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Looking For Quacks In The Pavement

Month: January 2017

3WA 2017 #4: Samurai 7

Adapting and reworking the classics of storytelling is a dangerous game. There’s absolutely no way you’re going to please everybody, and they’re going to give you no end of flack for something you change, if not everything you change. Facing that certainty, some storytellers figure they might as well go for broke. Change the setting to the Wild West! Or outer space! Or… I dunno, add giant robots!

What is it?

Samurai 7 is, of course, an adaptation of Kurosawa’s famous, classic Seven Samurai film.

What kind of story is it?

It’s a marvelous, epic heroic tragedy with some great fight scenes and wonderful character beats.

What, you want me to sum up one of the best-known story setups of all time? Be serious!

Fine: Bandits are extorting the crops from a village of farmers. Farmers send an envoy to the city in order to hire samurai. Since all they can offer in payment is rice the samurai will have to be hungry, or at least motivated by more than regular pay. A half-dozen-ish fighters are assembled. Plot ensues. Bad things happen to bandits. Bad things happen to samurai, too. The village is saved, more or less.

Pictured: One character new to the anime, and one character lifted (mostly) from the original film.

Why do you like it?

Other than the original 1956 Kurosawa movie, this is my favorite rendition of the tale. It’s faithful where it makes sense to be but it takes advantage of having lots of room to expand due to the full half-year series run. Particularly the plot threads involving the antagonists are a welcome addition. We know that a story centered exclusively on the villagers and their desperate band of saviors can fill about, let’s say, three hours of screen time. How do you make that work across two dozen or so half-hour installments? More action sequences, and showing the rise & fall of the scumbag behind the bandits, that’s how!

It’s clever, it’s moving, it’s exciting, it’s tragic, it’s satisfying.

Oddly faithful to the original character, considering he’s kind of a robot now.

What might one not like about it?

As with the first 3WA installment, Voices of a Distant Star, if you break out in hives at the appearance of giant robots in your heroic action tragedy you may need to give this a pass. The giant robots aren’t there all the time, but they’re certainly a periodic factor and you get a screen full of them right as the series starts. I like them as a worldbuilding detail and they’re smartly used, but there is a strong factor of “I don’t care how strong these guys are, how are they standing up to THOSE” involved. It’s an anime thing, I suppose.

“How did he DO that?”

More characters appear in this adaptation than are in the original, which is one possible natural consequence of making a much longer version of the story. You may or may not like the new arrivals. Both the bratty little girl from the village and the scheming bastard behind the bandits can be annoying. At least one of them gets what’s coming to them, so there’s that, right?

Other thoughts about it?

This series was my second exposure to an overt, make-no-mistakes rendition of the Seven Samurai tale. The first was… well, the cheesy, outer space one. And I was very young, and had no idea about the movie’s pedigree, for good or ill. I watched the actual original Seven Samurai for the first time only last year.

(Yes, I know. I’ve never claimed to be a film snob. At least I watched it before seeing the new Magnificent Seven, right?)

What I’m saying is… I’m no purist but I totally understand why people hold the original in such high regard. I think Samurai 7 holds its own as a solid rendition that takes important things from its progenitor and adds value along the way.

Where can I watch it?

As of this writing, Funimation’s site has Samurai 7 available for streaming. Otherwise you’ll need to track down the DVD set, which I recommend as it’s entirely worth owning.

3WA 2017 #3: Read or Die

It’s three episodes long, it’s our third installment, it has three words in the title. Oh, and it’s a gem of an anime production, delightfully bonkers. Let’s dive right in.

What is it?

Read or Die, the OVA, is a 90 minute action adventure tale which takes place in a contemporary, somewhat fantastical alternate-history world. The story originated in a series of light novels and manga but each medium’s version is its own independent thing, much like the versions of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Make of this comparison what you will.

What kind of story is it?

Someone is making superpowered clones of random figures from history and using them towards nefarious ends. To stop them, the British Library (go ahead and make your The Librarians jokes, I’ll wait) is sending several of its most capable agents to investigate. Drake (the muscle) and Nancy Makuhari (the Black-Widow-esque superspy) seem normal enough at first, but then there’s Yomiko Readman. “The Paper.”

Those were bullets. Fired at very close range.

The Paper’s ability seems to be “make sheets of paper do whatever the plot requires her to be able to do.” Don’t think about it too much, your brain will start hurting. Point being, this story is an hour and a half of wildly inventive magic-powers action with a strong thread of comedy and the occasional emotional gut-punch.

Why do you like it?

One of my favorite types of adventure storytelling starts with the question, “if people had [whatever superpower], how would they use it most effectively?” We’ll get to one of my all-time favorite expressions of this concept later on in the year, but for now let’s focus on Yomiko’s “bibliomancy” and Nancy’s phase-shift ability.

Currently shown in fully corporeal mode.

Nancy falls through floors and walks through walls, sure. But she also uses her ability to sort of… stick… to surfaces in order to get a better fighting position. It’s clever action storyboarding, at the very least. And Yomiko does a lot of things you or I might do with paper, such as making a paper airplane or getting a papercut, only… on grander scales.

The action in ROD is wonderfully inventive, yet rarely feels like it’s too unreal. Which seems odd, considering we’re talking about sheets of paper being used to stop bullets and shield bodies from explosions, but the point is that the powers are used in common-sense ways. You feel, as you watch this, like these characters’ powers are being used in ways that flow naturally from their training and personalities. I love this sort of thing.

It helps that we get a good mixed bag of personalities as well. Nancy and Yomiko are almost polar opposites yet end up working well together at several points. Theirs is the key relationship in this tale. The British Library staff and the villains of the piece stand out very well, too.

What might one not like about it?

It’s weird, it’s short, and it spends part of its runtime indulging in the sort of rambling philosophy rants that anime is often prone to. The plot is a bit opaque and somewhat weird due partly to the condensed run time, a problem that might have been alleviated had this been made into a short anime TV series instead of being crammed into 90 minutes of OVA. Also, it’s not a 100% heroes-win baddies-lose kind of ending. The world is saved from disaster but at a cost.

Other thoughts about it?

For pity’s sake do not seek out the 26-episode anime TV series of the same name. It has a great first episode, a long boring middle section, and a very strange way of looping its plot back into this installment’s plot toward the end. Not recommended.

It’s no secret that I love a good heroine, but how often do you get to see a capable action-story lead whose main identifying trait is, “loves books more than anything”?

Hanging by mere threads high above the ground, Yomiko is still mainly concerned with Not Dropping The Book.

Where can I watch it?

You’ll probably have to borrow or buy the DVD, if you can find a reputable seller. It’s worth the effort!

(Annoyingly enough, the TV series is on CrunchyRoll. You still probably shouldn’t watch it. Sorry.)

3WA 2017 #2: Ouran High School Host Club

Continuing our march through the calendar year, week by week, showcasing animated stuff that has brought me joy, we touch upon something that should actually not have worked for me at all: A romantic comedy.

Yeah! I know!

What is it?

Ouran High School Host Club is a 26-episode anime series spawned from a manga. It features a cast of rich weirdos (as any Rocky Horror midnight showing attendee can tell you, those are the best weirdos) and one regular person who is only a bit of a weirdo. Episode by episode, the Host Club entertains its clientele and gets into wacky shenanigans. Along the way an odd sort of romantic story arc emerges. (Very odd.)

What kind of story is it?

Take a bunch of pampered rich boys of wildly divergent personality types. Place them in the orbit of a stupendously odd, mostly self-absorbed leader who has decreed that they shall form a club for the purpose of entertaining young ladies, and introduce a wild-card commoner to kick off the show’s hi-jinks. Extract comedy from this scenario by any means necessary: Sight gags, running gags, verbal puns, visual puns, sleight-of-hand, subverted expectations.

Note that red arrow. It may not look like one, but it’s a joke setup indicator. A very effective one.

Make sure, however, to show that deep down these are good (if misguided and occasionally clueless) people who are trying (in their bizarre fashion) to make the world better… or at least more fabulous.

Why do you like it?

For starters, it’s genuinely hilarious. I usually lack the temperament to sit through two dozen episodes of sitcom silliness but OHSHC just keeps delivering the laughs. It helps that the comedy is inventively absurd and rarely mean-spirited, except occasionally when the Hitachiin twins are involved…

Do not buy a used car from these two. Do not buy ANYTHING from these two.

Comedy alone might not have kept me coming back for more, so it helps that there’s a wonderful slow-burn friendship-building arc that runs through the show. Haruhi, the poor unfortunate soul who is stuck working at the Host Club to pay off a debt, ends up building a real rapport with the other members. And while there is a romance (of sorts), it’s getting to know the inner lives and interesting backgrounds for each of the characters that really clinches the emotional attachment to the show.

Did I mention it’s ridiculously funny, though? There’s a scene with a singing Haruhi and an equipment mishap that left me gasping for breath I was laughing so hard. Also, light bulbs used as a running gag and a plot point indicator.

What might one not like about it?

There’s a good chance that, even if you’re on board with a full-length rom-com scenario, one or more of the characters might put you off the show completely. Like… well, probably this idiot:

I could have used any number of noble and dashing pictures, but this is the true Tamaki, right here.

And since he’s the leader of the club and possibly the most delusional character in the series, well, you’re going to see a lot of him. He does redeem himself from time to time, which is what made the experience bearable for me where he’s concerned.

Also, if cross-dressing as a recurring theme is going to bother you… probably best to avoid this show altogether, I’m afraid.

Other thoughts about it?

Note that I’m playing a bit coy with the setup of the show in this post. You may already know more about OHSHC than I’ve stated here, but if you’re going in cold, you’ll get to enjoy the full effect of the first episode. Yes, even though I’ve kind of given away one part of it with the “red arrow” pic above. If you get the chance, watch the first episode as unspoiled as you can be, even if you don’t continue the series afterward. Pure comedy gold.

I won’t claim that every episode is superlative. My reasons for loving the show are subjective, and my reason for choosing this show this early in the 3WA 2017 project is to highlight that this entire writing project is about stuff that makes me happy, not about objective excellence in the realm of animated art. With that said… if you could use a good laugh, you could do worse than to sit down with nearly any given episode of OHSHC.

Also, once you’ve watched this show you’ll grok so many more anime memes on the Internet than you could previously. What’s not to love about that?

I saw this on a Tumblr post with a comment reading, “Kiss kiss fall and drown” and I burst out laughing…

Where can I watch it?

Currently it’s available in subtitled or dubbed form on Funimation’s streaming site. It also pops up on Netflix from time to time.

3WA 2017 #1: Voices of a Distant Star

Friends, strangers, search-engine bots: Welcome to the inaugural post in my Weekly Word Working Assignment project for 2017. Remember: The point of this exercise is to spread positive vibes in the form of celebrating cool stuff that I really liked in the hopes that you, the reader, will find a new thing to really like as well.

We’re going to start off with a short, easy one…

What is it?

Voices of a Distant Star is a short animated film (about 25 minutes long) created by one Makoto Shinkai on his home computer in Japan, mostly on his own. It’s not Shinkai’s first self-produced effort but it’s the work that really made his name in the industry. Part of his (and the work’s) notoriety has to do with Voices‘ unusual “one man animation studio” origin. Novelty value alone does not account for its popularity and critical reception, however.

What kind of story is it?

On one level, Voices is about a girl who goes off to fight aliens during an interplanetary war. That’s really just the framing device as well as an excuse to show space combat action sequences. The meat of the film centers on the strain this war places on the relationship between the girl who keeps being taken farther and further away from Earth, and the boy who stayed behind. The only communication they can share is email messages sent between their phones.

Even in a shot of phone, keys, watch, and calendar, Shinkai works in a picture of pretty clouds. An animator after my own heart.

As Mikako, the combat mecha pilot, goes from Mars to Jupiter to trans-Plutonian orbit and beyond, the textual messages to Noboru (and his replies) take longer and longer to deliver. From her perspective everything’s happening at once due to the vagaries of physical faster-than-light travel versus good old light-speed transmission speeds for email. From his point-of-view, his girlfriend’s messages become too few and far between to bear. How do people stay connected and maintain hope across the vast reaches of space and time?

Why do you like it?

Let’s get one of the reasons I really likeĀ Voices out of the way right now:

This kind of sky image composition is a Makoto Shinkai signature motif.

I mean. Just look at that. Now imagine it animated. This dude knows how to make gorgeous cloudscapes. Don’t believe me? Take another look:

Crepuscular rays, aw yeah. Admittedly this scene is MUCH better looking animated than as a still image.

What I’m saying is, this little film is a bit less than half an hour of pretty, pretty moving pictures. The fact that it’s also a poignant Sci-Fi tale is icing on this beautiful cake.

I dig that poignant Sci-Fi tale, too. We’re shown each of them in moments of wistfulness and as they deal with the day-to-day of their increasingly-different lives. Moments of hesitation, proud moments, weak moments. I find myself rooting for them individually and together.

Also we get a few cleverly done giant robot space combat sequences. I’m not immune to the appeal of that sort of thing, having grown up on Voltron and Robotech and such. So that’s nice.

What might one not like about it?

If you’re not into giant robot space combat then you may find yourself unwilling to sit through Voices. While those sequences aren’t really the point of the film, they still make up a sizeable percentage of it.

While much of what you see is gorgeous, one of the weak points for me is the character design & animation.

I like them as characters, mind you. And the sketchy modeling & animating aren’t deal-breakers for me. Oh hey: Pretty clouds!

Toward the end it gets weirdly metaphysical and a bit vague. I’ve been watching anime long enough that I’m used to this sort of thing. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

You may need to turn off your “but wait” thought processes for the duration. Like, “How are either of their phones still functional? Why FTL travel but not FTL communication?” Just… don’t. Let it go, Elsa. The point of the film isn’t realistic science, as evidenced by the giant robot space combat stuff. The point is taking that Sci-Fi framing device and digging into how the characters deal with these circumstances. If that’s a deal-breaker, you should probably skip Voices. Sadly.

Other thoughts about it?

The introduction of computer technology to anime production resulted in some interesting visual ideas being realized quite effectively in Sci-Fi combat stories. I mean, look at this control pod interface:

I’m not sure that the semi-transparent information display elements would actually be practical, but it makes for a great look in the film and you can see how something like that setup might be made to work out.

Those of you familiar with Shinkai’s later and higher-resolution efforts may wonder why I picked Voices over pieces like The Place Promised In Our Early Days or 5cm Per Second. Honestly, this entry was a toss-up between Voices and Place. I mean, Place has many many more scenes of clouds, in much greater detail! There’s an actual multi-threaded plot! Sci-Fi shenanigans abound! What’s not to love?

Thing is… while I admire those other two films, I don’t quite love them the way I do Voices. If you happen to watch this one and want to seek out more of Shinkai’s stuff, I highly recommend doing so. (Note that 5cm is, as its title kind of suggests, a slow-moving piece. Great work of art! Not as much fun.)

Where can I watch it?

As of this writing, CrunchyRoll has Voices of a Distant Star available for streaming. You can also buy it on DVD via Amazon and various other venues.

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