Monday, 29 April 2019

Eye of the Observer Has a Cover

I tell you, it's been excruciating watching Kim Van Deun's phenomenal cover for the third Black River novel, Eye of the Observer, taking shape and not being able to share it - I mean, outside of sticking my phone under people's noses whenever a new version came through, that is.

One of my personal goals with this series is that each book will be something very different from the others, and that extends to the covers too, which means Kim dealing with even weirder demands that just, "Okay, this time we need to have the party squaring up to a giant eyeball."  And I continue to be in awe of how much he rises to those challenges.  Honestly, there's no way to sum up how much time and effort and - on Kim's part, anyway - how much skill and imagination goes into these things.  But then, probably I don't need to, right?  I'm pretty sure the results speak for themselves, and they're right there.

Another aspect that made this particular cover that bit  trickier was spoilers - or rather, the avoidance thereof, since there are some major twists and turns along the way.  I think we struck a pretty good compromise, all told.  I mean, if you've read the first two books, I'd hope you're wondering what the heck's going on here.  Is that Pootle?  Or another observer?  Are they about to fight or is that how people pose when they're making friends in the world of the Black River Chronicles?  And where did Arein get that cool new staff from?  The answers are, of course: read the book.  Which you should be able to do very soon, since I delivered the final, edited files a few days ago.

At any rate, as much as I love this new cover, I don't love it quite so much as the full and uncut version that doesn't have my stupid name blocking a good chunk of Kim's gorgeous artwork.  So here's what that looks like...

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 48

Nineties anime saw its share of megafranchises, those properties that for whatever reason managed to massively capture the attention and affection of Japanese audiences, and some of them we've touched on already; Urusei Yatsura, Ranma 1/2, and Ah My Goddess! to name but three.  Well, here's another, and indeed one of the most enduring: Tenchi Muyo!, which began life as a short OVA, would explode to the point where you can only really discuss it nowadays with reference to the Tenchiverse, a scope so broad that it takes in multiple series, incompatible timelines, and a handful of spin-offs.  In fact, Photon: The Idiot Adventures, which I reviewed favourably a while back, apparently exists within that very universe.  In short, Tenchi Muyo! was pretty damn huge, and pretty well loved.  But does that mean it's any good?

By way of answering that question, let's have a gander at the first two Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki OVAs, and the films Tenchi Muyo in LoveDaughter of Darkness, and Tenchi Forever...

Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki OVAs 1 & 2, 1992 - 1995, dir: Hiroki Hayashi

If I were trying to sell a nineties anime show to you, "It's one of the main progenitors of the harem comedy subgenre" certainly isn't the first place I'd go.  Yet here we are, and here Tenchi Muyo is, and there's no getting around the fact: this is a show about one guy surrounded by a bunch of women, most of whom have crushes on him to various degrees, and that's a formula that's because awfully ubiquitous.  The guy in question is Tenchi, you'll be shocked to discover, and the women who flock around him are many and varied: there's space pirate Ryoko, alien princess Ayeka, her little sister Sasami, ditzy space cop Mihoshi, and - my personal favourite - centuries-old mad scientist Washu.

Now, I've grumbled before about mere comedy love triangles in anime, so you can imagine my feelings on that convention with four female characters rather than two (Sasami, fortunately, is content to view Tenchi as more of a big brother.)  Thank goodness, then, that Tenchi Muyo! has an ace up its sleeve: it's terrific science fiction, and perhaps more importantly, feels no need to draw attention to the fact.  It's made clear, without ever being outright stated, that the space-faring races in this universe have develop to the point where they can do more or less anything they like.  Wooden spaceships that are basically sentient trees?  Other spaceships that turn into small rabbity creatures?  Organic robots?  Genetic manipulation?  Phasing through walls?  Sure, why the hell not!  It's tremendously high concept stuff, which the comedy elements sort of nestle inside and rub up against, as though Friends were taking place in the world of Banks's Culture series.  And though the former does sometimes get a bit tiresome, it always gives way to the latter just in time.

It helps, too, that with the exception of the dull and horridly designed Tenchi himself, the characters are rather splendid.  Ryoko, with her dodgy past, thoroughly screwy moral compass, and vague attempts toward moral reform, is a highlight, and one of the rare occasions I've seen nudity used to develop character: there's something kind of terrific about the way she doesn't give one ounce of a damn about whether she has clothes on or not.  Mihoshi the space cop is plenty fun, and as I said above, Washu is brilliant from the moment she appears.  She's the only character who flat-out sexually propositions Tenchi, which is something you almost never see in anime, and she's also an unapologetic scientific genius who happens also to be female, which is something you almost never see anywhere in film or TV.

In short, then, this first incarnation of Tenchi Muyo! is good stuff, and - while I didn't altogether fall in love with it the way I have some other major franchises from the time - well worth the effort of hunting out.  And that, as it turns out, isn't outrageously difficult, since it's all been re-released recently and the original set by Pioneer (or MVM in the UK) is still floating about too.  All incarnations seem to lump the first two OVA series together as one, which is why I've reviewed them together.  They certainly work well as a single thirteen episode story, at least if you ignore the brief cliffhanger that concludes that thirteenth episode.

Tenchi the Movie: Tenchi Muyo in Love, 1996, dir: Hiroshi Negishi

It didn't take the Tenchi franchise long to get its first movie: a year after the second OVA series wrapped, the incomprehensibly named Tenchi Muyo in Love arrived in cinemas.  And to its credit, a cinema release it certainly is: among its virtues, it's visually a step up from the already good-looking OVAs, with some stunning backgrounds, smoother character animation, and a couple of really knock-out sequences, particularly toward the climax.  It also has a proper movie plot, rather than something that feels like an elongated episode: the escape of a time-and-space traveling criminal finds the gang shunted into the past to try and protect Tenchi's mother, since she's disappearing from old images of herself and Tenchi's beginning to vanish along with her.

And okay, so that big movie plot is just the plot of Back to the Future, but what the heck?  It's a change of scene, and it gives some backbone and a note of urgency to the usual high-jinx.  Particularly fun are the early sequences of Ryoko, Ayeka, and Sasami trying to pass themselves off as new arrivals; whoever thought Sasami would make for a convincing substitute teacher, or that Ryoko and Ayeka could get along as a pair of new students?  It's silly stuff, but the meaningful narrative ticking away in the background helps make the comedy a relief rather than the clowning for its own sake that makes the odd weaker OVA episode something of a chore.

With all that, it's fair to say that if you have any affection for the franchise, you'll like Tenchi Muyo in Love.  Whether you'll get anything from it as a new arrival to the show is another matter, though I'm inclined to think not.  It doesn't do a thing to reintroduce the characters or explain crucial back story, and the fish-out-of-water comedy is going to resonate a lot less if you don't have the usual setup to compare with.  At any rate, while the film is definitely likable, it's perhaps not lovable.  Part of that is that the concept doesn't really hold up: there's fundamentally no reason for the villain to be striking at this point in the past, beyond an excuse to thrust the gang into high school and let them interfere with Tenchi's parents' attempts at getting together.  And the villain, though stunningly designed, turns out to be awfully nothingy.  I'd struggle to tell you what their motivations were or how they thought any of this would accomplish them.

However, the kicker is MVM's uncharacteristically crappy delivery: Tenchi Muyo in Love was spat out in a somewhat smudgy non-anamorphic print, meaning that unless you still have an old 4:3 TV kicking around, it's going to float in the centre of your telly looking like crap.  If you're in the US, you can shell out for the blu-ray box set, but it's not cheap, and I'm not sure if even that would turn a good movie into a great movie.  It's a fun, though flawed, diversion that both respects and adds to its source material, and it's only a shame that nobody thought to sit down and work out what the hell was going on with its disappointingly run-of-the-mill bad guy.

Tenchi the Movie 2: Daughter of Darkness, 1997, dir: Satoshi Kimura

I don't know what precise status Daughter of Darkness had at the time of its release, but considering it a movie in the sense that Tenchi Muyo in Love was a movie feels like one heck of a stretch.  It's barely an hour in length, does nothing to follow up on the established continuity, is somewhat less well animated than the OVA series, and apparently is barely even regarded as canonical due to almost none of the established creative team being involved.  Also, it isn't very good.

The central problem is the basic concept, which is rather a large central problem to have.  Essentially, Tenchi meets a teenage girl who, though she has no memory of anything else, insists she recognises him as her father.  Thanks to visions of a weird goblin creature living in some sort of interdimensional den, we have a fair idea that this is nonsense, and there's every reason to think that Tenchi and the gang would arrive at the same conclusion, especially given how the OVAs have established that cloning and the creation of robotic duplicates are roughly as easy to the scientific minds of the Tenchiverse as making toast is to us.  But of course then we wouldn't get the hilarity of watching Ryoko and Ayeka go nuts over the possibility that Mayuka really is Tenchi's daughter, perhaps from the future or another timeline.  And we wouldn't get scene after scene of Mayuka being brainwashed into getting into uncomfortably sexual situations with her supposed father.  Oh, the hilarity!  No, there's no hilarity, that was a lie.

It is, in short, a stupid concept that basically dooms itself to failure from the off, and it's somewhat surprising that the film does actually manage to milk the odd good scene from it.  In particular, there are some nice moments of character development, some of them rather mature and serious, that while they don't feel well-placed in this here story, are a meaningful addition to the canon as a whole.  And while the movie doesn't look especially good in general - subpar animation aside, it's another crappy non-anamorphic release from our friends at MVM - there's at least some terrific design work toward the end, when we get to see the dark dimension that's behind all this nonsense.  In fact, it's fair to say that Daughter of Darkness backloads its best material, which is always a wise course and leaves it looking a little better in memory than it probably was.  As such, while it's thoroughly skippable and certainly not worth a moment's thought if you're not familiar with at least the first OVA, it's not so bad as to be a waste of time if you're on a Tenchi binge.  All else aside, the fact that it succeeds on occasions to do right by its characters in ways the OVAs and first movie didn't always accomplish narrowly justifies its existence.

Tenchi the Movie 3: Tenchi Forever, 1999, dir: Hiroshi Negishi

I've suggested before that there are essentially two directions you can take a film adaptation of a much-loved property: the one that tries to recreate a successful formula as precisely as possible or the one that tramples that formula and kicks it out the window.  The latter, for obvious reasons, is rarer, though not half so rare in anime as elsewhere: you could argue that Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer is the pinnacle for that particular approach.  But Tenchi Forever comes awfully close, both in quality and for its insistence in refusing to do a single one of the things you might expect from the climax of a long-running and much-loved harem comedy.

And oh how I hate that term, and oh how I admire Tenchi Forever for apparently hating it too!  My least favourite moments in all of Tenchi Muyo involved two strong, smart, capable female characters bickering like children over a man who was essentially a child himself, and hadn't a drop of personality to justify their behaviour, and it's awfully telling that this third film has precisely one such scene: a particularly bratty bit of business in which Ryoko and Ayeka finally insist that Tenchi ought to pick between them, and Tenchi storms off, only to vanish mysteriously and so set in motion the entire plot.

The thing is, they're right: in the OVAs, Tenchi resolutely refuses to address a situation in which two women with openly strong feelings for him are living in the same house and constantly demeaning themselves in an attempt to get his attention.  He deals with the problem by ignoring it, and so the show can continue.  But this was to be the end of all things Tenchi Muyo, and that means something truly extraordinary can happen: Tenchi can grow up.  I don't want to spoil the plot, because it benefits hugely from being met with no foreknowledge, but suffice to say that it sees Tenchi in a complex and adult relationship, and immediately makes him a hundred times more likable and engaging as a result.  Even more shockingly, it allows Ryoko and Ayeka to mature, to put their ridiculous differences aside, and even to cooperate.

Oh, and it looks and sounds fantastic.  New character designs are a masterclass in keeping what works and kicking out what doesn't: Tenchi's is the biggest improvement, but Ryoko's is the best on its own merits, giving her both a grittiness and a hint of vulnerability and even making her slightly more alien.  Similar attention has gone into the backgrounds, which are reliably superb, and the animation, which is terrific but for the odd minor hiccup.  And Tsuneyoshi Saito's score, which sounds like it's wandered in from a breezy French drama, is perfectly attuned to the material in all sorts of interesting and unexpected ways.

In short, Tenchi Forever is great on all fronts except one: it's arguably a terrible Tenchi Muyo movie.  It distorts the characters about as far as it can get away with, gives most of them precious little to do, and devotes its attention to a character that hasn't been mentioned up until this point and a setting that's a world away from the show's familiar trappings.  There's not much in the way of comedy, and it sidelines the space opera side of things too, which I probably ought to be bothered about.  But you know what, I'm not!  This is a genuinely excellent film - bar the odd OVA episode, the franchise's only real flirtation with genuine excellence - and awfully close to classic status, held back only by the fact that it would be unwatchable without some knowledge of what's come before and a suspicion that it will lose a lot on a rewatching, wedded to its central mystery as it is.  But hey, I may be wrong, and even if I'm not, this was an awfully exciting note to end my deep dive into the Tenchiverse on.


So that was Tenchi Muyo! huh?  Well, no, I barely scraped the surface here, even of what was produced in the nineties.  But within our already way too flexible rules, that's as far as we get: everything else was series that would take far too long to dig into.  And anyway, this seems like a nice place to walk away.  After slightly mixed feelings throughout the OVAs and the first two films, Tenchi Forever was a splendid note to end on, and I'd hate to spoil that.

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