Sunday, 28 August 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 14

With one exception, we're firmly in popular nineties franchise territory this time around, which inevitably proves both a good and a not so good thing.  I've come out with one new favourite, at any rate, and there was generally at least some good reason that nineties anime franchises proved popular, even if those reasons aren't always one hundred percent apparent now.

Anyway, enough preempting!  This time around we have: Dirty Pair Flash: Angels at World's End, Vampire Wars, Gunsmith Cats and Ranma 1/2 The Movie: Big Trouble in Nekonron, China.

Dirty Pair Flash: Angels at World's End, 1994, dir: Tomomi Mochizuki

Perhaps it was foolish to expect much from this second, self-contained volume of Dirty Pair Flash, but I enjoyed the first quite a lot: it was derivative, but it was a lot of fun.  Angels at World's End, however, is much more of the former than the latter.  It has the vibe, in fact, of a show that's limiting its ambitions due to a tightening budget; you know how nineties sci-fi TV would always skimp by finding a naff excuse to stick its characters back in the twentieth century?  Well, that's precisely what Angels at World's End does: it's a holodeck episode, in essence, with Kei and Yuri stranded at a theme park that recreates historic (that is, then present day) Tokyo in perfect detail.

Only it makes no sense for this to have been a budget saving measure, the animation is no worse than last time around and maybe even a fraction better, so the only possible explanation is that someone thought this was a good idea.  Because clearly what one comes to Dirty Pair for is not explosions or laser fights or spaceships, its an episode where an underdeveloped side character falls in love with a flower shop girl that ends in a bizarre gay panic punchline.

In fairness, that's the only really terrible episode, though it's terrible enough to cast a pall over the other four.  The beginning and end are perfectly fine and feel at least somewhat in keeping with the first volume; the other two are too flamboyantly strange to really dislike.  One finds the Pair lodging in a haunted girls' dormitory, and feels very much like a parody of the Asian horror boom before the Asian horror boom had actually begun.  The other finds them trying to escort a professional shyster to prison in order to blow the reward money on a posh meal, and despite the fragile premise is perhaps the most enjoyable of the five.

Angels at World's End, then, is very much a wasted opportunity; the best thing it does is to develop the characters a little, but even then it feels as though the point is to watch Kei and Yuri moving nearer to their classic incarnations, which is really only interesting if you're familiar with the earlier show.  A tough recommendation to anyone but obsessive fans of the franchise, who surely already own it, and I suspect I'll be approaching the third and final volume with a bit of trepidation.

Vampire Wars, 1990, dir: Kazuhisa Takenouchi

When I discovered recently that the reason these Manga Collection dvds insisted on playing in a box in the middle of the screen was down to a setting on my PlayStation*, I found myself wondering if perhaps I hadn't been unduly harsh on them: after all, four I'd even kept, and the last couple I'd reviewed had at least kept me amused.  Sure the mandatory dubs were atrocious and sure there were some profoundly dubious inclusions, but maybe Manga deserved at least a little credit for the notion of a series bringing anime to the West at knockdown prices.

So it's with some relief that I report that Vampire Wars is rubbish, and rubbish in precisely all the ways that I've been criticizing these things for over the last few months: mediocre animation, rotten translation, listless performances and, to cap it all off, a plot that simply stops at the end of its running time, with all the really interesting parts left dangling.  And it's not like there aren't at least a couple of those, in a story that pits the CIA against space vampires and doesn't even feel the need to make that hook the focus of its narrative.

Then again, the actual focus is our "hero", retired ex-pat terrorist Kuki Kosaburo, who is never for one millisecond of screen time as interesting as that summary makes him sound.  What follows is a boilerplate, if excitably bloody, thriller that takes a good two thirds of its running time to get round to the fact that we could have been hearing about goddamn space vampires all this time.  Come to think of it now, Vampire Wars reminded me a bit of Psycho Diver, which went to similar lengths to be all dark and hard boiled and edgy and to avoid absolutely everything that might have been interesting about its own plot.  And now I've been reminded of what a miserable load of nonsense Psycho Diver was!  Curse you, Manga Video, and curse your stupid Collection!

Gunsmith Cats, 1995, dir: Takeshi Mori

Gunsmith Cats is terrifically good.  And I almost feel like I could leave the review there, really: this three part OVA is among the best I've encountered in just about every way and I urge you to try and find a copy.

But perhaps I'm only being reticent because, as with so many of these things, it's not easy to pin down precisely what makes Gunsmith Cats stand out so dramatically.  I could certainly point to the animation, and rightly so, it's top notch, not to mention well directed, with some of the loveliest backgrounds I've seen in pre-twentieth century Eastern animation.  The opening sequence is particularly terrific, an effortlessly cool slice of pop art eye candy that prefigures (and perhaps betters) the similar work in Cowboy Bebop.  But there's much to love elsewhere as well, and I'd be hard pressed to point at another anime that captures the feel of being a manga come alive quite so well as Gunsmith Cats does.

Of course, sad to say, not everyone gets so excited over exemplary animation.  For those philistines, I suppose that Gunsmith Cats would be merely a well put together thriller with a couple of likable leads, some absolutely cracking action sequences and a fun, bluesy soundtrack.  Though even then, there's a little more going on than all that.  Gunsmith Cats is rare for anime in being set in the US with a largely American cast, but of course the version of Chicago where our heroes Irene "Rally" Vincent and "Minnie" May Hopkins run their titular gun shop and practice their sideline in bounty hunting is one filtered through a distinctly Japanese sensibility.  More than that, it's clear that creator Kenichi Sonoda gained most of his appreciation of American culture from seventies crime movies - and really, who can blame him for that?  Judged solely on the extraordinary chase sequence in the second episode, with Rally tearing about in a muscle car drawn in absolutely fetishistic detail, surely no one.

The thing is, Gunsmith Cats meshes its two sensibilities in a hugely satisfying way, with something of a Western animation influence creeping in that I've rarely seen in anime: just look at Minnie down there in the bottom right of the poster, and particularly the design of her eyes.  The overall effect is a general mode of realism that makes the traditional anime excesses - grenades thrown by the dozen are a particular favourite - stand out as charmingly goofy.  And that same balance of Western influence and anime sensibility stretches even to the plot, which finds the cats mixed up with a shady politician and a conspiracy within the ATF, yet also throws in a murderous Russian hitwoman for good measure.  (Its a story, by the way, that feels unexpectedly current, even a shade satirical; like most aspects of Gunsmith Cats, it's aged well.)  Heck, there's even a making of documentary on the DVD, which all alone is better than (and nearly as long as) Vampire Wars.

I'm finding that these positive reviews are breaking down into three basic categories: things I enjoy for largely dubious reasons, works of transcendent excellence that are much more than just good nineties anime, and those that are typical but exemplary examples of the work coming out of that decade.  Gunsmith Cats is without doubt in that last category, but definitely at its upper edge; it certainly has nothing to apologize for when pitted against more recent work.

Ranma 1/2 The Movie: Big Trouble in Nekonron, China, 1991, Shûji Iuchi

Rumiko Takahashi's manga Ranma 1/2 was quite the sensation, running for nearly nine years and to 38 volumes, producing two anime series (one of which reached an extraordinary 143 episodes) and three films, among other spin-offs.  Yet, like many of these things, its concept was simple enough at heart: protagonist Ranma has been pledged by his father to marry tomboy Akane, who wants nothing to do with him.  Oh, and due to an accident at some magical hot springs on the way, Ranma turns into a girl whenever he gets wet.  And his dad turns into a panda.  So, okay, not that simple.

Anyway, by the time we get to Ranma 1/2's first feature film outing, the series had had time to get a great deal more complicated than all that, and as far as I can judge (partly from having read and enjoyed the first two volumes of the UK manga release) had done so by Takahashi piling on more characters, all with their own quirks and many of them also shapeshifters of one ridiculous sort or another.  Big Trouble in Nekonron, China expects you to be up to date with much of this, which probably seemed a good deal more reasonable when it came out; on the other hand, MVM video had the decency to include some brief profiles of the core cast and no one has more than a couple of character traits at most, so it really doesn't matter a great deal.  What's much more important is that you're willing to get on board with a story where the main intellectual demand is working out what characters have turned into which cartoon animals.

On the one hand, Big Trouble in Nekonron, China functions surprisingly well as a feature length tale: it has a beginning, a middle and a clear climax, it makes use of all its characters, and gags and themes set up in the early portions all have a payoff by the end.  On the other, there's nothing about this story that wouldn't have worked amply well as three episodes of an ongoing show; the closest it has to a dramatic hook is that it takes the characters away from Japan for a trip to China.  The only sequence that really feels like its doing something dramatically outside what an episode of the series might deliver, in fact, is the opening, which involves just about every significant character in a madcap chase sequence after master Happosai, a tiny, ancient martial arts teacher with a fetish for stealing underwear.  Nothing here screams "needs the resources of a motion picture" and nothing particularly suggests a proportionate increase in effort or funding.  Frequently excellent composer and Mamoru Oshii favourite Kenji Kawai delivers the score, but then he also worked on the series and in any case it's far from his best work; the animation is very much of the "gets the job done" variety, neither impressing nor drawing attention to itself with any significant flaws.

None of which sounds especially positive, but I think it gives a fair impression of what to expect: Big Trouble in Nekonron, China is not the kind of film adaptation that takes its source property to new heights or in ambitious directions but the kind that does broadly the same thing at more than the usual length and is content to call that a day.  Fortunately, the thing in question is a great deal of fun, and so an hour and a quarter of it in one go is a pleasantly concentrated burst of such fun - even if during the middle its constant mania threatens to become a little enervating.  I like Ranma 1/2 the franchise, it's funny and sweet and immensely daft, and I liked this film adaptation, but there's no getting around the fact that its one for the fans or for those aligned with its wacky, none too subtle blend of humour.


So Gunsmith Cats was pretty damn great.  And I've no regrets over the time I spent with Ranma 1/2; at any rate, it's ended up on the "to keep" shelf rather than the "get out of the house as quickly as possible" shelf, so that's something.  But Vampire Wars has already faded mercifully from memory, and I'm trying hard not to think about the fact that I have a whole nother volume of Dirty Pair Flash to get through, which I'll inevitably hope will be as good as the first while secretly knowing that it's more likely to be as joyless as the second.

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

* A note with the benefit of hindsight: No it wasn't, it's because Manga insisted on releasing non-anamorphic DVDs long after everyone else had the decency to stop doing so, and their crappy releases will never look right on widescreen TVs no matter how many settings you tweak.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

How Much is Too Much Planning?

I talked a while back, here and to a lesser extent here, about how my novel writing process has gone from being a fairly laid back and make-it-up-as-you-go-along affair to a current level of preparation that could justly be compared with that of minor military campaigns.

And honestly, I'd come to the conclusion a while back that I was preparing as much as anyone reasonably could: plotting out the entire novel as a detailed synopsis and then breaking it down into a chapter plan before a single word hits the page, that's pretty organised, right?  And it seemed to be working, too: with the skeleton of a plot in place, I was freer to focus on characters, dialogue, action, all the fun stuff that can sometimes end up being two dimensional in a first draft when simply keeping everything rolling becomes the overriding impulse.

Then I got to my current work in progress, and everything exploded.  The thing is, it's a book that requires an astonishing amount of world-building - the world-building, really is what it's all about - and not having that ready in advance has been disastrous.  I mean, not disastrous, I'll get it figured out, but right now I'm thinking that'll mean an entire draft more than I'd normally do, which is hardly a good thing.  Plus, the writing's been like pulling teeth, and then putting those teeth in a sock and hitting myself in the face with it, because it's not fun at all knowing you're doing a rubbish job of something and I've been doing a really rubbish job of inventing a complicated alien society and ecosystem on the fly.

At the same time as that was sinking in I was talking to people about my synopsis for the next book in line, and the feedback that came from a couple of readers was that they weren't clear on how the central relationship was supposed to play out.  As we discussed it, my writer friend Charlotte Bond suggested I should try putting together some character profiles.  My first reaction was one of wariness, since that sounds awfully like a writing exercise and writing exercises are one of the many things I classify as people who claim to be writing doing something else instead.  But I didn't have any better solution, and I really did need to get this stuff worked out.  So I've been giving it a go, and, what do you know, the results have been surprisingly great so far.  Looking at the characters in isolation is pushing me to delve into their motivations and backstories in a way that I know I'd struggle to do if I was worrying about having to keep the wheels of a plot spinning.  Minor characters are developing a level of complexity I'd normally reserve for my leads.  And now I'm thinking that I really need to do something similar for the world: the major locations, the major systems, perhaps even the major events of its history.

I've always been distrustful of this sort of my approach, too, and for the exact same reason.  If I'm honest, whenever I hear fantasy writers (it's always fantasy writers) talking about how they map out every last corner of their world before they begin, down to what rodents like to eat each other and who cleans out the privies in that tiny village the characters won't ever visit, I tend to assume that they are in fact prevaricating.  Because, you know, they are.  But I'm telling myself that this feels different: I already have the novel planned in its entirety, so I'm not trying to craft anything extraneous; the character traits and relationships I'm figuring out will almost certainly find their way into the final book, and I have faith that so will the world-building, once I get to that.

But where will this all end? I have no idea, though it's easy to start imagining nightmare scenarios where advance plotting means writing the entire novel before I ever start writing the novel, trapping myself into some kind of weird Möbius reality in which planning only ever leads to more planning.  And wait, there's a word for that, isn't?  I'm pretty sure it's called prevarication.  So let's not do that.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Upcoming Appearances

I haven't been out and about quite as much as I'd have liked this year, because money basically, and I'm sad to be missing my first Nine Worlds this weekend - everyone have fun without me, and please spare no thought for me slaving away at a hot word processor! - but I do have a couple of things coming up that are worth a mention.

First up, I'll apparently be on a panel at Fantasycon-by-the-Sea.  It's called Wanted: Dead or Alive and the topic is "Is the anti-hero the new hero in fiction?"  To which the answer is, of course, no, and so I suspect that myself, Adrian Faulkner, Carrie Buchanan, Neil Williamson and Georgia Duffy will just use the question as a springboard to discuss how neat anti-heroes are, because anti-heroes are definitely neat.  I should probably talk about Easie Damasco, but I suspect I'll get distracted by Dime, the protagonist of my current edit-in-progress, a glorious son of a bitch who makes poor old Easie look like a good Samaritan by comparison.

But Fantasycon isn't for a couple of months, and my other event is a whole lot sooner: two weeks away, in fact.  That would be the inaugural meet of Humber SFF, which I'm honoured to be one of the two guest speakers at, along with Daniel Godfrey, whose debut New Pompeii came out just a couple of months ago.  There aren't many things that would lure me so close to the city of my birth, but I'm looking forward to this: Shellie Horst has been organising with a deal of enthusiasm and I'm a fan of the template set for these things by the similar events in York and Sheffield (and isn't it time for another one of those?)  I'm supposed to be reading from my collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, but I did that at Edgelit, and now I have a longing to go instead with something from my unannounced next novel and then swearing everyone to secrecy afterwards.  So that's one more reason to come along, together with the fact that the Hull area is long overdue a group like this and it's in a pub - a really good pub, from what I hear - and that Daniel's book sounds particularly interesting: you might get to hear a chapter from a work in progress that doesn't officially exist yet, unless I chicken out and just go with a story from Sign in the Moonlight like I'm meant to.

Anyway, the details are here - wait, is that a real deer's head? - but basically it's a case of being at The Monks Walk pub in Beverley at 4pm on Saturday the 27th of August and then drinking alcoholic beverages and listening to writer words, followed by more drinking alcoholic beverages and hanging out with like-minded folks.  Hopefully I'll see you there.