Friday, 23 December 2016

Five Anime Shows For Fans of the Black River Chronicles

Anyone who's visited my blog will probably have noticed that I'm a big fan of anime, and that enthusiasm was a small but meaningful element that went into crafting The Black River Chronicles: Level One.  After all, Dungeons & Dragons has made its way to Japan just as it has to pretty much everywhere, and Japan has been feeding its own interpretations of D&D-styled fantasy back to the West ever since.  So if you're someone who's enjoyed both Level One and anime, or if you like the former and have been thinking about dipping a toe into the latter, then I'm confident in recommending any or all of the following:

Little Witch Academia

If you thought Black River had an irresponsible attitude to sending students into potentially fatal situations then you haven't seen anything yet: welcome to Luna Nova Magical Academy, where the teachers apparently think nothing of having a dungeon in the basement full of actual monsters, up to and including the occasional dragon.

Little Witch Academia definitely follows in the tradition of works like Harry Potter and The Worst Witch, but with a greater emphasis on humour and a more D&D-style approach to its zany world, making it perfect for fans of Level One.  The characters are instantly adorable, the plots are witty and clever, and the animation and design work are flat-out gorgeous.  So far, all that exists is the original half hour episode and a slightly longer sequel, The Enchanted Parade, both of which you can find on Netflix - though apparently there's a series on the way, which is good news indeed.

Sword Art Online

Despite huge popularity, Sword Art Online has proved something of a love-it-or-hate-it show.  Personally, I tend to find myself both loving and hating it at different points, and even sometimes within the same episode.  Still, there's no doubt that when this action-filled drama about players trapped in the worlds of elaborate multiplayer video games works, it really does work; after all, what better excuse could there be to indulge in some old-style fantasy than to trap your characters in an MMORPG?

It's true that Sword Art Online tends to veer between the ridiculous and the sublime, but it's picked up a massive following for a reason.  The first story arc in particular is excellent, and the recent Mother's Rosarium mini-arc was perhaps the show's finest moment.  What I enjoy most, and what was something of an influence on Level One, is how it finds that perfect balance of treating its characters as sometimes clumsy teenagers and treating them as people on the verge of adulthood.  So if that appeals then you could definitely do worse than to give SAO a try.


A bit of a cheat this one: Mushishi isn't much like Level One at all, but it's also the only show here that had a direct influence.  All I'll say is that I happened to be watching Mushishi when Mike and I were discussing how magic might work in the world of The Black River Chronicles - and I'd be lying if I said that one particular element didn't work its way into the Unbalance, much as the show's attitude to the supernatural helped me figure out how to tackle magic in a way that felt true to the setting we were building.

Anyway, Mushishi is nothing like the other shows on this list: it's meditative, cerebral fantasy, and quite adult, if only in its openness about admitting that sometimes awful things happen to good people for no particular reason.  Nevertheless, if I wouldn't necessarily recommend it as something you'll enjoy if you liked Level One, I'm happy to recommend it to anyone with broad tastes in fantasy: if you're after something a little weird, sometimes a little scary, but deeply heartfelt and imaginative, then Mushishi might be for you.


The oldest show here, as well as the longest running, Slayers is quite a bit further up the comic spectrum than Level One, to say the least.  Following wonderfully-named sorceress Lina Inverse and her companion (and frequent adversary) Naga the Serpent, Slayers is the definition of irreverent: no fantasy cliche is remotely safe here.

On the other hand, it's a show made with clear affection for the stereotypes it spends so much time and humour exploding, and, like all the best parodies, it even manages to work really well as the thing that it's parodying: however silly Lina and Naga's adventures get, they're still rousing stories jam-packed with outrageous spells and monsters.  If you love classic fantasy but don't mind seeing it laughed at mercilessly, and can cope with some slightly dated animation, then Slayers just might be what you've been waiting for.

Chaika the Coffin Princess

The most recent show on the list, Chaika's probably the one that hits the most perfect balance between delivering classic fantasy and affectionately spoofing that selfsame classic fantasy.  I mean, not even a single episode passes before a unicorn gets exploded!

There seems to be a bit of a renaissance in anime fantasy shows right now and, of all the ones I've seen, Chaika is my current favourite.  It's a somewhat old-fashioned plot told with enough of a twist to feel very fresh, and incorporates broader influences in an appealing way; the fact that the main character is a reference to my favourite Western hero was enough to make me fall in love basically from the first minute.  Also, it occurs to me that the titular Chaika is a lot like what the result would be if you somehow crossed Tia and Arein, and male hero Toru isn't a million miles away from Durren, either.  Basically, Chaika is a ton of fun, and a near-perfect blend of humour and original-yet-nostalgic high fantasy.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Book Ramble: Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum

Trust that rabble-rouser Ian Sales to add a fifth entry to a series that he was referring to as a quartet from the moment the first book was published.  And trust him, as well, to make that fifth part stick out like a sore thumb from its four predecessors: a short story rather than a novella, and one that start out as autobiography before - well, becoming something quite different.  Or maybe not.  Look, it's not the easiest of works to explain, okay?  And I haven't even mentioned the appendices...

The truth is that, despite what its author has been heard to claim and even what the cover says, A Visit to the Air and Space Museum isn't really the fifth book in the Apollo Quartet at all.  The clue's right there in the title: look, it's even the biggest word.  This is a coda, and an enticing one at that, an epilogue that finds yet another way to upend a series that had already gone to some bafflingly convoluted and self-referential places.  There's always been a level of in-jokery ticking away beneath the Quartet, but it's never been more visible than here.  And it helps that the in-jokes in question are both satisfyingly strange and rather funny - albeit funny in the specific way that a Zen kōan is, rather than, say, the way a good episode of Futurama is.

But if that implies that the book doesn't altogether stand alone then - well, no, it doesn't.  I mean, A Visit to the Air and Space Museum has no shortage of its own merits: it's a satisfying short and I certainly wouldn't discourage the reader who's only picked at the series from taking a look.  However, this definitely isn't the place to start.  And even if you've already dipped into the Quartet, it isn't essential in the way that, say, All That Outer Space Allows is.  (Which it really is; if you haven't read All That Outer Space Allows, please make all reasonable efforts to do so.)

But as what it claims to be, A Visit to the Air and Space Museum does a fine job of deepening and enriching the series it concludes.  When the Apollo Quartet finally gets released in a collected edition - and seriously, why aren't publishers clamoring to make this happen? - this coda will find it's perfect place and function, I think.  Then again, that's hardly a reason not to give it a look in the meantime.  Especially since - oh, right! - you can download it for free.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Writing Ramble: Why It's Okay to Question Contracts

You know, I could give you a dozen reasons why it's okay, as a writer, to question contract clauses you're unsure of.  And then I could give you a dozen more why it's not only okay but something you're being remiss if you're not doing.  While 'contract lawyer' may not be there in your job description, it should absolutely be in your personal list of auxiliary jobs that you've picked up at least a passing knowledge of.  Because if you're even a little bit serious about being a writer - or, for that matter, a professional creative of any sort - then you're going to find yourself signing contracts.  And if you don't read them, and in reading understand them, then there's a fair old chance that somewhere along the line you're going to get screwed.  Because that's what bad contracts are designed to do: to rip off one party in favour of another.

But I don't want to talk about bad contracts, at least not the kind of bad contracts that are written by the kind of publishers that deliberately concoct bad contacts, because in my experience they're by far the minority and that's a whole different discussion.  What are far more common, and sadly perhaps a little more insidious, are largely decent contracts written by genuinely well meaning publishers, which nevertheless contain some wholly crappy clauses because writers don't ask enough questions.  And by bad I mean here needlessly prejudicial - usually because they ask the writer to make unrealistic guarantees for unlikely worst case scenarios or because they tie up rights in ways that make reselling them in the future all but impossible.

Bad contract clauses, I've come to think, are basically viral.  They get repeated either because a publisher has cribbed them from another publisher or because they've splashed out on lawyers, and a part of the job of lawyers is to protect their clients while stripping as much as possible from those they're dealing with - which they generally do by regurgitating old contracts that did those things.  In my experience, it tends to be the case that the publishers in question generally don't even realise they're asking anything unreasonable because no one's ever stopped to point that out.

I mention all this because earlier in the year I found myself having to ask for changes on contracts from two different publishers.  And the reason I thought the subject worth posting about was that they both in wholly reasonable fashion, and really couldn't have been much nicer.  In the first instance, the contract had lawyerly fingerprints all over it and all in all was a bit of a monster; when the publisher realised just what they were asking they came back with something four pages shorter and about a thousand times more reasonable.  The second instance came down to worries over one specific clause, and we got round that with a bit of tweaking.  But the crucial point here is that both experiences were entirely pleasant.  Most publishers are decent folks who have no desire to rip off or even inconvenience you.  Raise polite concerns and you'll get polite responses in return.  And if that's not the answer you get then you may have stumbled across one of those rare publishers who genuinely are trying to exploit you, in which case, far better to learn before there's ink on paper.

As a closing note, and for anyone who doesn't feel they have the knowledge or confidence to go negotiating contract terms, here's a link to a model contract from the SFWA, who are fantastic for this sort of thing.  There are tons of similar resources out there, both from the SFWA and elsewhere, and if you have worries then it's not hard to confirm whether they're justified and to find something you can point a publisher to that explains your position.  It might take a little time and effort, but that's sure to be worthwhile for a contract you won't regret in a few years' time.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Level One: The Locations

As befits a story about a party of teenage trainee heroes being sent on a variety of increasingly life-threatening quests, there are a fair number of locations in The Black River Chronicles: Level One, and many more that are alluded to but not seen - at least not in this first book of the series.  Here's a look at some of the more significant...

The Black River Academy
To call it a building was misleading in itself: the Black River Academy looked more as though a dozen edifices of various functions had been thrown together, castles and libraries and temples and halls tumbled one upon another.
The Black River Academy has been around for a very long time indeed, but, like the Ship of Theseus, it's done so more by changing than by staying the same - to the point where its hard to say whether the establishment as it now exists is really the same place that was founded centuries ago as the Conto Martial Academy.
Academic life at Black River is marked by a certain steely-eyed pragmatism, as is perhaps inevitable for an organisation that spends most of its time thrusting young people into danger and preparing them for an existence of facing even greater dangers.  However, that shouldn't imply that the academy doesn't care about its students, or that efforts aren't made to keep them on the straight and narrow.  If perhaps it's not always possible to turn out heroes, Black River certainly does its best to produce graduates who lean more towards the Lawful Good end of the spectrum.  However, that's not to say they always succeed, or that there aren't those among the academy's hierarchy who have their own, less well-intentioned agendas.
There was a certain basic level of luxury expected of a wealthy Luntharbour merchant. 
As Durren's home town, Luntharbour is a place we hear a lot about in Level One without ever actually seeing.  We learn that the city houses wealthy and stolid merchant folk, who have little time for fripperies such  as magic.  They trade both inland and with the nations - such as Tia's people, the dun-elves of Sudra Syn - beyond the expanse of the Middlesea that divides the northern and southern continents.  But Luntharbour has more than its share of poverty too: at one point Durren notes the many homeless there, "the sailors too devoted to drink to take ship and the petty craftsmen whose debts had consumed their fragile livelihoods."
Growing up in a large and cosmopolitan city explains a lot, too, about Durren's reactions to the places he encounters around Black River: the academy is as far from civilization as he's been, and nearby towns such as Olgen seems barbaric by comparison to Luntharbour's grand mansions and teeming dockside.
The Monastery of the Petrified Egg
The place didn't entirely emit the sense of brooding malevolence Durren had been expecting.  In fact, with its whitewashed walls, many small windows and gently curving arches, the monastery appeared quite peaceful. 
Most who use magic consider it to be an essentially benevolent force that can be controlled with care.  But there are others who feel the need for greater diligence, lest the cosmic force known as the Unbalance should one day rupture beyond all hope of restraint.  So it once was with the priesthood of the monastery where Durren, Tia, Arein and Hule find themselves sent on their third quest: the place was devoted to the meditative practices used to heal the Unbalance, with the power of those who live there amplified by the ancient, vastly powerful artifact in their care.  But the problem with ancient, vastly powerful artifacts is that if their owners suddenly decide to start using them for evil instead of good then someone has to go and try to stop them...
The Wilderness
Durren found himself wondering if all their quests would see them transported to dark forests in the middle of nowhere. 
There are a lot of wild places in the world of Level One, and the party see plenty of them before the book is out.  Theoretically they should be where our ranger protagonist Durren is in his element - but then, this being a book called Level One, Durren's woodcraft isn't the greatest.  As it is, it generally falls to Tia and her wider first-hand experience to pick up the slack.
The Ruins
The surrounding forest had taken its toll, as branches thrust at crumbling walls and creepers dragged at the brickwork.  Still, something about the cut of the stones and the sheer extent of the damage told Durren that what he was looking at belonged to centuries long past.
To say too much about the ancient ruins the party stumble across would be a major spoiler, not just for Level One but potentially for its sequels also.  (Which is, in itself, admittedly a spoiler ... those things are tough to avoid!)  So let's just say that there are ancient ruins out in the wilds near Black River, and by ancient I mean ancient.  They might once have been anything, but they were clearly important - and the events that lead our young heroes there suggest that they're still important to at least someone.
And if you haven't yet delved into the world of The Black River Chronicles: Level One and would like to, you can pick up a copy at Amazon UK here and Amazon US here.

photo credit: thevitruvianman Newark Castle via photopin (license)
photo credit: Lucas Marcomini When in Venice, Get Lost via photopin (license)
photo credit: varmarohit Nature's Best via photopin (license)

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 18

Not much to say this time around: it's more of the usual randomness, and a solid batch yet again, with a couple of really splendid releases and two more that kept me amply amused, which is the most I'd ever dare ask from four nineties anime videos selected largely at random.  Now, next time around - hoo boy! - we'll be right back to plumbing the darkest, deepest depths.  So I for one am going to enjoy talking about some genuine quality while I still can.

This time through: Slayers ReturnCyber City Oedo 808Plastic Little: The Adventures of Captain Tita and Ruin Explorers: Fam and Ihrie...

Slayers Return, 1996, Hiroshi Watanabe, Kunihiko Yuyama

Here we are with the second of five Slayers movies and already there's a slight but noticeable step down in terms of ambition: the animation is pared from "cheap film" to "expensive TV episode" and the plot is smaller in scale too, in a fashion that feels like a knowing joke on the nature of less ambitious sequels.  In fact, its best running gag involves something that for want of being bothered to think of the right word I'm going to call de-escalation: a scenario is set up with great gravitas, usually involving some stereotypical fantasy threat, and at the last moment a swift rug pull throws all the established tension out of the window in favour of a cheap laugh.

Not that there's anything wrong with cheap laughs.  Humour only needs to be funny, after all, and the joke lands every time; there's something thoroughly charming about epic fantasy that just won't stay epic.  And its one of the reasons that Slayers Return is, I think, a marginally better film than its predecessor, lower production values and all.  At any rate, the elements that worked well there work just as well here: in particular, Lina Inverse and Naga the Serpent continue to be terrifically fun protagonists driven by terrifically fun vocal performances, and their interplay provides a certain base level of amusement that keeps the film comfortably afloat.  The two are in rather more mercenary form here, and Lina in particular seems to have lost a lot of her scruples, but for entertainment purposes that's definitely for the good: based on all of two films, I'm already coming to think that Slayers is at its best when its at its most irreverent, and Slayers Return gets very irreverent indeed.

Plus, it's not like its been done on the cheap by any means.  The third act, in fact, gets up to some city-scaled destruction that's actually pretty thrilling, while at the same time not losing its grip on the comedy elements, and so manages to have its cake and eat it in a manner that Slayers: The Motion Picture didn't land half so well.  And since I'm making a lot of negative comparisons, I feel the need to say that I thoroughly enjoyed Slayers: The Motion Picture, so any step up is a welcome surprise.  In fact, I'm starting to think that that this Slayers box set was an awfully good investment.  But if you're not willing to go that far then Slayers Return is comparatively easy to track down and a perfectly fine place to jump aboard.

Cyber City Oedo 808, 1990, Yoshiaki Kawajiri

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Yoshiaki Kawajiri really liked Escape From New York.  For in Cyber City Oedo 808 he rips off the few remaining elements that he failed to pillage in his earlier Demon City Shinjuku.  Except that where that classic B-movie only had one criminal forced into service on the side of law and order by the threat of being unceremoniously exploded, Cyber City Oedo 808 has three.  And this time around they're not on a mission but on the job, stuck working down outrageous prison sentences for a period that, it's strongly hinted, may prove to be the entire rest of their lives.

Now, as with Demon City Shinjuku, I don't for one moment begrudge Kawajiri his Carpenter influences, especially given that he does rather more with this particular idea than Carpenter himself did.  Our three protagonists - each the focus of one lengthy episode of a three part OVA - are wholly at the mercy of their sadistic boss, who thinks nothing of setting them literal deadlines at the most inopportune of times, which in turn makes the fact that our charming but dubious "heroes" are basically scumbags a lot easier to swallow.  There are few dramatic mechanisms more effective than a well-used ticking clock, and Kawajiri wisely exploits his borrowed gimmick to keep the tension at boiling point.

In fact, in many ways, Cyber City is top tier Kawajiri, and with Kawajiri being one of the most accomplished directors in the medium at this point, that's no small thing.  Only one flaw holds it back from unadulterated greatness, and it's not remotely his fault - but Cyber City feels awfully familiar.  Now I suspect that this is partly because cyberpunk was never the most versatile of sub-genres, but I think the real issue here is that this OVA would prove to be too damn influential for its own good.  In fact, I suspect that what we have here is the urtext of nineties cyberpunk anime, and for that reason, there's not a story here that you can't guess through to its conclusion if you're relatively familiar with the medium and the era.

The thing is, though, Kawajiri spins those tales better than any of his imitators subsequently would.  And whether or not his material was as fresh as I'm suggesting all the way back in 1990, he still makes it sing.  Few directors in any genre or medium handle action so well, and combined with Kawajiri's mastery of mood, that's enough to provide a fair amount of entertainment.  But what edges this past, say, Demon City, is that the characters work too: they're types of course, but enough goes into padding them out that they're easy to care about.  It's masterful stuff really, the sort of pulp par excellence that its director did so well, and even if imitation has robbed it of an otherwise deserved minor-classic status, I'm still happy to recommend it.

Plastic Little: The Adventures of Captain Tita, 1994, Kinji Yoshimoto

In so much as Plastic Little is remembered at all, it seems to be remembered entirely for a scene about ten minutes into the fifty minute OVA in which our two heroines - Tita, captain of the pet shop hunter ship the Cha-Cha Maru and Elysse, escapee daughter of a murdered scientist - take a bath together for no readily explicable reason.  And in fairness, it's a memorable scene: outside of the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, you've probably never seen breasts drawn with such obsessive attention to detail.  I mean, there's fan service and there's putting your plot on hold for five minutes just so you can devote half your budget to the lavish portrayal of bosoms, and this is definitely the latter.

But let's put aside, for a moment, the fact that the Plastic Little keeps getting a bit porny and look over that sentence again.  Captain of a pet shop hunter ship?  Escapee daughter of a murdered scientist?  Doesn't this all seem rather involved for a less-than-an-hour long film that exists at least partly to show off its characters' boobs at the drop of a hat?  And indeed, the other thing that sets Plastic Little apart is the degree of energy that it devotes to building an interesting world full of interesting notions and at least reasonably interesting characters.  It feels like the setup for a series, but none ever materialized - though apparently there was a manga adaptation that fleshed out the plot.  And it certainly does get a bit vague and busy at points, especially near the end, when it's not at all clear just how our heroes are accomplishing the things they are.  Still, given a choice between an overabundance and a scarcity of ideas, I'd never choose the latter.

Really, Plastic Little crams in a lot.  Each member of the Cha-Cha Maru's crew gets a little fleshing out (and, ugh, yes I realise what I just did there) and there are three big actions sequences, there's backstory and world-building and - yes - a lot of breasts.  And not all of the animators' attention was devoted to those last, either; the animation may be nothing extraordinary, but generally it's pleasant to behold.  In short, I enjoyed Plastic Little rather a lot.  After a while, I forgot I was watching an OVA and settled in for a movie, and there was enough going on that I didn't feel short-changed; I was bothered about minor characters who'd probably been on screen for all of three minutes and caught up in a plot that on the face of it was fairly standard good guys versus bad guys stuff, except done well enough that the familiarity didn't much matter.

With all of that said, this is an even more pointless review than most of those here, because Plastic Little is damn near impossible to find these days.  I watched it in a video CD edition, and boy, there's a reason video CD didn't take off as a format.  Plastic Little is really damn hard to find, basically, and that's kind of a shame.  It's no masterpiece, not by any means, but it's charming and fun and deserves better than to be a footnote in history filed under the category of "well-drawn boobs."

Ruin Explorers: Fam and Ihrie, 1996, Takeshi Mori

Sometimes the most you can ask of anything is that it be an excellent version of the sort of thing it is.  So when a four part comic fantasy OVA comes along that manages to be fun and engaging on just about every level, that's worth jumping on wholeheartedly in my opinion.  If aspects push towards out-and-out brilliance then all the better; what good is bemoaning that the plot is hackneyed in its essentials or that the fantastical elements are hardly revolutionizing the genre?  And so it goes with Ruin Explorers: Fam and Ihrie.  To worry unduly over the parts that are boilerplate fantasy would be to miss just how well done the whole is, and how enjoyable the end result.  And really, perhaps even boilerplate is unfair: if the show drifts into kill-the-big-bad territory, it at least layers on enough wrinkles to stay distinctive.

Maybe what matters most, though, is that we get a pair of wonderful protagonists.  Fam and Ihrie are at core a cynic and innocent respectively, but again, there's enough done to complicate those types that they come together as deeply likable characters in their own right.  In fact, for something less than two hours long, Ruin Explorers manages to build quite a marvelous cast, even if none of them end up as heart-grabbing as our two bickering, tomb-robbing, magic-wielding heroines.  Still, on the whole the show develops the sort of fun hangout vibe that normally takes hours to establish, and some excellent design work helps in that regard.  There's perhaps not a huge amount of money on display here, backgrounds are subtly reused and stills are slyly employed, but what needs to work works: the action's vibrant, the mood is spot on, and those characters are distinctive.  Oh, and a nod, too, to the score, which is old-fashioned in odd and lovely ways, sounding like something that went missing in the 1940's and was just re-purposed.

I'm not sure that I've done much to put over why Ruin Explorers: Fam and Ihrie is so great.  But, honestly, I think that's because I'm already too emotionally attached to it; I went in expecting a Slayers rip-off and came out with a new favourite and two characters I wish with all my heart had gone on to more adventures.  For that reason, I don't want to dig too deeply into the plot and spoil, for example, the sizable inconvenience that befalls Ihrie whenever she casts a spell, or who Fam develops an adorable crush on, or why the villain ends up being so much more interesting than a lesser work of fantasy would have made them.  But, hey, you know what?  You don't see much whole-hearted recommendation around these parts, so let's push the envelope: Ruin Explorers is charming, witty fantasy made with artistry and obvious affection, and I urge you to hunt down a copy.


Would that this had been the final post in this series!  When the worst you have to put up with is something as innocuous as Plastic Little and your biggest complaint is that the animators were too preoccupied with drawing topless women, you know you've reached a high point in the business of reviewing nineties anime.

But it's not to be.  There are plenty of things to watch still on the shelf, and though some of those are very special and exciting indeed, they're most emphatically not what I'll be talking about next time.  Oh no!  Because as much as I never imagined it possible, I've found something more sleazy, disreputable, black-hearted and joyless than Legend of the Overfiend, and in the next post I'll be trying to put into words just why it hate it so vociferously.  So there's something to look forward to!

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

Friday, 25 November 2016

C21st Gods Issue #1 Is Out

I'm a little behind on this, I must admit, having been distracted by that whole thing of The Black River Chronicles: Level One coming out and also having had a birthday around the same time (not a major one, thankfully, I'm not certain I could have coped with that this year!)  At any rate, when I say that the first issue of C21st Gods is out, I mean to say that it's been out for a few days now.  And that, in fact, you can buy it right this minute if the urge should take you.

The response so far has definitely been positive, if not absolutely great: lots of love, understandably, for Anthony's artwork, a general air that we're punching  above our weight in terms of a book from an indy press, but also a few comments along the lines of "So, is this it?"  Which is to say, is the first issue of Gods and its tale of a police detective stumbling across a gruesome string of murders that hint at darker horrors indicative of everything the book has going on?

And no, it isn't.  I mean, of course it isn't.  Anthony and I have some big damn things to come, of that I promise you, and many of those will come more clearly into focus in issue two, wherein the central conflicts become more readily apparent.  A small confession: one of the aspects of writing commercially that I find hardest is that you can't simply ask a reader to trust you.  If you let it, that fact ends up restricting the choices you make; faced with an audience who aren't familiar with your work and who'll tend to assume the worst, the temptation is to play safe, to front load the big ideas, to be attention-grabbing in favour of a slow burn.

But all of those things would have killed this idea stone dead, and that left me in the risky - but, fingers crossed, in the long term more rewarding - place of starting small and quiet and letting the artwork do the heavy lifting.  And at this point I must say, not for the first and surely not for the last time, that thank goodness I stumbled across Anthony Summey, whose detailed penciling and striking design work and eye-catching approach to colour are more than capable of all the heavy lifting I could have asked for.  I'm wholly ready to admit that his art carries this first issue -but that's as it was intended to be.

Because, as I say - big things to come.  And I for one am downright giddy at the thought of what Anthony's going to do with the next issue, when balls (and heads) really start rolling and shadowy figures make themselves known and C21st Gods gets to play some of the cards that make it, I hope, not just another book riding on the lengthy coattails of Mr. H. P. Lovecraft.  But all of that starts here in issue one, with a creepy house and a ghastly murder - soon to be followed by a string of even ghastlier murders - and a cop who realises he's willing to put everything on the line for the answers that no one much wants to give him.

You can pick up the first issue of C21st Gods here on Comixology and here on Amazon US.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Level One: The Threats

Being a student adventurer is a dangerous business, and nowhere more so than at the Black River Academy, an educational establishment not exactly famed for its safety record.  (Though as dwarf wizard Arein optimistically notes, "I've heard it's much safer than it used to be.  They say nearly eight out of ten students only ever suffer minor injuries.")  At any rate, adventuring means quests, and quests mean threats, and more often than not those threats come on two - or four, or possibly more - legs.  So here's a brief introduction to a few of those that our plucky but ill-prepared band come up against in Level One...

[And if you're the sort of reader who prefers to come into a book knowing absolutely nothing then bear in mind that there are some mild spoilers ahead!]

Durren had never met any rat-kind, and he knew of them only by their reputation, which wasn't good.  They were considered to be at best scavengers, at worst thieves and bandits.  He certainly wasn't surprised to hear that they'd have robbed a merchant caravan, though he guessed it had been a small and poorly protected merchant caravan - because rat-kind were also known for their cowardice in the face of any real threat.
Our would-be heroes' first challenge is to try and recover stolen goods from a race known as rat-kind: basically, humanoid rats.  Though looked down on by other species, who tend to focus on their verminous half, rat-kind are intelligent and sociable, with their own language, crafts and culture.  (Though it's true that they do have a bad habit of stealing things.)  At any rate, the party are surprised by how much the village they find resembles any human - or dwarf, or elvish - community.  It's their first lesson that not everything is what it seems when it comes to the Black River Academy and the world of Level One.
"What, in the end, is a unicorn but a horse with a spike upon its brow?  An intelligent beast with its weapon always drawn?  Therefore, the unicorn that has tasted blood is a dangerous creature indeed." - Cullglass 
Like rat-kind, unicorns were once normal animals that, centuries past, were infected and changed by the cosmic phenomenon and source of all magic known as the Unbalance.  And, as with the rat-kind, this has granted them a level of reasoning that goes far beyond what the average horse could hope to possess.  Just what that adds up to, and whether the party's mentor is right in suggesting that such unusual intelligence grants unicorns a capacity not just for violence but deliberate cruelty, is something they'll have to decide for themselves.
Priesthood of the Petrified Egg
"A priesthood in the hills east of Fort Jargen, formerly famous for their good deeds and responsible use of magic, have grown somehow corrupted.  Where in the past they strived to heal the unbalance, now they seem actively to be exacerbating it, abusing their power without the least concern or accountability." - Cullglass 
All magic in the world of Level One comes from the Unbalance, and all magic has a cost.  Put simply, using magic makes everything more magical, and that means more creatures like rat-kind, unicorns - and far worse.  As such, every spell cast has the potential to make the world a stranger and a more dangerous place.  So it is that the vast majority of those who use magic take upon themselves a grave responsibility: most try at least to heal the Unbalance in proportion to the damage they inflict, and some even go further, working to compensate for others as well.
So it was with the Priesthood of the Petrified Egg, at least once upon a time.  But rumour has it that recently they've had a change of tune, that they may even by striving to actively worsen the Unbalance - and that they have an immensely powerful magical relic at their disposal to help them to do so.
The Booby-trapped Dungeon
"At the risk of pointing out the obvious, you do realise it's dark down here?" -
Because there has to be a booby-trapped dungeon.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 17

You know, I try and keep these posts short, I do.  I try, and I fail miserably.  I guess I just like writing at absurd length about nineties anime - which probably explains how we've got to part seventeen and I'm already halfway through the next one!

Anyway, this time through we have: A Wind Named Amnesia, Dirty Pair Flash: Random Angels, Slayers: The Motion Picture and Street Fighter Alpha: The Movie.

Boy, that's a lot of colons.

A Wind Named Amnesia, 1993, Kazuo Yamazaki

So much of what I've reviewed here has been so similar to so much else that it's hard to know what to do with a title that feels unique.  It's easy to judge a demons-invade-Tokyo story against the bar of all the other demons-invade-Tokyo stories, just as half the fun of watching a new mecha anime is figuring out how it squares up to all those other mecha animes that clutter the medium, but how to approach something that eschews such easy categorisation?

Though thinking about it, A Wind Named Amnesia does actually open with a mech.  That, though, is less a point of similarity than a clear declaration that what we have here is going to be carving its own niche - for said mech is piloted, in one of the film's early striking images, by a rotting human corpse.  We'll learn soon that the reason for this horror is that an apocalyptic event, the titular wind*, has left humanity devoid of all but the most primitive and instinctual memories; with its pilot effectively defunct and everyone else acting like neanderthals, the building-sized anti-riot machine has concluded that there's one hell of a riot going on.

That mech is taken down, at least temporarily, by our hero Wataru, who not only still has his memories but can even speak.  When, soon after, he meets a mysterious silver-haired woman named Sophia who decides to travel with him, we discover his backstory, in what amounts to the film's first segment.  And here, already, in a film I urgently want to praise, we have a problem that's tough to overlook: A Wind Named Amnesia is the very definition of episodic.  What we get, basically, is three short stories strung together with Wataru and Sophia's narrative and their ongoing battle with the mech, (named Guardian in the sub), and held together more loosely by themes of the link between civilization and memory.  And there's just no ignoring how the film keeps stopping and starting in the most abrupt manner.

Even putting that aside, I'm not convinced it altogether works.  There are plenty of ideas, and some of them land, but others feel half-formed.  The same goes for other aspects: the backgrounds are lovely, the animation is frequently very good, yet Yamazaki has an unfortunate habit of letting the frame rate plummet in certain scenes, and every time it's painfully noticeable, as objects suddenly start jerking around the screen.   There's also a startling bit of racism -  startling at least partly because it's so damn random - and the film has only the most limited ideas of what to do with its female characters, with exposing their breasts for tenuous reasons high among the notions it does have.

A Wind Named Amnesia is certainly flawed, then.  But when it lands, it really does land.  It's big on atmosphere, big on asking difficult questions and proposing troubling answers, and above all else it's a genuine original.  I feel as though I've ended up focusing on the negatives, but the positives were what largely struck me while I was watching: so little in nineties anime, or nineties anything, even tried to be this original or philosophical within the bounds of genre filmmaking.  Plus, it's been recently released - a note on that in the conclusion! - so it's no longer even hard to find.

Dirty Pair Flash: Random Angels, 1995, dir: Tomomi Mochizuki

I thoroughly enjoyed the first volume of Dirty Pair Flash and found the second to be largely rubbish, so perhaps saying that this third and final part falls somewhere in the middle isn't altogether useful.  Still, it's the truth: there are moments that scale the modest heights of volume one and others that sink to the depths of volume two, and that comes down largely to the fact that for the first time we have a collection of unrelated stories, with not even as tenuous an arc plot as part two delivered to hold things together.

Things get off to a strong start, at least, with an episode that places Kei in the role of unwilling babysitter and all but sidelines Yuri; there's a return to the over the top action of the first volume, the dynamic between Kei and her uncooperative infant charge is good fun, and really the only thing to lets down the proceedings is one of the most downright weird bits of fan service to ever (dis)grace the world of anime - that and the fact that, with Yuri given almost nothing to do, it's hardly fair to consider the story a Dirty Pair adventure at all.

Those two problems don't really go away.  Episode two is probably the next worst offender on the uncomfortable fan service count, with Yuri and Kei at the mercy of a cute, demented fifteen-year-old girl assassin with an arsenal of murderous toys and a costume that leaves little to the imagination.  Then, as if the creators were in actual competition with themselves, part three involves the Pair being forced into a beach volleyball contest, and plays out something like a mix of Dodgeball, the training scenes in Starship Troopers and an animated pinup calendar.  Things get yet wierder with the Yuri-centric part four, in which Yuri has to stand in as substitute for the robotic duplicate of herself that an obsessive, millionaire child stalker has built.  And after that decided low point, a final episode in which the two have to defend the 3WA headquarters against a murderous antagonist in a state of the art robotic suit feels like positively high drama.

It's all very strange indeed, and the English language subtitle of "Random Angels" feels absolutely on the money.  But that oddness and to a lesser extent the randomness largely works to its benefit.  Only the Yuri episode is flat-out bad; the volleyball one and the school-aged assassin one certainly feel like they should be, yet there's an energetic silliness and a knowing irony that keeps them on the right side of fun.  Mochizuki has probably the surest grasp on his material of any of the three directors, he certainly knows how to put an action sequence together, and its that which makes the best parts stand out: there the mix of ingredients that worked so well in the first volume comes together once again.  None of this, of course, adds up to a recommendation, but at least I feel safe in saying that if you liked volume one then this conclusion won't altogether be a waste of your time.

Slayers: The Motion Picture, 1995, Hiroshi Watanabe, Kazuo Yamazaki

I'd heard a lot of good stuff about Slayers: The Motion Picture, and it had been high on my list of things to track down for a while, which made it doubly frustrating when I finally found a copy at a reasonable price and the seller e-mailed to say that the disk was damaged beyond repair.  Screw you, Music Magpie.  Fortunately I have a multi-region DVD player and Australians are lucky enough to get a box set of all five Slayers movies that I managed to track down not too expensively.  Still, it felt like a gamble buying an entire box set of movies when I hadn't seen even one of them.

Slayers, as I understand it based on not much research and watching this first film, follows the adventures of roving sorceress Lina Inverse and probably some other characters too, but here that boils down to a temporary partnership with the notably buxom, morally dubious and slightly insane Naga the Serpent, as the two are dragged into a tale of demons, hot springs, time travel and octopuses.

Lina and Naga make for great protagonists, perhaps cast from a familiar mold - what nineties anime heroines aren't, at least a little? - but brought to life in altogether satisfying ways.  A good deal of care goes into making their faces distinctive and expressive, to the point where there are gags that land solely based on the attention lavished over the twitch of an eyebrow or the slightest of smirks.  And the performances are terrific, as you'd expected from a couple of highly experienced voice actors performing characters they've long since grown familiar with: in particular, the demented, self-amused laugh that Maria Kawamura gives Naga is inherently just funny.

The degree of care put into the animation pays dividends elsewhere as well, and it's certainly above par for what you'd expect from a weekly show, or even a film based on a weekly show.  From top to bottom Slayers: The Motion Picture is consistently good-looking, which is a surefire way to gain points around these parts.  In general, the production values are top notch, at least in the sense of that phrase that accepts that this is still nineties animation bound by a certain level of budgetary constraint.  But those constraints never draw attention to themselves: not a frame or a line delivery or a piece of music feels less than spot on.

Really, all that undermines the Slayers movie is that the plot is kind of a mess.  You'd think that would be a bigger deal than it is, but at its worst all it adds up to is a vague aimlessness, as events occur with some sense of sequence but not necessarily of logical continuity.  Its fun at the level of incident and individual scenes work like gangbusters, but there's the definite sense that the aim here was more to thread ideas together than to massage those ideas into a unified whole.  Regardless, I'm certainly not regretting my purchase.  Rumour has it that the next film is actually better, and even if it isn't, I doubt Lina Inverse is a protagonist I'll grow bored of anytime soon.

Street Fighter Alpha: The Movie, 1999, Shigeyasu Yamauchi

Among Street Fighter fans, it would appear to be the view that 1994's aimless but pretty Street Fighter 2 is a stone cold masterpiece, while its 1999 sequel / prequel is not much good for anything.  I'm tempted to say that this shows how much attention you should pay to fans - and, you know, it kind of does.  There's a clear argument for Alpha being the better movie, if only for having a damn story with actual characters and clear narrative development.  And even putting that aside, there's such a great deal that it gets right that its bad reputation is obviously undeserved.  But you know, I can sort of see where those fans are coming from: as a Street Fighter movie, Alpha is a weird old mess, and it's hard to judge how differently I'd have rated these things if I could care less for the franchise.

But that's ultimately an academic question because the fact is I don't, but I am a colossal anime geek, and if you give me a movie that by turns manages to remind me of Mamoru Oshii and Yoshiaki Kawajiri then there's no sense in expecting me not to love it a little bit.  Now, I can't in good conscience suggest that Street Fighter Alpha is anywhere near as good as you'd expect some mythic collaboration by the directors of Ghost in the Shell and Ninja Scroll to be; really all I'm saying is that when it borrows it borrow from the best, even when doing so is objectively not the sensible choice.  There are haunting passages where not a great deal happens and there are aggressively grotesque sequences presented in eye-searing colour schemes, and while they probably don't actually make the film better, they sure as hell make it more interesting.

The thing is, Street Fighter 2 looked pretty great, but only in so much as any film that had a good deal of money spent on it would: the backgrounds were lavish and the animation was detailed.  I'd be astonished if Street Fighter Alpha cost even half as much, but the level of genuine artistry on display is higher at every turn.  The character designs are vastly improved, with real solidity and weight this time around, the backgrounds are less meticulous but equally as gorgeous and the direction is operating at a wholly different level.  Frankly, I could write a post just on the use of colour here, and how many video game adaptations can you say that about?

But hey, let's not oversell the thing.  The plot is functional and told better than it deserves to be, but we're not looking at Great Expectations here.  Even with that caveat, a lot of the good work starts to dissipate in the final third, when the film remembers that it was supposed to be being a Street Fighter movie; even the animation takes a hit, with characters going off model and a gravely misjudged decision to show the wear and tear of all the fighting by scribbling lines all over their faces, an anime mainstay that doesn't work with these designs at all.  And my pleasure at seeing Chun Li given an actual role in the plot got diluted pretty quickly when I realised that every second shot of her would feature either her butt or her crotch - a bit of idiocy made all the more bizarre by the fact that this film's terrific Chun Li design, all muscle and hard angles, seems to be deliberately emphasizing her skill as a fighter over her femininity.

Ultimately, Street Fighter Alpha feels like a movie made by a director with not an awful lot of commitment to his material but a sure grasp of how to massage a nondescript story into something more interesting, not to mention terrific instincts for an eye-catching image.  That was enough for me to enjoy every minute I spent with it, and it's enough for me to say that it's worth a look, even if - especially if? - you don't have a great deal of nostalgia for age-old video games about punching.


So, I promised in the A Wind Named Amnesia review that I'd elaborate on that movie's recent rerelease, and that was really because I wanted to get a proper plug in for Discotek Media, who - despite having a terrible pun for a name - are absolutely my favourite company at the minute.  They're apparently on a crusade to bring as much nineties and pre-nineties anime back into print as possible, much of it on blu-ray, and for that I love them with a deep and abiding love.  What's more, though they're only releasing in the US, all their disks appear to actually be region 0, which just pushes my affection into the stratosphere.  They already have a phenomenal catalogue and it's growing at a rate of knots.  Discotek, in the eyes of this lowly anime nut, you're the best damn thing.

Unfortunately, I'm poor, and importing DVDs is something I have to do sparingly, especially now that the pound is worth about the same as that currency I made myself with macaroni and poster paints.  So next time around we'll probably be back to dreadful Manga Collection releases and whatever oddities I could scrape up from e-bay.  So it goes!

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

* The Australian and UK title translation, The Wind of Amnesia, makes more sense at the sacrifice of a little poetry.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Level One: The Cast

In this first of what I hope will become a series of regular posts introducing aspects of mine and Michael Wills's new novel The Black River Chronicles: Level One, I'd like to start off by talking a little about some of the more important members of the book's rather sprawling cast:

Durren Flintrand
"It means you're not trying.  It means you're going to be the last of us to level up.  It means that I don't know what you're up to and I don't care, but you're not going to stop me doing what I came here to do." - Tia 
 For as long as he can remember, Durren has wanted to leave home and become a trainee ranger - and that's precisely what he's done.  The only problem is that Durren has a very large secret, and because of that secret he's doing everything he can not to draw attention to himself.  Until now that's been only a minor problem, but as he finds himself made part of a party of adventurers, with any hope of success relying on all four of them pulling their weight, he quickly realizes that feigning mediocrity is a recipe for exactly the kind of disaster he's been trying to avoid.  And even that's ignoring the fact that the secret he's so  desperate to hide is bound to catch up with him sooner or later...
Areinelimus Ironheart Thundertree

"And look what I did!  Those poor people.  For all we know, I burned their whole village down." - Arein
On the face of it, Arein is hardly the ideal party member.  For one thing, she's a Dwarf and Dwarves are notoriously unmagical, producing wizards at roughly a rate of one a generation.  And for another she's so crippled by her fear of using magic, knowing that doing so undermines the reality-altering cosmic phenomenon called the Unbalance, that she needs a great deal of persuasion to consider casting a spell at all.  But her companions steadily learns that Arein's virtues have more to do with who she is than what she can do.  Kind-hearted, brave and colossally stubborn, Arein soon becomes the party's heart and conscience - even when they'd much rather she just shut up and stop asking difficult questions.
Hule Tremick

"Hule says we storm in and take the treasure." - Hule 
Born among folk who consider punching a quicker and more efficient mode of communication than talking, everything you could ever need to know about fighter Hule is summed up in the fact that he insists on referring to himself by his own first name.  Or is it?  Could anyone really be as stupid as Hule seems to be?  Given his proclivity for rushing headlong into danger and picking fights at the worst possible moments, the answer just might be yes.
Tia Locke

"This is what you always do!  You decide on a plan, you go off on your own, and you couldn't care less what the rest of us are doing in the meantime." - Durren 
Arrogant, peremptory and totally intolerant of the failings of others, its nevertheless hard to criticise Elfen rogue Tia, because she genuinely is more capable than the rest of her companions put together.  Her approach of attempting quests single-handedly drives Durren to distraction - just as his habit of refusing to try his best does her - but the worst of it is that she generally succeeds.  And it soon becomes apparent that the only thing between Tia and a stellar career at Black River is the fact that the rest of her party are holding her back.  That leaves her with a choice: keep on the way she has been and risk never reaching level two or try her hand at the one task that her skills are hopelessly unsuited for: fixing her broken party.
Lyruke Cullglass
"Here you are, my young adventurers!  It seems an age since last we were together.  Have you missed each others' company?  Have you craved a chance to prove your worth?" - Cullglass 
After their first mentor quits on them in disgust at the disaster that is their debut quest, storesmaster Lyruke Cullglass steps in to fill the breach: a fresh addition to the academy's mentoring staff, he's specifically said that he's seeking a challenge.  In that sense, at least, Cullglass is a perfect fit for Durren, Tia, Arein and Hule.  And since the storesmaster is notoriously eccentric and proves surprisingly sympathetic to their problems, he may really be just the person to help the party put aside their differences.  On the other hand, just about everyone at Black River has their secrets, and Lyruke Cullglass is no exception.
Adocine Borgnin
"Often in life you will be called upon to work with others whose abilities differ from but complement your own.  Fail to do so and you'll be of no use to anyone, not even yourselves." - Borgnin 
The second-youngest head tutor the Black River academy has ever had, Adocine Borgnin takes his role and the responsibilities that go with it immensely seriously, and has no tolerance for students who defy the rules or fail to pull their weight - a fact that inevitably puts him on a collision course with Durren.  But when events raise difficult questions about the nature of the quests they're being sent on, the party begin to wonder if even the academy's prestigious head tutor is everything he seems.
"Pootle was the name of a rock-slug I had when I was little." - Arein 
All adventuring parties are accompanied by the magical creatures known as observers - basically sentient, floating, disembodied eyeballs - to make sure that they don't get into too much trouble.  However, not all parties have someone like Arein to give their observers names and adopt them as pets.
And if that's whetted your interest to get to know these characters better then you can grab a copy of The Black River Chronicles: Level One at Amazon UK here and Amazon US here.

Friday, 28 October 2016

What's Level One?

You don't see much of level one heroes.  In role-playing games they're the characters no one would be foolish enough to try and play; in video games, that's the stage of fighting rats with a wooden sword in papier mâché armour for about five minutes before you move onto bigger and better things.  In general, we tend to see heroes who are already past the most embarrassing stages of their learning curve, or at least ones who pick up the basics at a fair lick.

But the truth is, in the real world we spend an awful lot of our lives at level one.  Most of us spend more time learning than we do mastering, more time being mediocre and okay and just about capable than we do being slick and smart and skillful.  Greatness doesn't just arrive from nowhere, it's something that has to be learned, slowly and painfully and with many a setback along the way.  And that's even more true when you're a teenager, when so much of what life has to offer seems insurmountable, unfeasible or out of reach.

All of this is what The Black River Chronicles: Level One is about.  The Black River Academy for Swordcraft and Spellcraft is the place where young people learn the relevant skills to be functional members of their respective classes: rogues who don't immediately get caught, rangers who know how to shoot a bow, wizards who don't inadvertently lightning bolt their own feet off and fighters who don't get pasted by the first troll they run into.  And becoming really efficient in any of those fields is no easy feat.  As with any prospective career, there's a huge amount to be learned and endless skills to be mastered.  An education at Black River is guaranteed to be long, arduous and life-threatening - but not necessarily successful.  In case it's not obvious by now, just getting past that lowly level one is a feat in and of itself.

Which is precisely what Durren Flintrand is discovering as the book opens.  For his first few months at the academy, and for reasons of his own, he's been getting by with the least amount of effort he can manage, determined not to draw attention by doing anything too impressive or exceptional.  But the news that henceforward he'll be one member of a party, and that the only hope of success for any of them is to succeed together, throws all of Durren's plans into disarray.  No longer can he be just good enough, and suddenly the risks are a lot greater too: hostile rat-folk, a murderous unicorn, magically inclined priests guarding a dark and deadly secret.

Level One isn't precisely Durren's story, though; I wouldn't even go so far as to say that Durren is the hero.  One of my main goals was that each of the core characters would have their own arc, their own history, their motivations and failures and triumphs.  Just like Durren, the other three have histories that are holding them back to greater or lesser degrees; just like him, they need to work through those if they stand any chance of succeeding.  Aside from being burdened with an absurdly long name, Areinelimus Ironheart Thundertree is the only dwarf wizard currently in existence, and she's terrified by the danger and responsibility of the magic she has access to.  Fighter Hule comes from a culture where punching is considered more useful than talking, while rogue Tia has some major trust issues, ones that aren't helped by being the only member of the party who's at all competent.  Oh, and Pootle is a flying eyeball called Pootle.  Which, all told, is probably not an easy thing to be.

To all of that I'd add that Level One is one other thing as well: it's incredibly cheap until the end of the month, which adds up to three days and a bit at a time of posting.  So if you want to grab a copy for a measly $0.99 or £0.99 then now's your chance.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 16

I would be lying if I said that I wasn't writing these posts, and by extension watching these swathes of nineties anime, for fun.  But there have been a few points when that fun came awfully close to drying up.  However big a film fan you are, it's hard to feel entirely joyful about watching things that are flat-out terrible.  So it's with some relief that I say that the baseline really does seem to be rising.  More and more it feels like I'm hunting down lost - well, classics is a strong word, so let's go instead with treasures.  Rather tatty and tarnished treasures, oftentimes, but that's fine by me.

And that's exactly what I have this time around.  In today's job lot of animated nineties weirdness: Pet Shop of Horrors, AD Police, Demon City Shinjuku and Riding Bean...

Pet Shop of Horrors, 1999, Toshio Hirata

In the Chinatown of an American city that looks not much like any American city on Earth there's a pet shop, run by the mysterious Count D, that caters to a most specialist clientele: the bereft, the mad and the desperate.  Meanwhile, a cop named Leon has grown suspicious of the shop and its proprietor, having decided that it's a front for just about every criminal endeavour you care to name.  He's at least half right; D is indeed linked to a great deal of unpleasantness, but only because he keeps selling his customers unusual animals that he somehow convinces them are people or mythical creatures, while insisting they agree to contract terms that, if you've ever seen a horror movie ever and in particular if you've ever seen Gremlins, you know damn well are going to get broken in no time at all.

Gremlins ... there's a point of reference that's certainly tough to forget.  But the show, an OVA of four twenty-five minute episodes, feels just as close in tone to the horror anthology movies of yesteryear.  Each part has the air of a twisted morality tale, in which D's latest luckless buyers wind up getting precisely what they deserve or truly desire, though never quite both.  What makes these more interesting than they might be is their utter weirdness, and the same is true for all of Pet Shop of Horrors, really.  As one example, the scenes between D and Leon go absolutely nowhere, being part of a longer plot from the Manga, and basic storytelling common sense would dictate that they'd have been better off discarded.  However, they generally end up being the highlight of each episode, as Leon tries to strong-arm D and D responds by being deliriously camp and insisting they have tea and cake together.  Also, he seems to have a flying type Pokemon, which Leon never finds strange enough to comment on.  It's all rather goofy, but goofy in a likable fashion which softens four stories that, in theory, are pretty horrid.

I don't know whether I'm making this sound good or bad, and probably that's because I'm not altogether sure myself.  I only watched Pet Shop of Horrors last night and already it's like trying to remember a strange dream.  One thing I can say with certainty is that I wouldn't have had such doubts if only the animation had been less iffy: for 1999 it looks, frankly, a bit rubbish.  It's not so much the production values, which are just about okay, as the direction.  For example, there's a shot that Hirata absolutely adores, where movement is simulated by sliding one inanimate cell over another.  It looks as crappy as it sounds, and once you notice it you can't stop.  Nor does it help that the scenes within the pet shop are so dark that it's barely possible to tell what's happening, which was surely intended to be creepy but only serves to give you eyestrain.

In the end, Pet Shop of Horrors is probably the sort of thing that you'll know by now if you'll enjoy or not.  If you appreciate old-school anthology horror that's creepy and campy and weird, though not especially scary, and you're not put off by the odd bit of crummy animation, then it's certainly worth shelling out on.

AD Police, 1990, dir's: Takamasa Ikegami, Hidehito Ueda, Akira Nishimori

I didn't have particularly high hopes for AD Police, a three part OVA spin-off of the long-running series Bubblegum Crash designed to explore the darker, grittier corners of that universe - which, lets face it, in the world of nineties anime translates directly to "more blood and bare breasts."

AD Police has a lot of blood and a lot of bare breasts.  I would, in fact, struggle to list half a dozen characters from the entire three episodes combined that weren't either cops or prostitutes.  (There's a sexy lady scientist, but for the purposes of the plot, she might as well be a prostitute.)  In this sense, the show is a grab bag of the period's worst excesses dialed up to eleven, and was thus exactly what I was expecting when I decided I probably wouldn't get much from it.  And the three stories, all of which deal with the ongoing conflict between the titular AD Police and advanced androids known as voomers, are familiar territory as well, at least on the surface: you can hardly throw a stone at nineties anime without hitting something that wants very badly to be Blade Runner.

And yet, those stories aren't bad.  I'd go even further and say that AD Police toys with some intriguing, borderline original ideas.  What it most definitely does is approach two age-old cliches from a fresh enough angle to make them interesting again.  On the one hand, there's the notion, heavily explored in the first episode, that humanoid robots are bound to pick up human failings, to the detriment of both them and us.  On the other, there's the theme of human cyborgisation steadily erasing humanity, which is the focus of episode three.  Those two ideas are beyond ancient, but the way that AD Police sets them up as mirrors of each other is actually rather compelling.  And it's no coincidence that the best episode is the middle one, which combines the two to good effect.

It's not great sci-fi, but it is good sci-fi, and it sticks in the mind.  So too does the rather baffling soundtrack from Filipino pop rock singer Lou Bonnevie, which on the surface is wildly out of keeping with the material, but somehow ends up feeling indispensable to its sleazy, despairing universe.  And the animation is solid, if inconsistent; there are sequences of real beauty and imagination alongside some utter hackwork, with most of the show existing somewhere between those extremes.  All told, though, I liked AD Police quite a lot, and the fact that it manages to separate itself from the mire of similar titles is an achievement in itself.  If you've exhausted the genuine classics, there are certainly worse places to go next.

Demon City Shinjuku, 1988, dir: Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Yoshiaki Kawajiri movies are definitely becoming something of a guilty pleasure.

This is the third I've reviewed, after Ninja Scroll and Wicked City, and if it's not objectively the best of the three, it's certainly the one most attuned to my tastes.  For a start, in a move that feels distinctively progressive for Kawajiri's style, there isn't a single rape scene, and the attitude towards the female characters is ... what? ... not awful, I guess.  But not awful is a big jump from either Ninja Scroll or Wicked City, two movies I felt distinctively uncomfortable liking.  Demon City Shinjuku has a wholly useless female lead and a demon snake woman, but that's merely enough to put us in the usual wheelhouse of late eighties to early nineties anime sexism.

At any rate, I confess that there were lengthy periods when I was watching Demon City Shinjuku and too rapt to worry about such things.  Is it kind of plotless?  Sure it is, unless you consider "young hero must defeat evil demon baddie" as plot.  Is it a rip-off of Escape From New York, with all of the aimlessness that involves?  Strangely, it is, though I honestly don't feel like I can take away points for imitating an above par John Carpenter movie.  Is it as imaginative and thoroughly weird as Kawajiri's other works?  Maybe not altogether, but that still places it well ahead of the curve on both fronts, and its monsters and mise en scène remain a pleasure to behold.  But the most important question, the one that makes all the others a little irrelevant: is it gorgeous?  And yes, in many places it's quite shockingly gorgeous, so for that reason I just can't bring myself to begrudge its failings.  I watched Demon City Shinjuku in an imported Korean DVD edition that appears to have taken its print from the Manga edition, and there were points where I'd have sworn I was watching a blu-ray.  It's one of the most singularly lovely anime films I've seen, and I was staggered to discover it was originally an OVA; I'd have sworn we were looking at cinema level animation here.

I honestly wish I could skip the negatives and just flat out recommend this one.  I mean, come on, the director of Ninja Scroll, remaking Escape From New York but set in Shinjuku and with demons?  That's just not a film I can find it in myself to be savage about.  But the plot certainly is rubbish, and the characters are quite rubbish too, and I honestly can't decide if the dub - which definitely came from Manga - was decent or awful, but it's undoubtedly distinctive.  And if you've read more than a couple of these posts then you won't need me to tell you that that means plenty of crowbarred in swearing, not to mention some wacky regional accents this time through.

But ... it's so damn pretty!  It struck me when I picked this one up that Kawajiri is very much a pulpier Clive Barker, and coupled with his eye for deranged beauty, that really does make his work rather special at times.  It's a damn shame there's no sub available, really, I think I'd go all out and recommend Demon City Shinjuku if there was.  Still, wacky accents and all, I would rate it among the top tier of anime horror from the period, and if you're another of those weirdos who watches animation for the actual animation then you should certainly feast your eyes on this.

Riding Bean, 1989, dir: Yasuo Hasegawa

If there's one thing I always seem to criticize these shorter OVAs for, it's that you can't tell a satisfying, feature length story in the space of an hour or less.  So let's begin by taking our hats off to Riding Bean for the fact that, in forty minutes plus credits, it conveys a big, satisfying, somewhat original tale with proper character development, multiple action scenes, a clear three act structure and a thoroughly satisfying denouement.  That's not an easy thing to do, but Riding Bean makes it look so, and it's no small achievement.

Riding Bean is the series that Kenichi Sonoda created before he made Gunsmith Cats, the OVA of which I raved about not so long ago, and from which Gunsmith Cats was a spin-off.  That show's lead, Rally Vincent, plays a significant role here as the partner of our protagonist, roguish, apparently indestructible, bizarrely named professional driver Bean Bandit.  The setup sees Bean, and by extension Rally, being made the fall guys by a gang of crooks led by - and there's no way to sugarcoat this, so let's just be out with it - an evil lesbian pedophile named Semmerling.

Now, you would think that showing an abusive relationship between an older woman and an underage girl, one who's established early on as basing a large part of her self worth on her ability to be sexually pleasing to others, would be problematic as all hell, and - well, it isn't not.   Certainly the scene in which we gain this information is hugely uncomfortable, and at odds with the show's generally frivolous and even cartoonish mode.  But it's handled, if not precisely what you could call tastefully, then at least honestly, and it's certainly not there as window dressing.  On balance, I think that the creators make some difficult material work without descending to either exploitation or homophobia; others surely won't agree, which is why I'm mentioning this front and centre.

That room-sized elephant aside, however, I really have no reservations.  Riding Bean is a hell of a lot of fun.  Heck, I even - do I dare say it? - really liked the dub; in particular, J. Patrick Lawlor really does own the part of Bean with his lazy, southern-tinged, always just slightly threatening line readings.  The animation is as good as it needs to be, which given the amount of car chases and stunts on offer, actually amounts to pretty damn good.  And this being Sonoda, the sleazy seventies American crime movie vibe is nailed down perfectly, which if you're like me and consider the sleazy seventies American crime movie one of the highlights of world cinema is no small thing.  As always with these shorter OVAs, it's hard to make a blanket recommendation, and that's all the more true for Riding Bean because there's no doubt but that its content is going to put some people off.  But this one's pretty special, and if you can pick up a copy cheap then it's definitely worth a look.


This probably wasn't the best entry yet, but I suspect it was among the most consistent: nothing genuinely bad, and nothing even really average, in retrospect; even Pet Shop of Horrors skirted being rather good.  And the other three are solid recommendations that deserve to be better known than they are.  In particular, I'm glad that Yoshiaki Kawajiri's back catalogue is being reissued, the man was consistently knocking out some pretty extraordinary work.

Which makes it all the more exciting that I still have A Wind Named Amnesia, which he wrote, and Cyber City Oedo 808, which he directed, to be watched.  And many other goodies besides!  All told, these are exciting times to be drowning in nineties anime...

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