Anime Archive

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Slaughtering the Sacred Cow: Adam Rewatches Neon Genesis Evangelion, Part 2

There are any number of ways to attack the second act (episodes 8 through to 16) of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Personally, I think I’ll go at it with a drink in one hand and a club in the other. Wait, please, don’t go. I promise, no more stupid jokes.

Tempting as it is to resume my thematic, Mr. Plinkett-inspired approach to the series, I want to change gears. Save for adding, “Gendo is a terrible father,” which dovetails pretty closely with, “NERV needs a therapist on staff,” to my list of the series’ thematic crimes, episodes 8-16 are largely more of the same. The biggest change comes with the introduction of two new characters: Ryoji Kaji, who is totally not a spy, and Asuka Langley Soryu, pilot of Evangelion Unit-02. Behold, my subtitle for this post.

Evangelion Characters Who Should Be Hit By A Bus

Ryoji Kaji

Kaji’s introduction to the story is as a secondary character elevated to the level of recurring pain in the ass. We meet him as an escort for EVA-02 and Asuka. Once they arrive in Japan, he decides to “stick around for a while.” I don’t mind new characters, except for when they are unrepentant sex pests. Is it too soon for a Jian Ghomeshi joke?

If the 1990s could imagine smart phones, and the associated rise in homemade porn, Kaji would be the guy who sends endless dick pics and jerk off videos to Misato and Ritsuko. His first line in almost every scene presumes either Misato or Ritsuko want to have sex with him. When Kaji and Misato get stuck in an elevator, he invites her to take off her top to keep from getting too warm. The leering smarm in his voice transcends barriers of language – a credit to his voice actor, which is the only kind thing I have to say about this character.

I don’t care if Evangelion is the product of the 90s; I’m an evolved North American in the year 2015, and Kaji makes no god damned sense. Try as I might, I can’t fathom how Evangelion can style itself as clever and metaphoric while working through such utter tactless garbage. Am I to believe that as a deconstruction of the mecha genre, Evangelion can include people in Tokyo-3 filing insurance claims against NERV, but NERV itself opted out of an HR department?

Kaji doesn’t even have the decency to be circumspect with his propositions. He regularly walks into a room full of people and invites any woman within his line of sight to touch his penis. How are all the engineers, technicians, and computer programmers at NERV cool with this guy? He does nothing on the job save for trying to score. Kaji might be accurate to the time period and cultural norms of the production’s point in history – I honestly don’t think he is, though – but that doesn’t mean it’s entertaining to watch by modern standards.

Also, Kaji’s not a spy. Don’t let the foreshadowing fool you. Kaji is totally not a spy.

All this said, I would rather spend a night hanging out with Kaji and his bros than spend ten minutes with this next character.

Asuka Langley Soryu

Again, all glory to the character’s voice actor for her ability to evoke such unmitigated rage in me. Whenever Asuka goes into battle, I’m cheering for the angels. Never have I come across a character so shrill, abrasive, and utterly insufferable that I would celebrate her death with a glass of fifteen-year-old single malt.

The real problem with Asuka manifests in the gap between her intended purpose to the story and the execution, therein. In short, Asuka is the masculine ”ideal” that Shinji can never be. Shinji spends his days hating himself, being afraid of other people, and constantly bowing and scraping for things that are not his fault. If there’s a single phrase of Japanese you will learn from Shinji, it’s gomennasai – I’m sorry.

Asuka is an aloof, alpha who finds Shinji, and most other people, weak and pathetic. She’s toxic mix of teenage gung-ho confidence supported by textbook genius. At age fourteen, we’re supposed to believe Asuka has already completed university. This being the case, I’m not sure why she is enrolled at the local Tokyo-3 high school.

In this light, I understand how Asuka is supposed to be a foil for Shinji. In practice, I see her as little more than a bullying asshole. Whatever flashes of insecurity/humanity Asuka might offer, particularly when it comes to the series stripping her naked – because anime – are completely overshadowed by the endless verbal abuse she lays on Shinji’s doorstep. Worse still, she moves into Misato and Shinji’s apartment, turfing the lad from his bedroom in the process. Shinji had one safe space in the world, other than inside EVA-01, and it is denied to him by an unwelcome roommate who offers him nothing but scorn and shame.

All of the feels…

I understand and sympathize – despite my critical venom – with the director’s desire to share his depression and sense of perpetual isolation through Evangelion’s writing. My sympathy, however, only extends so far. It’s one thing to write about feeling worthless as a person. It’s another to create a series of contrivances designed to pointlessly torture the protagonist into a protracted state of self-reflection in the third act. Sixteen episodes into the series and my suspension of disbelief isn’t shattered by Judeo-Christian mecha so much as it’s stomped into a fine, pink, pulp by the gimmicks the series uses to create character conflict. It feels forced and dishonest.

I was a bullied kid who had to find his steel. I was a depressed kid who needed to get help. The unending psychological torture the series heaps on Shinji isn’t my story nor is it the story of anybody I know who walked a similar path. If anything, the drama of Evangelion cheapens the torment of depression and isolation, as these things are made terrible by their banality and routine.

Now I’m left to wonder how the “highly cerebral” and “psychological” third act will land given I have very little emotional buy-in to the characters. If things feel ham fisted now, how will they feel when the story goes off the rails? I’ve had a sample of this during Shinji’s battle with the 12th angel, and it was weird. Five minutes of an anti-action sequence are devoted to Shinji having an existential conversation between his id and super ego…or maybe it is the angel trying to hack his brain. I don’t fucking know.

To be continued…


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Slaughtering the Sacred Cow: Adam Rewatches Neon Genesis Evangelion, Part 1

First, and for the record, I would like to say this post and all those that follow in this series can be blamed on Leah Bobet. Her tweets about Evangelion inspired/inceptioned me into rewatching the series.

For the sake of my sanity, I’m going to break this diatribe up into parts. Part one focuses on the first seven episodes of the series. There’s no particular reason behind the number, beyond Evangelion’s wack-a-doodle story reaching a saturation point in my head.

I should also be very honest about the fact that I hold no special love for Evangelion. Despite Wikipedia calling it “one of the most successful and critically acclaimed anime television series of the 1990s,” and “a critique and deconstruction of the mecha genre,” it’s always managed to confuse me more than it has impressed me. My reaction to the series when I was twenty-two was mostly along the lines of, “what the fuck did I just watch?” Eleven years and seven episodes later, little has changed.

On that note, let’s get into it in the finest fashion of Mr. Plinket.

Number 1: Space Jesus

Evangelion is a show about robots, religion, and Space Jesus aka Shinji Ikari. There’s hardly a scene that goes by where somebody isn’t saying something, doing something, or blowing something up in a way that references religion. Shinji’s first fight with an “angel” features multiple explosions where the blast patterns are in the shape of a cross. As for Shinji, who resents the pain he feels at the hands of an aloof, all seeing, father, well I don’t have to draw you a picture on that one. But if I did, it would look like this.

Though there’s no shortage of pillaging from Christianity, the series doesn’t limit itself to the Abrahamic faiths. Shinji, Rei, and Asuka (a trinity) were all augured to be Eva pilots from something called the “Marduk Report.” For everybody without a degree in classical studies, you made a good life choice.

Wocka Wocka.

For everybody else, Marduk was the patron god of the city of Babylon and head of the Babylonian pantheon. Don’t say you never learnt something on my website.

The problem is the aesthetic is seemingly absent message. As such, it wears thin very quickly. A person can abide only so many nuclear cross explosions before the “deconstruction” of religion feels more like shoe-horning so much ephemera into an ark.

*taps mic* I said ark. It’s a religion thing. Get it?

Maybe as an uppity undergrad I was content to bask in the symbolism and feel clever for picking up on its presence. Now, it’s tedious and makes me feel like I should have done a useful minor, like business.

We get it, Hideaki Anno, you either love religion or hate religion – I honestly can’t tell.

Number 2: The Plot Is Flimsy

The addition of one qualified therapist or mental health professional on the NERV staff would break the entire series. If Shinji didn’t have to single-handedly deal with critical incident stress while working in an office with his asshole father, insufficient professional development, indifferent coworkers – looking at you Ritsuko – and then go home to living with a high-functioning alcoholic, he might not end up a giant hot mess of self-loathing. Nor should we forget he’s doing all of the above while going to high school. High school: literally, the worst place on Earth for gawky introverted teenagers.

On that point, Evangelion might best be seen as an historical artefact. It shows the audience how far we’ve come from a time that would imagine an agency like NERV spending billions of dollars building over-engineered kill bots without considering the fallout of sending a manic depressive teenager into battle. Now such an omission would likely be seen as the creators being a little too on the nose with writing their feelings into the story. Either that, or some snarky bastard like yours truly would come along and write off the entire story for not having considered its giant plot holes.

Number 3: This Song

Want to convince me the world is in constant peril from a cosmic threat beyond my comprehension? Don’t play this song four times in an episode where Shinji and a Penguin practice eating synchronized breakfast for the 2016 Tokyo-3 Olympics.

 

Number 4: Misato’s Creepy Hot for Teacher Thing

This one goes hand-in-hand with why NERV should have a staff therapist. If there were even a single responsible adult running Earth’s last line of defence against a Third Impact, they would have realized letting Shinji live with his boss is a terrible idea.

As a sideshow to Shinji saving the world, there might be some room to channel The Odd Couple into his home life. Except as odd couples go, Misato’s part in things is almost perpetually creepy. She’s alternatively Shinji’s disastrous but well-meaning surrogate mother or his step-sister, who gives the poor confused lad some odd feelings. What the hell message is this relationship supposed to be sending to the audience? Teenage boys alternate between depressed and awkwardly horny? Brilliant, Holmes, how do you do it?

It’s also clear Misato is only outwardly put together when she’s working. All things being equal, she’s one of the most capable characters on the show. At least until she gets home and we see her life through the lens of a messy apartment, morning beers, and weird relationships with teenage boys. Am I missing something? Does anybody else see the series reducing the woman who should be running NERV into a punchline/object of fapping for teenage boys?

Okay, that’s enough for now.

To be continued…


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A Thought on Japan’s Projection of Military Power in Anime

The other day I was watching Arpeggio of Blue Steel, a naval-themed anime series that leans a little too close to the tropes of school girl slice-of-life for my tastes. Between rolling my eyes at the bouncing avatars of sentient World War Two-era Japanese warships while they flounce about and lust after the rakish human protagonist – all the while wondering who the target audience might be for something so banal – I noticed something interesting. Amid an alien/sexy Cylon invasion set in the middle of the 21st century, Japan’s military power is represented by the Japanese Self-Defence Forces.

The JSDF is an interesting military institution. It emerged as a direct result of Japan’s surrender to America at the end of the Second World War. Like the name implies, the JSDF exists, at least on paper, as a localized military force. Japan, even to this day, is not permitted to project military power in an offensive capacity. Though the theory of this prohibition versus its realpolitik is somewhat more complicated.

The tl;dr version is as follows: If one compares the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army, from the Meiji restoration to the end of World War Two, to the JSDF, the latter presents as something of a neutered organization. Moreover, the JSDF’s very DNA is encoded with the geopolitics of a conquering nation. One would think science fiction might present an ideal place for Japanese artists to imagine beyond the JSDF. Yet contemporary Japan’s military present, something born on the deck of the USS Missouri, is oddly persistent within anime stories set in the near-future.

Arpreggio of Blue Steel, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Akira are each set in the middle of the twenty-first century. Despite the domestic and foreign upheavals depicted in each of these series, none of them imagine a Japanese military beyond the JSDF. Additionally, each series makes a point of depicting the tremendous power available to the JSDF, yet it still bears the moniker of a “self-defense” force.

In a series where Japan is called upon to project military power, it is almost always done under the auspices of a world government. For example, Japan saved us from the Zentradi in Macross, but only as a part of the UN SPACY. Likewise, Japan destroyed/saved (spoilers) the planet Gamilas in Space Battleship Yamato/Space Battleship Yamato 2199 as part of the Earth Defence Force/United Nations Cosmo Navy, respectively.

So, what’s the point of all this? Simply that I do not recall seeing a single anime series or movie where near-future Japan projects military power as something that isn’t a product of American geopolitical endeavours. Ether Japan flexes its military muscle in the form of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces – a product of Japan’s surrender to America – or it is working as part of the United Nations or some comparable united Earth government – likewise the offspring Franklin D. Roosevelt’s view for the post-war world.

My question to you, dear readers, is can you think of an example where Japan, as a nation, projects military power absent the JSDF or the blanket authorization of a world government?


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TV Review: Attack on Titan: Season 1

A few weeks ago I mused on Attack on Titan’s ability to mobilize the tropes of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Fun as it was to write a piece that walked the line between genuine commentary and tongue-in-cheek sniping, it didn’t really offer much in the way of a meaningful review. So after a small delay, I now present you with my review of Attack on Titan’s first season.

The story begins in the last remaining city on the planet. For more than a century, humanity has huddled within a kingdom built inside three concentric walls, safe from the Titans – a vicious race of giants that feed on humans. While the idea of monsters eating humans is nothing new, turning those monsters into dough bodied, smiling morons is something of a deviation from the norm.

With rare exception, the Titans have an almost childish look to them. Watching one grin like a toddler as they bite a person in half defines Attack on Titan as a unique take on the man vs monster trope. Unlike the Angels of Evangelion, whose threat is rooted in a supernatural narrative, the Titans are built upon the much simpler, but similarly effective, notion that there is always a bigger fish. When the series reveals that the Titans feed on humans purely out of blood lust, their innocent demeanor becomes all the more menacing. Consider that a zombie feeds on impulse, a Titan does it to revel in drinking blood, chewing  on man-meat, and then puking it all out when its belly gets too distended.

The series also boasts a sprawling cast. As the primary triad of Eren, Mikasa, and Armin go from raw cadets in the King’s army to members of the elite Scouting Legion, many secondary characters come and go, and most of those who go are eaten by Titans. Yet none of these characters ever feel like redshirts. They all have names, too many names to remember quite honestly, and their deaths inform the larger sense of hopelessness that underwrites the story.

As is the case with most anime that touches upon war, Attack on Titan is pretty direct, bordering on heavy handed, in its treatment of people in combat situations. With a century of Titan-free life as the backdrop, the majority of the kingdom’s military is woefully corrupt and/or incompetent. The first episode sees a member of the city guard drop his swords and run when faced with his first real Titan encounter. The prolonged peace makes even those with the best of intentions tremble before the prospect of real combat. During his first combat operation, Armin is paralyzed with fear after witnessing a Titan swat one of his comrades out of the air and eat him. These examples, however, are only the beginning.

The deeper Attack on Titan gets into humanity’s perpetually losing war with the Titans, the more those fighting the war grow discontent with their lot in life. Humanity’s army begins to look a lot like the Soviet army in World War Two, where Commissars with pistols stood behind the men and threatened immediate death in the face of probable death. All too often in anime we see the soldier archetype defined by their willingness to fight and die for the cause. While the Scouting Legion certainly embodies that principle, the mainstay of humanity’s military is cowardly and weak. This transition from individual weakness to the failings of the whole helps keep the writing from banging too hard on the drum of human misery, and adds a refreshing subversion of anime’s love for the selfless soldier.

Even though the first season is broken up into distinct story arcs, which in and of themselves do a great job of keeping a clear narrative focus for the larger story, the overall pacing of the series isn’t perfect. It’s not quite as bad a Dragonball, where five minutes of story time can take five episodes to unfold, but there are moments when I finished an episode, and wondered if they couldn’t have made better use of their time. Do we really need to spend five minutes focusing on Eren’s inner turmoil amid a battle? Broadly speaking, it’s great for character development, but it comes at the price of some episodes moving at break neck speed, and a few that tend to meander from start to finish.

All this amounts to a series that easily lends itself to binge watching, and then raging because the second season isn’t even in production. Anybody who liked Evangelion, will likely find Attack on Titan to be to their tastes. While I still have a few lingering critical questions that would require a closer re-watch – e.g. does this series actually pass either the Bechdel Test or the Mako Mori test? – I have no qualms about recommending this series for veteran anime fans and newcomers alike.


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Attack on Titan: Good or Evangelion?

Here’s the thing: two weeks ago I mainlined Attack on Titan over the course of about seventy-two hours. It’s been a long time since an anime series hooked me like that. As I’ve decompressed from the unapologetic and heavy handed war story that is the last bastion of humanity fighting against derpy-faced giants, I’ve come to realize that there’s a lot of overlap between the tropes of Attack on Titan and Neon Genesis Evangelion. I mean, a lot of overlap.

Giant Monsters

Evangelion: The Angels

Attack on Titan: The Titans

Even though the two series are set at opposing ends of a technological spectrum – Evangelion being set in the near future and AoT being a post-apocalyptic world reduced to early-modern levels of technology – they both showcase humanity’s utter inability to deal with a physically imposing threat. The Angels have something called an Absolute Terror Field that renders them impervious to any conventional weapons. Titans stand anywhere from three to fifteen meters in height and can only be killed by a stab wound to the back of the neck. And despite their derpy appearance, Titans excel at scooping up humans and eating them in the most gory way possible.

 

Venue

Evangelion: Tokyo-3

Attack on Titan: The Walled City

Both AoT and Evangelion are set in fortress cities that act as a crucible for the broader story arc.

The Chosen Few

Evangelion: NERV

Attack on Titan: The Scout Legion

With the Angels able to brush off the best efforts of the JSDF to defend Tokyo-3, stewardship of the fortress city falls to NERV. NERV exists as a paramilitary organization whose sole focus is supporting the Evangelion Units and their pilots. Likewise, the rank and file military of the Walled City prove to be both inept and piss-pants cowardly when confronted with an actual Titan. Only the Scouting Legion, who dare to brave the lands beyond the outer most wall, develop the courage and tactics to bring down a Titan with ease.

Religion

Evangelion: Christianity

Attack on Titan: Animist Christianity

Better people than me have written books and essays aplenty on Christian symbolism and subtext in Evangelion. Attack on Titan downplays the religous overtones to some extent. AoT’s modified Christianity espouses the walls of the Walled City as a gift from god. The more zealous among AoT’s people go so far as to worship the walls as an extension of god. When the Titans break through the outer most wall and threaten the interior of the Walled City, it constitutes both a threat against humanity and an affront to the religious status quo of the world. There’s also a character who dies and gets resurrected within the first ten episodes.

“Special” Male Children

Evangelion: Shinji Ikari

Attack on Titan: Eren Jaeger

When the first “Angel” attacks Toko-3, only a reticent Shinji Ikari is capable of joining with Evangelion Unit 01 and fending off this cosmic invader. From that point on it is clear that Shinji and his relationship to the Eva Unit will play a central role to the series. Similarly, Eren spends most of his first encounter with a Titan on the run from the lumbering monster. However, with a last name like Jaeger – German for hunter – it’s clear that his promise to rid the world of all Titans is not idle. The plots of both series then develop around this special nature of the two leading male characters. Yet neither Shinji or Eren ever get to be a traditional hero. They are only strong when in a blind rage. They constantly doubt themselves and look to others for approval. And of course, both characters are dripping with father issues.

Special Female Children

Evangelion: Rei Ayanami

Attack on Titan: Misaka Ackerman

Rei is Shinji’s counterpoint in Evangelion (She’s also possibly a clone of his mother, which makes it really weird when Shinji turns her into a point in his love triangle), but where Shinji is manic and insecure, Rei is cold and effective. Whenever Shinji falls apart and refuses to pilot his Eva Unit, Rei steps up and gets the job done. It almost perfectly mirrors the relationship between Eren and Misaka. Though Eren eventually proves to be a “Chosen One,” Misaka is a ruthless and effective Titan killer from the outset. Not to mention the fact that whenever Eren thoughtlessly charges into battle, Misaka is the one who saves his life. Their burgeoning sexual tension is made all the more creepy in that Misaka is Eren’s adoptive sister.

Earworm Worth Soundtracks

Okay, this last part doesn’t have anything to do with the story. But just as the Evangelion soundtrack became the anthem for my fourth year of university, so too has Attack on Titan’s soundtrack become the soundtrack to my mid-April.

 

All of these points bring me to the ultimate question of this post, is Attack on Titan good on its own, or is it good at mobilizing the tropes that made Evangelion good? This is a question I will answer in next Friday’s post, “No Really, Attack on Titan: Good or Evangelion?”


0

Podcast Episode 29: The Kaiju-sized Military SF Episode

Featuring the voices of Adam Shaftoe and K.W. Ramsey

It took a couple weeks of planning and schedule jockeying, but K.W. Ramsey and I were finally able to sit down to record an extended length podcast on military science fiction.

What could be finer than two white guys talking about the quintessential post-colonial white guy sub-genre? Am I right?

Seriously though, we begin the discussion by drawing upon Damien Walter’s Guardian piece on overly simplistic military science fiction. From there we jump back and forth between military SF on film and in literature. As with most ninety minute discussions, nothing gets resolved, but I think we come up with a few decent ideas on how military SF can evolve to reflect a slightly less antiquated world view.

Make sure to check out Mr. Ramsey’s blog at The Left Hand of Dorkness and follow him on twitter @kwramsey

Topics under discussion include,

- The ideology of the Federation and Starfleet’s role therein; also that time David Nickle trolled us on facebook about Cumberbatch’s character in STiD

- David Weber’s love affair with the 19th century and why military SF at large needs to get past the British Empire

- John Scalzi as the wild card of military SF – also included there is the story of the first time I met Scalzi and went from zero to fanboy in eight seconds.

- Mr. Ramsey’s very compelling theory on why I think Ender’s Game is a crap novel

- A discussion on how to responsibly consume art when the artist is a horrible person

- Robert Heinlein, kooky but honest

- How Pacific Rim does military SF in a slightly different sort of way

- Class and education as factors in crafting protagonists in military SF

Cold Intro Music: The Lady of Vastness by Dan-O at DanoSongs.com

Theme music: Bionic Commando stage 4 (Dale vs Wray mix) (NecroPolo) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0


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Movie Review: Pacific Rim

Giant robots. An army of Kaiju. GLaDOS. 3D that doesn’t feel like a cheap tack-on to justify jacking up the price of admission. Well I think that about covers things. Review over. Thanks for coming out, everyone.

Seriously though, I expect that the coming year will see a lot of Mass Effect cosplayers rapidly modding their N7 combat armour into Jaeger neural interface suits. Mark my words; if there is a cosplay stock market, buy Pacific Rim.

The proposition of taking the tropes of Japanese monster movies and making them work for a Hollywood audience is simultaneously a simple and impossible task. Kaiju movies need to be focused on action, presenting a spectacle that appeals to the inner child who still thinks professional wrestling is as unscripted as a brawl in ancient Rome’s Coliseum. Yet that action has to be underwritten by science, specifically environmental science, to the extent that the Kaiju is a manifestation of humanity’s arrogance and hubris. It needs to be awesome enough to fire up the audience, but smart enough to have a moral message. And that is exactly what Guillermo del Toro has given us in Pacific Rim. It strikes the perfect balance between the works of J.J. Abrams, Roland Emmerich, and Ishiro Honda, all through del Toro’s own wholly unique visual style.

I won’t focus too much on plot summary because, really, monsters versus robots. Do I need to draw you a picture? The Kaiju invade through a space-time rift in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Unable to effectively fight the Kaiju with conventional weapons, the nations of the world commission the Pan Pacific Defence Corps and their army of Jaegers, combat robots driven by two human pilots. Fast forward to the first act and the scope and frequency of Kaiju attacks has risen to a point that the PPDC is deemed ineffective by the nations of the world. After a scene that injects a little X-Com/XCOM appropriation into the milieu, the PPDC’s operations are shuttered in lieu of building a big wall around the Pacific. When the wall fails, the marginalized PPDC and their four remaining Jaegers become the last hope for the world.

There’s an obvious intelligence to Pacific Rim’s casting. The international PPDC team looks and sounds appropriate for a movie set in and about the Pacific Ocean. Idris Elba heads the PPDC as the taciturn Field Marshall Pentecost, who is a clear nod to the characters of Gendo Ikari, Captain Juzo Okita, and every other strong silent leader from anime history. Charley Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi co-pilot Gypsy Danger, the Jaeger seen in all of the movie’s promotional material. Other Jaeger teams, red shirts though they be, represent China, Russia, and Australia. Torchwood alum Burn Gorman and Charlie Day of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame round out the cast as the PPDC’s Odd Couple science division.

Given Hollywood’s recent and flagrant tendency toward whitewashing, I can only imagine how awful this cast could have been. Instead, we hear both Japanese and English spoken aloud throughout the movie. Kikuchi’s character is no tittering bashful schoolgirl cliché, waiting to be taken into sexual maturity by a brash American lead. Like all the other characters, she’s as damaged by the Kaiju War as anybody else. From that pain, Kikuchi’s character finds the strength to be Hunnam’s equal partner in piloting Gypsy Danger.

You hear that, Hollywood? You don’t have to sexualize the shit out of a female Asian actor/character in a lead role for the audience to take her seriously. You can even leave the romance between the two leads unspoken and mostly in the background, and we will still feel the connection with as much impact, possibly more, than if you cram in a PG-13 sex scene.

It goes without saying that a Guillermo del Toro picture is going to have a certain artistry to it. Even though Pan’s Labyrinth was weak in terms of storytelling, it had the benefit of looking unlike like anything at the time. Similarly, Pacific Rim is so heavily invested in presenting a vision of digital art fused with physical sets that it also looks like nothing else I’ve seen of late. Eat your fucking heart out, George Lucas and Michael Bay.

The only thing that even comes marginally close to matching Pacific Rim’s visuals is Battleship. Though a Jaeger using a tanker as a club against a Kaiju sort of closes the book on any meaningful comparisons there.

Most impressive is the fact that Pacific Rim marks the first occasion I haven’t walked out of a 3D movie grumbling about how I would rather watch movies in 2D. Even with 3D technology most other movies do little to move outside the paradigm of fake depth on a flat screen. They use all the old camera tricks of perspective, line, and character blocking to craft an illusion. Employing swift pans and camera motion through scenes, Pacific Rim’s 3D creates an experience where the audience is not observing from across the room, but situated in the center of the action. It’s not the holodeck, mind you, but it’s enough to see how the movie’s cinematography has evolved past the standard playbook to incorporate an additional dimension into the principal photography. Kudos to Guillermo del Toro and his director of photography, Guillermo Navarro.

My only issue with the movie is that of runtime. While the second and third act were both well paced and effective, I could make a case for the first being a bit bloated. Personally, I don’t care. From a critical point of view, I don’t think many people would complain if ten more minutes of Pacific Rim were left on the cutting room floor.

Perhaps the most important thing I have to say about Pacific Rim is that when the script said something to evoke a headscratch, the atmosphere and narrative proved compelling enough to make me not care about the answer. Unlike a certain other film from this summer, Pacific Rim kept me immersed in its story from start to finish. Even in a post-mortem analysis, I haven’t found any flaws in the story that are serious enough to break the movie. Perhaps this is because Pacific Rim isn’t trying to be Transformers; wherein the movie wants to be all things to all people. It’s content to be an over the top piece of robot vs monster battle porn, which skilfully appropriates from 50 years of Japanese and American pop culture to emerge as something unique.

So let’s go back to my first point on this review as a way of summing up. Kaiju. Jaegers. Sophisticated uses of 3D. Cohesive plot. Need I say more? I do? Okay. Ron Pearlman.

Pacific Rim

Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Written by Travis Beacham and Guillermo del Toro

Starring Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, and Ron Pearlman.


2

Afternoon Anime – First Thoughts on Space Battleship Yamato 2199

I’ve just finished watching the first three episodes of Space Battleship Yamato 2199. It’s quite surprising so far.

The war guilt motif of the original series is still present as seen in the Yamato’s first firing of the Wave Motion Gun. After that battle at Saturn, Captain Okita muses on possessing the power to destroy the universe. It’s a bit dramatic, but it’s a fascinating reaction to the once powerless and victimized Earth now possessing a multi-use weapon of unprecedented mass destruction.

The writers have also installed something of a discernible command/rank structure to the Yamato’s crew. Doing so probably doesn’t mean much to the casual viewer, but I always long to learn the fussy little details of my science fiction. Though if Sanada is officially Captain Okita’s executive officer, then I’m not quite sure how Kodai is going to get moved up to acting captain when Okita’s radiation sickness leaves him unable to command the ship. Are they going to kill Sanada to make room for Kodai? Of course, such a notion presumes Kodai, who has already been considerably up-jumped from Third Lieutenant to something in the neighborhood of a Lt. Commander, is destined to skipper the Yamato.

On a related note, Yamato 2199 is being very flagrant in its decision to ostensibly broaden the cultural context of the Yamato’s mission. Where world government was implied in the original series, Yamato 2199 sees the United Nations taking a front and center role as stewards of the Earth. In theory, it’s no longer a show about Japan as the spear which will save the world. Now the Yamato and her crew are agents of the United Nations Cosmo Navy. Of course, all of the historically relevant Japanese nomenclature remains intact within the Yamato’s crew. Further, the named ships of Humanity’s last organized stand against Gamilas are all drawn from Japanese naval history: the Kirishima, a Japanese battleship which served from 1915 to 1942; the Murasame, a Japanese destroyer which served from 1935 to 1943; and the Yukikaze, a Japanese destroyer which became the stuff of naval folk legend as one of only two pre-war IJN destroyers to survive the war. This paired with the grand historical irony of using the IJN Yamato as a means of saving the Earth, when its construction was the product of slave labour in the wake of the Sino-Japanese war, manages to keep the focus on Japan despite the crew’s UNCF uniforms.

Nope, nothing at all Nazi like about this...move along.

Finally, all of the (anti) Germanic motifs to Earth’s antagonists, the humanonid aliens known as Gamilas, remain in play. Speaking officers within the Gamilas navy, such as Commander Schultz and Officer Ganz, have outright German names. While the Yamato may have its Wave Motion Gun, Gamilas makes ready use of atomic weapons and radiation bombs to attack the Earth. Even the semiotics of Gamilas betrays at least a passing connection to the Third Reich.

It remains fascinating to see the complex nature of Japan’s post-war psychology, as well as its place in history, present within this fresh take on the Yamato story. At this point in the series, however, I’m led to one question in particular: is historical revision at the core of Space Battleship Yamato? Could we remove all of this counter-factual subtext and still be left with something familiar to the audience?

Feel free to discuss.


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The Atypicality of Battle Royale (the novel)

I meant for today’s post to be a review of Post Mortem Press’ Fear the Abyss anthology. Unfortunately the review isn’t quite ready. However, I’m still in the mood to talk about books, so I thought I would put together some thoughts on Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale, a book which I impulse bought while the Page of Reviews was on hiatus.

As I’m fairly certain Battle Royale has been reviewed seven ways from Sunday, I’ll skip contributing to a discourse which likely already includes more than enough discussions of Orwell and Golding as seen through an Asian lens. Instead I want to explore a few narrative elements wherein Battle Royale is very atypical of my reading of Japanese popular culture as seen through anime and manga.

Granted there may be some level of comparing apples to oranges within my methodology, but as a person who can’t read Japanese I do the best I can with the materials at hand.

Also, spoiler alert.

Battle Royale is the first piece of Japanese fiction I’ve read/watched wherein the government is actively portrayed as an antagonist. Set in an alternate history version of the 1990s, Japan is part of a larger empire known as the Greater Republic of East Asia – an obvious reference to Japan’s WW2 creation of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Through the eyes of a class of junior high school students, the GREA is seen as an oppressive and invasive fascist state ruled by a semi-divine “Great Dictator.” To speak out against the Dictator is to invite summary execution from the police.

While elements of government are often portrayed in anime/manga as overly hawkish or even downright American – I’m thinking General Colbert of Tekkaman Blade or Admiral Takashi Hayase of Macross – government, at least human government, is rarely evil in the banal sense of the word. Only through othering in the form of extraterrestrial governments/juntas do we see shades of fascism. Therein the mostly democratic governments of Earth are legitimized, even if they do tread a slightly authoritarian line.

Also unusual is Battle Royale’s construction of characters that exist without any sort of heroic justification. It’s all too common to see popular Japanese heroes as the reluctant warrior pressed into righteous combat by circumstances beyond their control. Hiraku Ichijo (Macross), Shinji Ikari (Evangelion), Susumu Kodai (Space Battleship Yamato), and Amuro Ray (Mobile Suit Gundam) all fit into the model of reticent hero. To some extent, Battle Royale’s Shuya Nanahara follows this formula. Before the battle begins, Shuya’s best friend is gunned down by their teacher. That same teacher also rapes the matron of the orphanage where Shuya grew up. But where there are characters like Shuya who fight for some worthy purpose (in theory) there is also someone like Kazuo Kiriyama, who decides to kill a group of his class mates on the flip of a coin. Far from an over the top depiction of evil, Kazuo is as cold and calculating as Patrick Bateman of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho.

Consider as well Shogo Kawada, a senior student accidentally recruited into the Program for a second time. Even though Kawada might best be seen within a sensei-Chiron trope, he’s a proven killer who is content to reduce victory in the Program to winning a handful of matches in a grand tournament.

Another aspect of the novel which struck me as a thematic outlier is its early rejection of pacifism. A few hours into the first day of the Program, best friends Yumiko Kusaka and Yukiko Kitano stumble across a megaphone in the scenic lookout they are using as a hiding spot. Despite knowing that a number of their friends died in the first round of the Program, the two characters genuinely believe that none among their class really want to kill each other. Using the megaphone they invite their fellow students to use the lookout as a sanctuary. In doing so, the girls give away their positions and are quickly shot and killed. Thus are pacifism and idealism rejected when the threshold for survival demands human sacrifice.

The only thing that even approaches a refusal of the status quo within Battle Royale is suicide. For example, Sakura Ogawa is unwilling to see any of her classmates as enemies. Without even opening her back pack to see what weapon she was assigned, she throws herself off a cliff. This is not an act of cowardice after discovering herself armed with a fork where her friends have guns and crossbows; Sakura simply refuses to play the game. For all we know Sakura had a sub-machine gun in her pack. Sakura’s boyfriend, Kazuhiko Yamamoto, joins her in death, unwilling to kill so that he might live in a world absent Sakura. Though noble, these and other suicides within the novel are a complete divergence from the “let’s all hope to live in a world of peace” motif which is a mainstay of anime and manga. Moreover, they are meaningless deaths. It’s common enough to see self-sacrifice, Full Metal Alchemist and Ghost in the Shell SAC come to mind, but solemn non-ritual suicides are few and far between.

In 1997 Battle Royale was disqualified from Japan’s Grand Prix Horror Novel competition. I wonder, though, if its rejection was on account of the graphic violence, or its deviation from the norms of Japanese popular culture? Either way, as a reader with relatively little experience with proper modern Japanese literature, Battle Royale is a fascinating demarcation from the tropes and clichés ubiquitous to anime and manga.


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Essential Genre Music Volume 2

That’s right, it’s time for “Essential Genre Music Volume 2”.

I’ve pulled together fifteen (mostly instrumental) selections from television, movies, games, and anime for this ultra nerdy “what if” CD.

So without further ado, let’s get right into some tunes.

The title track – Icarus – Deus Ex Human Revolution Soundtrack – Michael McCann – 2011

McCann’s work on the Deus Ex: HR soundtrack earned him “best in music” nominations in the Canadian Video Game Awards and the BAFTA’s Video Game Awards. It’s a haunting and powerful piece of music that serves as the perfect complement to Eidos Montreal’s recent post-human masterpiece.

Track 2 – Terran Suite #2 – Starcraft soundtrack – Derek Duke and Glen Stafford – 1998

Why this particular piece? Because every time I set out to build something from Ikea, this is the tune that starts playing through my head. More than iconic, the Terran Suite is a touchstone to the very roots of Starcraft’s success as a piece of contemporary mythology.

Track 3 – Tank – The Seatbelts – 1998

If I had to guess, “Tank” is probably second to the Space Battleship Yamato anthem as the most remixed/covered song to emerge from an anime series. It’s also the benchmark for any saxophone players who want to prove their musical chops while simultaneously establishing their nerd cred.

Track 4 – Blade Runner’s End Theme – Vangelis – 1982

I don’t know why I didn’t think to put this on the first volume of essential genre music. In the thirty years since the song was first heard by human ears, it has become the godfather of music to all things cyberpunk.

Track 5 – Inner Universe – Origa – 2002

Perhaps not as iconic as “Making of a Cyborg”, the title track to 1995’s Ghost in the Shell, Inner Universe, from the 2002′s Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, has always stood out in my mind as a fascinating song. Setting aside the fact that the lyrics are in Russian, Latin, and English, I’m told the range required to hit all the notes is quite challenging.

Track 6 – Doomsday – Murray Gold – 2006

Yes yes, the actual Doctor Who theme song is awesome. But there’s more to the musical history of the recent series than various takes on a fifty year old tune. As performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, “Doomsday” is tied with “Vale Decem” as the musical high point of David Tennant’s time in the TARDIS.

Track 7 – Audi Famam Illius – Nobuo Uematsu – 2006

Famed Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu lent his talents to “Audi Famam Illius”, the theme song to Super Smash Brothers Brawl. Too bad the game is nowhere near as epic (it’s actually very pointless) as the music.

Track 8 – Prelude to War – Bear McCreary – 2005

The rebooted Battlestar Galactica reached its zenith with the second season cliff-hanger “Pegasus”. There, I said it, and I don’t care how much fan rage it gets me. After Admiral Cain died it was all downhill, albeit at a gentle gradient. This song, which built to an epic crescendo during Adama and Cain’s camera-pan face off, accompanies not only the best moment of the series, but arguably one the finest moments in television this side of the 20th century.

Track 9 – Enterprising Young Men – Michael Giacchino – 2009

Giacchino made a bold decision when he abandoned Alexander Courage’s influence in crafting a new Star Trek theme. Though Courage’s score would be remixed into the ending credits, “Enterprising Young Men” became the headline refrain for Trek’s alternate timeline. Like it or not, it’s here now.

Track 10 – S’il Vous Plait – Fantastic Plastic Machine – 1997

You may not recognize the name, but fans of the British series Spaced will know the song. It’s a song to be played in moments of pure, unrivaled joy. Such moments include getting around giving notice at a job by telling your boss that Babylon 5 is shit (not actually true) so that he fires you.

Track 11 – Bishop’s Countdown – Aliens Soundtrack – James Horner – 1986

I don’t know if it’s fair to say that one track on this album is superior to another. Consider that I haven’t watched Aliens in a couple of years, but I could tell you exactly what scene accompanies each piece of music on this CD. If that’s not the mark of a brilliant piece of musical accompaniment, I don’t know what is.

What’s that? You want me to name the scene where this track plays? Fah, child’s play.

This starts playing as Ripley emerges from the service elevator in LV 426’s fusion plant. With Newt in tow she yells out, “God damn you, Bishop,” suspecting that the synthetic has taken the Sulaco’s remaining dropship and fled. Ripley turns around to see the other service elevator, presumably containing the xenomorph queen, rising up. Low on ammo, she tells Newt to “Close your eyes, baby.” At the last second Bishop flies the dropship into the frame, allowing Ripley and Newt to escape. As the ship tries to break atmo, a computerized voice counts down to zero before the fusion plant explodes.

Track 12 – The Elder Scrolls Themes – Jeremy Soule – 2002, 2006, 2011

Since 2002, Jeremy Soule has been the composer on the hugely popular Elder Scrolls series of video games (Morrowwind, Oblivion, and Skyrim). I suppose I could have just used the Morrowwind theme since the other two are built upon its back, but listening to the evolution of ten years worth of work is just too fantastic to pass up. Also, the Skyrim bit makes me want to drink a lot of mead and pick a fight with somebody weaker than me, preferably in the East coast of England.

Track 13 – Still Alive – Jonathan Coulton – 2007

Unlike the cake, this song is not a lie.

Track 14 – Il dolce suono/The Diva Dance – Gaetano Donizetti, Salvadore Cammarano, and Eric Serra – 1997

Fun fact: The voice of Albanian opera-singer Inva Mula was dubbed over that of the actress playing the Diva in The Fifth Element. Luc Besson’s movies might not be the smartest thing out there, but it takes a certain kind of something to integrate opera into beating the piss out of aliens.

I know I promised a fifteenth track for this piece, but the chances are good that I’ve missed something that you think is absolutely essential. Therefore, track 15 is up to the readers. Leave a comment and telling the world what you think is absolutely essential genre listening.