titular hero works to get close to his nemesis by joining his army via a brutal gladiatorial initiation test.   If the individuals elements are hackneyed and the animation rarely strays above functional, it at least feels like a fresh way into an old story, and one that promises some fun moral greyness; just how much evil henchmanery will Amon have to get up to before he seals the deal?  Which makes it all the more disappointing when Amon Saga hurries to drop that whole undercover hero aspect in favour of  more traditional Sword and Sorcery nonsense.

Still, it's all quite watchable.  And when the lackluster sword fights give way to a bit of magical dueling towards the end, things pick up so dramatically that you have to wonder why the animators made the film they did, given that they were clearly more invested in animating wizards doing trippy things to the insides of each others' heads.  All in all then, no masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but not an unpleasant way to pass an hour and a half either, so long as you're basically sympathetic towards the cliches of eighties fantasy.

Rayearth, 1997, dir's: Toshihiro Hirano, Keitarô Motonaga

Let's end on a film that could - with a little squinting and wishful thinking - be described as genuinely good: the OVA** of the series Magic Knight Rayearth.  It is, at any rate, a huge technical step up from a lot of what I've been watching lately, and a clear high point in Manga Video's Collection series, which appears to have been a dumping ground for absolutely anything they could license at a knock-down price.  Rayearth looks not unlike modern anime, its animation is never less than adequate and often very good indeed, and while it never strays far from a great many anime cliches, the particular ways in which it combines them are at points genuinely thrilling.

Still, it remains hard to get all the way past that sense of familiarity.  In fact, with a plot that finds three schoolgirls trying to defend Tokyo with the aid of a magic cherry tree fairy and element-themed spirit animals that turn into giant, upgradeable mecha-beasts, Rayearth plays out like Digimon with an awful lot more blood and nudity.  (I honestly don't know if that's a recommendation or a warning.)  Plot-wise, a dense back story makes up for the fact that there's not much in the way of actual present story - the girls take turns worrying over not having powers, then get their powers, then get into scraps using their powers - and yet somehow it plays out quite satisfyingly.  The third act revelations, when they come, perhaps don't warrant all the mystery that's come before, but sometimes it's fun to be kept guessing, and at least it all about adds up in retrospect.

So, a qualified thumbs up then, especially taking into account that, like everything here, you can pick up Rayearth for pennies.  If you enjoy anime, there are worse ways to pass a couple of hours, and if you don't then ... um ... well done for reading this far, I guess.


Looking back over this, it would appear that I enjoyed just about everything I've watched, whilst at the same time not considering much of it to be particularly good.  Clearly my standards are dropping at a rate of knots!  And given the sound of some of the things I've purchased for round three, that can surely only be a good thing...

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

* Okay, so this one's a slight cheat, but it was released in the UK in the nineties, I think probably.

** Original Video Animation, or straight-to-DVD feature, as I discovered when I finally got round to Googling it after twenty years of watching anime.