Friday, September 24, 2010

Save Me From Summer's End (Black Rock Shooter & Hen Zemi!)

Oh boy. It's been quite some time since I've delved into the dwindling bin of made for video anime for some material to write about. And even if anime has been in something of a transitional period, the two titles I went ahead and gave my time to are glaring reminders of how much that needs to change before the medium can at least has a semblance of a life after Akiba-kei. As flashy, and at times daring these two completely unique of each other shows are, there's something inherently telegraphed &  programmed behind them that renders them devoid of the life that animation implies. They exist as husks of work; artifacts that remind us of the potential that is being squandered on what could otherwise be more than what they are. In fact, they barely register as shows at all. And even if one bears some smidge of character-based narrative, there's little of anything else to hold on to.

Yes, these are offerings that came about over the summer. Would they be any fresher had I seen them sooner? Doubtful.

First in this duo of time suck, is the much-hyped OVA based upon the popular Huke image turned Supercell track(and ensuing popularity via the mass media juggernaut VOCALOID), Black Rock Shooter. Produced by recently formed Studio Ordet, and directed by newcomer Shinobu Yoshioka, BRS takes the popular black-clad imagery of the original music videos/figures/marketing campaign, and turns it into a two-layer narrative involving a newly sparked friendship between two young middle school girls whom eventually encounter strife when one of them begins to spend more time with a younger, sprightlier newcomer. All the while we are intercutting with a completely otherworldly battle between the title character, and her nemesis Dead Master on an enigmatic island seemingly made of cathedral trappings. Both of whom bear strange similarities to our young protagonists in story one.

So looking at both worlds as a sort of metaphorical juxtaposition, the OVA quickly careens into music video territory as the destinies between the sporty Mato, and the tall, demure beauty, Yomi begin with friendship, and ultimately into unspecified drama of friendship in danger. Taking the two-pronged story approach seems novel at first, until one considers just how the visuals are so starkly different. Something so visually striking mixed alongside the mundane, while an interesting choice, leaves something to be desired in the writing front, which tragically comes up short for something supposedly scribed by Nagaru Tanigawa (famous for being the creator of the Haruhi Suzumiya series). And therein lies the biggest problem, for such a slight story, and in a medium that has evolved so dramatically in regards to data collection, and distribution, the OVA seems to only have enough for a commercial, and strangely wishes to drag the whole affair for nearly 50 agonizing minutes. Even as the characters seem ready for more than archetypical treatment, the project is about as deep as a tchotcke one would find at a convention. A curio rather than a companion piece. And what we are left with is a pretty succession of moving and still images lacking anything resembling a soul. Being from a background of marketing, this is something that comes squarely out of desperation to an already rabid fanbase. A fanbase content with sheen, rather than emotion. Manufacture, rather than handmade pride. Its no wonder the franchise has about the depth of an internet meme. With noone to give it a heart, the world in which BRS & Deathmaster inhabit seem to be the place in which these ideas are made. In a cold, dark place where thoughfullness is a dream, and feelings are a luxury. A soulless exercise in selling. Now if only the work were honest with itself and have been done within the five minutes it truly deserves.

And therein lies the painful part. So much talent is clearly on display in this piece. The animation in areas is fluid, and thrilling as it captures action angles, and human movement with loving ease at times. There are some truly cool images throughout, but only come in service of what folks would consider when one thinks of the source material, which was merely a piece of art made popular on Pixiv. Outside of this, it comes off as nothing more than an excuse to work, and less like something that felt aimed at something remotely human. It is as if an alien produced a show in hopes of better understanding human jealousy, sans the steps necessary to convey it in any impactful manner. Story is one thing, the telling is the measuring stick to quality, and all we have here is blatant product that lacks the common decency to lie to us as it gives us a business lapdance. Even shows made for kids with lesser budgets aimed at selling robot toys achieved this decades ago. If one is to be a prostitute, at least be honest about it.

Considering the pedigree involved, including head producer Yutaka Yamamoto, one would expect a little more from such a team.

On the other hand, Hen Zemi makes no bones about what it intends to be, and could hardly be more repellent as a result. Based upon the five volume Seinen manga, Hentai Seiri Seminar, this college-based ball of ecchi glee centers on students under the study of "deviant sexual behavior" via a hopelessly creepy doctor named Meshiya, who's web of bizarre curiosities regarding the strange private lives of his students working on their respective studies while partaking in fulfilling the wiles of their mad teacher . And do we have a cast of souls with respective leanings toward exploring the outer fringes of carnal life. There's the would be lover with co-dependent partner, a girl with exhibitionist tendencies, a would-be porno director, a panty-stealing love interest with a penchant for NTR - (Um...a love of seeing one's significant other coupling with another-YEAH.)!! All willing to give it the old college try for the professor's grand experiment, making it clear that the majority of the cast is pretty unique...Save for our protagonist in one Nanako Matsusaka, the one girl without a single unique bone in her body. Perhaps acting as the variable in the grand scheme, her wishes to excel in her studies runs counter to the often shocking nature of her cohorts, making for tons of humor raging from awkward, to just plain ol gross-out. And for this viewer, the only natural reaction was sheer revulsion. Not so much at the subject, but the treatment of such inherently human behavior.

As much as I'm for all-inclusiveness in the world, there's something clearly bereft of taste in how Hen Zemi handles our lead characters, as less like average folks with their own needs and wants behind closed doors, and is more content with making it seem like some kind of freak show. Oh sure, for some..talking fetishes may not make for good dinnertime conversation, and it can also be seen that certain japanese can only talk so much openly regarding sex life, but this is closer to middle-school plop talk. (yes..that's what I said) All I can imagine that came to mind when hatching the original manga was a desk adorned with newly rented copies of Sex Is Zero & American Pie, where someone figured it'd be fun to make a comic just as juvenile, and twice as retch-inducing. Something made all the more glaring when considering the globby art style adopted by Xebec (Seriously guys?) for this Ryouki Kamitsubo directed adaptation. The juxtaposition of gak-geared comedy, and cutesy designs makes for something less revealing of a not-so-widely understood realm of scientific study, and more an exploitation of individual taste. While it is understood that Nanako is the classic audience/reader surrogate, watching her lose her lunch while talking with her increasingly lame love interest makes less for smart comedy, and more for a sadistic viewing experience.

Provided this is the type of experience one is inclined toward witnessing on a Friday night, it could either be the kind best absorbed with mildly inebriated company, and best not discussed in the morning.

And not a single rock was shot...

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Subculture Equation

 So yes, things are still in a state of temporary flux at the moment with the search for work, and basic comforts resumes. But it isn't as if I can't have a gaggle of things to post about. And having little grab me in the way of the recent two season of anime has definitely given me room to re-examine some older favorites. Most namely on my recent rewatch list was Palm Studio/Genco's TV version of Shimoku's manga favorite, GENSHIKEN. And even now, there is such a laid back atmosphere, and attention to character nuance that is simply not as prevalent in recent shows. And for a show centering on a college anime club, it also serves as a loving tribute to diversity of lifestyle as well as the lives of those nebbish, reclusive superfans we often bemoan. And yet via Shimoku's playful characterizations of each club member, and their respective types, we are privy to a more human approach to the otaku phenomenon.

Looking at it now, I can fully appreciate that it not only rode the beginning of an almost geek-centric wave of panderhappy shows that were to come months  later, but it also takes a mirror to Japanese youth culture in ways that hadn't been as clearly examined in even Gainax's classic ode-to-loserdom "Otaku no Video".

Looking at how, over the course of only twelve initial episodes(before the OAVs, second season & Kuchibiki Unbalance series') we get a fully realized little world, filled with not only a love for anime, cosplay, models, games, & doujinshi, but also into how they interact with one another as they each seek out their paths in their respective lives. It's one thing to merely make anime-fan-centric gags ala Lucky Star. It's entirely another when characters begin to act out due to the intervention of another's ideas. So when "outsider" and girlfriend to the gang's resident gamer bishounen, Kohsaka, Saki Kasukabe strafes across the crew over their tastes & habits, it becomes a fun game of  "who is being more fanatical?" And in a story when even the opposition has some semblance of gravity, but is no less as repressed & unreasonable, it can make for some entertaining commentary.

 Even as the series plays on the expected "non-otaku do not understand" gimmick, there seems to be a sly implication that even those not claiming to be as obsessive are merely obsessives of other kinds, making it a fun look at youth identity in a media/marketing drowned culture.

Not only does this element fascinate me, but I also appreciate how it doesn't sugar-coat any lifestyle, and rather just plays it straight, making any side of the equation only as strong as the humans that graft onto them.

Another part that gets me now is how it examines the very process of new undertakings, as in to say, "Let's show how difficult it is. Illustrate why so many seem to be content with consumption  instead of production."The rigors of producing something your own, even if it is a printed parody of a published creation, are fraught with tricky procedures, organization & time, as well as personality rifts. The collaborative effort can become a Herculean task in itself, and Genshiken doesn't skimp in this area (another kick to Otaku No Video's slacks). The dream becoming real, no matter the size is an encouraging notion in almost any type of story. It's just exciting to see the most unlikely taking on such a task, even when it seems utterly hopeless. The need to break out and express freely remains bright, and offers an olive branch to our most valuable resource...ideas.

The at times insurmountable truth of the matter is, that no matter the subculture, everyone seems to want similar things, and are merely seeking them out via various avenues.

Perhaps otaku aren't so different after all.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"Dreams feel real while we're in them."

One of the many strange perks of living and working in the L.A. area is being within a short walk's distance from iconic locations, structures, and signage. only felt natural for us to present this to folks since one of us works right around the corner.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Monsters Onward! : Sights & Sounds (Labor Day Weekend 2010)

Things are on full here as the transitional life takes hold once again. But one of the cooler parts of this is the extra time I'll likely have to watching and studying materials for further posts & shows.

And speaking of shows, Combo Attack!!'s take on 1980s video game favorites comes to an at times hysterical conclusion this week. Recorded two weekends ago in Little Tokyo, Welcome To The Pixeldome was easily the closest we've come to an on-location broadcast, where anything goes, and edits were scarce. (And don't miss the musical interludes throughout, featuring the evercool sounds of NVR-NDR! -, having some fun at the expense of a most particular rant.)

This particular weekend was geared more toward recreation than anything, so the roomie and I shot off to various stops in L.A. for Korean BBQ, boba-slushies, and some peeking at pop culture finds! A rare kind of day that will likely be best remembered for the great food, sights and pictures taken. Some know me to not be the most enamored with the facsimile Hollywood fantasy, but to dig deeper, and seek the geeky stuff(especially during a busy holiday weekend) makes it all worthwhile.

Also on the horizon, is an all-new Adventures On Infant Island involving (gasp!) Giant Monsters! Stay tuned for that, and more on the way.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Batman: Under The Red Hood (2010) Review

Leave it to the folks at Warner Bros. Animation to heap on the goods when regarding their DC heroes. Especially when it comes to who is perhaps the enduring answer to the grounded superhero mythos, the Batman. Multiple universes have been explored, several major motion pictures, tv series, and comics renditions have been shared to great acclaim, and yet remains one of the few major tentpoles that can remain potent no matter the number of incarnations. Perhaps it is in the symbolism of Bruce Wayne's alter ego that is most integral to fan's cravings. So even if the world of Gotham City has been reinvented, and reinterpreted countless times, the respect for Bob Kane's classic characters remains at an all-time high. Even as the horrors of very real-world crime, and despair begin to encroach onto what was initially considered to be older children's fare, the ever vigilant Dark Knight detective is the material with which even adults grapple with in extraordinarily trying times.

So when the animators responsible for much of the last 20 years of Batman's adventures on television delve into one of the most controversial events in comic history, the result can either be a rousing success, or a flamebait mess waiting to happen, I'm love to say that it is in most ways the former. The daring Bruce Timm produced, Brandon Vietti directed Under The Red Hood is an adult, bleak, and astonishing new addition to the Batman mythology that helps put to rest wrongs on both sides of the page. In many ways a fascinating look into Batman tales of long past, smashed head on into the harsh realm that is the post-Nolan grit of recent years.

The story begins years prior as Batman is unable to save Jason Todd (aka Robin II) in Sarajevo, Bosnia from the ever monstrous Joker, who has been released reluctantly by none other than  Ra's al Ghul.(A story which many may recall being the backbone of one of DC's most infamous moments, 1988 -89's A Death In The Family, which crushingly allowed fans to call in to decide the fate of Batman's reckless second ward. Naturally, his death was a rare event not long forgotten by fans.) It is in this first, unsubtly brutal scene that establishes an entirely new , unflinching tone for the Batman animated franchise. Flash forward to now as the criminal element is quickly being noosed up by a red hooded vigilante with an ultimatum, to rethink their drug & weapon smuggling ways under threat of death. Gotham is familiar with the Red Hood persona, however the goals here seem to be out to control, and possibly eliminate Gotham's burgeoning new underworld. Even Batman is familiar with various versions of the Red Hood, but none of them were nearly as savage, or as thorough. He doesn't even seem to be a criminal, but rather the very shadow of what Batman has always been. A masked wraith, willing to kill to save the world. To go where even Batman fears to tread.

And as the detective along with the help of the ever reliable Nightwing (Dick Grayson, the original Robin), revelations are surely uncovered that will not only haunt Bruce's waking life, but scorch the city as he is run head on into the very nature of Batman's dogmatic codes of virtue. The pressure runs deeper as Gotham's reigning kingpin, Black Mask with increasing panic begins to consider taking a madman off the leash yet again in a last ditch effort to regain control (which many know is often the worst idea imaginable).

To go any further would be a disservice to another exceptional, yet very grown-up look at a mythological icon amidst a radically changing world. Adding punch to this motif, the newly minted cast while clearly feeling their way into such iconic roles, is rooted firmly into this hybrid mixture of Bat eras, and they are often terrific. Bruce Greenwood now dons the cape and cowl with a more internalized confidence that also nicely implies an aging, pain riddled Wayne. Neil Patrick Harris is a truly fun & grounded Dick Grayson, who offers some of the film's much needed levity to the often grim proceedings. Supernatural's Jensen Ackles' Red Hood is both assured, and appropriately tortured in a surprisingly effective performance where it counts. But the biggest transition award goes to John Dimaggio who's more east coast gangster approach to The Joker is startlingly different than his legendary predecessor. While this may sound like faint praise, there is a hugely menacing presence in this film that is integral to the film's finale, and Dimaggio delivers exactly what this version requires. This is a nasty, horrific take on the character that perhaps requires a little adjusting to but is strong in its own right.

Notable support comes from the voices of Jason Isaacs in the role of guilt-ridden crusader, Ra's al Ghul, as well as a fun turn by Kelly Hu as Black Mask's assistant.

It's been a wild ride for Warner Bros. Animation since Bruce Timm's original Batman:The Animated Series took to the airwaves, and Vietti's direction, featuring a script by Judd Winick attempts to merge multiple variations of the Batman universe into a cohesive whole, which naturally abandons sheer grit, and offers a more lyrical aproach to how dramatically their world has changed over the lifespan of the Dark Knight's endless crusade. From the garish innocence of robbing the local museum of modern art, to the scummy junk joints on the outskirts of town, the film features a look at the junction where the childlike wonder of the hero life soon becomes tainted by the desperation of those resilient to law & order. It's this element that takes on truly dark dimensions near the end of the piece where Batman must confront the very inconsistency that has haunted him from nearly the very beginning. Definitely an end result of the immense success of Christopher Nolan's live action films, Under The Red Hood continues to question the very nature of the self-made superhero, as well as the blurring balance between heroism & vigilanteism with relatively effective results.