Hail to the King

You catch a clan member stealing food - what do you do?

I’ve recently gotten into the computer game King of Dragon Pass. You play as the chieftain of a clan of Iron Age barbarians. It’s set in a fantasy universe with dragons and whatnot but it’s still very well-researched with regard to the attitudes and material life of your people. The broad mishmash of Celts/Gauls/Saxons/Norse that the game is drawing inspiration from feels realistic. Wealth is measured in cattle and you must continually propitiate the gods for political legitimacy. Also you can do stuff like take out a lawsuit on a ghost haunting a house.

The game society’s gendered division of power is not so overwhelmingly patriarchal but it doesn’t feel like a sop to political correctness. The way it’s presented in the game feels perfectly plausible and shows that the developers studied their history and/or anthropology. Using female slaves as currency like the Irish did would have been kind of interesting, though – "You want misogyny? Have some goddamn misogyny you unwashed neckbeards!" I imagine the developers shouting.

It’s a very unique take and practically a game in its own genre. How does one classify this? A strategy roleplaying fantasy game, perhaps? There are no real time elements and when you’re not picking what crops to plant then you’re just clicking on choices in dialogue trees. But the roleplaying narrative the game creates for you is so involving that you feel the need to keep going just to see how your clan will fare.

Still, despite my enjoyment, lately I’ve plateaued on the game. I’ll be back and at it soon enough, though. There are trolls out there that need slaughtering, and who else is going to do it?

Punch It

One-Punch Man and Friends

I recently main-lined the manga One-Punch Man, about a superhero who’s so idiotically overpowered he annihilates his enemies in one blow. By the start of the story he’s actually pretty bored with his work. The series is freaking hilarious, it’s got an indie comics sensibility with wacked out heroes like Licenseless Rider, whose only “superpower” is riding a bicycle, and villains like Fuhrer Ugly and a thinly-disguised refugee from Dragonball Z. I feel like I’m reading a Japanese version of The Tick except the story is actually going somewhere.

Anyway, I suggest checking it out.

The curse is lifted

So you know what I said about only watching mediocre anime lately? Well, I just saw the first two episodes of the anime Bakemonogatari (Ghost Story). So now what do I say?

I say, “Holy fucking shit.”

Seriously, this show is incredible. I could tell you what it’s about – a high school guy helping female classmates remove curses from themselves – but a story is more than its plot. Bakemonogatari has style oozing out of every pore. The dense symbolism, the quick flashes of meaning which forces me to play quick draw with the remote, the peculiar camera angles: it’s all in the service of a larger aesthetic mission. Bakemonogatari actually has something to say, and I appreciate that fact even more when I think back and realize that it’s been so long since I was able to say that about an anime.

It’s even got fanservice, which normally I would consider a bad thing. I would define fanservice as stuff added to a narrative purely to gratify the audience and with not much regard to how it fits into the larger story in terms of theme, character, and so on. Mostly, fanservice refers to gratuitous depictions of female sexual signifiers, which is to say, tits and ass. Plus all those other female things that heterosexual men are supposed to salivate over, like, I dunno, ankles. However, the show portrays the female form so blatantly (and from such off-kilter perspectives) that it removes the stink of prurience from the act of beholding the feminine.

Normally, the term “shameless” is a pejorative description. To be shameless is to be without a proper sense of what is appropriate behaviour (propriety being a relative concept, of course). Bakemonogatari is not shameless about its frank and upfront display of the female body. It is, instead, unashamed. The show is not afraid of the female body, and because it’s unafraid, it can show exposed female flesh as being the same as exposed male flesh, which is to say, an everyday and unremarkable sight.

Therefore, I was mistaken when I said that this show has fanservice. Fanservice is gratuitous. Bakemonogatari is merely honest.

The return of Tarantino

Did Django Unchained really have a 2h 45min running time? Because damn, I didn’t notice. In case you were wondering, that haunting Italian song in the middle of the movie was Ancora Qui by Ennio Morricone and Elisa (some Italian singer). The movie and the song are much recommended by yours truly.

Bodacious Space Anime


Music video of the opening theme.

I’m currently doing a marathon of Bodacious Space Pirates, a sci-fi anime about a high school girl who becomes a pirate captain in space (the title is fairly self-explanatory). It is glorious. Don’t be put off by the cutesy opening. It reminds me of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya in its oddball premise and in the way it firmly grounds its fantastical science fiction elements within an interesting narrative. It’s how science fiction should be done, but too often writers forget the “fiction” part and it becomes a three hundred page exegesis of the workings of blaster pistols.

It’s actually fairly hard sci-fi for something from the visual media (i.e., movies, tv, comics, etc). Not that I care about the consistency of fictional gibberish (one of my favourite science fiction writers is Ursula K. Le Guin), but the little details are still pretty neat, such as how the space suits have an attachment point for helmets on the back and how the bulkheads have to be manually cranked open after the power on a ship comes back on.

I even like the recap at the beginning of each episode. Normally I’d just fast forward through it (for instance, Bleach has freaking five minutes of recap and the opening before you actually get to the episode you want to watch) but this show’s recap usually has some kind of space philosophy being read to you while scenes from the previous episodes remind you of the gist of what happened before. Stuff like,

“In outer space there isn’t an absolute left, right, up, or down. It all depends on your relative position. Understand where you’ve come from and where you’re going, which way you’re facing and you’ll always know your current position. Confronted by the vastness of space, you may be disoriented by how small you are. But overcoming that feeling is your first step in outer space.”

All of this while the protagonist is shown on her training cruise and learning how to space walk. The recap even presents new background info which isn’t absolutely needed but is nice to have.

Anyway, I like this show. Watching it isn’t a bad way to say goodbye to 2012.

Get your war on

Thanks to The Onion AV Club I’m currently reading Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain. From the cover art and the fact that the book is reviewed in actual paper newspapers one might think that it’s a semi-autobiographical story about growing up as a Jewish science fiction fan in 1960’s New York. The title, however, is gloriously literal: it’s a story about a conflict between an actual world-conquering mollusk and a disembodied brain. It’s not a metaphor, it’s not an allegory, it is in fact exactly what it says on the tin.

It’s really quite fun.

The glory of violence

I saw The Raid: Redemption yesterday. It’s hard to describe my reactions to the movie without speaking entirely in clichés. It actually was balls-to-the-wall action. It actually was superb and thrilling. It was almost literally pure action (I think there may have only been 10 minutes in total where nothing violent was going on). It’s not ironic and it’s not metatextual. It’s just legitimately good.

My god, it’s incredible.

Nick Carraway, Action Hero

The Great Gatsby - Press Start

Ever wonder what The Great Gatsby would have been like as a mid-80s Japanese video game? Yeah, neither have I. But a couple of enterprising chaps have answered the question that was burning in no one’s mind. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The fake manual and fictional provenance propels it further into the heights of absurdity, but the cut scene where Gatsby teleports while gazing at the green light from Daisy’s house is already sublime in its awful glory.

You’ve got to love the fact that you have to fight Meyer Wolfsheim’s Jewish gangsters along with hobos, flappers, and the Black Sox. But where is the ghost of the Dutchman from? I don’t remember that from the book, but admittedly I haven’t read it in a long while.

Video game trivia: the titular character of The Legend of Zelda video game series was named after Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, wife of dear old Francis Scott.


Holy crap, some company made Gatsby into an adventure game. It’s not a parody like the game above, it’s an actual thing that’s supposed to make money and everything. It looks like one of those classic inventory games where you click on everything trying to find the object you need to solve the puzzle you’re stuck on. Pretty pictures and you even have a GOSSIP action, but I wonder if the game makers kept Tom’s fascination with racist literature?

A girl in a white dress named Jordan is having a meal on a veranda awash in sunlight. She smiles at the camera as she holds a glass of red wine. In the background the veranda is held up by classical Greek columns covered in ivy, while in the distance is a garden path leading past Greco-Roman statuary and ending in a gazebo. On the top of the picture is a text box where Jordan remarks, "Don't talk . . . I want to hear what happens."
The pic is from the adventure game, not the fake 80s parody from above

Guardian of the Sacred Spirit

Discovering an exceptional but lesser-known work of fiction for oneself is one of life’s smaller pleasures, one made no less enjoyable for being such an ordinary experience. The story of Seirei no Moribito (Guardian of the Sacred Spirit) itself feels rather small and ordinary; instead of covering an epic struggle between good and evil, at its heart it’s about the depths of maternal love and how far a person can go to protect a loved one. The melancholy nature of the song in the video captures well the feeling of the show, much better than the opening song, in fact, which I found rather insipid in an inoffensive pop song way.

Seirei no Moribito is based on the first book of a Japanese fantasy series and it covers the story of Balsa, a female bodyguard, who is tasked with protecting a prince from his father’s own assassins. There are many things to like about the series, not least of which are the lush backgrounds as can be seen in the video. Generally speaking, it’s a lot more realistic than other anime that deals with swords and the supernatural. You won’t find arcs of blood stylishly spraying into the air or fighters shouting out the names of their attacks; rather, all of the fighting is firmly rooted in real-world martial arts.

Unusually for the genre, the anime does not deal with the samurai-and-ninjas feudal era which first springs to mind when one mentions “Japan” and “swords”. Instead, the series is set in a fantasy world based on Heian-era Japan, which is to say, Japan before the samurai. Japan was governed more like Imperial China, with the Japanese emperors wielding direct political power as the sons of Heaven. This is the opposite situation of the later feudal era, where the emperor was largely a figurehead.

It’s interesting to note that the hydraulic theory of state formation posits that states formed in early China because a centralized power was needed to organize the necessary resources that allowed complex irrigation systems to nourish rice paddies. Ancient Japan, of course, consciously modeled itself on China, and the fact that both countries relied on rice as the central staple food in their diets certainly helped keep their systems of government in sync for a while. Certainly a bunch of squabbling feudal lords couldn’t have organized things half so well.

Of course, one must then ask why feudalism arose in Japan if central organization was so necessary to keep a country of rice eaters alive. There are of course the political and historically-contingent reasons for why the strong Japanese state broke down (short story: a combination of screw-ups and bad luck for several Japanese emperors). Improvements in military technology and the resulting change in recruitment practices also gave greater power to regional leaders, and I suspect developments in agriculture also helped. A separate military class rose to challenge the power of the imperial government, a civil war happened, and slowly but surely the samurai were the new rulers of Japan.

Admittedly, all this is going rather far afield from the original topic of the anime series. What can I say, I have a certain fascination for states and state formation. Anyway, to return to Seirei no Moribito: I liked it. If you like serious anime, please try it out. Not that I hate the funny (Ranma 1/2 remains one of my favourite shows, period), but Moribito definitely deserves a larger audience, which I hope this blog post might in some small way help to provide.

The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya

I watched The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya last night. Word on the street was that the movie was a good addition to the Haruhi Suzumiya series, and I really must concur. I’m kind of glad that I didn’t get into the series until a few months ago, since apparently the last new content was from 2007. That must have been a long three years for the fans.

The Haruhi Suzumiya series reminds me a lot of The Time Traveler’s Wife – not in terms of plot or even aesthetics, but rather in the way both use science fiction in the service of the story. They’re not like too many other science fiction stories, where the writers are too busy geeking out over the ray guns to bother about the characters or the plot. Rather, the fantastic elements in both stories exist to drive forward the fundamental relationships at the heart of their respective plots – in Haruhi Suzumiya’s case, it’s about a misanthropic girl learning to appreciate the mundane and a misanthropic guy learning to appreciate the fantastic (with that term encompassing time travelers, psychics, and aliens). However, both Time Traveler’s Wife and Haruhi Suzumiya aren’t just regular stories with science fiction stuff thrown in, they would be fundamentally different without being science fiction.

I like Haruhi Suzumiya. It’s always got such interesting ideas.