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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.

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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