Looking For Quacks In The Pavement

Month: February 2017

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.

3WA 2017 #6: Mouretsu Pirates

In space, no one can hear you squee.

This writing project is all about things that give me joy, and sharing that joy in the hopes that you find something along the way which can give you some of the same happiness I’ve found. Or, remembering why you fondly remember some of the same things I have. This week’s installment is located at the intersection of The Hero(ine)’s Journey and The Power of Friendship, assuming that these roads can be traveled via pirate spaceship. And it’s a pure delight.

See? Pirate spaceship.

What is it?

Mouretsu Pirates started, as so many recent anime have done, as a light novel series. The series runs 26 episodes long, followed by a theatrical film that is essentially a better-produced episodic adventure placed shortly after the series’ timeline.

The show’s official English title is Bodacious Space Pirates and that’s the last time I’m mentioning that fact because seriously, no.

What kind of story is it?

Marika is living a normal school life, with a part time job and hobby time spent in the space yacht club, when she is informed of her late father’s bequest: Captaincy of a pirate ship. The laws state that pirate ships must pass from parent to child or risk decommissioning. Of course our plucky heroine takes up the challenge of space piracy, otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a plot. The point of the show, however, is watching Marika and her friends and her new crew as they get used to the change in circumstances. She has to learn the ropes of the piracy business (and business it is!) as well as grow into her innate talent for the tactics of space combat while maintaining her grades and keeping up her part-time job at the cafe. Busy girl!

Rocking that captain’s uniform, Marika!

You realize very early on that this isn’t being played for heavy drama. There’s no grimdark here. It’s not that kind of show. You can simply relax and enjoy the ride on the fun train.

Why do you like it?

I’m here for the great characters, the clever tactical stuff, the smart and funny writing, and the overall sense of delight.

The show is almost an ensemble but Marika is at the heart of nearly everything going on. Her knack at befriending useful people is a big contributor to her increasing success. But she’s not one of those characters for whom everything comes too easily. We get to watch her try things out, establish her sense of place, step out of her comfort zones. Yes, she’s the central figure and the show is deliberately upbeat, but it doesn’t feel like her accomplishments are cheap and there’s a good sense of character progression.

Also: Space pirates. I mean, come on now.

Pictured: What you sort of expect a space pirate crew to look like.

What might one not like about it?

If you want something with a bit more dramatic heft, more edge, then Mouretsu Pirates probably isn’t your cup of tea. Also, this is a world full of schoolgirls. The dudes don’t factor in very much or very often.

Pictured: What you do NOT expect a space pirate crew to look like.

Maybe you’re allergic to joy. I don’t know your life.

Other thoughts about it?

The ending theme song, “Lost Child,” is among my all-time favorite anime-related tracks of all time. The opening theme song, whose title I shall not try to reproduce here, is… certainly several minutes of sounds, yes indeed. Hooboy.

Problems are usually solved, in this show, by clever people figuring out smart solutions. Everyone has a strength that will get played to somewhere along the way, but they’re going to have to work hard for their successes.

Chiaki is better than you at everything. Everything except being cheerful.

Where can I watch it?

The series and movie are available on Blu-Ray, and you can stream the series at Crunchyroll.


3WA 2017 #5: Spice and Wolf

Come for the naked wolf goddess, stay for the economics drama and snarky banter! It’s time to get your wagon filled with apples and go on a road trip with Spice and Wolf.

What is it?

This is a show which started life as a series of “light novels” about a struggling young trader named Lawrence and Horo, the “wisewolf” he falls in with, taking place in a vaguely-Renaissance-Europe setting. He wants to set up a permanent shop some day, she wants to travel back to her homeland. He’s a mid-20s guy with a good head for business but a lot to learn, she’s an ancient shape-shifting wolf goddess with a good head for business.

What kind of story is it?

There are three main layers in Spice and Wolf: It’s a series of musings on the passing of old pagan gods and the rise of Christianity, for good or ill. It’s a charming little romantic show about two people who love business dealings. And it’s a show about business dealings, lots and lots of business dealings. You can make a good story about anything if you structure and sell it just right, and here is a series about a bunch of economic theories and complicated transactions which doesn’t put you to sleep.

Money, money, money.

The anime goes through a set of episodic story arcs, introducing new places and characters for Horo and Lawrence to interact with and attempt to profit from, generally with the added challenge of keeping Horo’s true nature a secret. That part isn’t made easier by the fact that her “human” form retains pointy ears and a big fluffy tail.

Why do you like it?

At its core, Spice and Wolf is a two-character road-trip adventure series, and if you can get your two leads to play well off of each other it’s a delight to watch regardless of the actual plots. What’s amazing to me is how much I got into the economic aspect, though. I wouldn’t say I learned a lot from watching the show but you can tell that the writer did a lot of homework. The principles and attitudes feel authentic, by and large.

Horo (or Holo, depending on who you ask) is by turns adorable, annoying, overbearing, savvy, dangerous, and pitiful. You’re never quite sure what she’s going to do next. In some shows that could get frustrating but Spice and Wolf handles it quite well. She’s mercurial, but not wackadoodle.

And occasionally she’s drunk.

It’s also nice to find a male lead in anime who is decently competent without being too competent. (It seems like a lot of anime features either Amazing Unstoppable Man or How Does This Guy Tie His Own Shoelaces Man. Sigh.) Lawrence is surprisingly pragmatic, which doesn’t always work out in his favor. There are some interesting nuances in his character and how he interacts with his world.

And every now and then, of course, something fantastical happens.

Lawrence is well-advised to avoid jokes about “biting my head off.”

It’s not that this is a great all-time classic of a show, but it’s kind of warm and fuzzy with moments of surprising grit and integrity.

Also? I really like the first season’s opening and closing songs, even though the closing song’s lyrics seem to be utter nonsense.

What might one not like about it?

Let’s not put too fine a point on it: If the somewhat-“furry” aspect of romance between a human guy and a wolf-y girl is off-putting to you then you might as well avoid Spice and Wolf. While the romantic thread isn’t always very prominent in the show, it’s still there as a key element. You’ve been warned.

Get a room, you two! Oh, you did? Okay then!

Also, if you’re coming into this expecting a lot of action and adventure, or a lot of “power of the old gods” stuff, you’ll be disappointed. What you’re going to get is business dealings, and more business dealings, punctuated with witty banter and the occasional glimpse of fluffy tail.

Other thoughts about it?

I’m amused by the fact that when Lawrence first meets Horo, she’s stark naked (in human form) and it’s not even remotely played as titillation. It’s just not that kind of show (thank goodness). They can joke about it later, and that’s about as far as it goes.

Of the two, Lawrence is the big softie. (If you want to call that irony, go ahead.) Perhaps it’s no surprise that the wolf’s instincts are to go for the kill at the opportune moment, so his easy-going attitude and general pragmatism are set up as balance.

For the beliefs and attitudes of its characters, Spice and Wolf goes for a mix of modern sensibilities (most stories created at a time are creatures of their time, after all) and setting-appropriate attitudes. Some of this shows up in how people react to the young merchant and his “traveling companion.” It also appears when the Christian church is a part of the story, where the God of that church is revered but some of those who represent the church are… less savory. I find the blend of historically-accurate and alternate-history and mythical elements interesting.

Where can I watch it?

As of this writing, Funimation’s website has Spice and Wolf available for streaming. There’s a Blu-Ray/DVD combo boxed set of the complete series as well.

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