Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Hark to the Sign in the Moonlight

Implausible as it might seem, I can be a bit sneaky on occasions!  Like when it comes to news; I've been sitting on this particular piece for over a year now, even though it was a subject I was craving to discuss.  But I can also be sly when it comes to getting my books out in cool formats.  Today's case in point occurred somewhere around last Christmas, when, due to a contract mix-up, it turned out that my story The Shark in the Heart had been included in an audiobook adaptation of the Sharkpunk anthology though I'd omitted to sign over the relevant rights.  Editor Jonathan Green was immensely nice about the confusion (as he tends to be nice about everything, unless you're unlucky enough to find yourself up against him in a live version of Just a Minute at a convention, in which case he's a git) and offered to have my story removed.  But I'd already heard the recording of The Shark in the Heart by then, and it was a terrific take on the story, so that was the last thing I wanted to happen.  Instead, spying an opportunity, I asked if he would mind making introductions to the team who'd produced the audiobook version, studio Circle of Spears?

My goal, of course, was to talk them into producing an audiobook of my own short story collection The Sign in the Moonlight, which had been a cherished dream basically from the moment I started putting the anthology together.  And fortunately they didn't need a lot of persuading; in fact, they were flat-out enthusiastic.  The results, somewhat over a year later, are everything I could have hoped for, and something I suspect only a smaller, independent production house could have concocted.  For a start, Sam Burns and Tracey Norman split the male and female narrators up between them, which is a brilliant touch; but more than that, their deep roots in drama mean that these are more than mere narrations.  They've gone the extra mile to build on the characters I wrote, and to capture the period atmosphere that's crucial to so much of the collection.  Stories such as The Burning Room and The War of the Rats really do have the air of historical diary accounts read aloud; The Desert Cold really does have the sinister overtones of a criminal's confession; let your mind drift a little and it really is possible to believe that the teller of The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper's Karma is recounting from the distant past.  Sam and Tracey have found the bloody hearts of these stories and ripped them out for anyone to hear, and the result is something as special, in its own way, as the beautifully illustrated original or its lavish hardback cousin.

Anyway, no need to take my word for what a fine job Circle of Spears have done!  You can grab a digital copy here, or a physical copy here.  And full details of the collection, including the story listing, can be found on my website here.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 34

I swear, I'm not going to continue theming these posts, if only because no-one actually reads them and they exist purely to give me an excuse to waste my money on ridiculous nineties anime!  I mean, given that scenario, taking the time to come up with actual themes feels like a step too far.

Nevertheless, the last post had one, and purely by accident, so does this.  For your delectation, then, I offer - er, OVAs of an hour or less in length, for lack of a snappier title.  I'd built up quite a stockpile of these, solely for the reasons that a) they exist and b) it's sometimes convenient to have a film at hand that runs to less than an hour.  For those situations where you have less than an hour and you want to watch a film, you see!

Though, since at least two of the releases here are unfinished and another was most probably a pilot for a show that never got picked up, it's safe to say that I've possibly arrived at the wrong solution.  Not to be deterred, this time around we have: Ninja Cadets, Burn Up!, Wild Cardz and Shinesman...

Ninja Cadets, 1996, dir: Eiji Suganuma

I don't know why I was more bothered by Ninja Cadets not finishing its story than I've been by other, frequently better releases, and yet I was: it really did annoy me to get to the second of its two episodes only to discover that here, yet again, was an incomplete OVA that an American publisher had seen fit to sneak out, hoping no-one would notice.  Perhaps its only that, until the last moments, Ninja Cadets seemed like it feasibly could wrap up, if not its wider narrative of warring clans and mystical powers then at least its simple core tale of a bunch of ninja kids passing their entrance exam.

Because, yes, that title is to be taken literally: teenage trainee ninjas is where we're at.  And I confess, I'm down with the idea of teenage trainee ninjas.  It certainly helps that they're a tolerable bunch, despite some rather unpleasant character designs, and that for all their one-note personality flaws, they're extremely capable when it comes to the actual ninja-ing side of things.  Fortunately this makes for a couple of satisfying and imaginative action sequences, which are the absolutely best thing Ninja Cadets has going for it: they're weird and exciting and over the top, and while they're happening, its numerous failings are pushed into the background.

Other than the character designs - which, apart from one of the villains, really are objectionable - those failings include some fairly so-so animation and a score that manages to be anachronistic, boring, and incredibly typical of anime circa 1996 all at the same time.  The English dub is also pretty horrendous; where the hell did this notion that teenage girls in anime have to sound like they're out of their minds on helium ever come from?  But stick with the subs and what you're left with is mostly fine: modestly appealing when the characters are hanging out having comic japes and rather fun once the fighting starts and it's a bunch of ninja kids battling outlandish villains and freakish monsters.  The box description mentions Ninja Scroll, which on the one hand feels like reaching desperately, but on the other is by far the most obvious point of reference: if there was an intention here beyond "Hey, teen ninjas!" it was definitely to create something in the vein of that classic movie, but for a younger audience.

And really, why not?  If Ninja Cadets had wrapped up its story, instead of choosing to end by highlighting a load of loose plot threads, I'd probably give it a cautious thumbs up, at least of the "If you see it going for pennies then you could do worse" variety.  But somehow, all the good will I'd built up by studiously ignore its weaknesses evaporated the moment I discovered I'd have yet another nineties anime cliffhanger haunting me to my grave.  And if my last words on earth are "But ... what happened to Yume?" then you know that Anime Works are to blame.

Burn Up!, 1991, dir: Yasunori Ide

Few questions are more puzzling than the matter of which eighties and nineties anime shows would develop into franchises where so many others fell by the wayside.  Case in point, and perhaps also the most peculiar example, is 1991's forty-five minute OVA Burn Up!  We've already encountered one of its sequels around this parts, in the shape of the somewhat longer 1996 show Burn-Up W, but there would be yet more, two full series' worth in fact, the last of which would arrive as late as 2004.  And though all three iterations have basically the same core characters and essentially the same setup, within those parameters they vary from each wildly.

How all of this sprang from the slip of a thing that is the original Burn Up! is a mystery for the ages.  Not that it's bad; indeed, the animation is rather fine, as signaled early on by an incredibly convoluted shot of the protagonists' cool futuristic car going around a spiraling motorway ramp that's a clear piece of showing off.  There's an impressive attention to detail all through, and the backgrounds especially stand out, not only because they're beautifully painted but because there are some legitimately interesting choices of shots and locations, which carry much of the weight of conveying a just-slightly-near-future setting.  Add to that character designs I'd have sworn were by Kenichi "Gunsmith Cats" Sonoda, though the internet denies it, and an energetic score by the reliable and frequently amazing Kenji Kawai, and you have some thoroughly respectable production values.

But what's all that in service of?  A show that feels an awful lot like an awful lot of others, that's what.  We have three female police officers, and one of them's kind of angry and won't play by the rules, another one is ditzy and the third - um, likes technical stuff, I think?  And like I said, it's the future, though not so much so that you'd really notice, which perhaps only means that Burn Up! did too good a job in its predictions, now that I think.  Anyway, our heroines set out to crack a human trafficking ring, and lots of shooting and exploding ensues, along with a fair bit of sleaziness and bared flesh, though thankfully not quite so much as the DVD case would like you to imagine.

Burn Up! does all of this very well indeed, it has to be said; for what amounts to forty minutes of actual story, it gets the job done and does so with style.  And perhaps the problem, and indeed the answer to my conundrum, is that back in 1991 this seemed a heck of a lot more original than it does now.  After all, much of what I found Burn Up! so reminiscent of - the aforementioned Gunsmith Cats and its spin-off Riding Bean, and especially the much superior You're Under Arrest! - would come later.  If Burn Up! was ahead of the curve then I guess we should applaud it, even if it would subsequently be bettered by its imitators.  And in fairness, it's a perfectly fine, if brief, bit of anime in its own right.  Since, unlike so much of what I review here, it's actually under license and available pretty cheaply, I guess that means a hesitant recommendation.  If you can ignore the short running time and the fact that its formula would be refined in subsequent years, you could do a lot worse.

Wild Cardz, 1999, dir: Yasuchika Nagaoka

I don't claim to know much at all about the intricacies of Japanese culture, and certainly not Japanese culture in the late nineties, but nevertheless I found myself asking within about the first five minutes of Wild Cardz - just who was the intended audience here?  It's at heart a magical girl show, which would suggest girls, but the amount of casual fan service on offer seems to rather rule that out, and though the designs would appear to be aimed at a younger audience, there's a bit of swearing and some weird racism with a Chinese character who speaks in whatever the Japanese equivalent of Engrish would be.  Also, at the risk of sounding immensely dumb, it's a little hard to follow; I mean, it's not Waiting For Godot or anything, but there's a considerable cast of characters for what amounts to forty minutes of actual running time.

Of course, I'm being disingenuous; clearly I hoped that I'd be the audience for Wild Cardz, since I bought it knowing what I was getting into and having read some less than glowing reviews.  The thing is, it sounded like exactly the sort of absurd and convoluted nonsense that's been known to keep me amused when actual quality was off the table: a world themed around games, in which the heroines are based on suites of cards and the antagonists are giant chess pieces?  Sure, I'll give that a go.  Which makes it all the more disappointing that the whole card theme thing goes nowhere and does nothing; of the four protagonists, Jo Diamonds kinda has a diamond-shaped force field when she pulls off her respective superpower, and we get some weaponised playing cards - which seems a weird abuse of something you've based your entire culture around! - but that's about it.  I don't know that taking such an absurd gimmick to its logical conclusions, whatever those might be, would actually help matters, but still I felt a little cheated.

Elsewhere, the music is excitable and the animation is perfectly fine, but unable to salvage some of the more violently horrible character designs I've ever seen.  The box art isn't, as I'd hoped, a grotesque misrepresentation: that's how the gang appear all the time.  Nor do they look better in motion, and they certainly don't look better for the animators' attempts to persuade that anything going on here is remotely sexy.  I find it hard to imagine even the most Pavlovianally horny teenage boy getting turned on here; really, lifelong celibacy is a likelier outcome.  As with so much anime from the back end of the nineties, the tiny skirts and occasional nudity feel like they're there to fulfill some sort of quota, not because anyone was especially invested.

And here I am, talking like I didn't enjoy Wild Cardz, when actually it kept me moderately diverted!  It's crap, it really is, but it's enthusiastically delivered crap, and it's a bit mad in a way that's hard to hate.  Jo Diamonds, as the only character who gets the least bit of development, is fun enough to be around, and the action - which is basically all of the OVA - is well delivered, even when it's being mind-bogglingly strange on a fundamental level.  But none of these are arguments for watching it, of course.  In truth, the only reason I'd recommend you actually try and hunt down a copy of Wild Cardz is if you have some weird sexual obsession that combines women and playing cards - and hey, I just answered my opening question!  But now I wish I hadn't.

Shinesman, 1996, dir: Shin'ya Sadamitsu

Shinesman (or The Special Duty Combat Unit Shinesman if you're not into the whole brevity thing) is a parody of Power Rangers and its ilk.  This is apparent from the cover on downwards, even if, like me, you're not familiar with Super Sentai (the Japanese franchise that started it all, if Wikipedia serves me rightly) or any of its copious offspring.  I mean, I've never seen a single episode of Power Rangers, but I get the basics: five people - four male and one female seems traditional - with colour-coded uniforms and special powers and moves, fight with villains, monsters, and robots.  It's a straightforward-enough formula, and like any straightforward formula that's been done to death and then some, it's ripe for pastiche.

Except, while I'm conscious that I opened by calling Shinesman a parody, in truth that isn't precisely its game.  Its goal is certainly about comedy, but its main joke is an odd one, and basically boils down to this: what if our five costumed heroes were salarymen and a bit boring?  Honestly, I don't know how to explain it better than that, and I certainly can't put into words why it works.  Yet it does, if sporadically; every time the five announce their identities, which are also their colours and include such thrilling shades as moss green, grey, and salmon pink, I chuckled a bit.  It's very Japanese humour, I suppose, though a surprisingly good dub makes solid efforts at converting the material for an American audience without chucking the baby out with the bathwater.  But the core boils down to, "Boy, superheroes and salarymen sure aren't a lot like each other!"  And while the West has an inordinate number of the former, the latter is a concept that only translates so far.

Am I over-analysing?  I think I'm over-analysing.  What matters, surely, is that Shinesman is both fun and funny, and altogether quite pleasant to be around.  The animation is resolutely so-so, though the backgrounds are rather nice and the opening and closing themes are pretty hummable.  But all that's truly important is that you'll get some laughs out of its hour-long running time.  It's not exactly comedy gold, it's a bit too laid back for that, but on the other hand I found myself smiling over some of its gags afterwards, as their subtleties sunk in.  Like everything here, with the clear exception of Wild Cardz, I wish there was more: its two episodes wrap up well enough, but there are enough loose plot threads left hanging that it's obvious more was planned.  It's hard to seriously recommend an hour-long release that's funny but not that funny when finding a copy is nigh-on impossible, but hey, that's your problem, not mine!  Because Shinesman is definitely worth a look.


Is this the first of these posts without a clear recommendation?  I think it might be.  And the irony is that there was nothing here I didn't enjoy - even if in the case of Wild Cardz it was a somewhat strained and baffled form of enjoyment.  Shinesman and Burn Up! are certainly both worth a look if you should happen to stumble across them at a reasonable price, which perhaps isn't dreadfully likely in the case of the former given how severely out of print it is.

Ah me, this is an exercise in futility, isn't it?  But a fun one!

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

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Eastercon 2018

The more Conventions I attend, the less it seems I have to say; after all, these things mostly offer much the same brand of entertainment, and the differences come down to ever-more-subtle gradations of content and quality.  This is particularly true of Eastercon, which has evolved a great deal in the few years I've been attending, from something quite specific (and specifically SF-oriented) to a more general, jack-of-all-trades role that places it somewhere between the sprawling excess of Nine Worlds and the homelier comforts of the average Fantasycon.  If the negative there is a certain lack of character, the positive is definitely that, when an Eastercon succeeds in its goal of being all things to all people - or at least comes as close as is reasonably achievable for a low-cost Con - the results can be pretty marvelous.  And so it went this year, which was clearly the result of a great many good decisions being made.

Like Harrogate; Harrogate is such a nice place, and such a perfect choice of location.  The Majestic had its ups and downs as a venue: it was seriously spacious and lived up to its name in terms of sheer grandeur, but the bar service was horrific and having the bar area itself split was frustrating; I feel like I missed an awful lot of people I wanted to say hi to simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong times.  Yet the minor deficiencies of the hotel never seemed to matter much because Harrogate town centre was all of about five minutes away, and it was brilliant to be able to nip out to a fantastic restaurant or do a bit of shopping or just get some fresh air.  This is something that goes wrong too often - I'm looking at you, next year's Eastercon that's back at bloody Heathrow! - and it's crucial: force people to spend every minute in your convention hotel and they'll notice its flaws a good deal more than if you give them somewhere enticing to rove around.

And yes, I realise I'm biased because it's on my doorstep, but still.

Really, the only other vital thing I ask for is varied programming, and this year's Eastercon got that right, too.  There wasn't actually a ton of stuff I wanted to attend, but that's me being a grump, not the convention being rubbish.  Had I wanted to dip into the content more, there was hardly ever a point where I'd have been stuck with nothing besides that most overused of programming items, the panel.  There were talks, there was live music, there was a disco that actually wasn't too horrible, there was croquet (which got rained off, but hey) and there was a board games room, though I failed to persuade anyone to go there and play Galaxy Trucker with me.  Again, though, not the organisers' fault; and the point is, they'd gone to a heck of a lot of trouble to make sure that, whoever you were, there was something to keep you amused.  There was a ton of programming for kids, a lot going on for the old-school Eastercon SF crowd, and no end of more general options, but it never felt like ticking boxes, as Nine Worlds sometimes has to me.

This is all very general, isn't it?  Truthfully, that's because my personal experiences are a bit of a haze; with three novel deadlines converging and a few not-so-pleasant personal bits and bobs going down, the truth is that I wasn't altogether in the right head space for conventioneering.  And I guess drinking enough wine to drown a small whale may not have helped, though it certainly seemed to be helping at the time!  But both of my panels went really well; the one on gaming was a ton of fun, because who wouldn't want to talk about gaming for an hour?  And moderating on the topic of The Boundaries of Horror to a large and quite crowded room was a good deal less intimidating than it might have been thanks to some excellent panelists.  (I know it's wrong to single anyone out when everyone was so good, but Ramsey Campell's awesome knowledge of the genre and sheer enthusiasm were a real pleasure to be around.)  That aside, my highlight was probably a delightfully nerdy hour and a bit watching Matt "D'Israeli" Brooker get terribly excited about Ray Harryhausen and the subject of physical special effects in general - a subject ridiculously close to my heart, and especially appropriate because I capped off the weekend by going to see Isle of Dogs.  Which is pretty much a masterpiece, by the way, and likely to be one of the absolute highlights of the year, so you might want to go see it too.

To close ... well, like I said, I was a bit strung out, so it meant all the more that I got to hang out with some really wonderful people, including old friends, new acquaintances, and a few in-betweeners.  Like so many of us, I suppose - and at the risk of straying into Sean Penn-levels of alliteration - it's the conversations and company that keep me coming back to conventions.  I won't list everyone, because that would require a lot of remembering and I'd never get it right anyway, but thanks to everybody who hung out with me and kept me amused.  And thanks to the organisers of what was one of the very best Eastercons, not to mention one of the better conventions, I've been to.