Looking For Quacks In The Pavement

Author: Karel Kerezman (page 2 of 359)

3WA 2017 #11: Cardcaptor Sakura

I love a good heroine, and the world of animation provides a variety of archetypes to choose from: Technicians, warriors, royalty, soldiers, thieves, and so forth. One particular type is (mostly) unique to anime, which is the “magical girl.” And when you think of prominent, famous magical girls in anime you’re down to one of two really big names.

This is the one which isn’t Sailor Moon.

What is it?

Cardcaptor Sakura started life as a manga series by the artist collective known as CLAMP, then was adapted into a series spanning 70 broadcast episodes and two theatrical movies.

What kind of story is it?

Sakura, our heroine, is a perpetually upbeat, clever, athletic young lady with occasional bouts of clumsiness. One day, she accidentally sets loose a whole mess of magical cards. It’s her job to re-capture all fifty-some-odd of ’em. Oh, and she gets magic powers with which to tackle the job.

Plot MacGuffin? Clow Cards, check!

She’s aided and/or thwarted by a handful of unusual folks, such as her best friend Tomoyo who has made it her mission in life to ensure that her newly-minted magical girl bestie never has to wear the same outfit twice. Take that, Moon Princess Serenity!

Basically, in nearly every episode Sakura has to capture (or, in the latter part of the series, change) each and every lost card. Along the way she deals with family, friendship, romance, and all manner of school activities.

Non-magical but incredibly useful boon companion? Tomoyo, check!

Why do you like it?

Lemme tell ya: CCS is the polar opposite of “grimdark,” and that makes me very happy. That’s not to say it’s so fluffy that it’s devoid of depth and drama, mind you. The dramatic stakes feel high enough. The show doesn’t feel the need to kill anyone off or prolong anyone’s suffering just for the sake of “grittiness,” however. And I love that.

A lot of the fun comes from seeing how our young heroes figure out how to deal with each of the cards they encounter. The solution to each challenge follows logically (more or less) from the identification of which card they’re dealing with. Often, previously-captured cards’ powers are brought into play in clever ways.

Powerful foil with potential for romantic entanglement? Syaoran, check!

When not facing magical challenges, the characters spend time hanging out, goofing off, living life and generally being adorable. And every now and then, a bit of the overarching plot thread shows up to pique the viewer’s interest.

What might one not like about it?

If you’re prone to becoming uncomfortable when characters express romantic interest toward other characters of the same gender, you’ll have a rough time watching Cardcaptor Sakura. I mean, it’s generally schoolkid-crush levels for the most part but it’s still not even remotely subtle.

Also that grimdark thing, particularly the near-total lack thereof. If you need some amount of grittiness in order to enjoy a story, this won’t work for you. In the end, this show is about the power of one girl’s unstoppable commitment to being kind and decent to everyone she possibly can. I can’t imagine how someone could find that off-putting but that may be simply a limitation of my imagination.

There are also talking animals… kind of. I know some people can’t stand that sort of thing, so you’re duly warned.

Talking magical animal familiar? KERO-CHAN, CHECK!

Other thoughts about it?

There’s a solid mid-series plot thread wrap up which leads into the second major portion of the show, with another solid ending followed by the completion of the entire story in the second movie. Yes, you really will want to watch both movies. (One takes place partway through the TV show’s timeline.)

In a lot of ways, CCS is the gold-standard magical girl show. Sailor Moon may be (slightly, arguably) better known, and unlike most magical girl shows CCS doesn’t rely on a transformation sequence (Sakura has to get into each of Tomoyo’s provided costumes the old-fashioned way), but there’s nothing better fitted to the concept of “young girl uses magic and willful determination to make the world better.” Other shows may have better music, higher production values (consider that this show was made in the late 1990s), and so forth. Still: You’re not going to get a better Platonic Ideal of “mahou shoujo” than Cardcaptor Sakura.

Of course in this new millennium we have to deconstruct the entire genre with things like Madoka Magicka, which is a stunning piece of work and seriously grimdark into the bargain. Sigh.

By the way: I freely admit that I have taken advantage of a particular element which shows up at the end of most episodes to fuel a running gag in this entry which won’t make any sense to someone who hasn’t watched the show. It’s my website and I’ll joke if I want to.

Where can I watch it?

This one’s a bit tricky.

There’s a Blu-Ray release, but the dubbing and the subtitling are both poorly regarded by most fans of the show. There’s a DVD set, but it’s spread across seventeen individually-boxed discs. (Oh, and it’s out of print, so good luck.) You might find discs of a horribly chopped down dubbed version of the show which aired on American TV called Cardcaptors which you should avoid at all costs.

My recommendation is to stream the subtitled version on Crunchyroll. Start here. You’ll thank me… in a few weeks when you get through the other 69 episodes…

3WA 2017 #10: Summer Wars

“You got your family drama in my cyberspace action-adventure story!” “You got your crazy Matrix-y adventure story in my complex, heartwarming family drama!” Two particular tastes that might not normally taste great together, and yet

What is it?

Summer Wars is an animated film which takes place, figuratively and somewhat literally, at the intersection of one family’s ongoing internal drama and the attempt by an AI in cyberspace to attack humanity’s industrial infrastructure.

Also, a cautionary tale about giving the Internet access to vital infrastructure.

What kind of story is it?

You know how it is: Boy likes girl, girl invites boy to a family gathering, boy makes fool of himself, there’s a redemption arc, and there’s a kiss at the end.

Of course it’s nowhere near that simple. The girl’s merely pretending that she’s dating the boy for the sake of appeasing her family matriarchs. The boy gets involved with a rogue AI and chaos ensues. Oh, and almost half of the plot takes place in a kind of funhouse brightly-colored crazypants VR/cyberspace realm.

When you get right down to it, though, the heart of the film is its slice-of-life depictions of a big crazy sprawling (oh, also rich & influential) family. The “rogue AI trying to kill us” aspect is almost irrelevant in some ways.

Your antagonist in cyberspace: Love Machine, ladies and gentlemen.


Why do you like it?

Any time you can do a good slice-of-life family situation on film without relying too much on situations that trigger my “embarrassment squick,” I feel like you’ve done pretty well. The drama here is good, and it feels real… gritty on some levels, goofy on others. You know: Like a real family.

The family that games together, stays together…?

And then there’s the stupendously imaginative portrayal of the cyberspace elements. This movie is just plain pretty to look at, and never dull.

What might one not like about it?

There’s a lot going on in this story and if you can’t buy into both key elements (family drama, cyberspace AI) then you’ll spend at least half the time being frustrated. The huge cast can also lead to troubles keeping track of who said/did what to whom and why it matters, which can pull you out of the movie a bit. You might not be able to buy into some of the conceits required to make the cyberspace plot work, or maybe its depiction is too brightly colorful.

I urge you to try to get past these elements, of course.

A ridiculously powerful supercomputer in every home. The future!

Other thoughts about it?

Without spoiling the movie too much: It’s interesting that while the story does have a triumphant victory and a generally happy ending, the overall theme seems to be, “Life goes on regardless.” There’s a strong thread of thoughtful contemplation running through what is generally an energetic, arguably chaotic film.

Where can I watch it?

Buy the Blu-Ray release.

3WA 2017 #9: HaNaYaMaTa

The nice thing about a writing project that only a handful of people will ever read is that I’m not required to take myself too seriously. I have no dignity to lose, here. This week? That’s especially useful.

What is it?

HaNaYaMaTa is a cute, slice-of-life, sports-type 12-episode anime that started out as a manga series. The title is kind of like a portmanteau of the names of five of the main characters.

Our title characters, everyone!

What kind of story is it?

Let me sum up: Cute, because it’s a group of schoolgirls being adorable. Slice-of-life, because it’s mostly the girls being adorable & goofy rather than being caught in a high-drama thread of plotlines. Sports-type, because there’s a (slight) team competition aspect to their chosen activity, and of course our girls are the underdog newbies.

The history of anime television is littered with shows whose premise boils down to, “Let’s show schoolkids getting involved with a sport (or other group activity) that nobody else has done an anime about yet.” For HaNaYaMaTa the activity is a dance style called yosakoi.

Practice session, complete with wooden clappers.

Go ahead and Google it if you want. You don’t need in-depth knowledge about yosakoi to enjoy this show, however.

Why do you like it?

Because it’s adorable. It just is. The opening theme song is perfectly cute and bubbly, the characters are delightful, and the whole show is just a joy to behold. There is drama but it’s really low-key stuff. Not that it’s handled poorly; there are a few lovely tear-jerker beats along the way.

Sometimes you need bright colors and happy silliness, right? Right.

A heartwarming grand finale doesn’t hurt, either.

What might one not like about it?

This much cuteness isn’t for everyone, I know this. HaNaYaMaTa wouldn’t ordinarily be my kind of fare either! Different people have different lines for the boundary between “this is just too much bright-and-cheery” and “this is just right.” I don’t even remember why I checked this one out… glad I did, mind you.

Also, to be fair, the characters are all sourced from the Anime Schoolgirl Character Archetypes shelf.

Right down to our “hapless but tries hard” lead, Naru.

Other thoughts about it?

This show has one of my all-time favorite upbeat-style opening songs.

No, that’s about all I’ve got. They can’t all be complex, thought-provoking shows, can they?

Where can I watch it?

Crunchyroll has you covered, you can stream all 12 episodes for free (as of this writing).

3WA 2017 #8: Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind

I waited this long. It’s time.

What is it?

NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind is the second feature film made by Hayao Miyazaki and is generally credited with kicking off the whole Studio Ghibli thing.

Miyazaki is well-known for plucky heroines, but also for his love of REALLY weird aircraft designs…

What kind of story is it?

Many centuries after a devastating global catastrophe, few pockets of humanity remain in the face of an encroaching “sea of corruption,” a toxic forest filled with miasma and bugs. An aggressive neighboring nation takes control of the peaceful Valley of the Wind for mysterious purposes. The young princess of that valley tries her best to save everyone she can from total destruction.

And by “everyone” we also mean weird squirrel-fox critters and gigantic insects.

Why do you like it?

I freely admit that a lot of my joy in re-watching NausicaƤ stems from pure nostalgia. A chopped-down dubbed version made its way to HBO in the mid-1980s and (not knowing how bastardized it was) I watched the hell out of this odd-looking, distinctly un-subtle fable.

But come on, can you blame me? This movie features crazy airplanes, gigantic insects, daring rescues, and ancient relics with phenomenal powers the likes of which mankind was not meant to tamper.

Okay, just ONE ancient relic and it’s not in a very good state of repair…

Oh, also gorgeous and creative scenic environments. Let’s not forget those.

What might one not like about it?

Unlike the later, more sophisticated Princess Mononoke, this movie doesn’t have much of what you’d call a moral gray area. The people in the Valley are generally good, the people from Torumekia are generally greedy and nasty, and the environmentalist message is front-and-center during the entire presentation. Some may find this off-putting.

Other thoughts about it?

There’s one good bit from the otherwise-terrible old dub that I wish had survived to the later Disney dub. It’s from Kushana’s devious second-in-command, Kurotowa, during a peasant revolt when he instructs his soldiers, “Let’s teach these insurgents a lesson in crowd control: Drop a bomb on them.” The delivery is delightfully slimy.

Pictured: The Platonic Ideal of a bootlicking sleazeball.

(Not that I listen to either dub anymore, mind you. But if you like dubs: More power to you! Patrick Stewart is in this one!)

This movie is a big part of kicking off what I now (jokingly) refer to as my “heroine addiction.” It’s also the first thing I watched where I really became aware of anime as a distinct thing, creatively. I’d watched Robotech on TV but it was just a show. I didn’t really understand the background and provenance yet. After seeing NausicaƤ I started getting into this stuff in earnest.

Can you blame me?

Where can I watch it?

Do yourself a favor and buy the Blu-Ray. This thing is a feast for the eyes, even all these years later.

Also, if you’re inclined along such lines, check out the manga series which initially predated the film but continued on until the mid 1990s. It takes the plotline into darker, more interesting places, and serves as an interesting portal into Miyazaki’s thinking (when he’s not working on lighter, kid-friendly animated features).

3WA 2017 #7: Superman: The Animated Series

When I started assembling titles for this project (I know, I’m as shocked as you are that any planning at all went into this) I started out focusing on anime. Anime is my favorite source of animated happiness but it’s not my only source. Sometimes I get my kicks closer to home.

What is it?

Superman: The Animated Series is part of the “DC animated universe” lineage of Warner Brothers shows that originated with Batman: The Animated Series. It ran for three seasons in the late 1990s, totaling 54 aired episodes.

What kind of story is it?

Being an episodic domestic cartoon there isn’t much in the way of an overarching story. You get some shorter arcs here and there, plus recurring characters which contribute to a sense of a larger plot. Generally speaking it’s a new little adventure every week. Sometimes the story is in outer space, sometimes it’s around Metropolis. You never know which you’ll get next.

So it’s not really “a story.” What it is, instead, is arguably the most faithful and delightful rendition of “the big blue Boy Scout” ever put to film. (Even more, it’s almost certainly the best depiction of Lois Lane ever.)

Lois Lane does not, in fact, spend most of her time falling from buildings.

Why do you like it?

Every fan of comic-book storytelling has, at some point along the way, been asked to pick a side: Batman, or Superman? I like the flying-rodent detective gadget dude well enough, but I’ve always been more of a Supes fan. And this show gets him so very, very right. The principled defender. The orphan. The farmboy. The inquisitive helper and test-subject at S.T.A.R. Labs. The unsuspected smart-ass. (“You’re a sick man, Kent.”)

He’s a big damn hero, is what he is, and I can’t get enough of it.

The other characters are also fantastic. A big part of why they work is the voice talent assembled by the amazing casting director, Andrea Romano. Let’s see: Tim Daly as Supes (with double duty as Bizarro), Dana Delany as Lois, Clancy freakin’ Brown as Lex freakin’ Luthor, Mike Farrell and his wife Shelley Fabares as Pa and Ma Kent, with guest appearances by folks like Mark Hamill, Michael Dorn, both Malcolm and Roddy McDowall, Ron Perlman, Michael Ironside, David Warner… and so on, and so on.

Clancy Brown voicing Lex Luthor is almost as perfect as Mark Hamill playing The Joker.

And it’s not just that a bunch of big names were thrown at the show, it’s that each actor is absolutely marvelous in their role. The show is a joy to listen to as well as watch. Even, or especially, when scenery-chewing is called for.

What might one not like about it?

There’s an inescapable problem in telling a string of Superman tales. You can sum it up in one word: Power. When it gets down to the action, the amount, variety, and effectiveness of Supes’ power is far more based on the needs of the plot than on anything you might call “consistency.” If that’s the sort of thing that takes you out of a story, you might have issues watching S:TAS.

And sometimes really weird dudes from outer space show up. Whatcha gonna do?

It’s also a bit dated by modern standards. A 4:3 aspect ratio, almost nothing in the way of computer-assisted animation, and because it was made for Saturday morning television it’s not the biggest-budget production you’ll ever see. This is the oldest series I’ve featured in this project… thus far.

Other thoughts about it?

Keep in mind that I’m a fake geek guy: I didn’t read all that many comic books as a kid, let alone as an adult. So this series includes my first real introduction to a Green Lantern.

Hello, Mister Rayner. Enjoy this brief moment in the animated spotlight…

If you don’t want to watch three whole seasons of Superman: The Animated Series, do yourself a favor and at least find the three-episode arc released on DVD as World’s Finest. Unlike that ridiculous Dawn of Justice film, this is a Batman and Superman team-up worth watching. Trust me on this. Clark, Lois, and Bruce playing off of one another, with bonus Joker shenanigans? It’s a joyous treat.

Where can I watch it?

Buy the DVDs, pretty much. Or pay Amazon to stream the episodes. (It’s included with Prime as of this writing.)

It’s coming up on that time…

I ding 45 next month. This is just a reminder that if you’re feeling overburdened by money (thanks, Marcus) you can send a trinket or something my direction…

45 is a good number, right? That’s the RPM of a music single on a turntable! Right.

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