Thursday, 29 August 2013

+2 Blog of Recommendation

It has been a loooong time since I last rolled a d20.
Ok that's not strictly true, since my siblings and I occasionally run quick games together; but it’s been many years since I was involved in anything that could be called a real campaign.

Last week, that changed. Some friends have begun a fortnightly Pathfinder quest, and it's already been great fun - in just the first session, our druid threw his wolf at a robber. He threw his wolf. You can play Skyrim until the end of time, but you’ll still never get to fling a vicious canine at a guy flailing around on buttery stairs. I’d almost forgotten how freeing and inventive tabletop games can be, and I’d almost forgotten how great that is.
If you want to get a taste for yourself how great it can be (and also how badly the rulebooks are written) then our GM - the multi-talented omni-geek Emily King - is chronicling our adventures for all to enjoy. The Roleplay Diaries are just one small part of the collaborative Hex Dimension website, so take a look at some of their other nerdery while you’re there. Unlike my stuff, their articles are both insightful and quick to the point!

Coincidentally, while we’re on the subject of tabletop gaming, another friend has recently started playing Magic: The Gathering, and he’s also started a blog to follow his progress. Magic’s something I have dipped my toes into but, along with Warhammer and the Pokémon card-game, I’ve discovered I’m simply way too cheap to keep buying booster-packs and cards to keep up with the competition. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the mechanics of the game from the sidelines, and Tap for Awesome is a good place to do it! It can be a monstrously complicated game, but Mark clearly lays it out so it’s not that hard to follow - give it a look if you’ve ever been interested. He’s threatening some comics-related posts in the future, too, so I look forward to those.

I hope that’s given people some new and interesting content to chew on. As for the content here at NerdTech, we're seeing Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 follow-up Elysium this weekend. Look out for that review soon, and yet more Evangelion shortly after. Until then, may you all throw natural 20s.
Failing that, throw a wolf.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Mangaphobia 02: Neon Genesis Evangelion

I admittedly haven't seen much anime - that is the whole point of these blogs, after all - but, even so, there are certain repeating ideas that even I can't help noticing crop up again and again. In the handful of sci-fi I've seen, for instance, the world has almost always been ravaged by some ill-defined catastrophe in the recent past. A world-changing disaster that everyone knows about but never really talks about. If I had a better grasp of Japanese culture I might be more confident saying why - but it seems likely that, like Godzilla, this is an echo of the atom bomb.
Mentioning only stuff I've seen and remembered (which isn't much) Akira had the Akira Incident, Nadesico had the Jovian War, and last episode's Cowboy Bebop had something called the Astral Gate Accident. In Evangelion (or Neon Genesis Evangelion to give it its full, meaningless nonsense title) something terrible happened fifteen years before the series - an event called "Second Impact" - which irreparably altered the lives of everyone on Earth.
All of these apocalyptic events are kept ambiguous and vague - we know only that they happened and that they were very bad - but where Akira is ambiguous because no-one really knows what happened, Bebop is vague because the Accident doesn't actually affect the story, and Nadesico is secretive because the details of the War are being actively covered up, Evangelion withholds everything about Second Impact just for the sake of being withholding! Everything that happens in the show is a direct consequence of that event - it informs every facet of this world and its characters - yet we're never told, even in broad terms, what it actually was.

That's one of Evangelion's two main problems in a nutshell. Nothing is ever clearly explained at any point. Ambiguity is fine in small doses, but when every single thing is kept uncertain and unclear, nothing ever means anything. Naturally this is less of a problem at the start of the series than the end - as the early mysteries seem as though they might lead somewhere, and maybe even have solutions that make sense. But no, when we reach the big expository reveal scenes later on, they're just as ambiguous as the questions they attempt to answer.
Take a scene near the end of the series, for example, where we discover that one of the characters is a clone (which we'd already guessed anyway). We end up in a laboratory full of identical girls floating in tanks, all dead-eyed and unmoving. These are empty human husks, we are told, that contain no soul. Now, the specifics are about as clear as mud, but I think the clone we know as a character does have a soul - I'm pretty sure it's the soul of the main character's dead mother, or possibly a clone of that soul, but that doesn't make any sense and how did they get hold of a dead woman's soul either way? It's possible the clone girls may actually be bodily clones of the mother, too, but that's somehow even less clear.
While a bit confusing, it's at least semi-coherent - but then it plunges into the abyss. We're told that these clones are secretly being used as autopilots, even though they're just lifeless shells, and even though the autopilots we've seen in action were psychotic automated murder-bots. This is presented as the shocking answer to the big autopilot mystery (one character almost says exactly that), but I didn't realise the autopilot was ever a mystery in the first place (I assumed it was just that - an autopilot) and, even if it was a mystery, this solution solves absolutely nothing and just makes the already mega-confusing mythology even more murky and incoherent! When the series is over, we understand far far less than we ever did before.

It's the same mistake Prometheus makes: not explaining everything is not the same as never explaining anything. A few mysteries, like the exact origins and motives of the monstrous Angels, can actually benefit from ambiguity - but there's no benefit to being equally vague about important central story questions like, say, what the hell are the goddamn Evangelions, anyway? I read online that they might be yet more clones of Shinji's mother and, if that is the case, then I really have no idea what this show is even about.

So what is it about?
Xenon Genesis Evangelion is about a teenage boy called Shinji Ikari who, after receiving a message from his long estranged father, goes to meet him for the first time in years. He arrives just as a giant monster attacks the city, and it turns out his father doesn't want to talk or reconnect - he just needs Shinji to pilot a giant robot for him. Because, naturally, only certain teenagers have the ability to synchronise with these mechs. Shinji's understandably reluctant and more than a little unhappy with his dad (there's screaming and tears), but eventually he goes along with it and somehow beats the monster attacking the city - albeit getting his robot torn to pieces in the process. Shinji agrees to keep piloting, despite utterly hating the experience, and from here we meet the various other pilots, scientists and soldiers that make up the anti-monster military agency NERV.

Simple as that sounds, we're actually hammered with mythology and mysteries from the very beginning. The robot in question is an Evangelion (or Eva), which is definitely part-organic and quite possibly alive; the monster is an Angel - one of several unearthly attackers prophesised by the Dead Sea Scrolls; NERV is controlled by some shadowy organisation called SEELE, who pretty clearly have an ulterior motive for all this; and there's something very fishy about the ethereal Rei Ayanami, NERV's other Eva pilot (spoiler: she's a clone).
On top of that plot-relevant stuff, there's also a whole host of Christian imagery and references used - from the names of NERV's three supercomputers (Casper, Melchior and Balthasar) to the Angel exploding in a cross-shaped beam of light when it's killed.

At first, that Christian stuff just seems to be decorative - adding some interesting flavour to this world and its imagery - but as the series progresses, we find that it goes much deeper than that.
The first clue, seen above, is an off-hand mention of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is a science-fiction mecha show where the soldiers and scientists are getting their information from a two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old real-world religious text.
That's... odd. It gets odder still when we learn later that SEELE's entire shady gameplan is to doggedly following the Scrolls to the letter, for no readily apparent reason.
Things finally go from odd to batshit when Shinji's commander - a woman called Misato Katsuragi - takes him into NERV's cavernous basement and shows him a giant blobby monster-thing that they keep down there nailed to a cross. This is an ancient and powerful being called Lilith - the first wife of Adam in real-life Biblical myth (Lilith was created equal to Adam and refused to do his bidding, so God replaced her with the inferior and subservient Eve). Lilith and Adam (another giant monstery thing) are important because they're somehow involved in the unclear events of First and Second Impact (First Impact being a similar event that happened millions of years ago and kickstarted life on Earth... I think). It seems like this stuff is common knowledge, too, because Shinji doesn't freak out or ask any questions about the insane things he's being shown.

A big problem with all this is that we have no idea how literal Evangelion is being. Sometimes people in the show talk about this stuff like it's a metaphor - like Lilith and Adam are our genetic ancestors in an evolutionary sense - and other times it sounds entirely literal - like they are literally the direct progenitors of the human race. We learn later on that the Angels are God's various prototypes for humans, before He settled on our own tiny, weak, fleshy design. I can only assume that's meant exactly as it sounds, because I have no idea how else it could be meant. This is a cartoon where people are following the literal instructions of Biblical texts, yet the same people have developed a very non-religious, scientific definition of the soul.
Souls, by the way, are incredibly important to every aspect of this mythology, and are the most inadequately explained aspect of the whole mess.

Getting back to the story, Misato explains that the Angels are attacking in an attempt to reach Lilith and that, if they ever succeeded, doing so would cause the hypothetical Third Impact, which would be much bigger than Second Impact, but probably still just as ambiguous and unclear.
What's weird is that when SEELE's sinister motives are finally revealed, their endgame is also to cause Third Impact - beginning something called the Human Instrumentality Project, which will bring about "the next stage in human evolution" (a phrase which always makes my brain bleed). Why did they pour their worldwide resources into stopping the Angels if they ultimately wanted the same thing? Well, because the Dead Sea Scrolls told them to, probably. Those guys seriously have no motive beyond fulfilling ancient prophecies.
It's ok, though, because Gendo Ikari, Shinji's absent father and leader of NERV, knows what SEELE are up to and has no intention of letting them get away with it. It turns out he had his own secret plan all along: to initiate Human Instrumentality by causing Third Impact!

All three major factions in this programme want the same thing - namely the end of the world. It's possible that it will happen in slightly different ways depending on which party actually succeeds, but it's still pretty damn hard to root for anyone when the thing they're fighting over is who gets to press the big red apocalypse button.

The answer to this should be obvious. If we can't root for NERV or SEELE or the Angels, then we should be rooting for Shinji and Misato and the other characters who are just doing their jobs and fighting monsters and aren't trying to bring about the end of the world. But that brings us to the second major problem with Argon Genesis Evangelion: there really aren't any characters. What there are instead is cardboard cutouts defined by one trait and one trait alone, who never progress or change or learn anything.
Shinji is scared of everything - Angels, responsibility, death, change - but mainly he's afraid of human interaction. Gendo loves his dead wife and feels nothing else, which is why he doesn't care about his son and why he's only nice to Rei who is carrying his wife's soul (probably). Misato is good at her job and bad at her life, with problems in all her personal relationships. Rei is an actual cardboard cutout, with seemingly no emotions or personality - a hollow, empty robot, despite being the only clone with a soul. That's it! You now know everything there is to know, in the entire series, about every one of those characters.
The only others in the show are the third and final Eva pilot - a German girl with the very German-sounding name of Asuka Soryu - and NERV's head scientist - a woman I neither know the name of nor care enough to find out. These two are unusual in that they almost have character arcs - but really they are just as paper-thin as the others; it only looks like an arc because they hide their one-note personalities behind a mask of cocky overconfidence and scientific detachment respectively. In Asuka's case (it's pronounced "Oscar") this psychological armour falls away slowly over the series, revealing a little girl who is, if anything, even more terrified of life than Shinji. The scientist just seems to be a bit cold until, near the end, it's suddenly revealed out of nowhere that she's (a) sleeping with and possibly in love with Gendo and (b) stressed, depressed, violent, suicidal and crazy. These two are still shallow, unchanging characters - they just pretend to be different shallow, unchanging characters for a while.

It's been proven already this year that you don't need particularly deep or complex characters to make an awesome giant robot story. Pacific Rim doesn't really have much in the way of character arcs either - the archetypal characters simply do their thing - but it differs from Evangelion in two major respects.
Firstly, the characters are relatable. It's important to realise that isn't the same as "likable" - it just means that we can understand their mindset and why they act the way they do. Shinji, at first, is a highly relatable character. He has issues with his parents (don't we all?) and he's flung into a terrifying situation that he doesn't understand and is told he must do something he doesn't know how to do. For the first few episodes, we are very much on Shinji's side, because we understand exactly how he feels, and we’re interested in watching him rise to the challenge and seeing what kind of character he will become. But he never rises. He just wallows in self-pity and stagnates. He passively goes along with whatever he's told, and then cries about it later. We don't understand what he wants or feels anymore - he never rises to the challenge, but he never rebels against it either. He doesn't act like we would or like anyone we have ever met would. We can't relate to this guy at all beyond those first few episodes and, after that, he mainly just frustrates us as viewers. I was shouting at the screen more than a few times as I was forced to watch Shinji struggle again and again with not making any choices.
I hated him, by the end. I really really hated the main character and his total lack of agency. I didn't understand him or anything he did or (more frequently) didn't do. It's awful. All of the characters are awful, in fact. I couldn't stand any of them, because their motivations are never relatable at all - I couldn’t understand why anyone did what they did or made the choices they made. Looking back at the list above, the only ones that resemble real people are Misato and maybe Asuka - and Asuka frustrates us anyway because she just slowly turns into Shinji.

The second difference here is that Pacific Rim knows that its characters, while relatable, are shallow and silly. It doesn't dwell on them beyond a few basic flashback scenes. It tells us who they are, then it gets on with the story. Evangelion, on the other hand, seems to think its characters are incredibly deep and worthy of extra exploration. We spend what feels like forever psychoanalysing Shinji - literally, with him sat talking about himself to unseen observers - even though his psyche is about as deep as a puddle.
Shinji is scared of rejection, so he closes himself off from people, which makes people reject him, which makes him even more scared, which drives him even further into himself until he is insufferably insular and passive. That's it - that's all there is to Shinji Ikari - and every single viewer has worked that out by this point. It's not hard. We worked it out, funnily enough, by observing his decisions and interactions with the people around him - which is traditionally how you're supposed to explore character in narrative fiction. If you have to spend an entire episode inside a character's head, monologuing about their own personality, then you are doing it wrong. If you have to spend four or five episodes doing that, with a character that can be decisively summed-up in one sentence, then you probably shouldn't be writing stories in the first place. Shinji just repeats that single motivation (or demotivation, since it drives him to indifference and inaction) over and over again. There's an episode somewhere near the midpoint where he synchronises so perfectly with his mech that he physically becomes one with it - melting into a liquid in his pilot-seat (don't worry, he gets better). While he's dissolved into his Eva, his consciousness (soul?) goes on a voyage of self-discovery - which means we get to see how many different ways the writers could come up with to keep repeating the same thing. One way they found to keep it interesting is to have him talk over erotic dream images of the female cast, including the infantile clone of his own mother - so we do learn that he objectifies women, which I suppose is something we didn't know before. But that's about it.
When this godawful introspection is over, he seems to maybe have learned something from it. His body reforms itself when his soul comes to some kind of conclusion, so it looks almost like character growth. But in the next episode we're straight back to the same, inexplicably hopeless Shinji - and we're straight back to wanting to cave in his head with a brick. For me, this was the final nail in the coffin of the show's credibility. Which is probably for the best, because it meant I wasn't expecting much in the way of an ending.

At the end of the series, after NERV beat the final Angel - a white-haired anime girly-man with whom Shinji has a homoerotic friendship (obviously) - the studio ran out of either time, money, or both. There was no way they could patch together a satisfying ending (or any other kind of ending) so they didn't even try. The last two episodes, instead, are a bunch of floaty images on white backgrounds while Shinji talks about his issues. Or, rather, his one issue. Again. And again. And again.
This is actually painful at this point. We can't take any more - so two whole episodes of it feels like torture. Or maybe punishment for our sins - the show is certainly big on that Wrath of God stuff! There's a weird bit where we see the characters in some kind of school-comedy version of the show, where Shinji sees what his life would be like without the Evas, but I don't even remember what we learned from it and I certainly didn't care. I just wanted this stupid nonsense to be over.
The abstract weirdness of these two episodes isn't actually as out of place as it sounds, since the programme has been getting weirder and weirder for quite some time. It's implied (though I don't remember exactly how) that what we are watching is the Human Instrumentality Project in action - that, after the last Angel, SEELE caused Third Impact, and this is Shinji's introduction to their brave new world. Eventually, when the end finally, mercifully comes, Shinji meets up with everyone he's ever known - alive or dead - on a blue asteroid floating in the whiteness. They applaud and welcome him with open arms - Gendo even smiles. It's all very lovely and symbolic. And, because Second Impact, Third Impact, and Human Instrumentality were never properly explained or defined, none of it means a damn thing.

Brightly-Coloured Genesis Evangelion is, more than anything else, a hellishly frustrating experience. It has such obvious and wonderful potential which it never even comes close to paying off. It begins so strong - with characters we think we understand and relate to, interesting themes and symbolism, intriguing concepts and mysteries, and hints of a deep, complex mythology - and then it squanders every single one of those things by never advancing them further than those initial ideas. The characters don't progress, the themes don't lead anywhere, the mysteries don't get solved, and the mythology never makes any sense at all. At the start I really thought it was going to work; at the end I don't think it worked on any level.

It’s also not done me any good in terms of opening up to Japanese animation. I watched this show at university because people kept saying it might change my mind, but it actually just reinforced every half-baked prejudice I had. This is a giant robot show where the main characters go to a sailor-suited school together and the hapless male character is surrounded by a harem of fetishised women. Much as I love giant robots, that's three eye-rolling anime clichés right there in the concept.
On top of that, the production values and animation fluctuate wildly, which is another thing that always annoys me about anime. It has great, dynamic fights - but these become fewer and shorter as time goes on, and they're punctuated by standing and talking scenes where no-one moves for minutes at a time. Gendo almost always sits with his fingers arched in front of his face, which means they couldn't even be bothered to animate his mouth. Whenever he talks we're basically looking at one static image! That's not even mentioning the cheap slideshow that passes for a conclusion.
It has those jarring anime swerves in tone, acting morbidly serious all the time, except when it's the complete opposite - look, Misato is drunk and she has an adorable pet penguin called Pen-Pen, haha! And, of course, it has the other kind of "humour" where Shinji goes to Rei's flat and somehow ends up in her underwear drawer and then she comes out of the shower practically naked and then he ends up on top of her somehow and why the hell is this scene happening? And why is there a beach episode - why is there always a sodding beach episode?
Unfairly, I even dismissed the storytelling as being "too anime". When I talked about Cowboy Bebop, I said the storytelling felt more western, in that it was familiar and comfortable. The storytelling in Evangelion is the complete opposite - alien and strange. It’s obscure and unhelpful and confusing, and it refuses to give the viewer anything on which to build a coherent picture of the plot. The character work is equally alien, apparently assuming we’ll be interested in these characters just because they are the characters and not because we understand or feel any empathy for them.
Oh, and there’s that skinny white-haired ponce.

But Evangelion’s biggest sin is not anime-specific; it’s that it just comes off as pretentious. It seems to think it’s being oh so clever, when in fact it’s saying nothing at all. We spend multiple episodes just exploring Shinji’s personality, to no real end other than to force some psychology in there and not gain anything from it. The same goes for the Christian stuff - or even the non-denominational spiritual stuff like "souls" - in that it seems to be incorporating huge universal ideas of religion and meaning, then doing nothing with them. It doesn’t draw any conclusions about anything, and it seems almost proud of that fact. Like Lost or (you guessed it) Prometheus. Sure, you can find meaning in it - if something is vague enough then you can find pretty much any meaning you want. "Open to interpretation" can be intentional and thought-provoking, but it can just as easily be a crutch. I know which it feels like here.

So, at last, we come to the end of this monstrous post. It ended up a lot longer than I intended, but I hope you stuck with it and made it to the end. I also hope you enjoyed it because, if not, I have some bad news: I’m not done with Evangelion just yet. There’s more. After the phenomenally poor ending of the series, enough money was made to create an alternative version which, if nothing else, wouldn’t just be a whiteout with floating images. Then, after that, they rebooted the whole series.
I had hoped I could squeeze all this into one post, but (as I’m sure you’ll agree) this has already gone on for way too long. Instead, the next episode of Mangaphobia will take a look at all this stuff, and I think you might be surprised. Hopefully that post will be up some time next week, and hopefully it will be a lot shorter than this one.

Until then, to sum everything up, I will leave you with the same question that I posed over three-thousand words ago: what the hell are the goddamn Evangelions, anyway?
To begin with, we think they’re partly-organic machines, but it becomes quickly apparent they’re mostly, or maybe entirely organic. They're basically giant humans with metal plates on the outside to make them look like robots. They are humanity brought to its full potential, we're told. Except we’re also told they’re clones of Adam; or possibly Lilith (or possibly Shinji’s mother). We do know that it's your soul that synchs to the Eva, not your body or mind. But if you synch too well the thing goes feral, meaning that... the Eva is in control of the relationship, not the human? Except that they also go feral under their clone autopilots, which don't have a soul at all. They definitely seem to be alive at all times (they need to be restrained by mechanical implants, both when in use and in the hangar) but it's never clear if they’re merely alive like an animal, or alive like people and Angels, with souls of their own. Would having a soul mean they’re sentient, or just dully conscious? Are these things slaves, or just tools?
The first episode sets up the Evas as being more than they appear. It was this mystery that most grabbed my attention and drove me to keep watching. Yet I still have no idea what an Evangelion is. And I have no idea if or why that even matters.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The World's End Review

I left The World's End slightly disappointed. But, mainly, I was disappointed in myself - for feeling disappointed.
This is a very good, very funny, very clever film that trounces most other films on all three of those levels. There is nothing to be disappointed about, at all, but I still felt it. Which is disappointing.

The World's End is the final part of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's loose trilogy, rounding out Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. The trilogy, which has gone by many names but finally seems to have settled on "The Cornetto Trilogy", are all entirely separate films sharing only their director (Wright), their actors (Pegg and Frost), a recurring theme of individuality vs. conformity, the appearance of at least one Wall's Cornetto (hence the name), and a deep sense of Britishness. One thing that exemplifies that Britishness is that they all heavily involve pubs. Not "bars", as The World's End's US trailers painfully called them; definitely pubs.
The World's End actually has twelve of them - six times as many as the other two films combined - as a group of five friends attempt to recreate (and maybe this time even finish) the epic pub-crawl they started as teenagers. Dragged back together by perpetual man-child Gary, the disparate group slowly discover, one pub at a time, that their hometown is not what it once was, and that something sinister and unearthly is afoot. This would pose a challenge in itself, of course, but by this point they're already four pints in and Gary's still determined to drink the other eight.

What's interesting here is that Pegg is the one playing Gary - a character that the others pretty much can't stand, but tag along with out of pity and a sense of obligation. Nick Frost's Andy, in particular, has a longstanding grudge against Gary which keeps the two at odds for much of the movie. It's an unusual change from the easy friendship we're used to seeing from the pair, but this new dynamic supplies a lot of the film's heart and provides both actors with challenging roles we've not really seen from them before.
The rest of the performances are impressive across the board. Eddie Marsan, Paddy Constantine and Martin Freeman are hilariously great as the rest of the childhood gang, and Rosamund Pike stands out as the one remaining voice of sobriety.

While Frost and Pegg push their acting, Wright is also pushing his craft. His direction and editing are, if anything, even tighter than they were on the first two films. The sharp, hyperactive style of Scott Pilgrim, his last film, seems to inform this one in more ways than one - not least in the choreographed fight scenes. Where Shaun had blunt-force-trauma, and Hot Fuzz had gunplay, this one (naturally) has pub-brawls. They're intense, well planned and brilliantly shot - and they're even injected with a helping of decent slapstick.
Sadly, where the other films were pretty gory, the violence here is essentially bloodless. My favourite name for this series - the "Blood and Ice Cream" trilogy - no longer fits. Nothing is really lost by this; the fights are as visceral and personal as ever. It just seems a bit of a shame. What it loses in this department, though, it makes up for with clever laughs.

The humour in all Wright's projects - the drama and emotion too in some cases - is built upon self-reference and repetition, with the same lines and events reappearing in different contexts with very different meanings. This film continues that tradition but takes it even further. The World's End is not only constantly referencing earlier events from this film, but also from the other two Cornetto movies and, on top of that, the events also reference the names of the pubs where they happen, and the entire plot mirrors the events of the prologue!
All these references are clever and funny and they all land exactly as they should (as with Shaun and Fuzz, they will almost certainly get funnier on repeat viewing too) but there's so much of it here that it almost feels like it's trying too hard. Worse, it's drawing attention to itself in a way that the other two didn't. Take the Cornetto moment. The first two films didn't have Cornetto moments - there were just scenes that happened to contain a Cornetto at some point - but this time there's a big, knowing, winking moment dedicated purely to the Cornetto. This is the last one so I suppose they've earnt it, and it certainly plays to the fans (it got a pretty big cheer in our cinema), but it's worrying that the whole movie feels a bit like that. The trilogy was always meta - but this is the first time it's been so obvious about it.
This carries on right to the end - at the titular World's End pub - where the finale isn't exactly anticlimactic, but seems to subvert our expectations just because that's what it knows we're expecting. To be fair, it's likely a perfect portrayal of how a bunch of drunks would cope with this situation, but it still feels off. If feels small.

Weirdly, considering that it has the biggest budget by far, that's a feeling that persists. The World's End often feels like the smallest film of the trilogy. It's also the only one of the three that I'm not sure would work without the jokes. Shaun could be played as straight horror, and Fuzz as straight action, and the stories are still strong enough to hold the films together. I'm not sure that's true of this one - there's honestly not much to it beyond the enormous web of interrelated references holding it together.
But, here's the thing, those references are all shockingly clever and incredibly funny. It's a great film - it really is! It has complicated characters played by actors doing their best work, fantastic filmmaking, excellent and surprising set-pieces, and the same mischievous tone that we love about the other two. There is, as I said at the start, nothing to be disappointed about. And yet...

I would absolutely recommend seeing The World's End. I'm truly annoyed at myself for not enjoying it as much as I know it deserved. Frankly, I think this is one that'll really come alive with a rewatch.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Mangaphobia 01: Cowboy Bebop

Hello and welcome! This is the first episode of Mangaphobia, my new series chronicling the adventures of me, a seasoned anime-sceptic, as I dip my toes into the slightly frightening world of Japanese animation. Read the introduction to get up to speed, then join me as I try desperately to better myself.
First up is the cartoon that inspired me to begin this quest in the first place:

There's something decidedly western about Cowboy Bebop.
I mean, obviously, the word "cowboy" is right there in the title, but that's not what I'm talking about. It's hard to pin down, but I think it's a structural thing - something about the way the stories are built and told. Maybe it's a more recognisable three-act structure, or more pronounced character-building (anime often seems to just assume you'll accept blank characters). Whatever the reason, it just feels familiar, somehow, where a lot of anime seems detached and alien.
That's obviously my prejudice talking. Not a negative prejudice - not xenophobia or racism or anything - just that, culturally, I'm not equipped to understand the conventions of Japanese storytelling. That's probably one reason anime usually leaves me cold, and why Bebop makes such a good entry-point.

Another reason Bebop works for me is that it puts spaceships together with country music which, for some unknown reason, just feels right.
In fact, the whole show has a deep fascination with music. The episodes (which are even referred to as "sessions") have titles like Heavy Metal Queen and Black Dog Serenade, and the brilliantly integrated soundtrack is full of jazz, rock, blues, country and (of course) bebop. The show's musical leanings also result in, without a doubt, the single coolest intro-sequence of any programme ever. Oh yeah.

The "cowboy" of the title doesn't actually refer to the Western influences (though they are certainly there), rather it's a term this world uses for bounty-hunters. Our heroes are a ragtag band of such cowboys who live and travel on a rusty old ship called Bebop.
Spike Spiegal is the scrawny, sharp-suited scoundrel with big hair, massive clown feet, and a penchant for martial-arts. Jet Black (yes, really) is the rough, tough, gruff mechanic with a robotic arm and a heart of gold. Faye Valentine is the charming thief, who can weasel her way into anything but can't always weasel back out. Radical Edward (yes, really) is the prepubescent master-hacker who is probably crazy and, despite the name, definitely a girl. And Ein is the ship's pet corgi, who may or may not secretly be a super-genius.

Wow, that seems really silly written down. And it is silly, of course - when Edward's involved it often gets outright surreal - but it's weaved throughout the serious stuff in a way that makes it work. The moment that I officially fell in love with Bebop, in fact, was when I realised that the creepy, atmospheric episode I was watching had actually been an absurdist Alien homage all along.
A lot of anime seems oppressively over-serious; either with no humour at all, or with sudden, jarring shifts from crushing darkness to, "Look, a funny animal!" or, more often, "Look, he tripped and groped her boobs!" Cowboy Bebop is much more even and level - it sprinkles light humour throughout, but never really strays into stupid, obvious, or boob-centric jokes. Conversely it handles even its most serious episodes and moments with a gentle touch and a streak of fun (see: the last shot of the entire series). This is, again, something that feels unusually western to my prejudiced eyes.

You wouldn't know any of this from the beginning, though. The first episode, Asteroid Blues, had me groaning with disappointment and dreading watching the rest. It was exactly what I was afraid it would be, with an overly dour "edgy" plot about drugs and violence, endless slow pans and still-frames to save money, and several pervy boob closeups; the only levity was three random old blokes that seemed painfully out of place, and a lot of the voice-acting was terrible. It's probably my least favourite episode - it's a bloody awful place to start.

The second episode, Stray Dog Strut, is much less serious. There's a case of mistaken identity, a long slapstick dog chase, and a character who has a tortoise on their head. But, coming off the back of the po-faced Asteroid Blues, I had no idea how I was meant to process this. Going back to it, it's actually quite a fun episode but, at the time, I didn't realise it was trying to be fun, so I wrote it off as some bizarre misfire.

Episode three is where it finally clicked. Honky Tonk Woman opens with Spike and Jet kicking back in a casino - the music, the lights, Jet’s outfit, and the fact that they're bickering like an old married couple all make it feel like an Ocean’s Eleven-type caper. Then everyone’s plans go wrong - both theirs and the bad-guys’ - there’s double-crosses and ransoms and exchanges, and it ends in an inventive and spectacular shootout on the outside of the ship. It’s great and exciting and fun, and I suddenly understood what this cartoon was.

From there the show quickly finds better footing, and settles into a comfortable rhythm (fitting for a show so obsessed with music). At every scale and every level it is balancing itself - every serious beat is offset by a moment of levity, and every heavily serious episode is followed by a slightly offbeat one. It’s so well-calculated that you don’t even blink when Ed finally turns up, nine episodes in, and things start getting really whacky. Bebop is surprisingly versatile.
As a general rule, the lighter episodes tend to be standalone affairs, where the crew face a new challenge in a new location with new characters, and it all wraps up by the end of the session (like the aforementioned Alien homage, the magic mushrooms, or the time they meet an actual cowboy). That’s not to say that standalones never get serious and deep - there’s a couple that are absolutely horrifying (Pierrot Le Fou springs to mind) - but the more consistently serious ones are episodes that deal with our characters’ pasts.

Spike, Jet and Faye all have emotional damage and secrets that get slowly explored throughout the series. We do get a glance into Ed’s history, too, but since her experiences have left her either totally unphased or completely broken (it’s hard to tell which) we never really learn much.
The main arc of the series is Spike’s and, for me at least, it’s the least interesting and least engaging thing about the whole cartoon. His story is, at the risk of appearing even more biased, very very anime. It’s about his lost love, and his dark past with the triads, and the betrayal of the man he once viewed as a brother. That betrayer, a man called Vicious (bit of a giveaway, guys), is one of those patented tall, white-haired girly-men with a billowing coat and an improbably deep voice - I can picture some of my friends swooning even as I type that - and I just couldn’t take him seriously at all. I was rolling my eyes whenever he stalked effeminately onto the screen. This might have been ok if the show retained its sense of humour, but Spike’s past is treated with even more severity than the opening episode - his episodes are unrelentingly heavy and grim. Spike’s much more interesting in the episodes that aren’t about him, when he’s kicking arse and cracking wise and isn’t tied down by this rote, overplayed anime story.

I’m willing to overlook Spike and Vicious, though, because the other main stories are so much more interesting. Jet’s an ex-cop, and his episodes play out as gritty noir thrillers as we learn why he had to leave that life behind, and how he lost his arm. True to its noir stylings, while there is action, his stories burn slow and mostly deal with moral greys and difficult choices. Where Spike’s out for simple revenge and is otherwise a free spirit, Jet’s conflicts are more complex and difficult; his life and past rubbing up against his beliefs and ideologies. It paints a wonderful portrait of a man left behind by a changing world.
Faye’s story is the slowest to be revealed - with hints early on and then nothing for almost half the series - and it becomes a haunting tragedy. She’s actually suffering from amnesia, which sounds clichéd but works well when we learn that she was cryogenically frozen for fifty-four years after an accident. With not only no memory of her life, but also no way of returning to it even if she could remember, her journey is heartfelt and bittersweet.
Much fun as it is to watch the crew bounty-hunting, dealing with big, scary sci-fi concepts, and hunting for Betamax players (don’t ask), it’s the depth of the character exploration that really makes Cowboy Bebop stick. Thankfully, in most cases, it’s a damn sight more effective and affecting than anything we learn about Spike.

Bebop is the first anime series I can unreservedly say that I liked. In fact I kinda loved it. It still suffers from many of the juvenile and exploitative things that anime always seems to suffer from - as well as Spike’s self-serious melodrama there’s the ever-present fact that Faye dresses like a prostitute, the first episode’s boob-cam, a sequence involving suncream and, um, this guy - but it manages to tell stories that are interesting with characters who are engaging and themes that it actually sees through to the end. I called the storytelling "western" before, but I’m pretty sure that’s unfair - wherever you’re from, this is just good storytelling.
My main complaint, weirdly, is about the Bebop herself. If you ask me to draw the Starship Enterprise, I can. If you ask me to draw a Firefly, I can. If you name any ship from Star Wars, I can tell you what it looks like. Even the Planet Express ship! There are three smaller ships inside Bebop that are all iconic and memorable, but the actual Bebop? I have no idea what Bebop looks like and, considering how much time we spend with her, that’s a damned shame. But, when that’s the strongest complaint I can really muster - about an anime, of all things - then that just shows how much Cowboy Bebop gets right.

Thanks for reading, anime peoples!
I got loads of great comments and suggestions last week about where I should take Mangaphobia going forwards. Death Note and one of the Full Metals (Alchemist, I think?) seem the most popular choices, but I’d still appreciate any other suggestions you may have. Before I dive headlong into a time-eating TV series, for instance, what movies do people suggest? Ghibli, I’m guessing, but which ones?
I’m hopefully seeing The World’s End tonight (finally), so reviewing that will be my next mission, but after that I hope to return with the second episode of Mangaphobia: a retrospective on the various different versions of Evangelion. See you then!

Friday, 9 August 2013

Mangaphobia 00: Full Metal Introduction!

Since I've failed completely to see The World's End this week, meaning that I have nothing to review, now seems a pretty good time to launch my long-gestating new blog series:

I once asked a friend how Full Metal Alchemist and Full Metal Panic! were related. Her pitying look and condescending answer are forever burned onto my brain. Apparently they're not related at all (except for both stealing the same Kubrick title for some reason) and I'm a colossal idiot for ever assuming they were. That's just one of many times that I thought, yeah, this anime stuff just isn't for me.

Anyone who has ever known me will know that - barring a brief period of insanity where I, like everyone else, was obsessed with Pokémon (note: the G1 games still rule) - I have always disliked anime. I've tried, honestly, but it's just never clicked.
I've never understood what people see in it. This despite the fact that every point in my life has included someone telling me how great it is. Kids at school obsessed with Dragon Ball Z; tutors at uni obsessed with Studio Ghibli; housemates obsessed with pretty much all of it. A few of my friends are even that specific breed of Japanophile who devote themselves entirely to "cosplay" (formerly known as "dressing up"), pocky (the world's least exciting biscuit) and collecting unbelievably creepy, unbelievably expensive vinyl dolls.

Despite this, or possibly because of it, I've become increasingly dismissive of the whole affair. I now actively avoid the stuff, and get snarky whenever it comes up in conversation. I realise that I'm generalising - that I'm not giving it a chance - and that I'm likely depriving myself of some legitamately good films and shows. I also realise that I'm being an arsehole. But I can't help it! At a certain point, I'd just had enough.
Enough of seeing the same few generic faces, distinguished only by their hair. Enough of hearing the same few voices, usually so screechy and irritating. Enough of seeing the same few recycled plots, be they robots or harems or schools or all three. Enough of the meaningless titles that are just a mashup of random English words. Enough of the character-design choices, and all of the other choices, made simply to appeal to teenage perverts. Enough of the "mature" subject matter, somehow handled with even less maturity than Torchwood. Enough of the animation tricks and cheats to keep costs down. Enough of the jerky, ugly, 8fps framerates. And, seriously, enough of the smug assumption that it's somehow automatically better than western cartoons.

Do you see? Do you see how dismissive and judgemental I've become? I don't want to be this person, but it's already wormed its way into my self-identity!
But, recently, a funny thing happened: I watched Cowboy Bebop. And I liked it.
That show is a glowing beacon of hope for me. Proof that I actually can enjoy anime - that I don't automatically prejudge it. While my mind clearly isn't open, it's not fully closed! I can overcome my discrimination!
But I can't do it alone.

Mangaphobia is a series of blog posts, starting with this one, which will (hopefully) track my journey and (hopefully) growth as I give anime a second chance and explore what it has to offer. The plan is to look at one anime, either a film or part of a show, each episode. Some may be short breakdowns, others might warrent deeper investigations, but I promise to keep my prejudiced little mind as open as I can either way. There won't be a strict schedule - it won't be weekly or monthly - so these will just get posted whenever they're ready.
First up, some time in the coming weeks, will be the aforementioned Cowboy Bebop. Then I'm planning to revisit Evangelion, a series with which I have a long, bipolar history. Beyond that, though, I have no idea. My knowledge of anime is limited, small-minded, and out of date. I'm kind of flailing in the dark, here!

That's where you come in.
Lets make this baby interactive! In the comments of this post, and of other episodes of Mangaphobia, I would really appreciate any suggestions people have for me to watch next. Some (most) of my readers probably have much more experience with this stuff than I do, and any input would be really really helpful.

That's the end of this Full Metal Neon Introduction Complex, but Mangaphobia will return soon with a look at Cowboy Bebop.
Until then, please please please comment below. Let me know which Ghibli movie I should try first; which series really speaks to you; and what's your favourite hentai. Except not that last one.
Help me to expand my horizons and become a better human being!

Sunday, 4 August 2013

The Bitesize Twilight Saga

The first time I wrote about a film on the internet (outside of comments sections and forums) was not last year's Film of the Year awards. It was actually four years ago, on DeviantArt of all places. And, believe it or not, it was about Twilight.

Twilight, and its four sequels, are almost entirely terrible (I say "almost" because the third one actually has some good bits). I genuinely could not believe how terrible the first one was when I saw it. I felt deeply insulted. Not as an audience-member or as a film-lover - I felt insulted as a human being. The fact that this unbelievably tedious, badly made, badly written, badly acted thing was being sold as entertainment was an insult to the intelligence of our species as a whole. The fact that it was phenomenally popular made me want to abandon and possibly murder that species.

But, instead of a killing-spree, I put my energy into warning others not to watch it. I made a comic-strip version of the movie, so that anyone who was curious could experience the plot and tone of the film without actually subjecting themselves to the torturous eternity it takes to watch. I called it "panart", because there isn't actually a word for fanart born of hatred.

For those unfamiliar with DeviantArt, it's a sort of online art-gallery, where you can post any and all kinds of art and it can be viewed and appraised by other users. In practice this means it's mostly horrifying porn, but that's true of the entire internet. What's important is that you can also write accompanying text to explain the art, and that writing the text for my Twilight comic was essentially the first time I tried to review a film. It wasn't much of a review - it's barely two-hundred words and it's mostly just insults - but I'm pretty sure that's where the seeds of this blog were planted. I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.
Since then, I've also done comics for New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn (part 1), and I used the text to talk about those movies, too. Each review is longer and more reviewy than the last - they're still mostly just insults, though.

Happily, the nightmare is now over. Just last night I posted my final Twilight comic - Breaking Dawn (part 2) - to DeviantArt, and wrote a ridiculously excessive two-thousand words to go with it. Still mostly just insults.
To mark this final conclusion to the series that first got me reviewing movies, and to celebrate the fact that I will never have to watch this poison again, I'm posting the whole series on the blog that it eventually inspired. Here, in all its tedious glory, is the saga of Bitesize Twilight:

Bitesize Twilight
Bitesize New Moon
Bitesize Eclipse
Bitesize Breaking Dawn (part 1)
Bitesize Breaking Dawn (part 2)