Sunday, 8 December 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 60

It feels like it's been a while since we had a good batch of totally random titles, or even a bad batch of totally random titles, so I for one am excited for this post, which is as odd and unrelated a collection as we've seen here.  Seriously, good luck finding any sort of theme or pattern between The Tokyo Project, Bastard!!, Megazone 23 Part 1, and Tenamonya Voyagers...

The Tokyo Project, 1988, dir: Osamu Yamasaki

You get so used to the restrictions on the sorts of anime that were released in the West that when something like The Tokyo Project comes along, it's plain weird.  I suppose you might classify it as sci-fi, but it's sci-fi of a very practical, modern-day sort, in which the absolutely most futuristic thing is an experimental robot that can barely walk straight.  (This would be a huge spoiler if the box art wasn't so eager to show it off.)  Anyway, that's really just the climax, and by that point The Tokyo Project has already dabbled at being a mystery thriller and then an action movie, as a dying man delivers a floppy disk with sensitive information into the hands of a group of young people who just happen to be precisely the sorts to risk life and limb in trying to fulfill his last request, instead of going to the cops the way anyone else would.  It helps that the three, apparently by pure coincidence, happen to be the entire membership of a detective agency, and helps more that they have access to military grade hardware, martial arts skills, hacking expertise, and even the ability to shoot with unerring aim in a country that doesn't exactly make getting hold of firearms easy.  All of which is to say that, despite a veneer of realism in the designs and settings, The Tokyo Project has some hugely silly ideas about what is and isn't plausible.

The result, as I said, is a strange beast.  But given some middling animation and a gruesomely dated soundtrack, that's more in its favour than not; at least its oddness makes it charming.  Indeed, thinking about it a couple of days later, it's not like the plot even makes a bit of sense.  In retrospect, I haven't a clue what the villains' motives were or what they imagined they'd accomplish at any given stage.  So I suppose its to the creators' credit that they kept things hectic enough that I didn't notice at the time.  Indeed, that style of ridiculous but energetic storytelling, plastering over narrative cracks with gunfights and explosions and helicopter gunships chasing motorbikes, definitely feels familiar, just not in the way that so much vintage anime feels familiar.  What we're looking at is akin to what American TV was up to at the time - there's a definite whiff of Airwolf and The A-Team - given a marginally longer running time and the sort of effects budget those shows couldn't dream of.  And while that's not exactly a reason to track The Tokyo Project down, it means that if you do, and have a certain fondness for dumb eighties action, there's a pleasant distraction to be had here.

Bastard!!, 1992, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

Let us say this much for Bastard!! ... from that title on downwards, it doesn't waste time on subtlety.  And this is precisely as it should be for the anime adaptation of a Manga that creator Kazushi Hagiwara came up with so he could indulge his twin passions of Dungeons and Dragons and heavy metal music in one and the same place.

This, by the way, leads us neatly into my favourite thing about the show, which is that Hagiwara merrily threw in the names of famous heavy metal bands as spells and places, and US publisher Pioneer, nervous of law suits, decided the solution was to convert the Japanese pronunciations phonetically back into English, with predictably wacky results.  Thus our story centres around the city of Meta-Rikana, which definitely has nothing at all to do with Metallica, where, facing a powerful alliance of evil wizards, the city's rulers decide that the best way to defend themselves is with an even more evil wizard of their own.  Fortunately, they have one to hand, in the shape of Dark Schneider, who they've been keeping sealed up in the body of a young lad named Rushe ever since his supposed death fifteen years ago.  The most obvious flaw in this plan consisting of nothing besides obvious flaws is that - as the title suggests! - Dark Schneider is a proper bastard, with zero interest in defending anyone or anything.  Or so it initially appears: in fact, his coexistence with Rushe's personality and Rushe's love for his childhood friend Tia are just about enough to stop him killing everyone in sight.

Most of this we learn in the first episode, and there's not much more to the plot than that.  The remaining five parts concern themselves with Dark Schneider going up against former friends and foes on his way to the big boss, the terrifyingly named Abigail.  And normally this might be a bad thing, especially given how much the proceedings feel channeled through the mindset of a teenage boy, or at best a twenty-something Manga writer with an abiding love of metal and cheesy fantasy: you'll be unsurprised to learn that most of the female characters' clothes fall off at some point, and though Dark Schneider is an irrepressible scumbag, he's also totally cool, ladies adore him and men want to be him, and even being repeatedly killed can't do more than slow him down.  The result is like all of Moorcock's trashiest books mashed into one, and it takes a lot to keep something that over the top on the right track.

Thankfully, Bastard!! is up to the task.  It helps that the script doesn't take itself or its reprehensible hero too seriously, but it helps more than there's plenty of talent behind the proceedings.  Director Akiyama, mastermind of the Gall Force series, largely finds the right balance of tones, and, after a somewhat wonky start, the animation goes from good to generally great, with an unusual emphasis on detailed closeups of faces, some enjoyable design work, and the sorts of intricate backdrops that would honour any pulpy nineties paperback.  Basically, Bastard!! looks much the way you'd hope a show born from an enthusiasm for D&D and heavy metal would look, and behaves the same way, and there's something awfully charming about that if you're in the right mindset.

Megazone 23 Part 1, 1985, dir: Noboru Ishiguro

If you've heard of Megazone 23 at all these days, it's almost certainly due to its similarities to one or another of a pair of American films that would approach a similar plot hook in distinctly similar ways a few years after its release, which makes it tricky to talk about this 85 minute OVA in its own right.  On the other hand, mentioning either of those films by name is lousy reviewing practice, because unless you've been living under a rock for two decades, it will certainly spoil a crucial twist in Megazone 23.  Perhaps worse, it will set up false expectations, given how that twist would go on to be served a good deal better than it was here, where it's merely a neat idea that hasn't had quite enough thought put into it to make it altogether plausible.

So let's focus on why that is and keep the spoilers to a minimum, because there's a good reason aspects of Megazone 23 feel half-baked.  I described it as an 85 minute OVA, but that's not what it was intended to be: indeed, it was relatively late into its lifespan that what had been planned and animated as a TV series had to be re-edited to a fraction of its running time.  And this is useful knowledge going in, because the narrative certainly has the feel of a much bigger story being flung around at breakneck pace.  That's typical of vintage anime, of course, but here there's the definite sense that vital pieces are missing: one minute our protagonist Shogo is inadvertently acquiring a mysterious motorbike that seems too advanced for the nineteen-eighties Japan in which he lives, the next he's on the run from shadowy agents and the police and discovering that said bike has a neat tendency of turning into a robot, and the next everyone seems to have largely forgotten that Shogo trashed a bunch of stuff and killed a load of people.

The result is thoroughly scatter-brained, picking up ideas and plot points and characters and bouncing them around and then ambling onto whatever it feels like pursuing next.  And if this makes it kind of dumb and intermittently annoying, it also accounts for a lot of its appeal, especially when some of those ideas and plot points are legitimately great.  (The characters?  Maybe not so much.)  The same goes for the animation, the failings of which make a lot more sense when you know that much of this footage was created for TV.  The designs are a random hodgepodge, faces rarely stay on model, and even things like line thickness aren't consistent, but then occasionally an absolutely stunning sequence will show up, and the general standard is surprisingly high.

If all that sounds like a mess, then it absolutely is, and it's easy to imagine a better Megazone 23, one that had been conceived from the ground up to run at feature length and doled out its finer elements accordingly, that dropped some of the more arbitrary diversions and concentrated on the notions that would make it something of a minor classic, and that didn't have an ending that felt like the creative team had run out of material and called it a day.  Nonetheless, that doesn't detract from what's left, which at its worst has energy to spare and quickly recovers from its mistakes and at its best presents some genuinely exciting concepts, buoyed by eighties-tastic J-pop and solid visuals and a certain indefinable something that makes it that bit more special than many of its contemporaries.  It's hard to believe that would been enough to find it a place in anime lore were in not for that twist we can't talk about, and that was subsequently done better elsewhere - learn where here*, if you really want to - but that doesn't mean Megazone 23 isn't a treat in its own right.

Tenamonya Voyagers, 1999, dir: Akiyuki Shinbo

Poor Tenamonya Voyagers, a mere two decades old and already as good as forgotten, not to mention largely impossible to get hold of.  And for this we may as well blame Bandai Entertainment, if for no other reason than that they released it in one the most badly produced DVDs I've yet come across.  I'm not technical enough to know quite what went wrong, but the disk languished on my shelf for many a month after I had a glance at it and could barely tell what was going on.  And when I eventually rose to the challenge, it took an hour of mucking with my TV's settings to get a picture I could live with.  In particular, reaching the point where the awesome space battles stopped looking as though they were happening in a washed-out sea of grey took quite some doing.

It was worth the hassle: Tenamonya Voyagers is one gorgeous show.  And perhaps the reason it fared so badly comes down in large part to its visual boldness, favouring lurid blocks of colour and sharp contrasts and deep pools of black.  It looks nice in stills and even better in motion; this is seriously slick work, laden with detail and energy.

Moreover, once you can tell what's going on, there's a lot else to like too.  We're firmly in the realm of comedy sci-fi here, a subgenre nineties anime was frequently great at, and Tenamonya Voyagers has itself a killer setup.  At some distant point in the future, struggling would-be teacher Ayako accepts a job on a distant planet, only to find that the school in question has closed down while she was in transit.  Fortunately, she runs into student Wakana, who's in the same boat, having come there for a sports scholarship; less fortunately, they soon find themselves teaming up with a young woman named Paraila, who crash-lands her mech into the school and who, like them, is eager to head for Earth.  The bad news is that Paraila is a boss from one of the galaxy's three big gangs of space criminals, and her interest in Earth is that a legal loophole means her crimes will be erased if she can get there.  With a violent police officer on her trail and the entire universe apparently conspiring against them, the odds aren't exactly in their favour.

Indeed, it's not really a spoiler to say that the gang don't ever make it to Earth.  Tenamonya Voyagers was never finished, a fact that's dismissed in the most perfectly off-hand manner by the narrator; it's a great gag, and in a sideways fashion, points to why the show works so well.  Simply put, it's not about the destination, it's about the journey, and the pleasures of having fun characters bouncing off each other in absurd situations.  And these characters really are fun, not to mention distinct enough to make their combination interesting to watch in itself.  My personal favourite was Ayako, with her general befuddlement and habit of composing haiku at the slightest provocation, but Paraila - also known as Space Trash Paraila - is perhaps the lasting standout.  She feels very much as if she's wandered in from Tenchi Muyo!, a series that Tenamonya Voyagers generally resembles, and of the core cast, she gets most development, such that it's a little sad to see her arc toward some degree of moral correction left dangling.

Really, though, Tenamonya Voyagers does a great job of turning potential failings into virtues.  Aside from the lack of a conclusion and the effort required to sort out Bandai's dodgy presentation, the only other point of contention I can come up with is that it gets kind of exploitative in parts.  I mean, the fourth and final episode, "women in hell" - which already sounds like a soft porn movie set in a women's prison - sees the entire cast near as damn it to naked for its entire running time, and isn't shy about the fact: normally the nudity in nineties anime is fairly innocent, but not so much here, given the extra artistry put into its portrayal.  Then again, the show turns its lechery into a superb running gag that I won't go and spoil, and that's Tenamonya Voyagers all over, really: it's too funny and too well made not to enjoy.  Part of me wishes it had wrapped up as its creators presumably intended, but it's a testament to how good what we get is that the idea of Ayako, Wakana, and Paraila still being out there somewhere, tearing up the universe, is almost as satisfying in its own right.


Heck, that went well!  All right, so we didn't get any flat-out, definitive classics for the ages, but I feel like both Bastard!! and Megazone 23 aren't far off.  Mind you, I've got the benefit of hindsight with that latter one, having seen its two sequels by the time I write this conclusion.  Anyway, three out of four positive reviews is always good going, and I've seen plenty worse anime than The Tokyo Project.

Next time, it's back to the themed posts, but this time it's one I'm majorly enthusiastic about!  In fact, it's probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that we're about to get to my favourite vintage anime franchise of all time...

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

* It was The Matrix and Dark City, okay?  Though it's worth noting that writers like Philip K. Dick had been chucking around much the same concept for a couple of decades by the point that Megazone 23 got to it.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

End-of-the-Year Novel Updates

It's been a while since I've discussed the fourth Black River book - known as Graduate or Die, until someone talks me out of it! - and while that's mostly because I'm in that long haul between writing the book and getting to call it finished, there's been enough progress to justify a blog post, I think.

The last I mentioned it, I was stuck editing out a few tens of thousands of words, and that, thankfully, is all done and dusted.  It's still a relatively long book by Black River standards, by far the longest in the series, but now that's because there's a lot crammed in, not because I've used five words when I only needed one.  In fact, every time I come back to it, I'm astonished that I've included everything I intended at the overambitious planning stage: major locations that have merely been mentioned in passing before, character arcs for an ever-growing cast, and lots of weird little details that if I was a fan of this series - and let's face it, I totally am! - I'd get a kick out of seeing.  Which, I guess, is the point: I want this book to be all the sorts of awesome I'd expect if I'd devoted tens of hours to reading the first three.  And so, though with the writing essentially done the rest is noodling, there's a fair bit of noodling ahead.  Fortunately, I have the sort of publisher who's happy to give me a deadline of "deliver it when it's done, within reason."  With that said, I see no reason to suppose that Graduate or Die won't be out by the middle of 2020.

But that's only one of the books I have in the works for imminent-ish release.  I still don't feel like the time's quite right to be announcing the others, but I reckon I can at least go through what they are.  So, in order of when they're likeliest to appear, we have:

- A new science-fiction novel from a publisher I've not worked with before.  This one is being proofed as we speak, everything else is basically ready, and honestly, I probably could get away with just announcing it right now.  At any rate, that time can't be much further off, and it's a book I'm thrilled to be getting into the world, so once the word's out, I'm unlikely to shut up.

- A new science-fiction - or possibly horror, or maybe sci-fi / horror? - novella from a publisher I've worked with quite a lot.  That's in the midst of its copy edits, is one of the most deeply strange and hard-to-classify things I've written, and should be appearing in the first half of next year if all goes well.

- And lastly, a project so secret that I'd better not say too much of anything, except that I'm about to start writing it literally next week, that it's for another publisher I'm new to and insanely excited to be working with, and that I suspect it's going to blow some minds once I get to spread the news, because the concept said publisher approached me with is phenomenal.  Currently I'm a little panicky at the thought that I might not do it justice, while also determined that I will, since it's far too good to mess up.

So there we have it: four books at various stages of completion, but all coming in the not-too-distant future, which is an exciting position to be heading towards the new year in.  More news as I have it / am allowed to share it!

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 59

We've stumbled across the Dirty Pair here before, many moons ago, in their remodeled Dirty Pair Flash guise, but now that I'm drifting increasingly away from reviewing nineties anime in my series entitled 'Drowning in Nineties Anime', there really isn't a reason not to go back to the wellspring, is there?

For the uninitiated, Kei and Yuri - known as either the Lovely Angels or the Dirty Pair depending on who's doing the naming - are operatives of a galaxy-wide corporate mercenary force called the 3WA, and they're great at their jobs in that they always get them done but tremendously awful in the sense that they tend to destroy everything within reach in the process.  Fortunately for them, less so for the galaxy, their missions are assigned by a computer that values success and doesn't factor in collateral damage, which means plenty of adventures and even more explosions.

Got that?  Okay!  Then let's have a look at Dirty Pair: Project Eden, Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia, Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy and the original Dirty Pair OVA Series...

Dirty Pair: Project Eden, 1987, dir: Kôichi Mashimo

I get the impression that the vast majority of anime fans, certainly outside of Japan, aren't terribly invested in animation per se, and this has never struck me more than with Dirty Pair: Project Eden, a work that precisely no-one seems to be praising for how goddamn amazing it looks.  I don't have many criteria to judge by at this point, but I'm willing to bet that, as a Dirty Pair movie, it has some hefty failings, and I assume that if I was deeply invested in the affairs of willfully destructive space cops Kei and Yuri, I might have felt short changed.  But as a piece of animation - or not even that, as a visual spectacle that seeks to wow your eyeballs with motion and shapes and colour - on that level, Project Eden is a wonder.

And it's not like the storytelling is rubbish, it's just clearly not where anyone's best efforts were directed.  While the plot is surprisingly solid, it's delivered with a lack of interest that's almost a joke in itself, reducing a tale of mad science and ancient aliens to snippets that can be tossed off in bursts of exposition, usually by the delightfully insane villain Dr. Wattsman.  But as Dirty Pair projects go, this one doesn't seem terribly invested in our two lovely angels.  Kei is saddled with going all puppyish over a new character, master thief Carson D. Carson, who also steals too much of the movie, and Yuri hasn't even that much of a character arc; I'd struggle to tell you a single trait she possesses that isn't "looking hot in underwear-armour."  That said, you might argue that what's going on here is a purist approach to presenting beloved characters at movie length: what need for arcs and development when you can offer up your protagonists in their simplest form, quipping and exploding things with abandon?

But none of that's really the point.  For me, Dirty Pair: Project Eden was mostly a sensual experience to be basked in, one every bit as enthusiastic about the benefits of hand-drawn animation as I am.  I dare say it's the most pop-arty anime movie I've seen, indulging in a palette of neon shades and blaring primary colours and garish flamingo pink that would be excruciating in less skilled hands.  It's kitsch, but it's phenomenal kitsch, bursting with pop music and energy and a sense of its own ridiculousness, and I'd forgive all manner of plot transgressions for that.  There's an argument to be made for saying that this is the franchise movie par excellence, on a level with Yurusei Yatsura classic Beautiful Dreamer or Miyazaki's take on Lupin in The Castle of Cagliostro; perhaps it's appeal isn't as wide or as obvious, but it's not far off their greatness, and my Dirty Pair marathon is off to an awfully good start.

Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia, 1985, dir: Masaharu Okuwaki

It's best to have a handle on what Affair of Nolandia is going in: not a movie, regardless of the claims sometimes made on its behalf and the fact that Nozomi include it in their recent "Dirty Pair Features" bundle, but an OVA just shy of an hour that appears to have marked the conclusion of the original run of TV episodes.  This is important for a number of reasons, but most of them boil down to having realistic expectations after the pleasures of Project EdenAffair of Nolandia looks pretty cheap by comparison, and very much like exactly what it is.  The animation is that of a solid mid-eighties anime show, with some noticeable wobbles, such as characters spending more time off model than on, and the odd flashy sequence that suffers from Okuwaki's being so eager to show off his flashy sequences that he keeps reusing them.

So a slightly above-par, hour-long TV special then.  And that knowledge is also helpful in parsing the plot, which at times feels like an attempt to show off as much of its heroines as possible, in both senses.  Therefore we get to see Kei and Yuri banter and lark about and punch and shoot things and cause quite epic amounts of destruction, but we also get to see them stripped naked and attacked by tentacle monsters, for not much reason whatsoever.  Which, for me, feels out of keeping with what Dirty Pair is about, though I'm sure there were viewers in 1985 who'd have disagreed.

That incongruity is stressed more than it might otherwise be by the fact that the plot breaks awkwardly into two halves.  The first, in which Kei and Yuri hunt for a psychic girl in a bizarre alien jungle while hallucinating massively, is goddamn strange and doesn't seem to know what tone it's after.  It gets notably more fun at roughly the moment when our lovely angels take charge of the situation, and that follows through into the second half, which doubles down on the action and is a lot more eager to remind us of how awesome these characters are.  Yuri, in particular, gets to shine in an absurdly lengthy chase sequence, though Kei's reenactment of The Terminator is impressive in its own right.  Those last twenty minutes are plenty of fun, though perhaps not much more so than I'd imagine an average episode of the show to be.

All of which is to say that Affair of Nolandia was probably doomed to disappoint after the joy that was Project Eden, but nevertheless manages to be moderately disappointing in its own right.  The first half is baffling but surprising, the second is predictable but full of Dirty Pair goodness, and all of it's wrapped in a production that does little to distinguish itself, helmed by a director whose main imprint on his material is not realising that reusing lengthy sequences tends to call attention to itself.*  Affair of Nolandia is in no way worth going out of your way for, but half of it's a respectable Dirty Pair outing, and since you're only likely to get it via the above-mentioned collection, I guess it would be daft not to watch it.

Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy, 1990, dir: Toshifumi Takizawa

Here we are at the end of the original Dirty Pair run with another OVA, though one that's a very different beast to Affair of Nolandia: no extended episode this, with lowly TV-style production values to match.  Flight 005 Conspiracy is more ambitious, and quick to distance itself from the look of what's come before, both with softer, more rounded character designs that signal the shift out of the eighties and considerably more lavish animation, along with some genuinely gorgeous backgrounds; there's a level of attention in the world building that I wouldn't have expected from what I've always considered to be a light and breezy sci-fi franchise.  In short, while we're a way from the pop-art grandeur of the movie, Flight 005 Conspiracy feels thoroughly prestigious.

That's not all that sets it apart.  I don't know if anyone was aware that this would mark a temporary conclusion to the Dirty Pair franchise, but there's a level of seriousness here that wasn't present in the two earlier releases.  The plot is a mix of thriller and, as the title suggests, conspiracy drama, of a sort that would function perfectly well with all the science-fiction elements removed.  Indeed, it might even function better; in particular, its habit of forgetting that planets and countries aren't the same thing proves annoying.  At any rate, dropping the lovely angels into that Cold War-esque milieu places demands on them that they're not altogether suited to.  The first half, particularly, requires a great deal of wandering around and interrogating witnesses and investigating crime scenes, which the script tries to enliven with humour that only really amounts to one joke.  In fact, this is far and away the least funny Dirty Pair experience I've encountered, and along with the heavier storyline and a surprising level of bloodshed, that makes for a weird tone.  Thankfully, the trademark action scenes fare better, even if, again, they don't constitute that substantial a proportion of the running time.

The result is an oddity, and not a wholly successful one.  Its not that an unusually serious Dirty Pair story is a bad thing, but the plot is more convoluted than clever and can't earn its more dramatic moments: a couple of deaths that are meant to be significant lack weight because we've no attachment to either character.  On the other hand, failing to be great isn't the same as failing to be good, and compared with the unevenness of Affair of NolandiaFlight 005 Conspiracy is certainly consistent in its goodness.  Even if the narrative doesn't add up to the sum of its aspirations, it's engaging in the moment, and the production values are a major boon.  The result is something I enjoyed at the time and found myself being more critical of in retrospect, and so I guess slots somewhere between the movie and the first OVA: the former is vastly better as a work of art but kind of sucks as a Dirty Pair story, the latter's a bit of a mess but manages in its better moments to nail the spirit of the franchise, and Flight 005 Conspiracy finds itself sitting awkwardly between the two.

Dirty Pair OVA, 1987, dir: Katsuyoshi Yatabe

Were the movie not such a thing of loveliness, I'd have no qualms about rating the ten episode OVA series that ran between 1987 and 1988 as the height of Dirty Pair as I've encountered it so far.  It comes down, I think, to balance: it has a bit of the pop-art joyfulness of the movie, but combined with a greater focus on and faithfulness to the characters of Kei and Yuri, and probably my favourite take on their ever-changing designs.  The production values aren't quite up there, of course, but they beat out either of the OVA films, and since the episodes vary wildly in plot and tone, there's not much obvious reuse of assets.  Which is perhaps the important point here: these are ten separate, self-contained stories, each done and dusted in twenty-five packed minutes.

It's unfortunate that they peak with the second episode, a delirious slab of mayhem that sees the girls inadvertently thwarting numerous gangs of Halloween-costumed villains while fighting an adorable murderbot.  But that's not to say there aren't great moments elsewhere, or that anything's a significant letdown.  For me, the brightest spots were clumped in the first of ADV's two disks, but that wouldn't be an issue if you were to buy the more recent Nozomi release that collects the lot.  At any rate, there's far more good that bad, and the best episodes feel excitingly random, as though someone were picking scenarios and plot twists out of a hat.  It works because Kei and Yuri are such fun, and such fully formed characters, that there's pleasure in watching them wisecrack and blast and grumble their way through whatever situation they're thrust into.

That's the sum of it, really: there's a lot to like in the world of Dirty Pair, with its lavish approach to old-school SF and its habit of solving every problem, no matter how complicated, with big explosions, but ultimately it's the lovely angels that make it.  Kei and Yuri are terrific characters when done right, and if there's one thing the OVA series nails, it's that.  I suppose you might argue that, without them, you'd be left with a collection of moderately engaging sci-fi short stories, but that's to miss the point.  Even when the setup feels stale or the supporting cast aren't too engaging, these shows work, thriving off the silliness and wanton aggression and wit of their two protagonists.  Therefore, as much as I'll always prize the movie more, if you want an entry point into what made Dirty Pair beloved and aren't ready to commit to the series, this is the place to start.


Needless to say, I now consider myself a Dirty Pair fan, and I totally get why the franchise was so huge for a while: at its best, it's garish, action-packed, big-ideas science fiction with two immensely entertaining lead characters, and at its worst, it's pretty much the same thing except done not quite so well.  Heck, I've become enough of a fan that I replaced my copies of Dirty Pair Flash and rewatched the whole show - only to find that my original reviews were spot on!  Hey ho.

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

* Also, the fact that Okuwaki started his career on a series called Hello!  Spank may or may not explain a lot, but at least brought a smile to my face.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Short Story News November 2019

I don't think I can honestly say anymore that it's been a bad year for short fiction, I've had a bit too much stuff out for that; a story a month since back in May, it seems, now that I bother to check!  Okay, it's certainly been among the less profitable, and that does suck when you're trying to keep the wolf from the door, but on the other hand I've had work in some exciting markets, and perhaps, with my focus now almost entirely on novels and novellas, that's the most I can ask for?

For example, it's hard to feel really bad about a year that included my first ever appearance in a best-of anthology; I've mentioned it before, but now that the book's actually out, I guess I get to be excited about NewCon Press's Best of British Science Fiction 2018 collection all over again, and how my story Cat and Mouse is sitting alongside tales by a bunch of the best UK writers working in the genre today.

Mind you, as much as I admire those folks, none of them can hold a candle to my favourite genre author of all time, the mighty H. G. Wells, an author I revere so highly that I basically wrote H. G. Wells fan-fiction in the shape of my (obviously unofficial!) War of the Worlds follow-up The Last of the Martians.  The story was a real labour of love; I only realised how much so when I went to try and sell it and realised how niche it was.  So thank goodness a two-volume anthology of Wells-inspired fiction should come along, and that volume one of A Tribute to H. G. Wells was devoted entirely to Wells's masterpiece.  I'm yet to get my contributor copy, but I had a glance over a friend's and it certainly seems well worth checking out.

Perhaps the thing I'm most excited by, though, is getting another story into Interzone, after my first appearance way back in the January 2014 issue.  I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that Interzone is one of the finest and longest-lived genre magazines on the planet, and it's almost unquestionably the most stunningly presented, so it's a joy to be inside its covers once again.  And I'm all the more glad that it's this story, Parasite Art, a piece I consider to be high among the best science-fiction I've written.  It's also the rare occasion where I use fiction to talk, even obliquely, about creativity; I've always been determined not to do that whole Stephen King "yes, all my protagonists are writers, but they're not me" thing, but I guess I also had some ideas that I really needed to work through around the forcedly collaborative nature of getting art out into the world, and wrapping them up amid crazy far-future SF seemed the most sensible way to go about it.

Speaking of crazy far-future SF - no, that's a rubbish link, my last story isn't crazy at all, it's just desperately bleak.  I've been struggling to unload Life Without Possibility for a long while now, not I don't think because it's rubbish but more likely because it's pretty damn unremitting.  I mean, the protagonist is in prison on multiple life sentences, for very deserved reasons, and they're if anything the victim of what takes place, something made worse by the fact that the society they inhabit imagines it's doing them a favour.  I've always been intrigued by notions of forgiveness and repentance and how that ties in (or totally doesn't) with how our punitive systems function, and this story digs into some of the least comfortable aspects of those themes.  It's not fun, but hopefully it's thought-provoking, and I was pleased indeed when UK 'zine Write Ahead / The Future Looms agreed to take it off my hands.  This is my second appearance there, after having a piece in their debut issue, and I'm pleased to report that the teething troubles I mentioned back then have definitely been sorted.  This time around was a good experience, the end result is beautifully presented, and I'm happy to recommend these guys as an exciting market to check out, both from a writerly and a readerly perspective.  Seriously, take a look!  Here's some links...

Write Ahead / The Future Looms
A Tribute to H. G. Wells anthology (on Amazon)
The Best of British Science Fiction 2018 (on Amazon)
Interzone 284 (on Amazon)

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 58

Fighting!  It's a thing that happens in nineties anime a heck of a lot.  And also elsewhere, because we're a basically dreadful species that can't get along with each other or anything else, but hey, let's not dwell on the negatives, because that means lots of cool, action packed, martial arts-themed anime, and that means it's yet another excuse for a tenuously themed post.

So let's take a look at Crimson Wolf, Grappler Baki: The Ultimate Fighter, Ayane's High Kick, and Tekken, shall we?

Crimson Wolf, 1994, dir: Shôichi Masuo

Crimson Wolf is trashy pulp.  But to be clear, I don't altogether mean that as a criticism.  After all, there are a few things that trashy pulp can do to make itself stand out from the crowd.  Being legitimately well made is one.  Having a few interesting ideas up its sleeve is another.  But to really capture my attention, the way to go is definitely to be bat-shit insane, and that's a box Crimson Wolf eagerly ticks, if only really in its final third.

Up until that point, the plot is relatively boilerplate nineties anime, though at the quirkier end of that scale.  In the opening scene, a team of archaeologists uncover the buried tomb of Genghis Khan, only to learn a terrible prophesy from the ghostly lips of the great man himself: a cataclysm is coming that will spark a global war, and only the deaths of three chosen ones marked with the scar of an arrow will avert it.  But we're led to wonder if Genghis is altogether on the up and up when we're introduced to the first of our heroes, a young martial arts student named Shin who bears a wolf-shaped scar that seems to fit the description.  Shin doesn't seem particularly hellbent on ushering in any apocalypses, even if he does have a habit of punching people until their heads explode in gouts of blood.

There's a lot of that sort of thing in Crimson Wolf.  But to get the true measure of how much trashy pulpiness there is to go around here, we need to turn to another of our three protagonists, Mizuho.  It's no exaggeration to say that Mizuho spends more time in the nude than with her clothes on, in a manner that soon becomes awfully ridiculous.  If she's not being attacked in the shower then she's lying on a mortuary slab or being thrown naked into an underground prison cell or participating in one of the most gratuitous sex scenes you're ever likely to lay eyes on.  (At least it's consensual; in the grimy underbelly of nineties anime, that's far from a given.)  Only in the climatic third does she get up to much approaching chosen one stuff, by which point Shin has been merrily kicking ass for a good forty minutes or so.

Really, that climax redeems a lot.  It's the point where Crimson Wolf flips from gleefully exploitative, silly fun to serious bonkersness, as we find out who the villain behind all this nonsense is - I guarantee you'll never guess it in a million years, because it's awesomely stupid - and the battle suddenly becomes not a martial arts scrap but an epic showdown between historical archetypes conducted in a metaphysical realm of the imagination.  Or something.  Heck, it's hard to say precisely what's going on, but it sure is nuts, and the animation improves massively for the last ten minutes too, delivering some genuine spectacle.  Obviously that doesn't make what's come before one iota less sleazy or derivative, but if you're in the right mood, it does mean you might be left with a smile on your face.

Grappler Baki: The Ultimate Fighter, 1994, dir: Yûji Asada

In this wander through the darkest corners of nineties anime, I've come across a fair few directors who transparently deserved more career success than they got, but near the top of that list is Yûji Asada, who directed Grappler Baki: The Ultimate Fighter, would four years later make the superb Queen Emeraldas, knocked out an OVA called Early Reins in 2003 that no-one appears to remotely care about, and has apparently spent all of the rest of his time storyboarding Pokémon.  I mean, I get that there are less ignoble fates, but really?  The guy makes two of my favourite OVAs and that's where he ends up?

And here I'm generalising off precisely two short films, but it seems to me that what makes Asada a skilled director is his willingness to dig into his material and find just the right voice to make it stand out.  Because Grappler Baki and Queen Emeraldas have precious little in common other than the fact that they're both excellent versions of the things they are.  In the latter case, that means gorgeous, romantic, rather goofy space opera.  Here it adds up to horribly violent, blackly funny action spectacle told at a breakneck pace, and for that matter with no qualms if the odd neck gets broken along the way.  I confess I watched most of the last quarter through my fingers; yet as much as I'm not really one for gore these days, Asada played me like a fiddle, and not for an instant did I genuinely want to look away.

If I've danced around the story until now, it's because there isn't really one.  Baki, a seventeen-year-old kid with scars from head to toe and a fondness for drinking flat Coca Cola, wins a karate tournament effortlessly.  We then learn that he's also competing in an underground fighting ring - that's literally underground, because why not? - and that he's facing his most fearsome opponent yet, a foe known as the cord-cutter due to his fondness for ripping the nerves out of his opponents' bodies with his damn fingers.  And yeah, I was cringing just typing that sentence, though not half so much as I was during those climatic minutes.  Did I mention how violent Grappler Baki is?  Yet, partly because Baki himself is such a likable presence, sort of a more humble and cheerful Bruce Lee, and partly because Asada has such a sure grasp of tone, and partly because the action is so well conceived and slickly constructed, it's tough to find that violence really off-putting.

The result is a tremendously good use of forty-five minutes, delivering a solid chunk of story that's well fitted to its running time.  It's not exactly what you'd call great art - though a lot of the art is pretty great, and the animators do a fine job of conveying human bodies in motion, which is precisely what you need from a martial arts anime.  But, again like Emeraldas, it's an example of how to get one of these shorter OVAs right, devoting all its energies to doing one thing very well indeed.  Grappler Baki: The Ultimate Fighter might be tough to find these days and all but lost to memory now that the property has had not one but two series adaptations, but like its director, it's worthy of a better fate.

Ayane's High Kick, 1998, dir: Takahiro Okao

Another of those shows that only U.S. Manga Corps would have bothered with, Ayane's High Kick is a two episode OVA with obvious aspirations to either more episodes or a series to call its own.  That neither happened isn't hugely surprising: it's a snip of a thing, really, though in generally appealing ways.  Most obviously, there's a definite good-naturedness to the writing, which follows high school girl Ayane, who we meet trying out for her dream role as a pro wrestler.  In doing so, she catches the eye of washed-up trainer Kunimitsu, whose creepy comments about how great her legs are turn out to be an invitation to learn at his gym.  Only, said gym is a ring that Ayane has to set up herself beneath an underpass, and what she realises way too late is that Kunimitsu is actually training her to be a kickboxer, something she has zero interest in.

Plot-wise, that's mostly all there is, though the second episode ups the ante when the head teachers at her school discover her extra-curricular activities and threaten to throw her out if she doesn't win her first major bout.  (Presumably this is how schools work in Japan.)  Filling out the cast we have Ayane's apparently only friend Kayoko, a boy who I'm not sure even gets a name, a couple of opposing fighters with their own eccentricities, and that's pretty much it.  Like I said, a snip of a thing, though given how busy some of these short OVAs can get, I don't know that that's altogether a criticism.  Indeed, the leisurely pace is a boon, giving us time to get comfortable around the small cast and to invest in Ayane's objectively kind of ridiculous struggles - something that's easily done since she's a fun character, with enough rough edges to feel reasonably real.

The animation is dirt cheap, with stills and repeated footage and other shortcuts aplenty, and could easily have come from a decade earlier, were it not for character designs that positively scream their late nineties-ness.  But for all that, it's not an ugly show, with its strong personality and sense of energy going a long way to compensate.  Which is Ayane's High Kick all round, really: like its determined, none-too-bright heroine, it's a plucky underdog, lacking the budget or ambition for greatness but nevertheless wading in wholeheartedly.  It's sweet, funny, moderately exciting in its fight sequences, and pulls off the crucial trick that any sports story needs to of fooling you that maybe the protagonist might not win.  It's definitely one I'll watch again, and if that series had transpired, I'd probably be hunting that down too.

Tekken, 1998, dir: Kunihisa Sugishima

The first thing you're likely to notice about the Tekken movie - and quite surprising this is, under the circumstances - is that it looks bloody awful.  I mean, it really is spectacularly crappy looking, and in a special way that separates it from the ugliness of mere cheap hand-drawn animation, which generally still retains a certain scrappy charm.  None of that for Tekken, which chooses instead to lean hard into the emergent field of computer-assisted animation, a good five years before the industry would learn how to make best use of it.  The result looks like a series of cut-scenes from an exceedingly bargain-basement video game (which of course the Tekken series itself wasn't) and which can't get even the simplest techniques right, even when they're techniques that anime as a whole nailed decades before.  Digital pans and zooms have none of the fluidity that animators would eventually learn to apply, making them nauseating in their artificial smoothness.  Even things like the movement of eyes looks plain wrong in a way it would be hard to accomplish animating by hand.  And the clunky character designs, which presumably were contrived to work within the limits of the technology, don't help matters, appearing bland at a distance and wildly awful close up.

What's maddening is that probably none of this was actually cheap, and that, with a similar budget applied to traditional techniques, the results would be moderately fun.  I mean, this is Tekken after all, the fighting game series that arguably found the best balance between seriousness and frivolity in a genre that tended to veer in one direction or the other.  Thus we have a plot that balances grim familial conflicts and brutal quests for vengeance with the tender tale of a robot fighting to save a little girl's life and, er, velociraptors with stealth camouflage.  Also, one of the characters gets beaten up by a boxing kangaroo.  What the film never manages to deliver is any decent fighting, which seems like a bizarre miss; indeed, all the action is distinctly bland.  Nevertheless, if you like the franchise, the way familiar elements have been cobbled together feels like the right sort of fan service, providing a central narrative that's solid enough to get a sixty minute film from A to B but stringing enough weird silliness along its path to keep matters enjoyable and interesting.

Indeed, its amusing enough that the animation slowly becomes less of a hindrance, though there isn't a single point where it could definitely be called an asset.  And as further proof that some proper money was spent on this thing, there's a lovely orchestral score that fits the material surprisingly well - so much so that ADV's replacement on the English dub, replete with songs from bands like The Offspring and whoever the hell Soulhat were, feels terribly jarring, especially given how artlessly its been grafted on.  What I watched of the dub was enough to push the movie into the territory of definite badness, whereas the original was a tolerable enough diversion.  I respected its attempts to do right by its source material, even when they were frequently undone by a lack of decent fights and that ghastly animation.  The result is very much fans-only, but if you like the wacky world of Tekken, there are worse ways to waste an hour.


Is this the first post in a while without a single standout recommendation?  I'm afraid it is.  I really did like Grappler Baki, but given the difficulty in tracking down a copy and its brief length and the fact that it's been superseded by not one but two far longer adaptations, it's tough to say honestly that anyone should track it down.  And while Crimson Wolf and Ayane's High Kick had their charms, neither was mind-blowing enough to warrant the effort of acquiring them.  How frustrating, then, that the only title here that's easy to lay hands on is Tekken - because if there's one thing the international anime market was great for back in the day, it was manufacturing huge quantities of crap titles!

But let's not get disheartened, not when our next post (assuming I'd don't change my mind or get distracted) is going to be a deep dive into the beloved mega-franchise that is Dirty Pair...

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

Friday, 1 November 2019

Fantasycon 2019: A non-Review

So I won't be reviewing Fantasycon this year.  Its virtues were the same as always - good company, the marvelous efforts of the red coats to keep no end of plates spinning - and its flaws were, well, just about everything else.  I suspect my own experiences are a fairly good summary: for my first panel, the moderator didn't know they were moderating until we began; for my second, we were a person short and the moderator also didn't know they were moderating; for my third, the panel topic was so incomprehensible that we wandered from it and never went back; my reading saw three of us rushed into a thirty minute slot, which the room supervisor who'd been interrupting us throughout saw fit to cancel five minutes early so that a nonexistent crowd could come in; and the glorious silliness that is Dungeons and Disorderly played to a tiny audience compared with last year thanks to a bizarrely late time slot.

At least Dungeons and Disorderly always makes for weird fun.
But, no, I'm straying into reviewing, and that I said I wouldn't do!  The thing is, for me there was one outstanding problem that eclipsed everything else, which after all was largely patched up by good improvisation on the ground.  Really, so long as there's a decent bar at a Fantasycon, it's always possible to muddle through.  Though, that said, the bar closed at one o'clock even on the Saturday ... damn it, this finding positives business is tough!

Look, here's the one issue that's not so easy to ignore: international events aside, I've never been to a conference where so many people flew to be there, and in 2019, the year when just about everyone woke up to the fact that we're in the midst of a catastrophic environmental crisis, that's not a thing that ought to be happening.  Flying is environmentally horrific; flying domestically is a fundamentally horrible idea and ought to be avoided at all reasonable costs.  But the location of this year's Fantasycon made it really hard to avoid for a great many people.  I discussed this a lot, and not one person who'd flown felt comfortable with doing so, but their reasons were invariably the same: getting there by any other means was prohibitive, either because of absurd rail costs or impossible travel times.  And let's not forget that, for many, Fantasycon very much counts as work: if you're a writer, editor, or publisher, it's a major date on the calendar.  A great many people felt they had to be there and that the only way they could do so was to fly domestically, and that's not okay.

Am I saying that national conferences shouldn't be held in Scotland?  Well, it's important to note that had the venue actually been in Glasgow, rather than its remote outskirts, that alone would have shaved an hour and more off the journey time for many, me included.  But that aside ... yeah, I guess I am.  But that's nothing against Scotland!  Do you remember when Fantasycon always seemed to be in Brighton?  That was an equally lousy location from a travel point of view.  And Heathrow?  Nearly as bad.  Surely it's common sense to favour locations that are as accessible as possible from both north and south, but that accessibility can't mean "there's an airport nearby," because that attitude is well past its sell-by date.

I feel bad using Fantasycon as a whipping post for this issue.  Yet, at the same time, I feel it's justified, because the location was misjudged, and you only need to look at the drop in attendance to see that.  But that aside, this is something I fully intend to raise more in future, and Fantasycon just happens to be first in the line of fire.  If conference organisers give the impression that they haven't considered the environmental impact of their events, that's something I believe we as an industry need to be discussing, as those in all lines of work should be.  Indeed, it's long past time that every conference had an environmental policy to go along with its harassment and other policies, one that was clearly published and treated it as a benchmark by which to judge every decision that gets made, but location most of all.  Because let's face it, if there's one thing that's bound to really bugger up the conference scene, it's not having a planet to hold them on.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 57

Nineties anime is a lot like peanut butter; you have to take the rough with the smooth.  Wait, no, that's not how peanut butter works, is it?  In fact, it's the exact opposite.  What I mean to say is that, however much smooth excellence you get, there's always going to be a bit of crunchy unpleasantness to mar the experience.  Although, thinking about it, I much prefer crunchy peanut butter to the slimy muck that is smooth peanut butter.  This is an awful simile!  The point I believe I was trying to make is that we have a moderately good selection this time around, but all of it comes with its share of flaws, much as having a slice of toast with mostly crunchy peanut butter and a bit of smooth smeared over one corner would be an ultimately disappointing experience.

No, still a dreadful simile!  This time around: Like the Clouds, Like the Wind, Jewel BEM Hunter Lime, Garzey's Wing, and Hyper Speed GranDoll...

Like the Clouds, Like the Wind, 1990, dir: Hisayuki Toriumi

From the perspective of 2019, it's hard to credit that there was a time when anime was so hard to come by in the West that a film could become known and yet be attributed to completely the wrong production studio.  But such, apparently, was the fate of Like the Clouds, Like the Wind, a production by Studio Pierrot for Nippon TV, adapting the recently published and award-winning novel Inner Palace Harem Story.  Partly due to a fan's subtitling mishap (who knew Hayao wasn't the only Miyazaki?) and partly due to the presence of Katsuya Kondō and his distinctive character designs, many incorrectly ascribed the movie to Studio Ghibli, who at that point had a considerably smaller body of work behind them and an infinitely smaller profile in the US and Europe.

On the one hand, it's an easily understood mix-up.  Like the Clouds, Like the Wind is extraordinarily lovely, far more so than almost any other animation was in 1990 that didn't have Ghibli's name on it.  (Had it been theirs, incidentally, it would have been sandwiched between Kiki's Delivery Service and Only Yesterday.)  Squint hard and it's possible to believe that it was made for television, but many a cinema release from the time doesn't hold up so well.  The backgrounds are lush, Kondō's designs are splendidly expressive, giving even the most insignificant characters a degree of inner life, and the animation is very fine indeed, not to mention integrated with the sort of attention to detail that you'd expect of a studio like Ghibli and almost nobody else.  Of course, in retrospect, 1990 was a pretty damn fine time for anime, and Pierrot were no slackers themselves, though perhaps there's not a lot else on their CV that's up to this level.  But heck, even the soundtrack could easily be mistaken for being by Joe Hisaishi, Miyazaki's frequent collaborator.

However, start to look at the story and the mistake seems harder to credit.  Of course, again, there was a good deal less to compare with, but the tale of peasant girl Ginga, who gets entirely the wrong idea about what it means to be a concubine in the court of a young new emperor and promptly sets out to volunteer her services, feels in many ways unlike something Ghibli would touch with a ten-foot pole.  Oh, you've the plucky, resourceful female protagonist who succeeds more through kindness and diligence than any innate talent, that part fits just fine.  But there's a special sort of tonal dissonance in what's ostensibly a kid's movie where the protagonist is a trainee royal concubine; it's not like the film skirts around what that job entails, or how little respect the world of ancient China had for girls like Ginga.  And it's fair to say that both Miyazaki and Takahata would have coped better with the harsh shifts between good-natured fun and political maneuvering, not to mention the screaming ninety-degree turn into sex, violence, and tragedy that is the third act.  I mean, okay, the sex is off screen and the violence is entirely bloodless, but still!  It's a shock.

Mind you, none of this should be taken to suggest that Like the Clouds, Like the Wind isn't worthy of your time, and especially so now that the good folks at Discotek have seen fit to resurrect it on blu-ray.*  The point is simply that it's a little too weird and structurally off and generally imperfect to stand being attributed to the mighty Ghibli.  If we were being seriously harsh, it's fair to say that director Toriumi does a solid but unspectacular job, never quite figuring out how to keep a story that's effectively all over the damn place on the rails.  Yet chaotic as it may be, it's still lovely and appealing and an all in all a marvelous piece of animation craft.  If it doesn't leap the impossibly high bar set by the studio it once got wrongly attributed to, it's good enough to be mentioned in the same breath, and there's not much anywhere in the world of animation that can say that.

Jewel BEM Hunter Lime, 1996, dir: Tetsurô Amino

Honestly, all Jewel BEM Hunter Lime had to do to get a little praise out of me was to be better than that title and that cover art suggest.  I mean, what on earth were they thinking?  Whose idea was it to scrawl "cute and sexy" in sharpie over the artwork?  Would Jewel Hunter Lime on its own not have been an incomprehensible enough title?  (BEM stands for Bug Eyed Monsters, though you have to pay awfully close attention to tease out that fact.)  If AnimeWorks were often slipshod, this release, an unfinished OVA tag-on to a video game lost to the annals of history, represents a new height of passing work off to the office intern and hoping nobody notices.

As such, the fact that Jewel BEM Hunter Lime is for the most part charming, and reasonably amusing, and actually has a rather clever comedy hook to it is both a pleasant and a disproportionate surprise.  Basically, the concept goes like this: in a mystical world parallel to ours, the hapless Lime and her demonic servant Bass inadvertently allow a casket of magical gems to plummet to earth, where they immediately begin turning into monsters and absorbing the negative energies of those around them.  Only, for the purposes of this show, that might mean taking on the embittered form of a candle that's sick of a world where electric lighting reigns, or a purse that doesn't know its purpose but has a vague idea that it's meant to do bad things.  In short, the monsters are goofy and surreal, and Lime and Bass's quest rapidly becomes more to do with teasing out their bewildering logic.

This side of things is just fine, and even a bit inspired in its best moments, and the technical values, while never impressive, are good enough to not get in the way; the weakest aspect on that front is a score that leans too hard into being self-consciously wacky.  Still, if Jewel BEM Hunter Lime was all about Lime and Bass's blundering attempts to catch weird monsters with weirder grudges, I'd happily recommend it.  Unfortunately, rather than focus on its one moderately original idea, the creators seem eager to tap into some of the crapper trends of nineties anime humour.  Boy, have "jokes" where Bass gropes Lime and Lime gets a bit indignant not aged well!  And things come to a head in the last of the three episodes, which manages to double down on all that while adding a hefty dose of transphobia to the brew.  Even if that doesn't bother you, it's still an awfully lackluster finale, indulging in gags that had been done to death half a decade earlier and ignoring most of what succeeded in the first two thirds.  Which is a shame, because an hour and a half on a level of the adorably silly first two episodes would have made it worth looking past AnimeWorks' efforts to make sure no-one would ever want to watch Jewel BEM Hunter Lime.

Garzey's Wing, 1996, dir: Yoshiyuki Tomino

Despite being written by and directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino, he of much Gundam fame, and despite being a tie-in to the popular series Aura Battler Dunbine, Garzey's Wing is generally regarded by critics with outright contempt.  And heck, there's a perfectly good chance you too will hate it, but let's not rush to conclusions!  Because I think I've devised a little test that should clarify that fact.  Do you a) insist on choosing dubs over subs and b) have any tolerance for the sort of fantasy that throws made-up names at you with machine-gun regularity?  If your answers were yes and no, you will indeed probably consider Garzey's Wing to be among the worst things ever, since it has a spectacularly shambolic dub and the sort of vocabulary you'd end up with if you threw a dozen trashy seventies fantasy novels into a blender for ten minutes.

And here ends the "respecting critical consensus" portion of this review, because, as someone who'd never put up with a bad dub when subtitles were available and who has no real issue with silly fantasy terminology if it's justified, I liked Garzey's Wing just fine.  In fact, I suspect a lot of what I liked was a lot of what's generally despised.  But before we go there, let's glance at the plot: our teenage hero Chris finds his soul sucked from his body, and seconds later he's in the deeply fantastical land of Byston Well, accompanied by a fairy - apologies, a Ferario - and fighting in what appears to be a slave rebellion, aided by giant magical swan wings that sprout from his ankles.  He soon discovers that he's been summoned by the priestess of the Metomeus tribe, as the latest in a series of mythic heroes aided by the power known as Garzey's Wing, to help liberate them and vanquish their oppressors.

Utter fantasy boilerplate then, but the show has a few tricks up its sleeve, and quite the original take on the "hero summoned from another world" template that's become so achingly familiar.  For a start, only Chris's spirit is in Byston Well, the rest of him is functioning perfectly adequately back home, though manifesting the various bruises and injuries his ethereal half suffers.  Indeed, the two can even communicate via the necklace they wear, which means corporeal Chris can offer spirit Chris tips on military strategy, chemistry, and even the construction of guns, all useful information when you're fighting a guerrilla war.  Which is essentially what Garzey's Wing boils down to: a three episode rolling conflict with a hugely disadvantaged force using every trick in the book and a few that aren't to keep themselves free and on the run.

This aspect is great stuff, and Chris makes for a surprisingly terrific hero.  For every scene he's being a chosen one with unearned magical powers, there are ten where he's simply doing his best at whatever the cost and trying to apply twentieth-century ingenuity to the problems of fantasy-land warfare.  The result is bloody, chaotic, desperate-seeming, and also, to my mind, the justification for all of that nonsense terminology: Chris is thrust into this madness without compass or anchor and therefore so are we.  There's precisely one scene that went too far into word salad for my tolerance, but generally it's easy enough to keep track of who's who and what's what if you concentrate.

Look, I don't want to oversell the thing.  Clichéd fantasy is still clichéd fantasy, even when it has the nous to upend a few of those clichés in interesting ways.  And while the animation is perfectly fine, it's never mind-blowing, nor is it aided greatly by Tomino's presence as director.  His experience certainly shows, but this is the work more of a solid but unspectacular storyteller than an established master.  It's simply an ingenious take on a well-worn idea, which sacrifices traditional narrative in favour of a ninety-minute-long fight for survival - and one which, unfortunately, U. S. Manga Corps saw fit to saddle with a dub so catastrophic that it's entered into anime legend.  One of the reasons I insist on loving U. S. Manga Corps, though, even when they don't altogether deserve it?  They always provided a sub too.  And I'd hazard that if, on this occasion, they'd kept it to just that, Garzey's Wing might be remembered with mild fondness.

Hyper Speed GranDoll, 1997, dir: Hideki Tonokatsu

The problem isn't so much that Hyper Speed GranDoll tries to do too many things, but that none of them are even slightly original and it does every one badly.  Anime often flits between genres and lumps together tropes, and it's perfectly possible that a release could cram comedy, space opera, romance, heart-rending tragedy, and robotic suit action into one perfectly successful mix; in fact, I've seen plenty of shows that do.  Heck, even the vigorous lifting of elements from elsewhere needn't be that huge a problem; the biggest point of reference is clearly Project A-Ko, and it's not as if A-Ko was a touchstone of originality in its own right.  No, the only irreparable problem here is that it seems like nobody involved gave enough of a damn to inject a bit of life.

Actually, I say that; there's a vein of humour that works pretty well, and the show's willingness to ditch it within an episode for totally unearned drama is its most frustrating failing.  The setup - a high-school girl finds that she's not the daughter of the mad scientist father and ditzy mother she believes to be her parents, but actually the princess of a galactic dynasty, and now the rebel leader who took down said dynasty is after the invincible armour system sent with her to guard her - is absolutely generic nineties anime.  But mad science can be funny, and that most of what our heroine Hikaru's adoptive dad devotes his inventive energies to is trying to help her run her life while actually making it hellish is a fun notion.  As such, the first ten minutes of the first episode are by far the most entertaining.

Then Hyper Speed GranDoll goes downhill, and more or less keeps going for the next hour and change.  Simply put, no other element is worth a damn.  The science-fiction back story is muddled and largely irrelevant; the fights are outrageously simplistic, and the romance falls flat, perhaps because neither party has an identifiable character trait between them.  Worst, surely, is the plot line that starts in episode two, in which the villain's lover poses as a student at Hikaru's school and they become friends, to the point of a bath scene so gratuitous that it actually undermines the wider story, since the two are clearly way more into each other than they are their respective menfolk.  Anyway, this character, who's name I can't be bothered to look up, is one we're clearly supposed to become invested in, to the point where her inevitable choice of whether to betray Hikaru or her psychotic, mass-murdering lover is a big enough deal to hang the entire climax on.  This, as you may have guessed, doesn't work one teeny bit.

Oh, and the animation is mediocre at best, and the designs are mostly horrible: the GranDoll suit is possibly the least intimidating thing imaginable, for all that it has an attack called "shining breast" that you can probably figure out for yourself - though even that's not half so interesting as it sounds!  And the music, even the end theme, never rises beyond the level of acceptable.  But when you get right down to it, it's the unsupportable shift from wacky lightheartedness to high-stakes violence and misery that the show simply can't survive.  A version of Hyper Speed GranDoll that remembers to be fun for its entire running time would at least be, well, fun.  The one we get, that seems to believe anyone's going to care deeply about it's drab plot or tiresome characters or wholly predictable battle for the fate of the earth is entirely a waste of time.


That was a weird old batch!  Nothing quite turned out to be what I expected, except possibly for Like the Clouds, Like the Wind, and even that was a good deal stranger than I'd anticipated.  I'd assumed Jewel BEM Hunter Lime would be ridiculous tosh, and it came awfully close to being a charming little comedy; I'd had high hopes of Hyper Speed GranDoll, for reasons I've totally forgotten, and it was so mediocre that it made me kind of angry.  And Garzey's Wing, widely considered to be one of the worst anime releases from the decade - well, I surely didn't think that would end up being a keeper.  It just goes to show something, though I'm buggered if I can say what.  Probably that I ought to watch more nineties anime.  Yeah, let's go with that.

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

* Though brownie points lost for the incredibly vanilla blu-ray and the fact that, while the picture looks just fine, the sound appears not to have been remastered and is pretty much a mess.

Thursday, 17 October 2019

My Fantasycon 2019 Schedule

I've been largely skiving from the convention scene this year, and 2019 might even have proved to be the first year in goodness knows how long that I didn't go to any at all, but a recent bit of (as yet undisclosed!) good news spurred me to take the leap and, as the kids say, get me some Fantasycon.  And at time of writing, I'm glad I did, since I've managed to blag my way onto a lot of fun, interesting stuff over the course of the weekend.  Here's what that looks like:

Friday 7pm - Scotland on Screen (with Allen Stroud, Shona Kinsella & Heather Valentine)
Highlanders, Outlanders, Trainspotters, Scots! The best of Genre film that draws on Scotland for inspiration, direct or otherwise.
Honestly, I'm not sure there's forty-five minutes of subject matter here, and yet, of all my three panels, this is the one I'm most excited for, partly because I love talking movies and partly because I love even more talking about obscure movies, and this has the scope to get pretty damn obscure!

Sat 1pm - YA genre fiction (with AK Faulkner & Ian Hunter)
Writing it, reading it, what works, what doesn’t, and how it overlaps with fiction marketed towards older and younger readers. What do you want to see more of? What gives it a sustained home in our hearts?
Whereas this is theoretically safe territory, except that my approach to writing for young adults is just to write for adults and hope no-one ever calls me out on it.

Sat 3pm - Person or Pet? (with RJ Barker Katherine Inskip & Jacey Bedford )
Sentient non-humans, nonsentient pets, soulbonds and free will in fantasy stories. The panel explore the muddy waters of how we treat non-human characters, and the problematic issues of consent tied into these tropes
In which I'll be talking a lot about a certain floating eyeball companion who, as up-to-date Black River Chronicles readers will know, is steadily getting that series' weirdest plot line.  Yes, it's the Pootle panel!

Sat 5.45pm - Reading

Though actually, due to an apparent programming snafu, my slot amounts to eight minutes or so somewhere between half five and six o'clock, since there are three of us crammed in there.  Then again, I have Pete Sutton and Ramsey Campbell as more than respectable company, and I'm sure that if I talk fast I can get through a page or three.  It'll almost certainly be from the newly out A Savage Generation, assuming I don't forget to bring a copy.

Sat 10pm - Dungeons & Disorderly D3: Vault of the Cow (with David Thomas Moore, Mike Brooks, Ali Nouraei, Stewart Hotston & Jonathan Oliver)
The Terrifying Sorcerer of Terrifying Evil has been defeated, the Sheep on the Borderlands sheared and penned, and the Temple of Elemental Weevils properly fumigated. It is time to venture in the Underdork! In module D3, Vault of the Cow, the players will clash with the sinister, mysterious race known only as The Cow of the Underdark...
Very likely to be the highlight of my event weekend, this, since David Thomas Moore's surreal, audience-interactive role-playing pastiche proved great fun last year, when my barbarian accountant managed to save the day (or possibly undermine the entire quest, I can't exactly remember) by realising at the last minute that our party had gone over budget.  Incidentally, gang, I'm still waiting on your expenses claim forms, and no, Lembas bread is not tax deductible.


So that's me.  I'll be around from around six on the Friday, assuming that by some rare miracle the British transport system doesn't fail me, and ducking out at banquet-time on the Sunday, since banquets are a tool of the wealthy oppressor and not for us impoverished writer types.  (Okay, it's mainly because I want to get home in time for tea.)  Do find me and say hello if you're there, and assuming I genuinely don't forget, I might have a few budget copies of A Savage Generation to sell to anyone who's interested.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

A Savage Generation Reviews Round-Up

A Savage Generation has been out for a couple of weeks now and has already gathered itself a smattering of reviews, so I thought I'd compile them here for anyone who's on the fence about grabbing a copy.  Fortunately, they mostly seem to be very positive, and a couple are seriously glowing, so clearly the consensus is that you should!

Given how far outside my usual wheelhouse this one is, it was reassuring to discover that a couple of people I know to be familiar with my wider work hadn't been put off.  Andy Angel, who blogs at Ebookwyrm's BlogCave, must have read just about everything I've written, as he himself says: "I'll admit I'm a big fan of Tallerman and his writing in various genres, I've been reading him for years."  So that he concluded, "I tell it as it is and this is one of his best" means a lot!  The same goes for Theresa Derwin's very thorough (and five star) review on Goodreads, which I'd recommend to anyone who wants to get a solid sense of what the book's about, since it does a great job of setting out the major characters, conflicts, and themes.  And she wraps up by saying that "It’s an excellent novel and there were genuinely tense moments throughout, as well as some great characters.  Another great book from Tallerman."

Of course, you can never be totally certain that people you've met aren't sparing your feelings ever so slightly, so it's reassuring to get a similar response from total strangers!  There's a nice, in-depth write-up at The Coy Caterpillar Reads which begins "The book world is rife with Post-Apocalyptic novels of zombies, disease and despair.  A Savage Generation cracks that mould and gives us something alarmingly real" and ends "Overall, this one of the best Post-Apocalyptic novels I have had the pleasure of reading."  But perhaps my favourite of the exceedingly positive reviews is the one from Bekah's Bookshelves, which states that "I read a lot of post apocalyptic fiction and I'd say this book is up there with the better ones."  While the reviewer struggled to start with - "Initially it was a little difficult to connect with the characters as the book switches POV quite frequently" - she urges that it's worth sticking with to "...see all these different characters come together in unexpected ways" and wraps up, "I highly recommend this book..."

Not quite so positive or detailed, but still definitely on the thumbs up side of things, there's the review at The Bookwormery, which notes, "...while this does feel like an episode of The Walking Dead, there is so much more to it. Yes the Sickers are out there and if they bite, scratch or spit on you, you will get infected, BUT, this is also about children, and how they are affected, left to pretty much fend for themselves while the adults plot and fight amongst themselves and the Sickers."  And Booker T's Farm awards 3 paws, which I think is a fairly good amount of paws, and says, "I found "A Savage Generation" to be a very action-packed, speedy read.  I was invested in what was happening to most of the characters," adding, "I felt an attachment to some while others I not-so-secretly wished would meet then demise."  Given how horrid a few of them are, that seems fair enough to me!

Inevitably, there were bound to be people who didn't dig A Savage Generation quite so much, and one of those was The Caffeinated Reader, though they're nice enough to point out that the only real reason was down to personal taste: "I would have enjoyed this SO much more if it hadn’t been in the present tense and I have to say because it was I found it a struggle to get through, just solely on that. Because the plot is interesting, the characters are stereotypical but I’m not looking for unique ones in a zombie story, they’re appropriately awesome and simultaneously scared sh**less when the time calls for it."  In fact, does that even count as a negative review?  They even add that "it’s not the book, it’s me" which seems awfully fair-minded.  So that only leaves Dark Reads, and even they didn't exactly hate it.  While they "...found the story slow moving and ... didn’t get the suspense and excitement I would usually get from this type of book" the reviewer does go on to say that "overall ... the premise, imagery and writing were good, this one just didn’t work for me on an emotional level."

So there we go!  A fair bit of love, a lot of liking, and a couple of folks who didn't get on with A Savage Generation but were nice enough to point out that maybe the book wasn't altogether at fault.  Given some of the bizarre reviews I've had before now - yes, person who gave the second Black River book one star based on the synopsis, I'm thinking of you! - I'm pretty happy with that.  And if you've been won over, you can find A Savage Generation at all the usual stockists, in e-book, audiobook, paperback and really lovely hardback edition.