Back to high school

I’m reading Again!! by Mitsuro Kubo. It’s a manga about a guy who spent his entire high school career friendless and alone, cursing his peers as lamers and suck-ups who obsess about frivolous and stupid shit like after-school clubs and good grades and dating. You see, he’s a misanthrope who just went to class and went home every day for years, carrying on with the bare minimum of life in high school.

And then he graduates. He has no plan or aspirations or dreams, and possibly no soul. However, the day after his graduation, he experiences a bizarre and inexplicable mishap and wakes up again on the first day of high school. The first time around, he was too shy to even answer when asked to join the “ouendan”, which is a club devoted to a male-dominated type of Japanese cheerleading. As Wikipedia describes it:

An ōendan (応援団), literally “cheering squad” or “cheering section”, is a Japanese sports rallying team similar in purpose to a cheerleading squad in the United States, but relies more on making a lot of noise with taiko drums, blowing horns and other items, waving flags and banners, and yelling through plastic megaphones in support of their sports team than on acrobatic moves (though some ōendan incorporate pom-pom girls). In addition to cheering for their own teams, ōendan have been known to lead fans in cheers which tease and taunt the other team and its fans. This is usually done in the spirit of good competition, but occasional fights have broken out if the taunting gets too heated. Smaller ōendan are sometimes called ōenbu (応援部, or “cheering clubs”).

In this go-around our protagonist barely makes an audible response to the recruiter, but it’s enough for her to shanghai him since the club is in desperate need of new members. Despite himself, he finally experiences all those things he’d looked down on – giving his all as part of a team, caring about his friends, having a crush on a girl and desperately wanting to know how they feel, and many more parts of high school life that he’d only seen secondhand.

And here we come to the misanthrope’s secret. Many misanthropes actually hate the fact that they hate other people and wish they were part of the community they see around them. “I wish I were a better person,” is the fantasy at the heart of this comic. I just wished it would remember this fact.

See, in a high school series, it’s easy to get caught up in the numerous setbacks that beset our characters. Oh no, the club might be dissolved! Oh no, the team captain and the manager are in a love triangle with our hero! Oh no, that silver-tongued hottie seducing that girl is secretly an asshole!

I mean, yeah, high school and life in general is a bunch of stuff happening one after another. The point of a narrative is giving structure to those events. Plus, if you’re just doing a story about a guy’s high school life, what’s even the point of the time travel angle?

The manga does come back repeatedly to the time travel thing, but mostly as a plot contrivance. There’s time spent on another person also being a time traveler, and more time spent on what kind of time travel we’re talking about (many worlds theory, parallel universes, grandfather paradoxes – though those specific terms aren’t used by the characters, but that’s what they mean).

However, there’s less space given to the emotional experience of reliving life. The protagonist himself mentions that he hasn’t taken advantage of his experience to talk more to his grandmother even though she passes away during his time in high school. More could also have been done with the second time traveler, who is actually a girl who enjoyed her high school life and is rather resentful that our protagonist managed to drag her along to a somewhat crappier version of her original experiences. By the latest translated volume, she remains a supporting character in our hero’s story and still hasn’t really come into her own.

Perhaps I’m overly critical, but I’m just a bit frustrated because I can see the manga only occasionally hitting its story potential, or at least not hitting the story potential I wish for. However, don’t be discouraged, there’s definitely something there to the manga as it is, since I wouldn’t have read 9 volumes over one week otherwise.

And one thing I can unequivocally praise about the comic is its artwork. I mean, look at it:

Cheerleader leaning down to pick up some pompoms with a resentful expression on her face

The sense of anatomy alone is superb – the weight in the step, the off-balance foot, the angle of the body. And the use of negative space!

A long-haired girl in a headband holding something over her head shares mutual glares  with a mustached boy standing with his arms crossed; both are dressed in Japanese boys' high school uniforms

This image shows off the negative space more clearly. And the expressions on the characters’ faces are so detailed for just a few simple lines. I often end up just pausing to stare at a splash page and enjoy the artistry.

Anyway, tl;dr: I think Again!! is an interesting manga that has the potential to become something more, if it ever figures out how to fully connect its plot to its premise.



AZN represent

Always Be My Maybe stars Ali Wong as a celebrity chef who goes back to San Francisco to open a restaurant and hooks up with her asshole ex/childhood friend Randall Park.

Movies starring stand-up comedians can be completely terrible – what do they know about acting or writing a narrative? – but Ali Wong used to write for Fresh Off the Boat so she knows something about funny stories. Wikipedia indicates she majored in Asian American Studies, which also explains why her observations on race can be rather incisive. The movie was also directed by Nahnatchka Khan, who I will always and forever associate with Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 (this is a good thing by the way).

Anyway, I actually did laugh several times while watching this movie. In a more formulaic romcom, the story would be about one or both childhood friends being with partners unsuitable for them and the climax would be them finally admitting their feelings for each other, but this one explains why the original breakup when they were younger might have actually been better for our female protagonist until the male partner could get over his shit. Also there was an unexpected celebrity cameo that I’m totally on board for.

So, bottom line: I liked this movie.

COBRA-La

I’m watching The Rook, which is about a British spy agency staffed by people with superpowers. In the opening scene the protagonist wakes up surrounded by dead bodies and her memories wiped and has to rely on letters she wrote to herself ahead of time to get to the bottom of the conspiracy while pretending that nothing about her has changed.

It adapts a book series I liked and I’m rather glad of the changes made in the translation to screen. One of the things I found enjoyable from the book was the weird asides from the history of the spy agency, like the time they crucified one of their agents for betraying them to the French or when they were almost hunted to extinction by an angry vampire. 

However, that style of storytelling obviously wouldn’t work on TV, and of course the more flamboyant superpowers would get expensive for the special effects budget, so things get more toned down and the plot revolves more around spy versus spy in the 21st century. The show really gets into Britain as a panopticon state, but it shows this from the point of view of the watchers. The spies are literally a class apart from the people they spy on, living in expensive condos in the heart of London or old Victorian townhouses. I can’t imagine any of the characters ever watching Coronation Street or going down to the pub for a curry.

I’m reminded of certain criticisms of real world British spies, who tend to be recruited straight out of university and have giant blind spots regarding the people their work revolves around. I’m not sure if this class reading is something the show is deliberately encouraging or whether this is something that just inadvertently creeps into shows about the modern United Kingdom. I mean, I found class issues glaring in The Worst Witch and that show is supposed to be a lighthearted kids’ series about hijinks at magic school.

I do appreciate how much more accessible the show is to people not already fans of the spy genre. Being about a fictional spy agency, it doesn’t get deep into the specific details of the British state and governmentality. Here, for example are some real world British government things that have never been mentioned on The Rook, but do keep coming up in novels about British spydom and are essentially gibberish words for foreign audiences: GCHQ, Whitehall, the Official Secrets Act, COBRA briefings.

Anyway, that was just an aside. In the end, I find The Rook intriguing and am already up to the 4th episode.

After Trek

I recently finished reading Trekonomics by Manu Saadia. It analyzes the Star Trek shows and movies to discover what kind of economics exists in the Trek universe. I hadn’t realized how dorky the corner of the Internet I regularly traverse is but I was actually already familiar with many of the arguments the book puts forth, though there was less nerdy jargon being thrown around than online. The book takes for granted what the characters claim about the Federation’s society having no money and no want and teases out what that would mean as far as labour, innovation, psychology, and so on.

The end conclusion is that the Federation’s innovation is not technological, but political. It does present an interesting hypothesis for the Drake equation – that thing scientists and sci-fi enthusiasts use when they need to pull a number out of their asses for how many alien civilizations exist in the universe. The book points out that exploring space is inherently unprofitable and that space exploration means creating a society where massive resources are not wasted on convincing people to gamble on mobile games and suing each other over intellectual property violations. Perhaps the main thing preventing aliens from zooming around in space ships is that they never figured out a way to organize their societies around anything besides profitability, which is to say that capitalism is the problem.

It’s an interesting thesis and obviously impossible to test, but seeing as how space exploration stalled once it stopped being a dick measuring contest (i.e., stopped being possible to profit in terms of national prestige) it does make some sense.

Anyway, I found it an interesting read. And I suppose I should really get on with watching Discovery already.

The angel of combat

I liked Alita: Battle Angel. I’ve mentioned before that I liked the original manga, and I was rather concerned that a sprawling story would end up condensed into an abbreviated mishmash of various plot points set up to justify gratuitous and boring CGI action scenes.

But Robert Rodriguez pulled it off. I’m please with the narrative choices he made in taking a comic book story that unfolded over years and turning it into a regular length movie. Apparently James Cameron’s original script was 180 pages.

From viewing the trailer I thought it might be odd to see a big-eyed manga character interacting with actual people, but I quickly got used to it in the actual movie. I can see why the character of Alita was entirely CGI because of the numerous action scenes of cyborg kung fu – any live-action actor (Rosa Salazar, specifically) would need to be replaced by a computer-generated model when the fighting started, but there would have been a noticeable transition between the real person and the computer one. Having the character be completely CGI prevented this uncanny valley-tude.

It’s disappointing but I expect the movie won’t see a sequel. It appears not to have been a gigantic hit with the US market, though it’s been doing gangbusters overseas, especially in China. It made money but not Avengers money. I’m not even really put out, since even though the ending of the movie calls out for a continuation, what’s there is still satisfying on its own.

And my take-away from the whole thing? Alita is a quite decent action sci-fi film that I thoroughly enjoyed. If enough of you watch it, we might see Ed Norton in the sequel.

Je suis un espion

Nest of Spies: The Startling Truth About Foreign Agents At Work Within Canada’s Borders is, as one might expect from the subtitle, a non-fiction book about the spy scene in Canada. Its authors are a journalist and a former operative of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, so the book ends up being more descriptive than deeply analytical.

I rather wish a sociologist had been the one to write this book, as I think one could have teased out some interesting insights from the inside knowledge that the authors clearly possess. As it is, the book mostly recounts spy stories that took place in Canada and organized by the country of the perpetrators. At the very least I wish the authors had organized the book around the traditional divisions of spy work – e.g., human intelligence, signals intelligence, etc. And some deeper comparisons with other countries would have helped put things into context.

But the book is still pretty eye-opening. I’m a big spy buff, so a lot of the generalities of intelligence work are familiar to me, but I hadn’t been aware of the specifics of how the whole thing works in Canada. There are a couple of anecdotes from the Cold War (did you know that when the Soviet consulate in Montreal burned down in 1987, CSIS painstakingly sifted the ashes and exposed at least one Soviet mole in France?) and the newer free-for-all today (did you also know that French spies steal anything not nailed down from not only their enemies, but also their allies such as the UK and Canada?).

The authors clearly wish to avoid libel lawsuits by carefully avoiding naming some individuals, companies, and even entire countries in their anecdotes. This is rather to the book’s detriment, since details are scarce enough in a world as secretive as the spy’s. Quit dangling juicy tidbits if you can’t deliver. I mean, tell me you don’t want to know more about Big Pharma hitmen after reading this passage:

Then there is the tactic of eliminating the [rival company’s] researchers [as a part of industrial competition]. We wish this were a tongue-in-cheek way of suggesting they be bribed, but we are in fact talking about murdering them. The pharmaceutical research industry has a remarkable reputation for brutality. The development and marketing of a single new medication costs on average $800 million, which means that a professional killer’s $50,000-$60,000 tab is just so much small change once the competing company’s two or three lead project researchers have been identified. (p. 306)

I suppose this reticence might be attributed to the inherently guarded nature of a spy (though spies aren’t immune to the lure of Hollywood – witness how this nameless intelligence worker gushes over their organization being featured in an episode of The Good Wife).

Entwined throughout the book’s  anecdotes are the authors’ calls for Canada to up its counterintelligence game at the corporate and governmental level. It’s true that no one in Canada really gives a shit about spying. Even after finding out just how much proprietary information is stolen in Canada by friends and rivals alike, I still can’t find it in me to care too much. If it ever comes to a choice between spending money on infrastructure or increasing funding for spy work, I say build that damn Toronto to Montreal hyperloop already. Or just that high frequency rail for the Quebec City to Windsor corridor.

Anyway, this book got me started in reading more about Canada’s spying history. Did you know it’s rumoured that Ian Fleming was the sniper who killed a Japanese spy in New York when the US was still neutral in World War 2, as part of a secretive UK-Canada “corporation” operating with the tacit approval of Franklin D. Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover? Or that throughout the 19th and early 20th century the Canadian government hired the Pinkerton detective agency to keep tabs on Irish malcontents in the US? I didn’t, until I started down this fascinating rabbit hole. These stories were from Canada’s Enemies: Spies and Spying in the Peacable Kingdom.

I’ll be doing some further reading on the subject, but for the uninitiated, I’d say Nest of Spies is a fascinating introduction.

Monsters and mazes and dungeons and dragons

Two kids’ cartoons I’ve seen and recommend on Netflix: The Dragon Prince and The Hollow:

The first feels very Avatar: The Last Airbender because it was created by two veterans of that show (writers or producers or some shit, I don’t really care about behind the scenes stuff for animated shows). The relationships between the three protagonists, the way the characters talk, and how they relate to their circumstances is just like Avatar – i.e., the characters banter zippily in teen American slang in counterpoint to the seriousness of their quest and in contravention of the accepted cod medieval language of fantasy epics.

Unlike Avatar, the story takes place in a more traditional Western fantasy setting of elves and knights and dragons. Humans and elves are at war, three kids go on a journey to bring peace, they overcome various dangers in each episode, there are exciting an action scenes, etc.

I found it a rather pleasant show to binge, especially since each episode is less than half an hour.

The Hollow is also structured around a journey, but “Lost for kids” would be the better reference point. Three teenagers with amnesia wake up imprisoned in an underground bunker, they make their way through a strange land of monsters and mysteries, weird shit flies at the viewer so fast you forget that a lot of it doesn’t make sense, and there’s a plot twist in the end that may or may not land well for you. There are bunches of jokes but most of them are dumb so I think this is being aimed at a younger audience than the first show.

For some reason it’s made to look like it was made in Flash, but the action scenes are too complex for Flash so I guess the creators just like that style. Maybe they were working within certain budget limits, or maybe they think modern kids have been trained to expect simplistic animation. The episodes are also less than half an hour so I got through the whole thing fast.

The second season for The Dragon Prince has just been announced, but hopefully there will also be one for The Hollow since I could do with more uncomplicated series with short episodes to binge on.

Anyway, this has been a review of Netflix kids’ cartoons shows as evaluated by a thirtysomething Canadian man.

What the hell is a xenonaut?

Damn Xenonauts. I was going to spend the weekend playing Skyrim but ended up playing this game instead. It’s just as compulsively addictive as the original X-COM from the 90’s, except with a little bit nicer graphics. According to the manual, the biggest difference I can see is that your soldiers will not get psychic powers. I wish they’d played up the Cold War 70’s aesthetic more, since it’s kind of neat that your alien-fighting organization is a joint Soviet/NATO operation.

Just like with X-COM, I’m mentally revising the dollar figures to add three extra zeroes at the end. A budget of $1.5 million makes no sense for running military bases on 3 different continents with fighter jets and helicopters and dozens of soldiers and scientists and engineers, but $1.5 billion is real money. Body armour at $28,000 apiece is peanuts to a bloated military budget, but $28 million per soldier for armour that can stand up to plasma rifles sounds plausible.

One criticism I have is for something that also happened to me with the original X-COM – occasionally there’s some weird glitch that lets enemies shoot through walls. It only happened the one time, and normally I just play on with troop losses since I like the feel of a desperate fight against an alien invasion, but that was just unfair so I reloaded the autosave.

I was originally going to recommend this game, but I’ve now reached the grindy part of Xenonauts where I’m scrambling jets and troopers every couple of days to repel alien incursions. All the missions are starting to look alike and I can’t tell if the latest city being terrorized by aliens is one I’ve been to before. Was 90s X-COM this grindy? My budget is perched on a razor’s edge and one KIA will put me in a downward spiral of fiscal and planetary doom. These spreadsheets will be my death.

A fantasy anime that doesn’t suck

Coronation of the emperor in Record of Grancrest War, which clearly takes after Jacques-Louis David's The Coronation of Napoleon
Yes, they styled this scene after David’s Coronation of Napoleon

Say, Record of Grancrest War is actually a pretty solid fantasy show. The promotional material made it look like yet another crappy harem show where the main character shits himself every time an under-aged girl tries to give him a handjob but it’s not that at all. I can’t remember the last time an anime had two people who liked each other get together without any idiotic drama.

My biggest criticism is that it moves through the material a bit too quickly. Okay, there’s a world at war, aristocrats who drain magical powers from the rivals they defeat, vampires and werewolves and plucky allies and exotic locations and massive battles where actual characters die. Can we maybe have some time to dwell on each thing before we move on?

I assume this is because the anime is based on a light novel series. The studio probably was trying to squeeze as much as possible in.

But the animation is nice, the main characters are interesting, and it moves along decently. It’s a competently entertaining anime and it just recently ended so you get a complete story with no cliffhangers whose endings depend on the studio securing funding for a second season. I recommend it for your fantasy action fix.

Age of Wonders

Screenshot from Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic showing the game options available for a player controlling an elven army attacking undead foes

Remember when computer games had crappy voice actors? I do, because I’ve been playing Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic. I got it for like $2 on GOG a while ago and it really does deserve to be listed there, as it actually is a good old game.

The whole thing is kind of like Civilization in a fantasy setting, or maybe a turn-based version of Warcraft. Like Civilization you pick a certain people to play as, you go out into the world, build outposts and cities, gain allies and make enemies, conquer villages, and massacre entire races.

Unlike Civilization, heroes play a big part in the game thanks to its fantasy roots (specifically Dungeons and Dragons with the serial numbers filed off). The player is not some disembodied will directing the manifest destiny of a nation, but instead you are a mighty wizard leading your chosen race to victory over the untermenschen of the world.

I assume you can play as evil races like trolls and stuff but I’ve only done one of the starter campaigns and the story was entirely told from the perspective of the do-gooder elves and halflings. Anyway, your wizard is a unit on the map that you move around, they cast epic spells that can change the face of the world, and they can get their asses killed if you screw up in battle. The best thing to do is probably to stick your wizard in a tower and have them cast their spells from afar.

The race you pick also determines your technology and units, but again with a fantasy spin. The technology tree also deals entirely with getting magic spells that are unique to each race. Elves can get spells to summon unicorns and fairies, for example. Elves also have archers and their higher units are nymphs and druids, while humans have crossbowmen and knights.

The fantasy RPG setting also puts a pretty fun spin on maps because you can send your armies into the tunnels of the Underdark to assault your enemy from the rear, or travel into the Shadow Plane and flank their armies that way. It’s also fun to find random fantasy stuff on a map, like a hidden elf city in a forest you thought you’d already explored or a dungeon you can clear out or an inn where you can recruit a hero or a city that will switch to your side if you rescue them from the demons that besiege them.

Voice acting aside, the game is actually a lot less clunky than you would expect for something from the 90’s. I don’t really notice the interface most of the time, which is pretty much how it’s supposed to work. It’s easy to get sucked in while you’re playing – for instance, I almost missed a social engagement over the weekend because I told myself I’d just finish a map before getting ready to leave. The game is just fun to play and being like 20 years old it’ll run on anything. I say check it out if you like this sort of thing.