Sunday, 30 December 2018

2018: Things Fall Apart

2018 was a rubbish year.  I guess you probably don't need me to tell you that.  I don't know anyone here in the UK who's had a brilliant time of it over the last twelve months.  I mean, wherever you stand on the Brexit debate, in practice it's been a life-sucking, debilitating mess that's dominated the news like a black hole, while every other of the multitude of problems the country's facing has been shoved aside.  Spiraling food bank dependence?  A dysfunctional transport network?  A disintegrating health service?  Horrifying levels of child homelessness and poverty?  Mate, who cares, we're trying to Brexit here!

And yeah, I know this blog is supposed to be about my writing, but my Gran died a few months ago.  It wasn't unexpected; she was very old and no one lives forever.  But she was a tremendously independent woman and I'd always hoped that was the way she'd be able to go out.  Instead, thanks to a misdiagnosis by first paramedics and then hospital staff that led to her being sent home the night she'd had a severe stroke, she died miserable and confused.   And, you know, I don't blame the paramedics or the hospital staff, not really: I blame the cuts that placed them under such impossible pressure, I blame the politicians that imposed those cuts, and to a lesser extent I blame the folks who refuse to listen to these sorts of stories and keep pretending that all's well.  At any rate, her death, and the circumstances surrounding it, have cast a long shadow over the year.

Though, let's face it, the writing side of things has been fairly dreadful too.  I was supposed to have two books released in 2018, and as you might have noticed, that hasn't happened.  Judging by Amazon figures, the one I did get out, The Bad Neighbour, appears not to have done at all well.  Its main misfortune seems to have been being something of a square peg in a round hole as far as Flame Tree's launch line-up went, and so not getting near the readership I'd intended.  Meanwhile, the third Black River book, Eye of the Observer, has run into ... well, I suppose "problems" is the word, though it seems a small one under the circumstances.  The book's finished and I'm really happy with it, but whether there'll be another as was once planned, whether it'll come out in its present form, or when it'll come out at all, are questions for the publisher to determine rather than me, and at time of posting they're yet to do so.  I mean, I'm sure it will be released, and I absolutely promise it won't come out in a form that doesn't do its predecessors justice, but beyond that I can't say.  And months of not knowing whether you'll get to finish the series you've been putting your heart and soul into for three years?  That's not been much fun either.

All of which together means I probably won't be writing full time for the bulk of 2019, or maybe at all in any significant way.  At time of posting, I'm effectively out of contract, with the Brexit cliff edge and all that entails less than three months away.  Frankly, I could really do with an income.  And as much as this is what I want to do and all I've ever wanted to do, I guess I could stand a break.  You can only bash your head against the same wall for so long without wanting a breather.  Likewise, you can only send so many unanswered e-mails and chase so many late payments and watch so many opportunities fall apart due to the indifference of others before you wonder what the hell it is you're doing.  I love writing, but everything that surrounds it has been a horrible slog for rather too long now.

Anyway, sorry to be so bleak!  Let's finish up with some good stuff, eh?  I ran the Swaledale marathon for the first time in two decades, that was pretty cool.  I'm finally getting round to my long-term goal of learning Japanese.  I got the platinum achievement on Bloodborne, which really was quite difficult and life-consuming, but also a ton of fun.  I've seen some truly great movies and more nineties anime than any human being could ever possibly need.  I got short fiction into a couple more of those gorgeous Flame Tree anthologies and sold a story to The Dark, which people apparently liked a lot, something I didn't altogether expect because it was tremendously weird and personal.  And more than anything, 2018 has reminded me that I have some wonderful family and friends.  Though even there, a couple of them I'll be seeing a hell of a lot less of thanks to - you guessed it - Brexit!

So yeah, I'm all out of positivism.  Go away, 2018, and think about what you've done.

Friday, 21 December 2018

Writing Ramble: On Writing What You Know

I've come to think most traditional writing advice is terrible.  This is one of the weirder lessons you learn as you go on: it's largely nonsense spread by liars.  Case in point, that most idiotic adage, which endless authors of countless tiresome, basically autobiographical novels have followed: "Write what you know."

Are you an astronaut?  A ninja?  A rogue brain surgeon who's a secret agent by night?  A super-intelligent orangutan pirate?  Or any combination of the above?  No?  Then don't write what you know.  Most people's lives are boring to other people, which is the precise reason most dinner parties are awful and we had to invent books in the first place.  Even interesting people don't spend the majority of their time doing interesting things interestingly.  The point of fiction is not that we can describe our adventures in doing the washing up and taking the kids to school and that time we got our head stuck in the railings and had to be rescued by the fire brigade.  One of the purposes of fiction is to transcend and so make a modicum of sense of the messy, tangled, nonsensical matter of human existence.

But that's not really my point.  My actual point is, "Write what you know" is dreadful advice, but it doesn't take a lot of tweaking to be make it excellent.  This also took me a while to figure out.  The correct advice, obviously, should be "Use what you know to make stuff up better."  Which is to say, tear your life up mercilessly, since it's your job as a writer is to use every available resource in the service of creating good fiction.  Go at your memories with the sharpest scissors you have, pluck them apart, squash them like plasticine, burn out the ones that don't work with a soldering iron.  Wait, no, maybe not that last bit.  But the rest definitely.

Yet again, it took me rather too long to work this out.  Looking back at some of my earliest work, there are definite absences and vagaries that could have done with a bit of an injection of personal experience.  But I think that's true of most writers, and at least I reckon I'm getting it down now.

Case in point #1: My story The Only Way Out Lies Farther In*, recently published to a surprising (for me anyway) degree of acclaim in top horror market The Dark.  An awful lot of personal experiences went into that one: the maze and country house setting that open it were drawn from a recent holiday, the overriding theme of believing a childhood rupture has left you adrift in a broken reality pulls on a nasty bit of trauma from after my parents' divorce, and there's plenty more in there as well.  But getting it to work as narrative, and a narrative I personally could tell without my brain exploding, meant mashing a lot of elements together from all across my life, then mixing in a good deal of fiction, and most importantly, taking it all out of my own head and stuffing it into that of someone I'd made up.  It sounds simple put like that, and actually it sort of was.  Sometimes things make a certain intuitive sense, even when they don't make much actual sense.

Case in point #2: I've said in various places that my just-out novel The Bad Neighbour contains a lot of autobiographical components, and that's true, but it's also a lot less based directly on my own life than people have occasionally assumed.  There are bits and pieces aplenty, but crucially they're mostly not the bits and pieces anyone would assume.**  There are, I think, only two elements that are drawn unedited from personal experience: one is a catalogue of house-hunting horrors, all of which are described exactly as they happened, and the other is a fairly minor detail that was the genesis for the whole book.  Spiraling out from those ingredients, everything is a mishmash of my experiences and those of friends and those of friends of friends and total fabrication, in no clear order.  It's all grist for the mill, as they say.

I guess I should finish up by admitting that I'm not being entirely serious.  Obviously we'll always need writers who can make the mundane fascinating, who can conjure up the minute and intimate in a way that makes us feel understood.  That's yet another of the amazing things fiction is capable of, and sometimes that means sticking awfully close to personal experience.  But on the whole, for most people writing most kinds of fiction, I do think my version's better: those personal experiences are great material, but they're only a fraction of what's out there for you to draw on.

* Another bit of awesome writing advice no-one ever gives you: making up absurd titles is weirdly therapeutic.

** Interestingly, most of what the one or two more negative reviews found implausible was basically true.  It turns out that people with not a lot of money to spend really do buy houses they know have problems.  Who'd have thought it!

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 43

I suppose it was inevitable that, the more I try to swear off themed posts, the more I end up coming up with ideas for them - and the sillier those themes get.  This time was largely accidental, I swear, as I got three quarters of the way through and realised that everything I'd reviewed had one notable feature in common.

Anyway, there's probably no talking my way out of this one.  So here for your delectation, as demanded by nobody ever, is the Drowning in Nineties Anime Sexploitation Special.  Yes!  We have gratuitous fan service!  We have lecherous detectives!  We have actual hentai!  And more!  All in Agent Aika: Final Battle, City Hunter: The Motion Picture, Rei Rei, and Kite...

Agent Aika: Final Battle, 1998, dir: Katsuhiko Nishijima

The most damning criticism I have of Agent Aika: Final Battle - which coincidentally may be the most damning criticism I've had of anything ever - is that it makes the first volume, Agent Aika: Naked Missions, seem a good deal better than it was.  And this is frustrating because in a number of significant ways it does precisely what I'd have wanted from a sequel to that most notorious of fan-service-heavy shows: it tones down the panty-flashing and partial nudity, ups the animation quality considerably, and shifts the emphasis marginally more in the direction of narrative and character.

Which would be wonderful, except the narrative isn't very good and the characters feel wrong in small but noticeable ways and the one new addition is appalling, a teenage boy who communicates solely through the soft toy he carries everywhere, though no-one feels the need to comment on the fact, much less wonder where the hell he came from.  And the story, though appealingly meta on the face of things, just flat-out doesn't work: bringing back the army of sexy girl minions from the first volume as antagonists in their own right speaks to a misunderstanding of one of the better jokes from Naked Missions, which was that they were pretty much just doing their jobs and couldn't have cared less about world-threatening plots.  It feels awfully desperate as a sequel hook, and the show never invests in it very deeply, or seems to know what it wants to be.  In fact, it's startling how much of the original setup gets dumped: the setting now basically appears to be the present day, our heroes are salvagers in name only, and most damningly, Aika doesn't even have her sentient liquid metal underwear!  I mean, what's Agent Aika without sentient liquid metal underwear?  When that signature garment reappears in the last of the three episodes, along with most of the cast of the first volume, it seems more like a frantic Hail Mary pass than a legitimate return to form.

If we're being absolutely honest, it turns out that watering down Agent Aika was not the way to go.  In retrospect, its absurdity and crassness were an integral part of what campy charms it had.  There may not be that much competition for the title of best soft porn Moonraker remake but, by damn, Naked Missions certainly earned it.  Final Battle is still silly, but forcedly so, trying to wring laughs from a plot that doesn't earn them and scenarios that bend the characters too far out of shape.  And I find myself forced into the awkward position of realising that, terrible as it was, I kind of enjoyed the first volume and feel a touch sad that this was all the sequel it got.  Clearly I need to go away and meditate under a waterfall or something, or maybe sit through a Studio Ghibli marathon to remind myself of what a noble and dignified medium anime can be.  In the meantime, my ever-so-slight fondness for Agent Aika remains untarnished, and this isn't the Agent Aika I know.

City Hunter: The Motion Picture, 1997, dir: Kenji Kodama

The first thing we need to acknowledge is that City Hunter: The Motion Picture is in no way "the motion picture" at all, and that this is merely another in a long line of titling con jobs, this one an attempt by ADV to disguise that what they were shilling was another of those TV specials that I've been quite critical of around these parts, one with the actual title of Goodbye My Sweetheart.  And the second important thing you need to know is that you can safely ignore the first thing.  Shockingly, to all intents and purposes, this really might as well be the City Hunter movie, in a manner that sets it totally apart from its shabby predecessors.  This is precisely what I'd have wanted from a film-length entry to the franchise, if we ignore the fact that until now what I wanted was that it would crawl into a hole and die.

Point being: The Motion Picture is a huge step up in every meaningful way from the likes of .357 Magnum.  It certainly looks a damn sight better, with realistic designs that evoke more what a studio of serious intentions like Production I.G. would do with this material than the show's traditional aesthetic, and some genuinely nice character work, both of which combine to make the abstracted drifts into comedy that bit more effective.  The animation, while not quite up to cinema standards, is exceptionally solid, especially during the action-packed finale, where that extra quality really pays dividends.  The music brings plenty of style to the table, adding to the overall sense that this was intended to be a good deal more prestigious than those knocked-out TV movies.  Coming a year after the mediocre Secret Service, the difference is startling, as is the degree to which Kodama upped his directorial game.

But, even more astonishingly, it's the narrative that really impresses.  It struck me while watching that these nineties anime mega-franchises were very much complex machines prone to backfiring at the smallest slip.  Relying as they do on a series of interlocking gimmicks, they really need every part to be just so to function at their best, at least unless they go down the Beautiful Dreamer route and chuck out the rules entirely.  City Hunter: The Motion Picture opts for the first option, deploying its bag of genre tricks with meticulous precision.  Ryo's characteristic lechery is kept in check enough that he never seems like a total jerk; the humour is deployed sparingly and knowingly; the action scenes are staged with attention to detail rather than being lumped in for the sake of it.  And all of that's at the service of a genuinely good thriller plot.  The worst you can say is that it massively rips off Speed, released three years earlier, and yet "Speed but on a train and with the cast of City Hunter" turns out to be no bad thing at all.  In short, this was good enough to turn me around on a show I basically hated.  City Hunter fan or no, it definitely warrants a look, as that rarest of beasts that is the franchise movie per excellence.

Rei Rei, 1993, dir: Yoshiko Yamamoto

So look, I know I said a while back that I definitely wasn't going to start reviewing hentai here.  And I meant it, I did.  But then I saw a release from Kiseki Films, the short-lived and deeply weird and tacky distributor behind some of my very favourite - and also most hated! - releases, and I couldn't resist.  Er, plus it was cheap.  But this is it, I promise!  I probably won't even review the other release on the disk, the imaginatively named Gigolo*, since it looks mind-bogglingly awful.  This here is the beginning and end of this blog's dalliance with anime pornography, there's no doubt about it.

Except that if it's all as good as Rei Rei then ... I dunno, maybe I shouldn't be making promises I'm not willing to keep?  These two episodes were a ton of fun, and made me laugh more than plenty of anime that set out to do merely that.  For that matter, the animation was a good bit better than I was expecting, with a notable lack of shortcuts and some subtle attention to character detail.  And look, I really don't want to get bogged down in this aspect too much, but the sex stuff was perfectly fine too.  No more explicit that the average episode of Game of Thrones, not remotely nasty or exploitative, and commendably varied for what amounts to a handful of scenes over less than an hour: I counted girl on boy, girl on girl, boy on boy, boy on goddess, girl on goddess, boy on weird troll guy, and goddess on tentacle-monster action, in so much as I was counting at all.  Because yes, in a no doubt unfair reinforcement of my prejudices, there were tentacles.  But it's actually a fun scene, and Kaguya certainly didn't seem to be complaining, so I guess we're okay.

And, of right, I haven't even covered the plot!  Kaguya, you see, is the goddess of love, and in order to keep the Moon orbiting the Earth or some nonsense, she interferes in the affairs of unfulfilled mortals with the aid of her assistant Pipi.  In the first episode, she strives to help a teenage boy win the girl of his dreams and extricate her from a relationship with a murderous female doctor - I was dreading the sort of gay panic that's the punchline to way too much nineties anime, but Rei Rei goes in a much different and vastly more entertaining direction.  Part two, in which another nerdy boy is failing to seal the deal with his longterm girlfriend, is equally silly and weird: as with the first one, the premise goes into far odder places than you might expect.  (Put it this way, that's where the tentacles show up.)  Kaguya is a rather wonderful protagonist, clearly interfering in mortal affairs for the fun of it despite her philosophical ramblings about lunar physics and moral responsibility.  Another review I came across refers to her as a less inhibited Urd from Oh! My Goddess, and that's pretty much spot on.  I could cheerfully have watched more of her adventures, I've no regrets about the three pounds I splashed out on them, and if you should happen to see the DVD for approximately the same price, you could certainly do worse.

Kite, 1998, dir: Yasuomi Umetsu

I wasn't expecting to enjoy Kite, a title I'd purposefully skipped over in the past and then forgotten existed and finally decided to check out from the spirit of completeness that's dragging these posts ever closer to the half century mark.  In so much as it's remembered today, it's as the title that featured gross sex scenes with an underage girl (and in the least cut and largely banned version, also an extremely underage girl) or else as the title that was heavily censored for its initial US release.  Dig deeper and the waters get muddier, in that there are those who claim Umetsu was leaned on to include the explicit sex scenes to get funding, meaning that the five minute shorter version is actually more faithful to his original vision.  But even with them excised, there are plenty who'll find Umetsu's tale of a teenage girl forced to mete out vigilante justice by a crooked, pedophile cop and his even viler partner less than savoury.

Those people are quite right: Kite's a nasty piece of work.  Its subject matter is gravely unpleasant, it has no likable characters, or even characters who aren't one shade or another of monster, and that some of them are very evidently man-made monsters makes the whole work that bit more depressing, as does a general mood of cynicism and cruelty that carries through all the way until the bitter end.  Add in some staggeringly gory action scenes, which get much bloody mileage from the notion of time-delayed explosive bullets, and what little sexual content that remains - quite enough, by the way, to convey the necessary narrative points - and the result is forty-five minutes of difficult watching.

I'm tempted to go down the shallowest route and say that what saves Kite, or at least shifts it from being vile misery-porn to legitimate entertainment, is Umetsu's extraordinary sense of style, coupled with smooth, detailed animation that's as near as damn it to feature film quality as you're likely to see in an OVA, not to mention a jazzy score that sounds like it's wandered in from a Jean-Pierre Melville flick.  And there's some truth to that, if you the right sort of viewer: Umetsu's undeniable talents make a piece that could be merely nasty into one that balances its thrills and more low-key elements expertly.  Beyond a generally high level of ingeniousness - the central set piece is a minor masterpiece of action choreography - Umetsu gets excellent mileage from protagonist Sawa's vulnerability, pitting her against men who physically dwarf her and so rely on their size and weight, unable to see her as other than a victim.  Schoolgirl assassins are ten a penny in anime, of course, but Kite is up there with the excellent Gunslinger Girl for capitalizing on that asymmetry and using it to actually say something meaningful.

Indeed, what elevates those action sequences saves the rest of the material too: we're not allowed to forget at any point that Sawa remains a child, both physically and mentally.  As much as she has an adult's world-weary cynicism and as much as she's forced frequently into adult situations of one shade or another, we're allowed glimpses of another aspect: not innocence so much as incompleteness, as though her experiences have left hollows that won't ever be filled.  It's a grim notion, as most of Kite is grim, but it at least avoids the sin that would have made the material unwatchable, which is treating abuse lightly or naively.  At its core, it's a study of that Stockholm Syndrome-esque phenomenon that turns victims into the sort of not-quite-victims that are awfully hard to fit on any kind of straightforward moral spectrum.  With that in mind, it's safe to say that Kite is absolutely not for everyone, even in its cut version.  But those stunning action scenes, the terrific animation, and a degree of complexity that elevates it from being mere exploitation are enough to make me hesitantly recommend it.  At any rate, it's certainly one that's going to stay with me.


Perhaps the most disturbing thing here is that not only did I decide to put together a sexploitation special, I gave nearly everything a glowing review, even Rei Rei, which I think it's safe to assume no-one has ever given a glowing review to before now.  Worse yet, my major complaint about the second volume of Agent Aika was that it wasn't as good as the first volume of Agent Aika, one of the most notoriously disreputable bits of nineties anime there ever has been.

Obviously this blog series is in need of major course correction, I probably could do with a quiet lie down in a darkened room, and I'll have to come up with something appropriately serious and clean-minded for next time.  Maybe that Gundam special I'm working on.  There's no sex in Gundam, right?  Giant robot sex totally doesn't count.

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

* It really, really was.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Short Story News November 2018

I was grumbling back in June about what a dreadful year this was turning out to be for short fiction sales, and as I was planning this post I was concerned the point would be that things really haven't picked up at all.  But what do you know?  Thankfully a last-minute twist has pushed the back end of 2018 from okay to actually pretty good!

And to be honest, even without that, a handful of really brilliant events had already gone a long way toward turning the year around.  If there was nothing else, I'd still be thrilled to have The Only Way Out Lies Farther In in top horror 'zine The Dark, a market I never thought I'd crack until I suddenly somehow did.  This one's a deeply personal story in which nothing is based directly on my life - which is to say that I poured a lot of me in there and every last drop got squeezed out of its original shape, leaving a tale that's at the same time almost entirely autobiographical and totally fictitious.  As such, it's personally one of the most frightening things I've written, which makes it tricky to guess what effect it's likely to have on others.  Fortunately, the one review I've seen suggests that it's quite capable of getting under somebody else's skin as well.

And speaking of recent horror fiction I feel really good about, Casualty of Peace, a ghost story that's actually more a meditation on the psychological traumas of the home front experience in the world wars - fun, right! - has been out for a second time in another of Flame Tree Publishing's utterly gorgeous anthologies, this one titled Lost Souls, which couldn't be more appropriate for that particular tale.  It also came to the notice of Best Horror of the Year anthologist Ellen Datlow, getting me another honourable mention, which was pretty cool in an "Ever the bridesmaid" sort of way.  At any rate, it's brilliant that a lot more people will be reading a piece I'm seriously proud of.

And here I am, still not having mentioned the absolutely best thing, or at any rate the one that's likely to stay with me when I'm old and grey and trying to make some sense of what this whole writing lark was about.  I've been a huge fan of Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series ever since I picked up the first volume, thinking I was doing him a favour for kindly blurbing Giant Thief, and got helplessly hooked to the intricate, outlandish, original world he'd built.  So when Adrian asked if I wanted to play around there, the answer was self-evident.  And funnily enough, the tale I wanted to tell was too: there was a question that had been bugging me - er, pun genuinely not intended! - for a fair old while, and a character whose back story I was desperate to know, and I got to put the two together and craft a tiny chunk of actual Apt lore.  Seriously, there's a minor character in that series that now has a history created entirely by me, and that's about the single awesomest thing that's happened since I began this madness over a decade ago.  If you want to know who and what, or even if you don't, I highly recommend you grab a copy of the fourth and final Tales of the Apt short fiction anthology from NewCon Press, because it also contains sterling work from authors such as Pete Newman, Frances Hardinge, Justina Robson and - writing the best piece in the book, for my money - Keris McDonald.  That story, and the collection itself, are called The Scent of Tears, and you can find it here.

After that, anything's going to seem a bit anticlimactic, but I do have a handful of new sales to report.  Even better, two of them are for new fiction, a prospect that was starting to seem increasingly remote for a while.  They're both older pieces that I've faithfully been trying to home for many a year now, too, which makes it all the more satisfying.  Cat and Mouse, a sci-fi parable based on my experiences in London - though, weirdly, written before I ever actually went to London - will be appearing in the Bubble Off Plumb anthology from Feral Cat Publishers at some not too distant point in the future.  And Glamorous Corpses, a thoroughly mean-spirited bit of cyberpunk that I wrote at work, in a job I despised, about eight years ago, is already out in new UK magazine Write Ahead / The Future Looms.  Then there's the most recent one, which since it happened this week I probably oughtn't to talk about, but I guess I can safely say that it's a pro sale to one of my absolutely favourite markets.

Oh, I nearly forgot!  I accidentally discovered that the The Living Dead anthology - containing my story Stockholm Syndrome - is available in a whole multitude of languages ... I think it's at least Spanish, Korean, and Russian, which is a fairly random selection, all told!  Editor John Joseph Adams was kind enough to chuck me over a copy of the Spanish edition, which looks great and does a commendable job of mistranslating both the city where I got my degree and my actual name.  Which makes me kind of want to learn Spanish to find out what other wacky misunderstandings are in there!  Anyway, that means I've now had work out in a total of at least five languages that aren't English, and isn't that a nice note to end on?

Friday, 23 November 2018

Bad Neighbour News

I've been a bit rubbish at talking about The Bad Neighbour here since it came out, mostly due to unfortunate timing: it was released as I was hammering to get the final draft of the third Black River Chronicles book done, and then I was on holiday, and honestly, it's all been a bit horrifically busy and chaotic for the last couple of months.  Yes, even the holiday.  There were wasps.  I'm not kidding.

With all of that, I haven't kept track of every review, though thankfully I've seen enough to know that they've been mostly positive so far.  However, a couple of real standouts stuck with me enough that I managed to make a note of them.  My favourite, the one I've been quoting all over the place, comes from Linda Wilson at Crime Review, who says that "The Bad Neighbour was all too real and all too depressing and certainly deserves the appellation northern noir.  It is also a well-written and cleverly imagined crime thriller with a knife-sharp edge."  Meanwhile, in the only local paper to have thus far picked up on the Yorkshire connections, Sally Clifford at Bradford's Telegraph and Argus says, among other nice things: "Exciting, gritty, and dramatic, this book has it all."

Obviously, that doesn't tell you a great deal about what The Bad Neighbour's actually about - though the Telegraph and Argus review does go into quite a bit of plot detail if that appeals.  However, I've been all over the place talking about the whys and wherefores of the story, so if you want to get a feel for it without risking plot spoilers then there's plenty out there.  A couple of pieces that I've mentioned already, because they were in my blog tour, are the interview I did with Lucy Hay and an article I put together for Random Things Through My Letterbox where I discuss eight books that have had a huge influence on me and my writing.  But since then I've also taken part in a Q&A with Anne Bonny over on her website and, perhaps the ideal starting place if you're wondering if the book's for you, written a piece introducing my protagonist (though, as I insist on pointing out, definitely not hero!) Ollie Clay.

Last but self-evidently not least, I've done my first proper interview in a while, with Paul Stretton-Stephens of the Crime Fiction Lounge podcast.  This one was a real pleasure, partly because Paul's a thoroughly nice bloke and partly because it was a joy to actually, really talk a bit about The Bad Neighbour rather than just writing about it in one form or another.  And also to get diverted onto totally unrelated topics that I'm nearly as enthusiastic about, like the impossible task of trying to pin down my favourite movie and my struggles to learn Japanese.

And that's it for the moment, I think, though there's more on the way.  And if any of that made you want to grab a copy of The Bad Neighbour - you do, right? - then it's in all of the usual book-selling places, in a dizzying choice of paperback, hardback, e-book, and audio formats.  Personally I'd go for the hardback, because it's lovely.  I mean, as lovely as a grim and gritty Northern crime thriller with a "knife-sharp edge" can be, anyway!

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 42

So you know that thing where you've spent eight hours working on a blog post and then using the keyboard shortcut to undo a change somehow deletes it, at which point Blogger autosaves and makes damn certain you won't be getting any of those hours of work back.  No?  Then you're lucky, or at least not stupid enough to draft in Blogger.  Point being, if you get a certain sense of deja vu from this post then it's because you're me and you've already written it once.  And if you do and you're not me then you're probably in the matrix or something.  Make the most of it, I'd say!  And take whichever pill it was that let's you keep on keeping on, because the real world is mostly just dodgy CGI and crap raves.

Wait, what were we talking about?  Oh right, nineties anime!  Here then, for a second time, let's take a look at: Photon: The Idiot Adventures, Domain of Murder, Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture, and Agent Aika: Naked Missions...

Photon: The Idiot Adventures, 1997, dir: Kôji Masunari

For its first two episodes, Photon is awfully close to being the best version of the sort of thing it is that you could reasonably hope for.  That thing being science-fiction comedy, in which the science-fiction is genuinely ideas-laden and the comedy is genuinely amusing, and most importantly, in which neither sabotages the other.  We're rapidly introduced to quite a barrage of characters: on the desolate Sandy Planet, we have the eponymous Photon, who's both fantastically strong and dumb as bricks, and whom we first meet trying to track down his adopted sister Aun, who's also wildly stupid and currently preoccupied with stalking the latest in what we're led to suppose is a long series of random crushes.  Meanwhile, out in space, a clash between rebel pilot Keyne and the preposterously villainous Sir Papacharino Nanadan causes her ship to crash-land on a world familiar to us if not to her - and we learn enough to suspect that this is all part of a much larger piece of cosmic-level chicanery, as is Papacharino's prospective marriage to the innocent Lashara, daughter of the Galactic Emperor.

That about gets us to the end of the second episode, in a flurry of dumb jokes and cool sci-fi spectacle and adroit action sequences and intriguing world-building.  It's marvelous stuff, really, balancing tones to perfection and wrapping it all in a unique aesthetic and some often fine animation.  By the last minutes, however, Photon's big problem is present in embryonic form, as a series of misunderstandings finds Photon and Keyne married, much to Aun's displeasure; it turns out she's been harboring a crush on the dumb lunk.  And the result is a couple of episodes that lean way too heavily into comedy, and at their lowest points into the worst sorts of comedy anime has to offer.  Episode three's cooking contest between Keyne and Aun, mixed with increasingly absurd attacks from Papacharino, are actually pretty fun, though they do neither of our female protagonists many favours.  But four nosedives into my least favourite of anime scenarios, and not even three episodes of good work can save that crushing nadir of wit that is the hot springs episode.  Probably Photon's is no worse than any other, but it feels like such a dip in quality that it's that bit more painful.

Fortunately the show picks up from there, if never quite to the high level of the opening.  And I confess that on a second viewing the flaws were less galling: that rough patch isn't the catastrophe I took it for.  I remember struggling with the conclusion's switches of tone, too - it gets hellaciously dark in places - but then some of the biggest laughs come from the sheer shock of humour after something particularly bleak has occurred.  The only criticism I really stand by is that Keyne and Aun are disappointingly mistreated as characters.  They're both tough and capable when we meet them, so to see them become damsels to be saved by Photon is a colossal waste.  And the fact that the two are fawning over someone who's effectively a child, and so dim he can't tell real people and inflatable people apart, is disappointing too.  In fact, some of his scenes with the noticeably older Keyne are awfully creepy - though you do wonder if that might have been deliberate.  In a show that features quite astonishing amounts of nudity, both male and female, and much cringe-worthy violence played for laughs, you start to suspect that making the audience uncomfortable was just one more joke.

At any rate, a second viewing left me deciding that I like Photon: The Idiot Adventures a heck of a lot.  Even at its worst, its characters, humour, and imagination keep it on the rails, and at its best those qualities truly shine.  It's easy to imagine a version of Photon that would be among my absolute highlights of nineties anime - heck, you could hack it together from the existing footage, snipping that hot springs crap would do most of the job - but even the one we have is mostly wonderful.  Add to all that the fact that, thanks to Discotek, you can actually find the thing for sane money, and it becomes awfully close to essential.

Domain of Murder, 1992, dir's: Hiroshi Morioka, Iku Suzuki

Say what you like about U.S. Manga Corps, and I certainly have on numerous occasions, but I'll never cease to give them credit for the variety of their releases and the efforts they went to - deliberately or not! - to break down some of the stereotypes in the West around what anime was.  So here, for example, we have a roughly fifty minute episode adapting the ongoing crime Manga Hello Hedgehog, released under the infinitely less awesome title of this particular episode, Domain of Murder.  I'd call it a detective whodunit, but in fact we find out who did it within the first five minutes.  No, the question confronting private investigator Goro (nicknamed Hedgehog, y'see) is more one of whydunit, as a distraught woman recognises the husband who vanished from her life three years ago, after the death of their daughter, on a wanted poster for the murders of a yakuza and a bar hostess.

Actually, thinking about it, even the why of the matter gets resolved in relatively short time, leaving a thorny tangle of moral questions and escalating tragedies, all of which culminate in a well-handled showdown at an amusement park.  Domain of Murder is a cracking little thriller with surprising depth and some serious backbone, told with urgency and economy and still finding the time to keep a handle on its characters.  Hedgehog himself is a refreshing different protagonist for this sort of material, a nice guy who's that bit more tough and perceptive than he lets on.  He feels thoroughly grounded in reality, and that extends right through the material.  The animation, which I remember being critical of the first time through, is certainly stilted in places, but does a persuasive job of capturing the reality of its cast and locations, thanks especially to its detailed backgrounds, of which there are an unusual number.  In short, the budget obviously was far from huge, but it's put to use the right way, in making its drama feel real and plausible.

The result, ultimately, is nothing terribly special in a certain sense; it reminds me of the sort of feature length versions you'd get with shows like Columbo, though with the added benefit that the medium of animation means that, at a couple of crucial points like the big amusement park climax, we get scenes that would have been prohibitively expensive on a TV movie budget.  But there's another sense in which Domain of Murder is a genuine treat: a fine little thriller, told at the ideal length for its material.  It's easy to imagine this plot dragged out to an hour and a half, yet as a short OVA it's precisely right, and I actually found myself appreciating that even more on a second viewing.  Another one for the "If you stumble upon it cheap" pile then, I suppose, yet I'm thoroughly glad I got to see it and I suspect it will stay with me more than a few releases I've been more openly enthusiastic about.

Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture, 1994, dir: Masami Ôbari

Let's start with some positives.  Masami Ôbari isn't a director with what anyone could consider a stellar reputation, but Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture seems to be regarded as among his less bad efforts, and that's a fair assessment.  His work here is definitely on the right side of competent, and it helps that he has a bit of a budget to muck about with; not a feature film budget by any meaningful definition, but enough for the odd genuinely impressive sequence, anyway.  And all of this is at the service of a narrative that - shock, horror! - manages to buck the interminable fighting game adaptation trend and tell something approaching an actual story.  There are no island martial arts tournaments to be seen anywhere in Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture, and that's the sort of achievement that shouldn't be taken lightly.

Um, I'm running out of positives.  The thing is, once you get past the giddy excitement of a story that doesn't just rip off Enter the Dragon and consider its job done, you start to realise that it's only because writers Yuji Matsumoto and Takashi Yamada have gone to a different well, full of equally stale water.  And weirdly, it's precisely as video-gamey: a competitive fetch-quest for six bits of magic armour isn't exactly revolutionary, now is it?  Do you think our heroes will manage to stop the villainous Laocorn from collecting them all and so turning into his ultimate super boss mode?  Do you?  Well, they won't, and if you consider that a spoiler then you really don't play video games.  The result is a plot with little to do but spin its wheels for the better part of ninety minutes, bouncing from scene to scene and chucking in the odd scrap and trying hard to develop characters that would need at least half a note more before they could fairly be described as one note.

And, look, Ôbari might have been a competent enough director on his better days, but he was still the worst character designer ever to have lived.  All of the cast look like aliens.  You can tell the men and women apart because the men have impossibly wide eyes and the women have impossibly wide eyes that are also huge.  Oh, and ginormous breasts.  Did I mention that Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture is really sexist?  I mean, by nineties anime standards, that sexist.  Like, the only female fighter is Mai Shiranui, and apparently she learned to be a ninja by correspondence course, because her sole notable ninja ability is to be saved by men.  In fact, in the edition I bought, she's literally being saved by a man on the cover of the box.  At one point she starts doing a sexy dance in a nightclub for no discernible reason.  Her character arc is that she throws herself at one of the male protagonists for ninety minutes, without success.  Her clothes fall off roughly every thirteen minutes.  I know, I timed it.  Because that's how bored I was.

There are people who consider Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture to be the best of these nineties anime fighting game adaptation things.  Those people obviously haven't seen the legitimately excellent Night Warriors: Darkstalkers Revenge and therefore should keep their foolish opinions to themselves.  Heck, I don't know that it's even Ôbari's best stab; personally I had a lot more fun with Battle Arena Toshinden, which for all its flaws was at least enlivened by a spot of genuinely interesting animation.  I wasn't exactly positive about this one the first time through, but on a rewatch it was, frankly, a right old slog.  If you skipped the middle two paragraphs of this review then let's just say that neither "not the worst Masami Ôbari film" nor "not the laziest nineties anime video game adaptation" should be taken as a recommendation.

Agent Aika: Naked Missions, 1997, dir: Katsuhiko Nishijima

I'm tempted to suggest that Agent Aika does itself no favours, but I suspect that its creators knew exactly what they were up to and that the end result is more or less precisely what they had in mind.  Which is to say that, as much as any rational adult will find its levels of cheap titillation silly and distracting, they're nevertheless the sole reason the thing exists.  And ludicrous as it seems that the plot has to be arrested every seven seconds for a glimpse of panties or down a character's cleavage, there was surely a producer somewhere grumbling about all that plot nonsense getting in the way of his ogling.

And look, lest it appear I'm being prudish, that seven seconds wasn't any sort of exaggeration.  It really is staggering the lengths that Agent Aika puts itself to in service of ensuring that we the viewer be treated to as much underwear and nudity as we can possibly stomach.  This becomes abundantly clear in the first minute, when an expository scene on a tour boat is filmed from some impossible angle that allows us a good view up the announcer's skirt.  Mere seconds later we're being introduced to our two heroines, Aika and Rion, with shots of their crotches and a fakeout wherein we're led to believe that one of them is performing oral sex upon the other, when in fact they're just piloting a submarine in awfully impractical clothing.

Yet like much anime that swears blindly it's just here to let us gawp at under-dressed ladies, Agent Aika insists on distracting itself with some decent storytelling.  For the world that the announcer at the start was introducing us to is an interesting one, wherein much of Japan lies underwater in the wake of a catastrophe and teams of salvagers - Aika and Rion among them - hunt through the ruins for whatever technological wonders can be recovered.  It's not rewriting any rules, but it's a fun concept, and Aika and Rion are fun characters among a fun cast, and really the only thing that isn't fun is the unrelenting faux-sexiness of it all, which is just too damn much.  Even for the presumed target audience, I refuse to accept that there wouldn't come a point when the umpteenth shot of underpants would grow wearisome.

But here we are, three paragraphs in, and I haven't even mentioned that Aika has a bustier that's actually a symbiotic technological life-form, which temporarily strips her so that she can turn into super-Aika and then runs out of steam at the most inopportune moments.  Or that the villain is sleeping with his sister and has a ship that can turn into a space rocket.  Or that the whole thing feels like a James Bond pastiche made by someone whose knowledge of the franchise extended solely to Moonraker.  If that all sounds terribly stupid then it certainly is: Agent Aika isn't good by any possible stretch of the word, and the only thing that could have really edged it in that direction, some properly superlative animation, is nowhere to be found.  Yet it's certainly committed wholeheartedly to being the thing it is.  And I don't know, maybe it's the presence of Project A-Ko helmer Katsuhiko Nishijima at the tiller, but that thing could be a hell of a lot worse if it tried.  Let's put it this way: if something like Agent Aika truly has to exist, I'd rather it be as gleeful and campy and self-indulgent as this is, and as often as it annoyed me, I couldn't bring myself to actually dislike it.


The weird conclusion of this story is that it was kind of nice to have to rewatch four titles I wouldn't necessarily have paid that level of attention to otherwise, and even sort of okay to have to rewrite these reviews.  To the extent that, when I made the same stupid mistake a couple of weeks ago and deleted another basically finished post, I only screamed a little.  The moral?  Nineties anime is great, Blogger is a goddamn travesty, and I've finally got it through my thick skull that I need to back up draft blog posts.

As should be obvious from the reviews, Photon, Domain of Murder, and even Agent Aika really did stand up to being revisited.  And the Fatal Fury movie, which I'd thought was about okay on a first viewing, did not remotely endure for a second.  Then again, out of the four, Photon is probably the only clear-cut recommendation: I liked it the first time but was overly conscious of its flaws, whereas by the end of the second watch I'd concluded that it's actually something of a treasure, albeit a minor one.

Next time, we'll hopefully be back to normal levels of abnormality, since it's going to be a fair old while before I rebuild that second post - which thankfully was mostly made up of stuff I genuinely want to rewatch anyway!  Though one of them was four hours long...

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

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Everything I Have Out On Audible

It struck me recently that I have an awful lot of books available on Audible, and that maybe people don't realise just how many of my books are on there, since I myself didn't, or indeed that almost everything of any length that I've written is out in at least some kind of audio format, (as is a good chunk of my short fiction, but that's probably another post!)  And what got me thinking about this is that my collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, recently released in a rather nice CD pack by studio Circle of Spears, is also now out there in download format.  But more on that in a minute!  Because there's all this other stuff what I wrote too...

The Bad Neighbour
Honestly, I haven't even received a copy of this one - in fairness, I only got round to asking today! - but I have heard a sample of Paul Tyreman's reading and he's certainly a terrific fit.  I do believe he's from Leeds, if the internets aren't misleading me, and if he isn't then he certainly does a damn fine impression of a Yorkshire accent.  Anyway, what else can I say about The Bad Neighbour?  It's my newest book, my first foray into crime-writing, and I'd love for more people to be experiencing it in whatever manner they see fit.  A recent review that described it as Northern Noir pretty much hit the nail on the head, so if that sounds like your sort of thing, or if you just fancy what that same review described as "a well-written and cleverly imagined crime thriller with a knife-sharp edge" then why not give it a go?
Giant Thief, Crown Thief and Prince Thief
I've often joked that my perfect reader for the Damasco books would have been Inigo Montoya actor Mandy Patinkin, and okay, I wasn't really joking, he would be perfect.  But in the absence of Mandy Patinkin, my second choice would have been James Langton, because that's who I got and he absolutely owned it.  Listening to James elevate Easie Damasco's adventures and make them more witty and charming than my writing alone ever could was my first inkling that I was going to be pretty damn lucky with narrators, and so it's consistently proved.
There's basically only one occasion when I get to listen to audiobooks, and that's when I go on holiday somewhere in the UK and have a really long drive to get through.  So it was that poor Patchwerk languished for years waiting for a suitable break, and finally got the attention it deserved this summer, when I went kayaking for a friend's birthday.  Anyway, nobody really needed to know that!  But it explains why I didn't get more excited by this at the time, because it really is an exciting adaptation.  Patchwerk's reality-hopping was a heck of a challenge for any narrator, and Tim Gerard Reynolds goes well beyond the call of duty, adopting a fresh (and reliably convincing!) accent for each section.  Honestly, it's so much fun to listen to, and I can't believe I haven't gone on about it more before now.
The Black River Chronicles: Level One
Another one that I haven't had a listen to, though it's entirely my fault this time; in the absence of a CD version, I'm yet to figure out a way to get through it in the car, with it's lovably old-school technology.  But I really do need to figure something out, in part because Alan Ross is my first (and so far last) American reader and that's sort of exciting in itself, but mostly because - and I'm probably not allowed to announce this, but what the heck, right? - there's an adaptation of The Ursvaal Exchange on the way in the not-too-distant future, and you can only get so far behind on listening to your own series.
The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories
And here we are, back to where we started, with The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories and Tracey Norman and Sam Burns of Circle of Spears Productions doing an absolutely splendid job of bringing my first short story collection to life.  I talked about it a fair bit recently here, and there's not a great deal to add, except perhaps that of all my books I think this is the one that's gained the most from the translation into audio.  And, given that it's coming from a smaller outfit rather than the likes of Angry Robot, Tor or Flame Tree, I guess also the most worthy of support!  So despite appearing at the end of the list, maybe this is the place to start?

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Fantasycon 2018

The British Fantasy Awards
It's much harder to say anything useful about conventions you've enjoyed than ones you spent seething in rage at the dreadful inadequacy and incompetence of everything and anything, which leaves me with little to say indeed.  I had a brilliant time at this year's Fantasycon, as good as any I can remember.  And while you can put a lot of that down to a marvelous hotel with genuinely helpful staff and a reasonably big bar space all contained within a rather nice city with a bunch of good restaurants, that's obviously unfair on the organisers.  I've seen enough conventions to realise that these things don't run themselves, let alone run themselves smoothly, and I've learned to appreciate the extent to which those that appear to do so are precisely the ones receiving the most massaging behind the scenes.*  Also, let's face it, great venues in nice cities don't simply choose themselves.

Befriending the hotel cat
With all of that said, I have a little-known medical condition that means if I don't grumble in a blog post about at least something then I'll burst into flames, so I suppose there's going to have to be a dash of negativity.  The past complaints I've had about panels were all pretty much true here, and if this absolutely has to be the main form of programming at conventions then I strongly believe that a lot more thought should be going into it.  We had a great time on the Griminal Criminals panel, for example, my panelists did sterling work and it seemed like the audience were enjoying themselves, but I still don't really have the faintest notion of what it was meant to be about.  Elsewhere, I heard complaints about the Women in Genre Fiction panel - along the lines of, "a Women in Genre Fiction panel in 2018, what the holy hell?"- and agreed that was certainly one of the more cringe-worthy examples.  But there were a lot of topics that were either done to death or hopelessly vague or ghettoising or just not very interesting, and not many at all that were genuinely new or fresh.

Also, frankly, I'm coming to think that the issues run a little deeper than a lack of inspiration.  I don't altogether get the widespread refusal to acknowledge that conventions, and therefore panel debates, are a form of entertainment that people are paying good money for.  For me, appearing on panels, and especially moderating them, has always felt like an exciting privilege and a responsibility rather than any sort of a right.  But others appear to view things differently, and I'm coming to wonder why they're allowed, year after year, to get away with it.  Naming no names because I can't be bothered to get into a public row, but the person on one of my panels who refused to use the microphone even after a member of the audience pointed out that they couldn't hear, and indeed make a point of leaning back as far as they could and mumbling into their shirt collar, does not in my opinion deserve to be invited back for more.

But it feels meaner than ever to moan at a Fantasycon for getting the things wrong that damn near every Fantasycon, and the bulk of conventions, tend to get wrong, and especially so when so much went very right indeed.  More than that, it was more evident than ever that the convention has grown in real and meaningful ways in recent years.  What when I first started going was famously cliquey and insular and blatantly a horror convention despite its name is much less of any of those things these days, and there were even odd moments when the bar's shifting currents randomly threw up what felt to me like a genuinely varied mix of human beings.  Funnily enough, those moments were also when all the most interesting conversations happened.  It would be amazing if this was a glimpse of the future and Fantasycon could grow into something truly inclusive and broad and forward-looking - and putting more thought into panels would be, I think, a major step toward that.  In the meantime, what we got this year seemed to me a positive lunge in a number of right directions.

Lastly, I won't try and remember everyone I spoke to because a week's gone by and my memory sucks at the best of times, but huge thanks to everyone who kept me amused, even when that meant staying up long after the bar had kicked us out.  And thanks too to everyone who was part of the events I was in on, with an extra special mention to David Thomas Moore for whatever the heck that Dungeons & Dragons thing was.  After that and last year's one-minute flash insanity, the bar is set awfully high for whatever terrifying weirdness I manage to talk myself into in 2019...

* Although the lack of programmes, lanyards, and goodie bags on the first day was, it has to be said, something that could have done with a bit more massaging!

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

My Fantasycon 2018 Schedule

Is it really Fantasycon time already?  I guess it must be, since I keep getting e-mails about panels and stuff I'm supposed to be attending.  Here's everywhere I'll be that's not the bar:

Dungeons & Disorderly Module B2: The Sheep on the Borderlands - Friday 9pm (Panel Room 1)
Dave Moore (Moderator), Nate Crowley (Moderator), Eliza Chan, Anna Smith Spark, Helen Armfield, Phil Lunt, David Tallerman, Ed Fortune
Dungeons and Disorderly is back! Join another troupe of hapless adventurers in a rambling, incoherent mess of a pseudo-roleplaying game. The Terrifying Sorcerer of Terrifying Evil is finally slain, but our heroes have no time to rest on their laurels! At the edges of the Empire, in the wilderness beyond civilisation, hushed rumours speak of a new threat: a sheep of vast size and power, consuming all in its path…
[I don't entirely know what this is.  I think I volunteered for it while drunk.  Or possibly while sober, which come to think of it is when I make most of my worst decisions.  After last year's misadventures at the hands of Lee Harris, it would seem that my new Fantasycon tradition is to publicly humiliate myself in the company of Anna Smith Spark.]
Saturday Noon - Fantasy Readings (3)
 David Tallerman, R J Barker, Joel Cornah
[At which I guess I'll be reading from the soon-to-be-released third Black River book, since I can't very well pass The Bad Neighbour off as fantasy.
Or ... can I?
No, I can't.]
- Saturday 5 PM - NewCon Press Book Launch
Ian Whates and Co 
Best British Horror 2018 - Various
The Scent of Tears - Adrian Tchaikovsky & Friends
Assassins' Endgame - Ian Watson & Andy West
Novella Set 4 or The Land of Somewhere Safe - Hal Duncan
[I'm one of the "& Friends", with my Shadows of the Apt short story The Promise of a Threat, which I'll no doubt be talking about more here sometime soon, because, hey, I wrote a story set in my favourite fantasy universe and now it's canon!]
Saturday 9pm (Panel Room 1) - Up, Up and Away! Superheroes in Genre Fiction
Eric Ian Steele (Moderator), Allanah Hunt, Ginger Lee Thomason, Mike Chinn, David Tallerman
Once solely the preserve of the comic book stand, superhero fiction now dominates our cinemas, permeates our television screens and commands a sizable computer gaming fan base. With the franchise dominance of the DC and Marvel universes, in these mediums, is there room for new heroes to emerge? Has the superhero novel lagged behind, and if so, why? Our panel explore the place of superheroes in genre fiction and examines the possibilities for new takes, new stories and new ideas in new mediums.
[Well, look, there was a panel that I really wanted to be on to discuss the new Black River book, and then I thought that just in case I got turned down for that, I might as well volunteer for this one, since I have a superhero novel all written and ready to send out, even if no-one but me has actually read it.  Anyway, here we are!]
Sunday 1.30pm (Panel Room 2) - Griminal Criminals!
David Tallerman (Moderator), Tom Johnstone, Kit Power, Rob Boffard
There are villains and villains. Some of the worst self serving ruffians are pretty endearing in their way. These rogues have a strange charm to them. Maybe they can be redeemed, maybe they can’t. Join our panel to discuss the best down and dirty characters who breathe new life into their stories.
[Yeah, I'm moderating this one, which is awkward since I really don't know what the question is.  I mean, that's more of a series of statements, right?  But I'm sure it'll be fine, I've got me some awesome panelists, and in any case, anyone who's anyone will be at the banquet, so we'll probably just end up playing Cards Against Humanity or something.]
 And there we have it!  My Fantasycon 2018 schedule.  Man, I really did want to be on that panel about when magic goes horribly wrong, since that's literally the entire plot of Black River 3.  Maybe I could be that guy who sits on the front row, asking questions that are really just lengthy, rambling statements and annoying the hell out of everyone?  Anyway, I really ought to be prepping Griminal Criminals.  It'll be great, I promise!  Come watch us, eating is overrated and potentially fatal.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 41

I keep swearing off these themed posts, only to get sucked in, as I realise that nineties anime is inimically suited to this approach.  After all, why spend so much time grumbling about how similar certain titles are when I can make the same point by just bunching them together?  And let's face it, if there's one thing we keep stumbling over here, it's those really short releases that look a bit embarrassed when lumped in with proper films and OVAs.

So, unified by the fact that not one of them runs to more than an hour, we have: Queen Emeraldas, Samurai: Hunt For the Sword, Black Lion, and Maze...

Queen Emeraldas, 1998, dir: Yûji Asada

Above all else, the word I'd pick to describe Queen Emeraldas is romantic.  And not in the lovey-dovey sense, though I suppose it is that a bit, but in the sense of dashing adventures full of sword fights and chivalry, along with lashings of outrageous idealism and preposterous bravery.  All of this, as I understand it, is very much in keeping with the works of Leiji Matsumoto, a creator I've only encountered with his science-fiction hat on once up until now, via the - rather disappointing, it has to be said! - classic Galaxy Express 999.

But Queen Emeraldas didn't disappoint one bit, despite being heavily set up by distributor ADV to do so.  I've been frustrated at many an OVA that was never allowed to finish, but this is that bit worse, in that there are a concluding two parts that the company decided not to pick up, meaning that what they sold as Queen Emeraldas is but half of the real thing.  In any other corner of the industry that would probably have been regarded as somewhat criminal, and it should be agonisingly frustrating, so it's a good job that the two parts we did get wrap up in such satisfying fashion.  Other than the clear implication that our heroes will go on to further adventures, there really are no obvious threads left hanging - and thank goodness for that.

None of which explains what exactly Queen Emeraldas is, so let's backtrack to that opening paragraph: what we have here is space opera of a particular lavish, rather silly, and, yes, romantic sort, in which women with hair down to their ankles fly around in giant blimps with sailing ships hanging from their undersides and angry young men hitchhike on gigantic galactic vessels in search of adventure.  And those two - Emeraldas herself (the Queen Emeraldas is her wildly impractical ship) and young Hiroshi, whose fate becomes entwined with hers - happen to be our protagonists.  Hiroshi is fine, as young male leads with massive chips on their shoulders go; he has lessons to learn about not being a jerk to everyone around him, but he learns them fast enough to not be too annoying.  Emeraldas, however, who drifts in and out of his plot, usually to do something outstandingly cool, is a delight in every second she spends on-screen: a creation of utter style, from her design to her ridiculous laser cutlass to her Bond-esque theme tune, which adorably points out that "My name comes from a green jewel / But the path I travel is red / The red of burning blood."

All of this is presented with some terrific animation, in which unusually heavy line weights give one of the more convincing impressions of Manga in motion that I've come across, ginned up with some intelligently used (and, in fairness, occasionally terrible) CG.  Director Asada has a whopping sense of style that seems to have been exploited nowhere else in his career; he managed to land on precisely the right tone for this material, and to keep it from straying into the silliness that always hovers around the edges.  I mean, blimps in space!  Honestly, it is silly - of course it is! - but it's also delightful and thrilling and satisfying.  And while it's a heck of a shame ADV decided to screw international audiences over the way they did, we can still be glad for the two episodes we have.

Samurai: Hunt For the Sword, 1999, dir: Masahiro Sekino

The question I keep coming back to with Samurai: Hunt For the Sword is, what is it?  I mean, I know what it is: a two episode OVA in which, at some point in history that I didn't bother to make precise note of, young hero Shinjuro finds himself both stuck with running his dad's sword-fighting school and embroiled in some murky business surrounding the quest to steal a magical sword and so ultimately topple the shogunate.  More than that, it's easy to identify the elements on display here: likable teen protagonists, some bubbly comedy that largely revolves around the relative sizes of breasts, a couple of surprisingly deft action sequences that are at least in the ballpark of what actual sword fights of the time might have been like, and a bright, appealing art style that's weathered surprisingly well.

So really, when there's nothing at all shocking or puzzling or significantly out of place here, I guess that it's more the why of Samurai: Hunt For the Sword that's throwing me.  Why this story, told in less than an hour?  Why, given that limitation, go to so much effort to introduce so large a cast, devoting meaningful time to characters that serve no function whatsoever when, midway through the second episode, the conflict that's been bubbling along in the background finally shifts to centre stage?  Why end in a manner that wraps absolutely everything up and yet feels more like the beginning of some other story?  I mean, what actually was the goal here?

Ultimately, I suppose that what I'm asking for is the bigger picture, which the internet - strangely silent on an inconsequential anime OVA from nearly two decades ago - fails to provide.  I suspect a clue might lie in the show's alternate title of Kaitouranma, but...

Well, this is awkward.  Two and a bit paragraphs into this review and I've answered my own question!  It's not Kaitouranma, it's Kaitou Ranma, as in Kaitou Ranma Miyabi, a game for the original PlayStation long forgotten to history.  And really, that does solve the whole damn puzzle: the sense of a prologue that's also an intact story, the obsession with introducing characters that serve no discernible purpose, the striking but unmemorable designs, the way that most of the female characters talk about nothing but their breasts.  Wait, perhaps not that last one.

Anyway, I'm glad we got that figured out!  Unfortunately, it still leaves Samurai: Hunt For the Sword as nothing more than a mildly pleasing diversion that manages to be a teeny bit boring despite its brief running time.  Oh well.  I imagine the game was quite fun.

Black Lion, 1992, dir: Takashi Watanabe

Poor Oda Nobunaga!  It's one thing to get constant flack for being evil and having a sinister mustache, but you'd at least expect to be acknowledged for being a bit of a talented military strategist, what with that whole "unifying Japan" business.  But no, not if anime is to be believed; cleverness had not a thing to do with it.  Clearly Nobunaga just had an unfair advantage, whether it be demon hordes or magical powers or, in the case of the short OVA Black Lion, hugely advanced technology stolen from the future.

Now, while I feel like Nobunaga probably deserves more credit than he tends to get, I admit that I'm down with that notion.  And there's something fairly compelling about the opening scenes, in which a bunch of ninja find themselves ludicrously outclassed by minigun-toting samurai, among other high-tech horrors.  It's a preposterous setup, but it's fun - and woe on Black Lion for squandering that fun as badly as it does.  All the really interesting material gets bundled away in the first third, presumably to be developed in further episodes that would never come to pass, and for the most part what we get is a remake of The Terminator in 16th century Japan, as all the ninjas who aren't dead go up against Nobunaga's seemingly immortal ninja-killer Ginnai Doma.

And still I'd not complain about forty-five minutes of historical ninja versus cyborg action, except that it just isn't terribly good.  The animation is resolutely half-arsed, the protagonist is a brat, the direction is lifeless, and the story amounts to scene after scene of "ninjas think they've killed Ginnai Doma and then realise to their cost that they haven't."  There's some truly unpleasant gore, but the lazy art can't sell it, so that all it evokes is the odd "Ew!"  And that's a shame, because a touch of genuine horror would do much to lift the material.  I'm reminded here of the similar Ninja Resurrection, which, while far from great, at least managed to mine some impact from comparable material.

The result is frustrating more than it's anything else.  There's a far better version of this, so close that at times you feel like you could reach out and grab it, and that Watanabe so reliably dodges it is disappointing; while far from a top tier director, he was provably capable of better work.*  Black Lion isn't terrible, and I certainly wasn't bored by it, because you can only go so badly wrong with a premise like this one.  Ginnai Doma is a solid baddie, the action scenes are interesting on paper, even if they could have been done a good deal better than they are, and it's not like it looks terrible or anything.  But honestly, how you make something so resolutely mediocre from that concept is beyond me!  Shame on you, Black Lion, not to mention a definite thumbs down.

Maze, 1996, dir: Iku Suzuki

If you're going to steal, steal from the best.  And if that fails then steal from everyone, because you're bound to get something good, right?  Or so the creators of Maze appear to have decided: if ever a show was a compendium of just about every property that was being remotely successful in its vicinity, it's this one.  If you've wondered what Slayers would have been like with the gender-swapping of Ranma 1/2 and the lecherous protagonist of Urusei Yatsura (but also the tough but sweet-natured female protagonist of oh so many other shows) and also some mecha action and a fair bit of bloodshed because why not? then here's your answer.

If Maze pushes any boundary at all, it's in the level of raunchiness - which, okay, mostly just means lots of bare breasts, but there's a generally high level of gags that are in some way to do with sex, too.  Which I suppose isn't surprising when your female lead transforms into a perverted male character by night, though curiously this is something the show bothers with nary at all.  And thank goodness for that, because the gender-swapping thing really isn't funny, but the rest of Maze is.  Whether it's being crude or silly or merely surreal, there are some really good gags tucked away.  So it's a shame that the show is so bent on self-sabotage: the requirement to see every female character topless at least once grinds the action to a halt, and the couple of occasions when we meet male Maze are plain painful.  Actually, Maze-the-character's entire plot is pretty unsatisfactory, and it's what goes on elsewhere that provides all the laughs and drama.  The creators make the wise call to start heavily in media res, dumping back story via an adorable intro (complete with puppet show) narrated by the show's other main character, Princess Mill, and so we get a nice, self-contained dungeon crawl of a tale with a big old boss fight at the end, which is just right for a couple of OVA episodes.

The thing is, Maze gets a lot wrong, but when it's not doing, it's a heck of a lot of fun.  A couple of gags are genuinely brilliant, and even when it's not operating at that level - excepting male Maze, anyway - it's entirely daft and pleasurable.  It's the sort of thing I could happily have watched a lot more of, and I was grateful that Central Park Media chucked in the first episode of the series (though having it before the OVA set midway through the story would have made a damn sight more sense.)  I guess that makes for another vague recommendation, of the "If you like this sort of thing and you happen to see it cheap" variety?  Unless you have a scholarly interest towards the subject of where anime was at in the latter half of the nineties, that is, in which case its achievement of maximum possible derivativeness makes it pretty much indispensable.


I guess the fact that it's woefully hard to justify recommending these obscure, super-short releases means that the fact that I seriously do recommend hunting for Queen Emeraldas mean a little bit more than it otherwise might?  It's certainly turned me on to Leiji Matsumoto in a way that Galaxy Express 9999 didn't manage to do.  As for the rest, I think it's safe to say that Maze is the only title that might cling onto a spot in my DVD collection; looking back, Black Lion and Samurai: Hunt For the Sword weren't much cop at all, and I sincerely apologize if I gave the impression otherwise.  I mean, I don't think I did, but I can't be bothered to go back and check.

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

* Even if that better work was only Battle Skipper.