Sunday, 28 June 2015

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 4

Are we really up to part 4?  That's a whole lot of nineties anime watched!  And truth be told, exhaustion is beginning to set in just a little, as it becomes increasingly apparent that a lot of nineties anime was far from being entirely original, and even more of it was far from being being terribly good.

Does that mean I'm close to giving up?  Oh hell no!  Where there's nineties anime to be found, there I shall be, making snarky comments whilst desperately trying to remain optimistic that there are still a few hidden gems out there waiting to be unearthed.  And this week sees a movie I'd never remotely heard of get damn close to classic status, so there's certainly still hope yet.

Here, then, for your delectation, we have X, Spriggan, New Gall Force and Zeoraima...

X, 1996, dir: Rintaro

It's difficult to know what to say about X.  It's certainly a cut above much of what I've been watching lately, and - if you can put aside the fact that the only edition apparently available is a typically half-arsed transfer from Manga Video, that looks distinctly washed out and for some reason decides to sit the image in the centre three quarters of the screen - then it's a frequently lovely-looking bit of work, full to brimming with striking images.  Mind you, that's about what you'd expect from director Rintaro, whose next film would be the more-or-less classic adaptation of Osama Tesuka's Metropolis.  X is also based on a book by famous Manga house Clamp, who seemed to be everywhere at this point in time, and their input is great if you like huge eyes and pointy chins.  But even if you find the Clamp look rather horrible - I do - it at least guarantees a level of imagination and consistency in the character designs.  (Also gloriously well-animated hair.  What was it with Clamp and hair?)

So.  It looks nice and it's well directed - though not so much so as you'd expect from the man who would imminently make Metropolis, and there's a definite sense, corroborated by the interview among the special features, that Rintaro wasn't one hundred percent happy with the project.  Still, a half-hearted Rintaro is still a well above average director, and there's no denying that X has character and visual imagination to spare.  By all the usual yardsticks, in fact, it's undeniably good work.

Only, it's no fun.  No, that's not even the half of it ... X is a truly miserable watch.  I'd go so far as to use the word nihilistic, and not even in an interesting way.  X basically presents to us a load of people who we're told in advance are going to die, and then we watch them die, with nary a hint of dramatic tension anywhere.  None of them have been built up into anything you could honestly describe as characters and so there's not much reason to care, but since that's all that's going on and none of this death and carnage does much to further the plot - really the death and carnage is the plot - it all gets numbing very quickly.  It's maddening really, because there's enough going on in X that I'd have liked to have enjoyed it; as it is, I found it just actively soul-sucking.

Spriggan, 1998, dir: Hirotsugu Kawasaki

More than any animated film I've seen, Spriggan gives the impression of having had an infinite budget to draw on.  Its animation is lavish to the point of ridiculousness; scenes that could be simple and straightforward without much loss of effect end up being marvelously sophisticated showcases of the animator's art.  I'm not, mind you, moaning about any of this - it's dazzling, frankly - but it does puzzle me a little.  You would think, if nothing else, that a film with this sort of obvious budget would be a little better known.  And, what's stranger, I'm not entirely certain that Spriggan is a better film for it.

Or ... no, of course it is.  But that animation is such a distinctive flavour that it makes it awfully hard to concentrate on anything else, and the fact that it's by far the movie's strongest element doesn't help that.  To put it another way, it would be great if the same over-attention had gone into the plot and script.  Not that they're bad, by any means, just that they would need to be astonishing to keep pace, and they're not that.  Like a great deal of feature-length Manga adaptations, Spriggan simply doesn't manage to successfully cram in everything it deems worthy of inclusion, or show much evidence of picking and choosing, and what we end up with is a movie that begins aping a spy thriller, shifts into Indiana Jones territory with an added dose of nineties action movie, and then drifts abruptly into bizarrely theological science-fiction with a subplot about child soldiers that it doesn't seem even faintly interested in reconciling with those other elements.  All of which is  par for the course with anime and not really a criticism, but there's no pretending that this somewhat unfocused tale is up to the wondrous, dizzying standards of that animation.

Still, when you're criticizing a film because it's plot is too laden with zany ideas to keep up with its exquisite animation, it's hard to claim that that's anything but a recommendation.  Spriggan is pretty great, all told, and the only thing it fails to be is wholly satisfying in retrospect; while it's actually playing it front of you, it's thrilling stuff.

New Gall Force, 1989, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

First up, good luck finding New Gall Force on IMDB or anywhere else; what happened here is that Manga Video took the middle chunk of an OAV series, released it out of context and retitled it, and as such, what we actually have here is Gall Force: Earth Chapter, a title that gives a much clearer sense that this is in no way a stand-alone story.

Only, it sort of is.  I put that fact down more to luck than judgement on Manga's part, and certainly there are elements that don't make a damn bit of sense ... though even then, as is often the way with these things, you don't really appreciate how much sense they're not making until you discover that there's a whole load of prologue you're missing.

At any rate, that grumble aside, I enjoyed Gall Force: Earth Chapter rather a lot.  I'd go so far as to say that it's the best of the Manga Collection series that I've yet seen, though given the levels of quality that statement involves, it's a bit like picking out a favourite infectious disease.  At any rate, I didn't enjoy it half so much as Landlock, but we've already established that my fondness for that movie has no basis in anything much, and objectively I'm ready to admit that Gall Force is better.

To that I'd add that if James Cameron had, instead of making Terminator 2, decided to knock out a low-budget anime series that vigorously cannibalised all of his earlier work, then it would have looked a lot like this.  And that, it turns out, is a good thing: ripping off your themes, characters, designs, tough female protagonists and every other damn thing from a skilled director at the height of their powers, who in turn had ripped off most of those things from your chosen genre in the first place, is actually an eminently sensible thing for a late eighties anime to do.

Though it doesn't quite explain why one of the crack military team is a small child in a crash helmet who doesn't appear to have the faintest clue that there's a war going on.  Maybe Newt was really badly dubbed in Japan or something?

Zeoraima - Project Hades / Project Hades 2, 1988, dir: Toshihiro Hirano

Oh look, and already we have another OVA that Manga video decided to arbitrarily rename for its DVD release!  Those guys sure must have had a lot of time of their hands; that or they wanted to give the impression that one four part OVA was in fact two feature length films, which is exactly the sort of deliberately misleading nonsense they seem to have delighted in in those days.  In this instance it's particularly absurd because there's no possible way you could mistake the two halves for feature films, not even if you were squinting and had a very loose sense of what beginnings, middles and endings entailed.

Anyway, Zeoraima starts off from a hackneyed position indeed: teenage male hero finds himself recruited to pilot giant robot that responds to no one but him against a load of other mechs, piloted by a bunch of evvvvvvil folks who generally insist on attacking him one at a time, because otherwise it would be a short story indeed.  However it does quickly go off on a far more interesting - though, it has to be said, entirely bonkers - tangent, and for that it surely deserves credit.  It's actually quite a clever story by the end, though it's easy to imagine a great many ways in which that story could have been better told than it is here.  If nothing else, giant robot battles where the giant robots did something besides stand taking it in turns to shoot at each other would have been a tremendously good start.

Added to that is the fact that Zeoraima is just subversive and angsty enough to be faintly reminiscent of Neon Genesis Evangelion, the series that a mere seven years later would irreparably explode this sort of thing for all time.  As such, the comparison does Zeoraima no favours at all, except in so much as to say that it has a little bit more psychological complexity to it than many of these things.  At any rate, it's a great insight into just what Hideaki Anno was deconstructing so ferociously with Evangelion, and surely that counts for something.  Whether it counts as a recommendation ... well, no it doesn't.  Still, Zeoraima gets a narrow pass for keeping me amused - and frequently baffled! - through the course of its running time.


So not a particularly great batch this time round, all told, with Spriggan the only thing I'd flat-out recommend.  (And I really would, it's a  deal of fun and easy to find cheap second hand.)  New Gall Force gets a hesitant thumbs up if you're basically open to this whole late eighties and nineties anime thing; I can honestly say that I enjoyed every minute of watching it, even if it wasn't necessarily for very sensible reasons.  At any rate, I now feel that more sci-fi action movies would benefit from the addition of small, oblivious children in crash helmets.

Next time around: at least one actual, undeniable, stone-cold anime classic.  You've been warned!

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

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Old Dog, New Ticks

I was reading an article recently which suggested that it was a mistake to imagine you were ever too late on in life to master a new skill, or that having mastered one you were shut out from learning others.  The author's logic was that if it takes, say, eleven years to get really damn good at something then that's theoretically eight things you can get really damn good at in the average lifespan.

Given that most of us spend the first of those age-blocks grasping the basics of being a functional human being and the second trying to gain control of our rampaging hormones, and taking into account that you're unlikely to become, say, a world-class ballerina in your seventies, I'd have to dispute both their logic and their maths.  There are also some pretty obvious cultural assumptions in thinking that the average person is likely to live for eighty-eight years!  On the other hand, eleven years seems a bit on the pessimistic side; there are surely things you can become astonishing at in less time than that.  So by way of compromise, let's say that if you're fortunate enough to be long-lived, you should have ample time to train up kick-ass skills in at least five disciplines.  That's still pretty cool right there.  I mean, that's a good way of looking at life, isn't it?  At my current age of thirty-mumble-mumble-something, that leaves me a whole lot of learning to do yet.  Compared with the perspective that society generally encourages - you get tolerably good at one thing and then do it until you die or it becomes redundant - this feels a whole lot healthier.

But that's not really what I wanted to talk about, though obviously it is a bit.  It certainly ties into the subject I wanted to touch on, which is that if you intend to be a writer in this day and age, you have to expect to get competent at an awful lot of things that have only the most tenuous connection with writing.   You may well find yourself speaking in public, or doing other things that are outside of your comfort zone.  The necessities of research may turn you into an amateur historian, criminologist, astrophysicist or insect wrangler.  Unless you have the absolutely best agent and publisher in the world, you're looking at developing skill-sets like editing, web design, blogging, accountancy and publicity.  And if you're going the self-publishing route then feel free to add cover design, marketing and a whole host of other things to that list.

This can appear horribly intimidating and unfair, and it's easy to look at those people who only have the one thing to do - like, um, nail technicians and professional shot putters - and feel deeply envious.  Turn that on its head, though, and aren't we writers an hellaciously lucky bunch of folks?  Not only do we get to do something fundamentally awesome and creative, we inevitably acquire a whole host of new abilities in the process.  The more you go on and the deeper you get into those eleven years you've set aside in which to become a world-class author, the more you discover that you've inadvertently picked up a raft of skills that you never expected to have, some of which require every bit as much imagination and inventiveness as writing itself.

And here we are towards the end of a particularly rambling post, and I still haven't even touched on what first made me want to write it, which is that over the last month or two I've been learning to letter comic book pages, and just last week I finished my first attempt.  It wasn't something I ever anticipated needing to do, and there was a steep, steep learning curve - just getting my head around a professional art package took some serious doing - but it was also a little bit thrilling, and I'm proud of what I've accomplished.  I won't pretend I've come close to mastering it, and maybe it will take me another eleven years to do that, but I'm hopeful that I can do it well enough to not completely embarrass myself.  Whether I'm right ... well, if everything goes to plan, that will be for others to judge when the time comes!

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Writing Ramble: How I Write Novels Now, Part 2

So at the end of part 1 I'd got to the point of being about to start some actual writing, which depending on your perspective will probably seem either very early on or quite late, but in my case is about a third of the way through the novel-crafting process.  As I explained last time, by this juncture I'll likely have done at least some preliminary research, I'll have a detailed chapter plan based on my own synopsis and feedback from as many helpful friends as I can muster, and it will probably be in a spreadsheet because I have an obsession with spreadsheets that's all shades of unhealthy.  Seriously, if you ever ask me to my face I'll explain how it's actually the clearest way to represent all that information, how it's great for keeping track of word counts as I go and, oh, a whole host of excuses.  But the truth is, I have a problem and I know it.  I mean, right now a part of my brain is thinking about how much better this blog post would look in a spreadsheet.

This is not how I write novels.
(It really would.)

Um.  Right.  I was talking about novels not spreadsheets, which are two entirely different things, more's the pity.  Now I don't want to discuss the actual writing part here - and yes, that post title was perhaps ill-chosen, thinking back.  Suffice to say that I'll have a fairly good idea from my chapter plan of how long my planned book is going to be, and based on that I'll have allocated a set amount of time, say two hours a day for five months, that should get me through.  If that sounds a bit formal, it at least makes long-term planning a heck of a lot easier, and perhaps makes the creative process less stressful too; there's a lot to be said for knowing that if you consistently knock out a thousand words a day then in five months time you'll have a finished novel that looks something like the one you've intended.  Things will inevitably go wrong along the way, dates will get juggled and there'll be days when it all seems doomed, but so long as I get my words down I know I'll make it across the finish line.

Therefore, x number of months later I'll have a finished first draft.  It would be nice to forget about it for a while at this point - taking a break from any project once you've completed a draft is absolutely vital - but before I do that, I make sure to get it sent off to whatever wonderful folks have agreed to act as advance readers, and knock up a couple of print-on-demand copies for anyone, including me, who prefers to read the old-school way.  (Just how and why I find this useful is something I've discussed here in the past.)

A couple of months later, at the very least, I'll come back to that print copy, and over the course of about a month I'll work through it with my reader head on.  This serves at least three purposes; it re-familiarizes me with the book, gives me a chance to try and pick out some of the flaws I was blind to while I was putting it together, and last up allows me - hopefully! - to spot any typos.  (This, by the way, is the main reason why I prefer to work off a print copy; I find I skim over mistakes too easily on a screen.)  In that same month, I'll also hopefully be getting feedback from any advance readers and taking the opportunity to talk through any problems they've identified.

All of this feedback, my own and other peoples', will go into the second draft.  The aim this time through is to fix any plot issues, to polish, generally to cut - I usually aim to trim about ten percent - and generally to reach the point of having something that, while it will still contain mistakes and clumsy sentences and the odd bit of crap writing, looks basically like a finished work.  And around the same time, I'll be trying to wrestle my preliminary synopsis and chapter plan into a formal synopsis that's suitable for any publishers, editors and / or agents to read, this having the added advantage that it gets me thinking about the plot from an overhead perspective, yet another thing that can potentially highlight flaws.

Once that's all done - it generally takes two to three months - I'll let the manuscript sit again, for at least a month and more if I can afford to.  Then I'll go back for the final round.  The goal here, needless to say, is to produce a book that's as finished as I can make it.  This last draft is the quickest, and depending on how well the previous one went, might be very quick indeed.  Certainly if it takes more than a couple of months then something's gone badly wrong.

This is how I write novels.
I suppose that the obvious question at this point is, how useful would this approach to be to another writer?  To which the answer is, of course, that I've no idea.  It's certainly never been intended to be a catch-all solution, and I'm absolutely not presenting it as such here; like I said right at the beginning, I just happen to find these things interesting enough to think they're worth discussing.  I know, for example, that some writers only ever produce the one draft, and some write many more than I do.  That said, there are elements here that I'd have no hesitation about recommending.  If you're enough of a planner to go with an initial synopsis then getting feedback at that stage is a huge help; it's intimidating to let other people that close to your raw ideas, but it's worth it.  Reading through the previous draft in its entirety before you start the next one is invaluable, and as much as the environmentalist in me hates to say it, working off a dead tree copy reveals more typos that reading from a screen.  And preparing a formal synopsis while you're redrafting is actually much easier than trying to do it afterwards, counterintuitive as it might sound.

So what do you think, fellow novelist folks?  How different is your own approach to mine?  Am I making work for myself?  Or cutting corners?  Is there anything you think you might adopt, or anything you'd recommend that I'm not doing?