Monday, 21 August 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 27

I suppose a reasonable goal at this point would be one really excellent title per post, right?  So I guess we're on target with this month's batch.  And yet, twenty-seven posts in, there's something curiously dissatisfying about pointing out time and again that a great deal of nineties anime was just fine if you like that sort of thing.  The problem is, I've exhausted all the stuff that can be picked up really cheaply, and when you're spending proper money on a DVD you tend to steer away from anything that looks like it might be truly abysmal.  Yet truly abysmal nineties anime is a heck of a lot of fun to review.  It's a quandary, all right!

This time, then: Green Legend Ran, Urusei Yatsura Movie 6: Always My Darling, Moldiver and Tokyo Babylon...

Green Legend Ran, 1992, dir: Satoshi Saga

What strikes you first with Green Legend Ran is the look of the thing.  The character designs are damn near as simple as you can get; there's something distinctly nostalgic about them, and while my knowledge of anime gets shaky once we get before the eighties, I suspect they're purposefully calling back to an era a decade or two earlier.  Taken in isolation, they're childish, almost, with big, expressive features even by anime standards.  But then there are the backgrounds, which are up to an altogether different game, with the faded, nostalgic quality of old photographs.  And if that combination wasn't enough, add a palette that never really gets beyond four shades and favors warm but muted colours: ochers, sandy browns, oranges and lilacs.  So that when we get a burst of primary colour - like, say, the red of blood - it comes as all the more of a shock.  But frankly, those backgrounds and designs would achieve much the same affect: one minute you're lulled into the sense that you're watching a remarkably well-animated, intelligent Saturday morning kids cartoon and the next something startlingly violent is happening, and the impact never really lessens, not even by the end of a hefty two hour and twenty minute runtime.

And here we are and I haven't even begun to mention the plot.  Then again, you're probably better going into Green Legend Ran not knowing any more than you have to.  Suffice to say that it's the future, and as if humanity's own destruction of our environment hasn't buggered things up sufficiently, we subsequently find ourselves dealing with the Rodo, inscrutable monoliths that fell from space and now mark the only green spots on an otherwise barren world.  The pedagogic Rodoists see this as a reason for worship, while the terrorist organisation Hazard is more interested in breaking the system and maybe putting something more equitable in its place.  Of course our young hero Ran falls in with the latter rather than the former, because nineties anime, and it's not that much more surprising when he encounters a mysterious girl with silver hair who may or may not have something to do with...

But no, that's enough.  After its look, (and maybe after its remarkably well-developed cast of characters), Green Legend Ran's plot is its biggest asset, a twisty, turny tale that perhaps gets the little details more right than the big ones but nevertheless stays smart and engaging from beginning to end.  It's a little bit Dune and a little bit Nausicaa, but also very much its own thing, which as I may have noted once or twice before now is hardly a given with nineties anime.  Good music and capable direction are more to be relied on, but again Green Legend Ran excels.  Perfectly named director Saga hasn't done much since, though he's kept in steady work; on the strength of his astute, distinctive storytelling here, he deserves better.  Composer Yôichiro Yoshikawa really hasn't had much of a subsequent career, which is startling: his score, heavy on the synth and guitars, is remarkably ahead of its time, and there are some fantastic pieces in there, like the grinding industrial theme that accompanies an early action scene.

If it's not obvious by now, Green Legend Ran comes highly recommended.  I'm not sure yet if it's absolutely top tier work - and maybe your own reaction will depend on how much you take to those very distinctive character designs - but it's definitely a rare treat: adult genre fiction told with skill, imagination and lavish technical values.  What's more, thanks to a US re-release from Sentai Filmworks early this year, it's not even hard to find in a great print.

Urusei Yatsura Movie 6: Always My Darling, 1991, dir: Katsuhisa Yamada

The astute imaginary reader may notice something amiss here: wasn't the last Urusei Yatsura movie I reviewed number 4, and doesn't that suggest we've skipped over one?  The answers are yes and yes, but there's method to my madness: movie 5, the aptly titled The Final Chapter, is generally considered to be the true end of the series, and what we have here - made to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the show's first airing - is a mere humble side story, with scant regard for continuity.

This is an important fact: of all of the movies so far, number six has the absolute least interest in reinventing the Urusei Yatsura wheel.  In fact, having only seen the first four films and none of the series, even I can tell that this is very much the franchise playing hard to its audience.  Even within the scope of those four films, the story feels derivative, particularly of the first.  Our antagonist of sorts this time around is Lupica - "another one of the space princesses that all seem to have found out about Earth in some tour book", as the DVD sleeve notes wryly observe - and her equal parts nefarious and nonsensical scheme involves kidnapping Ataru because he's the most lecherous being in the universe and so the only one capable of stealing the most potent love potion in creation, which she needs to snag her childhood sweetheart, a tofu salesman who travels the spaceways on a bicycle.

The goal here couldn't be any more clearly to make something for the fans that is in all ways Yurusei Yatsura and which doesn't screw the pooch.  The animation is solid if unspectacular, with some inoffensive tweaks to the character designs to acknowledge the fact that animation in 1991 was a somewhat different beast to animation in 1981, and there's a conspicuous straightforwardness to series newcomer Yamada's* direction; he's quite happy just to keep things fast-paced and funny.  Which does highlight the one big advantage to an entry determined to not mess with the formula of one of the all-time great anime comedies: it actually has good jokes.  This is the first of these movies that I found myself laughing out loud at, rather than chuckling wryly (or, in the case of Beautiful Dreamer, cringing in existential terror.)

And that, I think, is about all you need to know.  Compared to the first four entries, this one feels notably unambitious, until you realise that just trying really hard not to mess up is a form of ambition in itself.  And if the result is a dispensable entry, it's also the most sheerly entertaining since the original, which wasn't half so funny.  If you've liked any of the others, there's certainly no reason to skip this one, and if you're just curious as to what all the fuss was about all those many years ago then Always My Darling is actually a pretty good Yurusei Yatsura entry point, certainly more so than the last films in long-running franchises tend to be.

Moldiver, 1993, dir's: Takeshi Aoki, Hirohide Fujiwara, Hiroyuki Kitazume, Kenji Miyashita, Tarô Mozaiku, Yasunori Urata

If we were being generous, we could point out that parody doesn't always transcend national borders very well.  But I think that's giving Moldiver too much credit: fair enough, the whole magical girl phenomena never entirely caught on in the west, but we sure as heck have no lack of superheroes, and you'd think that a show that tries to skewer both would stand a fair chance of reaching an international audience.  Not to mention the fact that Moldiver's premise feels at least halfway to something great: genius inventor Hiroshi invents the Mol-unit, an interdimensional supersuit, with the goal of getting up to some stereotypical superheroics, and he manages just that until his sister Mirai figures out his secret and decides that his costume could do with a more feminine touch.  The result is that Tokyo's latest defender, the titular Moldiver, keeps transforming between male superhero and female magic girl forms and - well, that's funny, right?

Sure, potentially.  But Moldiver seems curiously uncommitted to its central gag.  After a couple of episodes, Hiroshi gives up on the superheroing altogether in favour of letting Mirai take over, the suit more or less settles into its female identity, and - aside from an episode in which Mirai abuses her powers to try and meet up with a hot guy, oblivious to the villains turning the city upside down trying to kill her - we're left with something fairly conventional.  Though conventionality, it turns out, isn't the same as comprehensibility; I never did work out exactly what the main villain's agenda was beyond the fact that he liked collecting rare stuff, and by the time Hiroshi and Mirai's younger brother joined the fray on the side of evil I was entirely lost.  In fairness, that probably had something to do with the dire subtitling; I don't understand a great deal of Japanese, but I've picked up enough to know when I'm being lied to, and my bullshit radar was going haywire throughout Moldiver.

With a rambling plot that keeps forgetting it's meant to be amusing, we're left with plenty of time to get to grips with the animation and design, which - guess what! - aren't up to much either.  The former tends towards the shabby, while only rarely dipping into total awfulness, and for some reason the fourth episode is actually pretty solid; the latter copes well with machines and costumes but nosedives with the flesh and blood humans.  Mirai, in particular, looks like a peanut with giant eyes, and is among the least appealing anime protagonists I've seen.  And then there's the score, which is notable mostly for how brazenly it lifts from a couple of very recognizable pieces by a certain John Williams bloke you might have heard of.

None of which, I suppose, makes Moldiver bad exactly.  I'll say this in its favour: I had an eye infection while I was watching it, and were that not the case, I'm sure I'd have found it tolerable enough.  It bounces along in the way that a lot of not so great anime does, and it's certainly no worse that something like, say, Twin Signal.  Though when the closest you can get to praise is "it's no worse than Twin Signal", I suppose it might be better to admit that you aren't really trying.

Tokyo Babylon, 1992, dir: Kôichi Chigira

You know what, Clamp are growing on me.  As I've mentioned here before, I'd taken a disliking to adaptations based on the all-female manga creators' group based on not much beside the fact that I loathed their character designs: that means faces so pointy as to be practically triangular, eyes that are impossibly wide and everyone pretty much looking like a teenage girl, for the uninitiated.  And I probably won't ever love it, but the more of their work I come across, the more I appreciate that they became huge for a reason: that being, they told really good stories.**

Case in point, Tokyo Babylon, which looks a great deal like any number of other titles on the surface: a psychic detective investigates supernatural mishaps in the city of Tokyo, which must have had more ghosts and demons in the mid-nineties per square metre than any capital city on Earth.  But the devil's in the details and all that, and Clamp's effort is just that bit better than so much of the competition: the two OVAs here have real stories that you can't guess from the first five minutes and real characters that it's easy to root for, or to boo as the case may be.  In a subgenre with a tendency towards being repetitive and shallow even at its best, Tokyo Babylon is that bit more involved and sophisticated, telling tales that are actually fresh and intriguing.

That's the good news - and it's good news that probably has more to do with the manga that with this anime, thinking about it.  Because the not so good news is just about everything else, to a greater or lesser extent.  Don't get me wrong, there's nothing terrible here, and not even really anything bad.  And, okay, I'd be lying if I said that Kôichi Chigira's direction didn't have a few real moments, especially in the second episode: there's a striking flashback sequence and a scene that uses colour in a way I've never seen before, so I'd hardly write him off as a hack.  But there's no disguising a lack of budget, and the animation rarely rises above so-so, while the music is all over the place, down to a closing theme for episode one in slightly muddled English that's - well, nothing if not unique, let us say kindly.

I don't want to be too dismissive here, because it really was nice to watch two episodes that functioned so well as original short films, given proper space to breath and to develop, and I enjoyed them both a fair bit.  But at the same time, I think it's unlikely that Tokyo Babylon is a title I'll revisit; there just isn't the artistry here to warrant a second viewing once you know all the narrative ins and outs.  I'll say this, though, if there had been more of Tokyo Babylon - as there was clearly intended to be, given one particular loose thread that's left hanging - I'd be seeking it out posthaste.  But then where would nineties anime have been if most of the really promising shows hadn't been killed in the crib, eh?


That was another very average selection wasn't it?  Certainly nothing was dreadful - I already suspect I was too harsh to Moldiver - and as much as I dug Green Legend Ran, I'd feel guilty declaring it a lost classic.  Well, maybe not that guilty, it really is damn good and you should seek it out, but still.  And that just leaves us Tokyo Babylon and Always My Darling sitting comfortably in the "Hey, why not?" category.

All of which makes me long again for the extremes of earlier posts!  Sadly, I fear this may be the hinterland we're stuck in until I finally give up on this whole mad venture; there's not much on the to-watch shelf that I have real hopes for, and only one title that promises to be seriously abysmal.  Hmm, maybe I ought to devote a whole post to the bewildering dreadfulness that M. D. Geist II promises to be?  That could work...

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

* Yamada, incidentally, has one of the most fascinating CVs I've ever seen.  Not only did he direct the legendary show Gatchaman (better known in the west as Battle of the Planets), he worked on a couple of Western childhood favourites too, namely The Last Unicorn and Flight of the Dragons.

** Or because lots of manga readers in the nineties wanted stories about men who looked like teenage girls.  Which, thinking about it, is probably just as likely.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Writing Ramble: How to Criticize Your Friends

On the face of things, criticizing your friends may seem straightforward enough.  But think for a moment: do you really want to criticize them over just anything?  Sure, you could point out that their hair is too long or their pets are too smelly or their house is too mauve, but wouldn't it be better to come up with some really significant character flaw, all the better to...

Wait, wait, wait.  That wasn't what this post was meant to be about.

How to criticize your friends' writing, that's what I was going to talk about.  Just randomly pointing out your friends' flaws is mean, but pointing out the flaws in their writing can be one of the most useful forms of support you can give.  That is, if they ask you to; randomly deconstructing the characterization missteps in that novel they just had published probably isn't going to be so well received.  But a great many writers, regardless of experience, will always be on the lookout for a friend who's willing to read over early drafts with a critical eye.  Yet such people aren't always easy to find, and even when they're available, they're far from guaranteed to respond with anything really useful.

Personally I've been really lucky on that front, and a couple of recent responses, as well as my own efforts to help others out, got me thinking.  What's the difference between useful amateur feedback and the sort that leaves you feeling crushed but none the wiser?  What sort of criticism do I wish I got more of and why?  Having done all that thinking, I thought I might as well share my conclusions here with a little advice for anyone who wants to support the token writer in their life...

- Find the Positives
Criticism can be hard to take, and it's nice to be told that you've got a few things right amid all those mistakes.  But this isn't just about ego management; as a writer, it's not always any easier to know what is working than what isn't.  Sometimes being told that, yes, that section plays the way you hoped it would is every bit as useful as discovering that you need to rip up half a chapter.  In fact, often having an idea of what is succeeding can be the most useful thing, offering a benchmark to aim to get the rest of the work up to.
- Hear What's Being Asked of You
All readers have their reading habits, but not all reading habits are useful to the writer in need of feedback.  Most writers will have at least a reasonable idea of what's wrong with their work, and the kind of criticism that's useful on a first draft won't have half as much value on a third.  If you really want to help, try and understand what sort of response you're being asked for; if the writer doesn't know, probing with a few questions might save you both from wasting your time.  Is it the plot they're trying to figure out?  The structure?  The characters?  Or are they just after someone to hunt typos?  In this, knowing how far on a given work is can make all the difference: is this raw material or close to the point of being finished?
- Don't Kick the Foundations
Unless a story is really broken, "this story is broken" isn't useful feedback.  And yet it's easy to give, even if not deliberately.  "I think this would work better if instead of being a middle-aged housewife the protagonist was a ninja assassin" is, to all intents and purposes, suggesting that the writer scrap whatever they've done and do something else instead.  Saying "the plot didn't really work for me" falls into the same category.  But there are more subtle variations; adding and deleting characters or major narrative points can often add up to the same thing as starting afresh.  Would making the change you're suggesting bring the whole story tumbling down?  If so, it's probably not going to come over as a useful suggestion.  It's always better to try and help a writer to find the best version of the story they're trying to tell than to suggest that it isn't worth telling in the first place.
- Be Constructive
This is a lot like the above points, really, but I mean it literally: try to add more than you subtract.  Sometimes, of course, an early draft of a story really will have superfluous elements; sometimes two characters fulfill such a similar purpose that they might as well be one, and sometimes a subplot would be better off excised.  But more often there'll be at least something there that can be salvaged and improved.  It's a great deal harder to identify how that can be done than to point out that an element is rubbish and would be better off gone, and it's generally too much to ask of people.  If everyone knew how to fix complex plotting mistakes then it would be a weird old world!  Still, even identifying aspects that are ripe for improvement is more useful than simply pointing out what's worthless.
- Read Deeper
I'm assuming here that you're not a professional editor; chances are, then, that you're more likely to focus on certain aspects of what you read, ones that might be grouped under a term like "storytelling": the characters, the big events, the overarching plot.  Most readers are at least a bit oblivious to the more technical aspects of fiction: the fashion in which words are combined and used to achieve particular effects.  This is all fine and good and no writer in their right mind would expect more, but that's not to say a little insight can't be helpful.  So after you've read through, why not delve more analytically into a paragraph or two?  Is the language telling the story as well as it could be?  Is the pace too fast or too sluggish?  Are the choices of words repetitive, or needlessly obscure?  Even just digging into one isolated passage can identify wider problems.
Last up, I'll just sneak in the fact that I'm always on the lookout for good beta-readers!  With at least three novels on the go at any given time and a dozen short stories waiting for attention, I can never get all the help I need.  So if the above has inspired you, do feel free to get in touch...