Thursday, March 31, 2011

Regarding Reviews: What Makes This Kaijyu Tick?

Waking up this morning, I was suddenly possessed with typing up some kind of explanation as to how some of my tastes function, as well as perhaps elaborate a little on what makes certain movies/shows work for me personally. And to be honest, like anyone else, I couldn't pinpoint such things with any absolute razor thin accuracy. All I can do is perhaps shine a light on what it is that makes me lose myself in a film as opposed to seeing it as just a collaborative project that either functioned, or didn't. And it is by looking back at years of watching movies that I can finally see patterns emerge, which is what I hope to share here over time. If anything, The Wandering Kaijyu works not unlike a means to see where I am, not only as a "fan", but as a "maturing" human.

So with that, let's dive on in...

As I just mentioned via Twitter, one of the larger components of what works for me as a reviewer is if the completed work carries within it some manner of "truth". And when I say this, it isn't that there's some hidden desire for absolute truth of any kind. But rather that the work's established thesis carries with it a certain amount of conviction permeating throughout the entire piece. (without getting lost along the way) And this even includes films with a certain level of naivete. If the piece maintains that spirit, no matter how silly, or goofy, chances are it can pass. But the establishment of these feelings, ideas, concepts must be well established within the first few moments, otherwise tone can be compromised, oftentimes creating something of an uneven mess.

If a film/show establishes a highly logical universe, it is important that the writing and acting maintain this in order to keep more attentive audiences locked into the story. This is where I have to chime in that the moving picture is more an emotional medium than an intellectual one, so the sheer level of logical complexity will almost always never be one hundred percent, but if the story established asks the audience to be wary of minute details, it's important to at least convince us that what is happening really is. The brain can detect falseness very well, and as such, this is part of a very tricky balancing act in order to keep viewers emotionally engaged in matters. So "logical truth" is important, if only to keep the more thematic/emotional material intact. This is something that film often gets wrong since the other part of this equation is in many ways more important, but in that rare occasion, something closer to airtight can also better support the projects' more direct ideas & themes.

Now...on the other hand...

Looking back at everything that tends to secure a fave spot somewhere, there are times when simple logic is often abandoned. I mean, let's get down to it. I'm a grand sucker for tokusatsu films featuring giant monsters, giant robots, spirits, fantastic worlds without standard physics in attendance. I have a raging love for works that often bend conventional rules of reality, until it no longer even resembles a recognizable construct aside from maybe having humans in them. So what about these? And why do some of these still get iffy reviews regardless?

Let's go ahead an illustrate what I mean with a truly mainstream example of this; Spiderman 2 (2004).

Much like the previous Sam Raimi film(and before things really got out of hand), this was a fully realized American comic book world brought to life complete with classic archetypes, derring-do, and special effects. And considering the era of special effects that were attainable at the time, along with some seriously questionable physics, the film in many strange ways, looks strangely quaint in retrospect considering where comic adaptations went in regards to "realism" years following. The action scenes of Spidey 2, while exciting to some degree, feel not only video game-like in execution, but also sadly plastic-y, and sans any real feeling of threat. As Spiderman is battling Doctor Octopus, there are multiple moments of human bodies slamming against concrete, busting brick walls, bending steel, and so-forth without any concern for the all-too mortal Peter Parker underneath the spandex. It gets to a certain point where the back of the mind just gives up, and the suspension is compromised.

So why do I still own this film? Why does it still work in my mind as a successful popcorn experience?

Simple; Raimi and crew stuck to their guns regarding their rendition of Peter Parker and his life. In the end, the action was nowhere near as important as the human element. Whether it be his living situation, his love issues, or even guilt over the past, it is all played beautifully, and does so in a clever way when considering the plight of Dr. Octavius. It is here that the fantasy elements are countered by emotional, and thematic truths that are played well from first frame to last. And even as the credits roll, we understand the sacrifice inherent in living such a life. Even as the world embraces a more heightened reality, the more personal underpinnings of the story are what stay.

Therein lies what I find to be one of the the more challenging parts of the viewing experience, and yet can be summed up with a simple response; when one is dealing with the fantastic, at least for me, there needs to be some kind of emotional, spiritual thesis at work from the beginning of the film, which again brings back the idea of intention. Some films while utterly steeped in the unbelievable are capable of counterbalancing the often tinkered rules of physical/logical reality at hand. It goes all the way back to my love of films like Gojira for example. There is an almost youthful exhuberance in the execution of many of TOHO & DAIEI's early special effects films that comes through quite clearly despite all the fantasy bouncing off the edges like a vengeful Superball.

When faced with envisioning the impossible within film (or anime for that matter), a need for something else to ground matters is vital. And more often than not, this is where effective emotional storytelling comes into play. Without this, it all whittles down to merely spectacle with no real point or purpose, which for me is worse than anything. Especially in a time when anything can be achieved visually, story & theme eventually must take point in whether the project will speak to me or not.

If the spirit of the work is well established from the outset, and the creators find ways to maintain that spirit throughout, there's a good chance for a successful experience for us. Even if certain rules are bent, beats are underplayed, notes are forgotten, or even betrayed with new revelations, they still can help weave a unique tapestry. But more often than not, it all needs to be well-planned and executed. There are exceptions out there for sure. Works that came together on the day, within happenstance, or out of last moment necessity. In fact, some works can work in spite of all of this due to their immediacy, ingenuity, and energy. As long as the central nucleus of thought is consistent and carried through to the credits, chances are it'll work its wonders on me.

At the end, there are no real rules so much as a need for the work to speak truthfully, even if it's through the mind of a child. It is a quest to believe in the possibilities. And this is the spirit of The Wandering Kaijyu.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Kamikaze Girls (2004) - LAMB Review

And after nearly months of harping about it, and hoping that it could happen again, here is a first crack at a full-blown Kaijyu return. Now granted this wasn't at all what I had planned before certain events reared their heads, but in part respect to rural Japan , and part inspired by a fun Twitter discussion, I've decided to choose this 2004 film as my next review in my ongoing Live Action Manga Blues series. While this is a film I have seen multiple times over the years, it isn't as if I've loved it without reservation.

Yes. The Kaijyu has a strange relationship with Tetsuya Nakashima's colorful ode to EGL & Sukeban subculture. And I'm not sure if there's a complete way to actually describe what it is that I feel either way about Shimotsuma Monogatari. Originating as a light novel by Novala Takemoto in 2002, and was eventually adapted into a popular manga (featuring Yukio Kanesada), the film is a neck-breaking, eye-attacking exploration of the relationship between two unique characters. And when I say character, I mean white-hot intense caricatures, not unlike everything else in the film.

Young Momoko Ryugasaki (played with often frightening detachment by J-culture icon, Kyoko Fukada) opens the film in a dazzling prologue that includes a scooter accident, life flashing before our eyes, and some backstory to gather us into the wild story of her life until the potentially unseemly final moment. In an almost Fight Club inspired fashion, we are instantly privy to this film's cartoonish, frantic style complete with segueways and narrative rest stops as we see Momoko's early life as the daughter of a generation completely incomprehensible to her. Her mother, an aimless beauty, seeking out a man to rescue her. And her father, a lowly Yakuza errand boy. It is within this section of the film that we are quickly informed of just how this girl, came to not only move from the city, and into the cow patty-laden fields of Ibaraki, but also of her early disenfranchisement with the Japanese mainstream-enter her love of Elegant Gothic Lolita fashion, Roccoco-era sentiments, and utter detachment from others in a frilly packaged means of self-preservation. No way any old world "ideals" of love and connection to drag her down. Even as she often takes the long train to the city to spend whatever ill-gotten money she "earns" to maintain her fashion fix. (the weakness stemming from her father's counterfeit fashion scheme that eventually ran them out of town in the first place)

And it is within this mildly questionable chain of business practice, that she inevitably meets imposing, uncouth biker gal, Ichiko (played to the nines by model-singer Anna Tsuchiya) who is everything that Momoko isn't. The scooter-riding, showa-era style seifuku wearing Ichiko is passionate to say the least, which runs perfectly counter to Momoko's perfectly imposed sense of self, and seeming lack of caring. And it is within this strange, often violent (Simple, insult Ichiko, and its a kick or a headbutt) pairing that the film centers on. And it is the fact that these two are so far away from the city that borne out these obtusely diverging lifestyles that often fuels the humor. There is something about Momoko getting headbutted out in the middle of an open field that is both pathetic and hysterical. But it is when the duo set out to the city to seek out a "legendary" pattern maker that the story is set to test them both.

And this is where Nakashima & Co. seem far more interested in us getting to know these two at an almost arms-length distance, all the while drowning us in exploding charges of style. Which is welcome of course (this is also a guy who happened to really dig Scott Pilgrim if you remember), but the context of how we know these characters is often through the eyes of Momoko, who's world view may be considered skewed to say the least. And even an unreliable narrator as she can be, there needs to be some kind of counterbalance to help us better see them as humans rather than caricatures (even in Pilgrim's case, a look, a gesture went a long way to sell the real stakes) which really takes on bothersome dimensions when a potential love interest enters the fray. There's something in this section of the plot that in many ways almost kills the film completely. Especially when one of the girls is placed in a situation where growing up is at the center. If we don't feel the gravity of what is happening, and the interest is nothing more than an exaggerated cartoon, we are given little to nothing to care about. The fallout from this is an air of visually striking indifference. And worse yet, disinterested. (much like Momoko at the start, which defeats the entire purpose of an arc.) Made all the more frustrating as it seems like the two leads are really striving for more.

It also doesn't help that when the film's frenetic stylings attempt to shift gears, none of that works since the film almost wholly relies on gimmickry and the often appealing performances of Fukada/Tsuchiya. A mix that could have worked, but ultimately rings hollow. Particularly in the dull thud of a finale, which puts emphasis on name and reputation over individuality, which is disappointing.

And yet, perhaps the reason I still come back to the film occasionally is the package, rather than content. Nakashima's background was in commercials, and this is occasionally a stunning showcase of his talents if anything utilizing colors, set design, lighting, and even animation to fun effect. There is also an extensive use of real locations that is more than appreciated. To see these exteriors from the often flat lands of Ibaraki, to the pachinko parlor backlit streets of Tokyo, there is some welcome imagery here. And also of note is famed composer, Yoko Kanno's unique work in the film that encompasses several eras of J-pop culture to create a sound collage that is unlike anything she had done prior. And while all this, with such a surprisingly fun pairing, make for a fun audio-visual experience, its a shame that such a package comes short of a beating human heart.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

State Of The Kaijyu: Causes & Effects

There are only so many more delays left before these pages begin to populate themselves again. With the current home situation, coupled with some very in the air changes likely, it has been foggy at best to find time to share more material with everyone. But this isn't to say that nothing has been emanating from the labs as of late. Some are already well aware of my involvement with Anime and Manga Bloggers For Japan, a venture that has seen  collaborative efforts culminate in some truly impressive numbers for something that started after a few fellow writers threw their hat into the ring to support those in need of help throughout the Tohoku/Kanto areas.

And in a time when the news has placed great emphasis on the nuclear concern (which is a reasonably big worry for sure), it only felt natural to also place efforts into assisting those on the ground without proper care, supplies, and food. In league with NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders, and Shelter Box, the project started by D.Orihuela Gruber(of All About Manga) & Michael Huang (of Anime Diet), has made significant contributions toward this still ongoing cause that affects us not only as lovers of eastern popular culture, but as human beings. My role as part of the continuing news section while periodic at best, is hopefully some kind of help for those looking to better understand the situation from a more local standpoint.

Having friends and colleagues still on that side of the world helped me better understand the enormity of the situation long before corporate media could even muster a proper say to the western public. And despite the fact that a majority of these friends live in more southern-based regions, there were a few not too far from Fukushima, who have thankfully left. However, there are still many friends of friends still nearby, who have taken to places only slightly further away. This doesn't erase the concern for the many still out there with dwindling supplies, less than adequate facilities, and access to better help. Which is by and large it felt only right to invest a little inquiry here and there to gather information where possible.

At the moment, the current instability of my own life has paled to what I've seeing and reading over the past two weeks. So if I can help offer some clarity to those looking for something a little different than what the usual suspects offer, I will. And again, as of right now, the noise of news has slowly begun to die down, but the crisis across Japan continues on with supply issues, contamination worries, as well as stories of courage and tragedy. Twitter has been an enormous resource for updates, news, and opinion on all of this. So for those looking for more news, I highly recommend looking through many of the names I follow there. And NHK has been as great a source of info as any. In this age of democratized information, and diversity of news access, it can be overwhelming to some. Even I must admit to being borderline frayed at the edges with the incoming of data. So perhaps this spate of volunteer work has been my own means of better seeking a mental foothold. And on that front, it has been one fascinating, albeit emotionally exhausting ride.

So for what it's worth, I hope you will join us and continue to spread the word. This is something larger than us, and if there was ever a great reason to give back to a people who have inspired us so, this is it.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Convergence: We Heart Japan 03/17/11

What to share here that Liz at LA Weekly hasn't in her wonderful post?

Well perhaps some of my more internal feelings regarding this valiant, last moment effort to help the many people now enduring terrible hardships in the aftermath of the Tohoku Quake & ensuing tsunami in Japan. While the many of us stateside watched in growing, creeping horror, many were spurred into action, leading to a volley of events such as this one. But the particular itch this one had for me was multi-fold, and finally taking the time (and much needed money-to be honest) to stop by and support this led to some of the most surreal crossovers I have yet to experience. It was much like a scrappy, small scale surreal & yet hopeful twist on a Fellini film. Everyone other person around you a part of your past. Many in mildly new, yet similar roles to which I has knew them to embrace, and others advancing in ways mysterious.

                                            Where stages of life converge.

To be honest, with the crowd growing, and the energy increasing, Meltdown Comics that night was nothing short of dreamlike. Much like how anime conventions used to feel to me once upon a time, but this time blessed with a sense of knowing. Knowing that we all felt a deeper need to be there. Feeling that this was what many of us had done as workers and as fans of this culture. This was something ingrained deep, and no financial difficulty was going to stop us from helping make it happen.

Whether it be meeting the promoters, the voice actors, or just finally getting acquainted with fellow bloggers in that much anticipated local meetup, I'd say this was effort well made. It's a reminder of why I chose to live in this community, and of what comes when voices come together on common cause, regardless of cosmetic differences, and circumstance. Voice actors, artists, staffers, bloggers, reporters, photographers, co-workers, friends...This is what it means to have community. And with community, whether here, or in Sendai, there is hope.

Special Thanks to Liz Ohanesian, Stephanie Sheh, Dianne Garcia, Chase Wang, Daniella Orihuela Gruber & so many more for making such a memorable evening possible. Here's to doing more for the islands that have given us so much. Cheers.

(Those looking for a return of the usual Kaijyu & Anime Diet shenanigans. A little more patience, please.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

L.A. Becomes Japan Rescue HQ (In real and virtual!)

After a few days to allow the feelings of horror and loss wash over me as Japan experiences the single greatest disaster the nation has experienced throughout the post-war period, a feeling of restlessness has taken hold.  Over the last few days, I had been using Twitter and Facebook to sift through much of the western media's general ignorance of events in order to help keep friends and followers informed of life as it struggles in Japan, as well as share news of efforts being made to assist. And like many readers, I myself cannot help but be lulled into thinking there's no better option than to just curl up into bed helplessly as the drama unfolds, but not only as a fan of world cinema & animation, but as a fellow human being, my conscience would not allow me to bundle up just yet.

It should be more than clear at this point that the recovery effort taking place, particularly in the northern region of the country will be a protracted, difficult undertaking. So many routes have been compromised, making supplies, food, and energy a challenge to move. Not to mention the ongoing efforts to search for missing family members cut off from traditional communication methods. The Tohoku quake, and aftermath is a disaster of immense proportion that must be regarded delicately, and with all the informational clarity possible. This way, the collective efforts of not only those affected can flow smoothly, but the options we have as caring parties can assist those in need work ceaselessly.

This is the kind of effort that will likely affect all angles of daily life for years to come. And this is where we come in....

And thankfully due to the efforts of some local anime & manga names, here are some great ways you can help!

Firstly, I'd like to offer massive kudos to Daniella Orihuela Gruber of All About Manga for instigating the ambitious Anime And Manga Bloggers For Japan project, which offers two lovely options for fans to donate. FirstGiving's ShelterBox & Doctors Without Borders are among the services selected to help, and are ready for your donations.

                               So if you've yet to do your part, or just wish to help more, please do.

Secondly is what is shaping up to be a fantastic event at Meltdown Comics in L.A. this Thursday evening; Voice Actress, Stephanie Sheh & friends (including Troy Baker,Wendee Lee, Richard Epcar, Mary Elizabeth McGlynn & more anime industry names) host WeHeartJapan  

An art show/auction event featuring some great works by Sawdust Bear, Cathy Clark, Brett Jackson, and a great more to be announced. For more details and updates, please go to

And for those of you unable to attend, please consider Anime And Manga Bloggers For Japan.

Thanks again to you all for your thoughts during this difficult time. And stay tuned to my Twitter feed for updates should you wish. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

Japan's Quake Crisis & What You Can Do To Help!

Never expected to post something to this effect on the Kaijyu pages, but it seemed only right. Even if these pages are normally dedicated to works of fantasy and speculation, there is no denying the importance of very real events that potentially affect us all.

My Twitter feed last night (Pacific Time)was pretty much filled with the normal, even after the sizeable temblor that had happened a day before, but it was soon replaced by reports of something far larger, and has consistently become a disaster of near unimaginable proportion.

I won't go into the details that Twitter and other independent news sources(including ordinary folks with devices, braving through what is clearly a terrible time) have valiantly shared, but the earthquakes/tsunami malestrom that has rocked Japan over the last few days (leading to a terrible 8.9 quake, followed by smaller, yet significant ones in Nagano & Niigata as of today) have left not only hundreds to thousands dead or missing, but many of us in the sphere racked with worry. There is no simple way to describe the sheer helplessness I've been feeling since this began to unfold. And since Twitter and Facebook have been good at helping get word out to others where phones are inoperable, and to help folks find their families and loved ones, it seems the best that can be done for the time being.

And this is where you can help. Many services, including the ever wonderful folks at the Red Cross are accepting donations Go Here.

Google has a people finder Here.

Should you wish an alternative to Red Cross for donations, please consider Global Giving.

Also worth looking into is ShelterBox, who have a pretty clear cut system.

Here are some Emergency Numbers & resources to consider Here.(also includes available shelter information.)

For additional Japanese phone carrier service info: (keep in mind, phones have been troublesome, with twitter being one of the best means to keep in contact)  Here.

As for live coverage, as much as I've valued NHK, and Al Jazeera, Yokoso News has been tireless, and consistent this whole time.

I appreciate your patience, and also hope you take the time to consider helping the people of Japan.

Stay updated via Twitter & share info there should you know anything! So many of us would appreciate anything you can offer. This is me being thoroughly real with you all, it would mean a lot to me.