Samurai Jack and Jill

Recently I saw A Boy and His Samurai, a Japanese movie about a samurai who inadvertently time travels to the present day. Don’t ask how, you didn’t really care how the thingy worked in Big or Freaky Friday, did you? In fact, structurally it’s a lot like Big, with the magic at the start, the funny stuff early on followed by the serious adult stuff, then the magic again to wrap things up.

So it’s a comedy-drama – the samurai gets taken in by a single mother and swears fealty to her as her feudal retainer, then as time goes on he becomes an up and coming pastry chef. There are the expected fish out of water jokes, but the movie’s also a thoughtful examination of class and gender in the 21st century, particularly how modern society is still structured around the nuclear family while steadily breaking down the systems that produce nuclear families. The film’s not a didactic women’s studies manifesto, but it does illustrate exactly how tough it is to be a single parent and how gender and class expectations tie into that difficulty, all wrapped up with a sweet story about a boy finding a surrogate father.

Philadelphia, a.k.a. my sister can’t be this beloved

You know, I just realized I never got around to posting my review of Oreimo. Well, enjoy.

The titular little sister Kirino leaning forward in the foreground while the older brother Kyousuke glares at her behind her back with his arms crossed

My biggest surprise in recent (read: 2014) anime discoveries has been Oreimo, a.k.a. My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute. I had written it off as borderline wank material but my brother kept insisting I should try it out. And yes, there’s fanservice, but not the sexual kind (okay, there’s a gratuitous panty shot in the second episode).

The series is about a high school guy who discovers that his otherwise perfect overachiever of a sister is addicted to pornographic computer games, specifically the subgenre of incest porn where the male protagonists nail their younger sisters. He understandably freaks the fuck out, especially since his sister hates his guts. Then he discovers that his little sister is into the porn for its emotional content, which is to say that she’s enamoured of the idea of having a little sister of her own.

The series is one of the few anime that shows being into geek shit is actually not a mainstream thing in Japan. The fanservice, then, is in the show’s depiction of the little sister as the ideal otaku: well-adjusted, popular, and good-looking. Actually I can see that she’s more like the otaku’s ideal girlfriend, like an independent invention of that male nerd fantasy – the girl geek. And there’s even an episode where the sister defends her hobby to her judgmental father.

The fantasy of the series, the yearning that informs every episode, is the desire for acceptance. Well, there’s also the fantasy of a girl who appreciates the misunderstood target audience, which I will acknowledge as not a fantasy I care about. But once you can see what the series was going for then perhaps you might be able to appreciate the story for itself.

As always, your mileage may vary.

PS

I have since been informed that the anime takes a jarringly squicky turn near the end. Heads up for all you watchers out there. For now, I’ll stand by my recommendation, as being 80% good is still an A in most grading schemes.

The boy who quantum leaped through time

I’ve been watching way less anime lately. Of the handful of shows I’m watching this season, I’d say Erased is the best. It’s got a pretty cool opening, as is to be expected of Asian Kung-Fu Generation:

Erased is about a 29 year old pizza delivery man who has the involuntary ability to go back in time to fix tragedies. Normally he only returns for a few minutes but when something really bad happens he ends up as a 10 year old boy again living the weeks before one of his classmates was abducted and killed.

There seems to be a lot of stories lately about pathetic single men in their twenties returning to their childhood to fix their lives. It’s obviously a wish-fulfillment fantasy – if you look at the biographies of the writers, the ones who don’t have agoraphobia or social anxiety are horrifically underemployed Millenials. This desire to return to a simpler time and set right what first went wrong is the desire of a person who feels like a grownup loser.

It’s a specifically male story, as women are pretty much raised from birth to expect to play second fiddle in their own lives. The traditional route of female adulthood is of subordination to others, after all, to future husbands and to children that must be raised. Offhand, I can only think of one female lead who time leaps back, in the manga Again!! In that case she was just inadvertently brought along when the male protagonist got a chance to fix his high school shit, and otherwise didn’t want to time travel in the first place.

Of course, the writers of stories that get adapted into anime clearly aren’t doing too badly. But the stories couldn’t have gotten so popular if their audiences weren’t finding in them something to relate to. This type of story could only have been written in an economic climate where the young can expect to be underpaid and underappreciated for not being born in better times. It’s the basic story of the 21st century so far. Kind of a depressing thought, isn’t it?

Future Imperfect

I love point-and-click adventure games. I love walking around their worlds and clicking “look” on each piece of background scenery, I love talking to every character I come across, and I even love obtuse inventory puzzles that leave me wondering how the hell a rubber ducky is supposed to help me get on a subway train. This is not a rational love but one born from the nostalgia of a person who played a lot of Sierra adventure games as a kid.

But art does not exist in a vacuum. Audiences always bring their prior experiences with them when encountering a text. Keeping in mind my partiality toward its genre, I must say this: I like Technobabylon.

Said the cyborg bouncer with the mohawk:

Part police procedural, part conspiracy thriller, and wholly a sci-fi cyberpunk journey through a decadent city of sorrow and sin, Technobabylon is a pleasant return to the old adventure and puzzle gaming formula. You play as three main characters: a curmudgeonly police detective hostile to the newfangled AI that governs his city (like a white Bill Cosby, minus the rape), his younger and more enthusiastic post-op (actually post-genetic-engineering) female-to-male partner who’s down with the hacking and the tweeting and the bipping and the bopping, and an unemployed shut-in on welfare addicted to the Internet who subsists on protein sludge extruded from her shitty apartment’s food machine. Also there’s a murderous plot which could lead all the way to the top. Continue reading “Future Imperfect”

Self and sensibility

Well, holy shit but Selfie is hilarious. Or rather, it was hilarious, as it was cancelled halfway through its first season. I acknowledge that the pilot was kind of rough, most notably in the misogyny carried over from its source material. What else can you expect from an adaptation of My Fair Lady? But even by the second episode the quality shot up through the roof. I like how the series consistently showed that it was not just Eliza but Henry as well who needed to learn how to be a better person. John Cho’s standoffish workaholic and Karen Gillan’s shallow social media obsessive both reveal emotional complexity that carry their characters beyond mere caricatures. This is thanks in large part to the actors. It certainly helps that they look great together. And it’s sad that so much praise for the show revolves around the unconventional decision to make an Asian man the male lead in an interracial romantic comedy (white guy with Asian woman is far more common), just because it’s 2015 and it shouldn’t be unusual to show Asian men as desirable romantic partners.

The show just had so much potential. The supporting characters were strong and I can’t think of any weak actors in the cast. The show’s slightly cartoonish universe and the way that characters often spoke in rhyme make its world just a bit more like a musical, and the complex and layered allusions are all significant in helping decode what’s going on in each episode. It reminds me a bit of The Simpsons in how references can be both from high and low culture, mixing Gwen Stefani and Philip Roth together for audiences to laugh at.

The show was going places before its untimely demise. This bums me out. So long, Selfie. You were too good for this world.

PS

I’m slightly alarmed now since Selfie is one of those great but cancelled shows that the Onion AV Club hive mind keeps mentioning. Does that mean all of those other things people yell about in the TV Club comments are also this good? Should I have already seen Bunheads and Terriers? I’m not even finished watching season 2 of Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23 yet! How could I survive watching so many great shows that were killed too soon? I don’t think I can take this much heartache.

I have walked 500 miles

Above a port city of soaring spires hangs a female rogue on a rope spanning the blue sky and aims a throwing knife offscreen while in the background a woman on a balcony looks out at the sea.
This scene never took place in the game.

I think I’m more than halfway through Baldur’s Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal. I’ve been playing the Baldur’s Gate series off and on ever since I loaded up the first game probably eight or nine years ago. I used the Baldur’s Gate Trilogy mod to have BG1 run through the BG2 engine, so essentially I’ve been playing a single run of a computer role-playing game for most of a decade. With the end fast approaching I wanted to take a look back at the highlights of my run. Call it a greatest hits compilation. Continue reading “I have walked 500 miles”

Able Archer ’83

I finally got around to watching the German miniseries Deutschland 83. I love spy stories and this show really scratched my itch. The premise is similar to The Americans, except it’s about an East German spy infiltrating the West German branch of NATO.

It’s a lot more devoted to the material aspects of historical fidelity, which is to say that it’s scrupulous in showing the knickknacks and gewgaws that signify the 1980s to audiences in the 21st century. Plus the spy stuff is more realistic, since a military attache to a highly-placed general in the Bundeswehr is more likely to find worthwhile secrets than a travel agent in DC. But like its US counterpart, this show is also devoted to having a contemporaneous musical soundtrack. At times the music can get rather on the nose and overbearing – I mean, yeah, I know this is the 80s, quit beating me over the head with it.

The personal stuff, more often than not, didn’t do it for me. I kind of got bored and sometimes a bit confused at the stuff dealing with the protagonist’s girlfriend and mother back in East Germany; similarly I got a tad annoyed with the West German general’s son. The amping up of the family drama near the end dragged down the climax for me, as I much preferred the spy versus spy stuff.

Overall, though, I enjoyed watching this show. I’m looking forward to the sequel series set in 1986, with a possible third part in ’89.

Back in time

The manga Luca, The Summer I Shared With You is essentially a love letter to classic Western sci-fi, with most of the chapters being titled after science fiction classics. The throwback atmosphere is probably why I liked this book so much.

The story itself is about a teenage boy whose sister’s mind has been replaced by that of a soldier from the future trying to prevent a disaster. It feels kind of like a mid-century sci-fi juvenile novel, especially with the focus on the made-up science and the way the protagonist is always coldly rational, though the weird time travel sex shit is more like Heinlein’s adult works.

But hey, the art is great.

Bottom line? I loved this manga, warts and all.

The people without history

Well, it’s official: there will be no third season of Spice & Wolf.

What a great opening. I like how it captures the contemplative pace of the series.

As you might gather, the anime is about a travelling peddler journeying through the medieval countryside with a minor pagan goddess. It’s nice to have a medieval story that isn’t about knights and princes. The singular importance of staying on the Church’s good side is well-represented, though it also shows that people would also hedge their bets with a little bit of pagan rituals. I particularly liked its depiction of currency speculation, though the show doesn’t mention that kingdoms would lower the gold and silver content in their coinage mostly because their economies were getting run down to pay for the rulers’ military adventurism.

I’m not too bothered  to learn that the anime is kaput since it’s not like season 2 ended on a cliffhanger. Lawrence and Holo are just still out there selling and trading goods in the medieval countryside.

I did find this answer from the author, interesting, though:

Spice and Wolf was inspired by two books. The first being The Golden Bough, where I found out about the myth of the “Wheat Wolf”, as well as Gold and Spices where it discusses the rise of commerce in the Middle Ages. I learned the process of commerce in the Middle Ages through this book.”

I love economics, however, the spirit of the wolf does not suit a modern-day story and hence, I selected the Middle Ages as the setting of the story.

The terror of fantasy

Witch Craft Works kind of has an image problem. Nothing in all the marketing I’ve seen for this anime indicated it was anything besides a typical high school comedy-romance with a twist – he fights ghosts, she’s a superhero, it’s a school for magic, whatever. In this specific anime the twist is that the male protagonist is the damsel in distress. “Don’t worry your pretty little head over it” is basically the central message repeated over and over to our hero. Otherwise the show’s early episodes have the sort of things you’d expect from a high school anime – a student council with ridiculous amounts of administrative authority, a beloved school idol, teenagers running wild, and so on. All of that was to be expected in this setting. What I didn’t expect was to discover that this anime was also about the War on Terror.

The rising sun peeks out behind wrecked skyscrapers
Not a picture of Ground Zero.

Continue reading “The terror of fantasy”