Thursday, April 26, 2007

Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, Chobits, Video Girl Ai, and Ai-Ren: Four views of artificial people

This is sort of a random-salad post about several manga that have a lot in common, even though they sometimes deal with very different themes: Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, Chobits, Ai-Ren, and Video Girl Ai. Three of the four could be classified as "magical girlfriend" stories, but both Ai-Ren and Video Girl Ai don't endow the 'girlfriend' with any actual magical/technological supernatural powers. Therefore, I'd have to say that neither really falls in the same category as, say, Ah My Goddess, for example.

No, what they really have in common is artificial people, to use a nice catchall Heinlein term (almost all females in this case - YKK has one artificial male). While exploring the psychology of why androids, etc in manga and anime are so often female might make a good post, I'm not going to do that one today. We'll lay some groundwork first.

Let's start with Video Girl Ai, by Katsura Masakazu which is probably the least complex of the four thematically. VGAi would normally be classified as a magical girlfriend story, but for the minor issue that the only really magical thing about female lead Amano Ai is that she was created in an alternate dimension to be an entertaining and confidence-building short-term romantic/sexual partner for inexperienced males. She's supposed to be relationship training wheels, if you will. But, in the usual nature of these plots, she ends up stuck in the real world, and with more real-world (and exasperating/inconvenient) attributes than the notional yamato nadeshiko (difficult to define in English - the traditional perfect Japanese woman/wife). This pic is from the OVA anime series, which is very well done. Whew: late update. I see that Justin Sevakis over at ANN has just named the OVA a "buried treasure." Boy do I feel old. There was a DVD release, but I've never seen one - I saw it in the fuzzy VHS days. Never heard the dub, although he says it's not bad. As usual, I like my whiskey straight, my coffee and tea black and my anime subbed, thanks.

Katsura's art starts off a little shaky, but improves rapidly through the volumes. I'd say that by the end of VGAi, Katsura is as good as anybody drawing manga today. He went on to do I''s, which looks better but is pretty tepid and not (in my opinion) worth reading. Since it's a shounen romance, there's lots of fanservice. This is from 1989, before character design became standardized with huge amounts of moe, random fan service, stereotypes (meganekko), etc, so the female character designs are within the realm of anatomical possibility, which is something I like. Overall, I give the art a good solid B+, which is way better than it needed to be to get the job done.

It does dip into deeper thematic waters once the obvious love-triangle stuff has been explored. Male lead Yuta has to come to terms with Ai both not being his notional perfect girlfriend and with her being an artificial creation not meant to make a permanent companion. Ai's makers try to 'take her home' on two separate occasions (because she's a 'defective product'), and Yuta has to appeal with logic, emotion, and lots of good old bloody, painful suffering to get her back. All of that said, it's easily the lightest of the four manga I'm discussing today, and makes a good introduction to shounen romances and magical girlfriend stories. Here's my conclusion from a discussion on about good romance manga:

Video Girl Ai will always have a special place in my manga affections. It was the first manga I ever read with my then-new girlfriend (who is now my wife). She had been exposed to a little anime, but knew nothing of manga. Evening cuddle-and-read-manga sessions quickly became a staple and VGAi was a perfect introduction. If Midori no Hibi had existed then, we would probably have read that instead; as it was, Ai did the job nicely. Katsura is sometimes wantonly cruel to his characters (see Zetman for a harsher example) but I don't think he dared to mess with VGAi too much.

It does end happily, but you might want to stop reading before Katsura trots out his brand extensions. He tries to extend the franchise of the (highly successful) manga by trotting out new lead characters after the Ai/Yuta arc wraps up. It doesn't work. The good news is that Ai and Yuta are left undisturbed, and their plot completes well.

On to Ai-Ren (愛人), which is the one I discovered most recently. Set in the medium-distant, post-apocalyptic future, Ai Ren is definitely not a shounen romance (even though the male lead is a shounen), and I'd have to say it fails qualification as a magical girlfriend story as well. Ai (the female lead) is a genetically engineered human meant for some unknown (probably military) purpose back in the bad old days, and now repurposed before activation to be a source of solace and hospice care giver for a terminally ill patient. Yes, the male lead (Ikuru) is the terminally ill patient. Ai seems to have no special powers (hence my claim that this isn't really a magical girlfriend story), and is doomed to a short lifespan once activated.

Definitely not a light shounen romance, despite the superficial similarities to Video Girl Ai. It originally ran 1999-2002 in Hakusensha's Young Animal, which is Seinen (and also serializes Futari Ecchi and Chocotto Sister). It's sad, of course. It's not, however, depressing. At least I didn't think so. In fact, it's one of the most life-affirming things I've ever read. The real themes are the universality and transcendent nature of love and that life, hope, and renewal spring eternally if only we're smart enough to get out of the way of them.

Character designs are simple but expressive, anatomy is adequately drawn, and the scenery is almost as good as Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou (more of this below). It's seinen, so it's pretty casual about nudity, but the casualness is always appropriate in context (the male lead is a teenager, and there's comic intent to his wild takes). The art meets my 'What Makes a Good Manga' requirement of being good enough to not get in the way of telling the story, and more than that we need not ask.

So if you're looking for a sad but life-affirming read that will make you want to hug your loved ones, look no further than Ai-Ren. Available completely scanslated from Solaris-SVU. At least one reader (Eureka, who put me onto the manga) claims it changed his life. Maybe it won't change yours, but it might just help you appreciate it more.

Here's some discussion between Eureka and me at about Ai-Ren and its comparability to some other mangas involving artificial people:

Originally Posted by Eureka
And Ai-ren is an amazing romance Seinen. I'm glad you're going to read it. Very tragic I'm sure I've already's the only manga to bring me to tears...but it's still THE greatest story of all time, and is mainly romance themed, but with alot of darker stuff in there as well.

I read most of Ai-Ren yesterday. Went home and hugged the wife and offspring more than usual. Finished it up today.

Evening manga reading last night was hurrying toward the conclusion of Chobits (which I'd read years ago but milady hadn't. She'd never seen CLAMP's work, and this struck me as their most-accessible and possibly least-annoying offering. There were some odd resonances for me between Ai-Ren and the themes of devotion and self-sacrifice in more-or-less humans in Chobits.

It may seem strange to say it, but Ai-Ren really felt like the personal side of Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou to me. The drawing style isn't dissimilar (that's pretty high praise in itself), and the themes (end of humanity, plot happens by the sea at the end of a disused road), and slice-of-life quality were very reminiscent for me. It wouldn't have seemed strange to me if Director Alpha had been working with the Sensee at the institute.

Meet Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou (Translates as "Log of a Yokohama Shopping Trip"). Very seinen - originally published in Kodansha's Afternoon monthly. And, unlike Ai-Ren, completely and utterly devoid of anything you could call fanservice. Here I am singing its praises further along in the compare-and-contrast-with Ai-Ren conversation:

I'll admit it - I'm a YKK fan. I completely understand the huge following the manga had in Japan among exhausted salarymen on their way home after a week of 12 hour workdays.

It's a sort of slice-of-life, plot-less, zen, post-apocalyptic episodic manga starring Hatsuseno Alpha, a type A7M2 robot (actually an android) who lives by herself and runs a cafe at the end of a disused road on a spit of land not terribly far from the mostly-submerged remains of current-day Yokohama. Alpha is an endearing and amusing character, and a bit of an innocent. Her relationships with humans and other robots are the glue that hold the manga together. Above is a screen shot from one of the OVAs done verbatim from the manga. It gets the feel better than anything else I could quickly find.

If you like lush scenery and just looking at pretty pictures, this is a manga for you. There are developments of both situation and character, and at times plot arcs go on for as long as a volume at a time in a loose sort of way, but don't expect to find out lots more detail next week on what happened last week. Chances are, however, that you will learn more about it at some point, but it might be two volumes from now.

Zen and the circle of life form primary themes. In this, it's rather like Ai-Ren. As a person, Alpha is more like the Sensee character in Ai-Ren, both in her position of being much longer-lived than the humans around her, and also in being a child of humanity, but not human. She has her own life and her own path, and while she walks with humans, their path is not really hers.

I think that on one level it can be read as a response to Asimov's "Bicentennial Man." (cf also the painfully bad Robin Williams movie) in which Alpha shows that a robot need not desire to become human to have a happy life, and need not shun humanity to that end either.

If you like the journey more than the arrival, you'll like YKK. If you're always in a hurry to see what happens next chapter, you probably won't like YKK.

It ended last year and is completely scanslated, best by and There's a torrent floating around of the whole thing, I think. You can read individual chapters at Never licensed in the US - the comic-book fanboys can't stand something with no fanservice, no plot, and no violence. For the rest of us, it's like a quiet cup of tea, and as welcome on busy days. Yes, I'm a fan. I've re-read the whole series twice, and have read some chapters at least five times, just because I picked up at some point and started reading again. It's like that. Enjoy.

And that brings us to Chobits, which I've extensively covered in another blog entry (spoiler at link). Described briefly, it's a seinen magical girlfriend story with an android as the female lead. In this, it sounds a lot like Boku no Marie, but it has a couple of huge differences: First, it was done by CLAMP, which is an all-women manga author collective, so you can rest assured that no female role will be thin-as-cardboard here (they do a fine job with all the male characters as well). Likewise, if you expect that a bunch of women doing a seinen/shounen magical girlfriend comic romance are going to tweak the reader's expectations of the genre, you're right. Second, it jumps straight into the ethics and philosophy of having an android as a loved one. I think it makes an excellent book-end for Asimov's Robot Stories and, in some ways, I think it paints a much more realistic portrait of what existence for a sufficiently heuristic android might entail in some possible futures.

The art is...almost too good in some places. The sample page is male lead Hideki explaining practical capitalism to Chii (she's holding her first paycheck). Yes, Chii generally looks like that. Yes, you should go brush your teeth now before they fall out from the cuteness. Note how easily the narrative flows, how there are no unnecessary words (isn't Hideki's wordless surprise take great?), and how just-plain-good the panel and page design are. This is a typical page which I chose mostly because it has Chii in some detail along with Hideki and no real spoilers. The mechanics are uniformly excellent. Page design and panel design always work well. We're told late in the story that 'Chobi' (plural Chobits) is a word coined by the androids' creator to describe something impossibly cute. Chii pretty much defined the chibi-moe heroine when she appeared in 2001, and I don't think she's been outdone since. There's some fanservice, but it's both contextually appropriate and plot developing. If I were assigning letter grades, for art, I'd give Chobits an honest A - maybe even an A+. This is one of a small list of manga I'd love to see printed on larger paper in an art-book format with marginal annotations, like what Christopher Tolkien has done with the drafts of his father's books.

The more I look at this manga, the more I admire how deliberately it is plotted. Every event that occurs has some specific place in the larger plot, and everything in the plot relates back to the themes of the story. With Chobits, it's best to assume that you're seeing something for a specific reason - even if it seems unrelated to the plot at the moment. Don't worry, it'll all make sense later on, and finding out how and why is part of the fun.

The anime is also well done. Skip the English Dub - Crispin Freeman is totally unconvincing as Hideki the Hokkaido farmboy. The Seyuu who did the part originally is the same guy who did Kyon in Haruhi and Yuuichi in Kanon 2006, and he's a good fit for the part. Tanaka Rie does her usual amazing job with Chii (even after having heard both, it's still hard to believe she plays Hiro in Hataraki Man). It's not exactly the same story as the manga, and discards some of the subtler themes, but overall it does a good job of treating the complexity found in the story given the limitations of family viewing and 26 1/2 hour episodes. I'd recommend reading the manga first, if you want to watch the anime. Your preconceptions from the anime might prevent you from seeing some of the subtexts in the manga, but you won't miss any of the fun in the anime if you've read the manga first.

So there you have it, four stories involving artificial people in four very different situations. They're all worth your time. Enjoy.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Fruits basket: "Really All That?"

Well, on the upside, it's on the hairy edge of being too bishonen pretty, but stays on the "I can stand to look at this" side of that edge. Panel and page composition is pretty good, the supporting characters are adequately interesting, and Tohru, while not exactly as 3d as some shoujo manga leads is a lot more believable than, say a Watase Yuu character.

And there are plenty of characters! If you don't like one, you're sure to like two or three others...

On the downside is that there is a big cast of characters (the whole Sohma family) and they're all drawn pretty much alike. And Tohru (to look at) is the same almost-generic pale-chibi-heroine character we see all over in shoujo lately (Tsubasa in Kare Kano, Hagu in Honey and Clover). And, because there's so much ink spent on the Sohmas arguing over what biscuits they'll have with tea today, we never learn all that much about Tohru's friends.

Then there's place: the whole story happens in three locations...well, maybe five, but there's a very definite ukiyo-e (floating world) feeling about it because nobody ever goes to a noodle shop, gets a bag of taiyaki, or watches a movie. Compare to KKNJ, where they go to Kyoto on a class trip and visit the temples, or Mahoraba, where several shop owners have recurring roles in the manga.

Oh, and can we have establishing shots when we switch scenes between these three places, please? The inside of Shigure's house looks a whole lot like the inside of the Sohmas' house...

I've got to say that I like the character development in Kare Kano better, for all that I was bored by the Tsubasa/stepbrother arc in the middle. Both of the leads in KKNJ seem to be reasonably close to fully human. I'm not sure I could say the same of anybody in Furuba but maybe Shigure and Yuki. I don't think it's possible for a real human to be as happy about housework as Tohru seems to be through all 23 volumes...

And, while it's early in the scanslation process, I'd have to say that, unless the animators invented the depth we see in Honey and Clover, it's got to be significantly better than either KKNJ or Furuba. Of course, it's josei, so it'd likely be more complex anyway.

All that said, I put Furuba on the cuddle-with-milady and read manga list instead of KKNJ because it's a more interesting plot than yet-another-teen-romance and we'd just finished up Midori no Hibi and are working our way through Chobits.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Is J-Pop the last real pop music on earth?

Here's one place my being old and crufty isn't part of a persona: I pretty much loathe about 90% of the assorted noises that people choose to listen to and call 'music' these days. I live in North America, and Clear Channel and its competitors have done a fine job of taking all of the music out of the broadcast music business.

To be fair, I think that only most of it is the 'music industry's' fault. It's true that they have elected to forget about little things like discovering and nurturing new talent for the studio stable because it reduces 'shareholder value.' And it's also true that the radio conglomerates with their standardized playlists have destroyed any possibility of serendipitously discovering a new song or band by listening to most radio stations in the US.

However, the musical micro-focus of most younger people and their unwillingness to be around music they didn't personally pick out seems part of the problem as well. If you're going to be exposed to a lot of different music, you'll like some of it, and you definitely won't like some of it. You have to suffer the bad to get the good, and there seems to be reluctance to do that. Gangsta fans can't stand metal, metalheads can't stand country, country fans can't stand lyrical or tonal complexity (oops, did I say that?) and so there's no such thing as fusion music anywhere except on a few college radio stations. Likewise, if somebody gets creative, and makes something wonderful, nobody except the niche listeners of that micro-genre ever hear it.

This is not to say that there is no good music being done today in North America, just that it's not well publicised or well distributed. And a lot of musical forms seem to be endlessly recycled. It surprises me that punk and new wave are still around - music that sounds like I could have pogoed around to it in my college days is currently cool. Trust me folks, if it sounds like the Violent Femmes, Suicidal Tendencies, The Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Burning Sensations, Fear, The Dead Kennedys, Millions of Dead Cops, etc, it's not new music. It's just recycled old music from when I had fewer wrinkles and more hair on my head. I didn't/don't like grunge very much, but at least it's distinctly a product of the 1990s. And if you don't know what any of those bands sound like, take a listen. You might be surprised at who's ripping off whose sound these days.

And then there's the whole hiphop thing. Most of it isn't worth having around. Some is funny. Now and again, somebody in that market gets creative, but it's rare. If you're a white suburbanite and you're listening to this stuff, it's because you're a wannabe, not because the message transcends boundaries, unless you think that smoking dope, busting caps into people, and talking about the difficulties of dealing with your string of ho's counts as a universal message...

(wow, this really is a rant, today, isn't it?)

OK, so on to the actual subject of the post. If you can't get pop here (except for the embalmed and stuffed kind), where do you go to find bands turning out all kinds of random wild musical combinations that might even have a good beat and decent musicianship? Japan of all places.

I don't know why, but there's an abundance of creative people doing all kinds of styles. Some are distinctly western, some definitely aren't. Some are strange mutations. And no matter what your taste, somebody in Japan is turning it out. The amazing thing is that this stuff is inevitably perfectly matched to some anime or other and becomes a memorable OP (opening), Insert, or ED (end credits) tune.

If you're old like me, a lot of it sounds like a trip down memory lane. The OP song for Hataraki Man sounds like the GoGos before they lost their punk edge: "A girl wants a man who can work. So then he puts his heart into it and works and slaves and and gets boring." The end credits to Serial Experiments Lain have a distinctly '90s whiny guitar player sound. Want thrash metal? How about the end credits to NHK ni Yookoso? A vulnerable girl ballad about teenage love? Look no further than the OP to Bokura Ga Ita. Something with a heavy dance beat and lyrics about painting the sky blood red with our love? Karin OP. Need a smooth girl R&B Love ballad? The OP to Chobits is just what you want.

Sometimes, though, you have to wonder about the musical choices. Some stuff doesn't seem so perfectly matched. E-chan currently gets occasional episodes of Nurse Angel Ririka SOS as an evening reward for good behavior (hey- it beats Disney!) The OP tune is straight-out-of-the-club at 1:oo AM Euro dance club music, and the lyrics are about somebody crying in town and it's all my fault. What this has to do with a Magical Girl show about a 10 year old saving the world with an enchanted nurse uniform is anybody's guess... I must admit that the club music is infectious and reminds me of more of my misspent youth, but 10 year old schoolgirls?

Likewise the second ED song to Honey and Clover, which was about a girl who can't escape from the bad outcome of a drunken one-night stand. Huh? Has minimal relevance to the show at best - all the girls are 'good' girls, and while they're the usual Japanese lightweights where alcohol is concerned, none of them ever gets into a compromising position under the influence.

Likewise, soundtrack music is often of a very high quality. While both the OP and ED songs for Suzumiya Haruhi season 1 left me indifferent (I generally prefer pop songs that happen to fit the show over pop songs that were obviously written for the show), I thought the different mood-setting musics for the soundtrack were very effective (Gregorian chant for the 'organization' of Espers got a laugh-out-loud from me, as did a couple of other choices).

Anime movies and OVAs generally benefit from good soundtracks and themes as well. My all-time favorite theme to a spy movie that never was is the OP tune for the Read or Die OVA, done by Taku Iwasaki. The tune and the opening credits animation set such a high standard that it's amazing that there's not a letdown when the show starts. Joe Hisaishi, likewise, has done sterling work on a lot of Ghibli releases, generally with superb results. I must admit, though, that the video-game-like electronic score used for the aerial combat scenes in Nausicaa has not aged well. Oh well, the minuet he composed for Nausicaa's requiem is so perfect that it demands we forgive any such momentary lapses.

All of this is yet another side effect of the Japanese taking Anime seriously as a story-telling form, and investing time and money to make a better product because they know that the market will preferentially buy a better product over an inferior one. To use the economics term, there's a strong 'quality signal' because all the otakus talk to each other about what was good and what sucked. And because everybody in Japan watches at least some anime, the music has to have universality for the audience -- it has to be popular. And, because the Japanese are a culture of consensus, popular is easy to define.

Is all J-pop wonderful? of course not. Some of it is designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, was produced by a studio as a manufactured band, or whatever (yes, I'm talking about Morning Musume here, among others). But there's a lot of wonderful stuff out there too, and it's worthy of your attentions.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Anime off the Beaten Path

If you've been watching anime for a while and you're not an otaku (fanboy), you are probably aware that lots of anime seems to be designed to appeal to people that aren't you.

That's certainly true in my case. I haven't been a shounen for several decades now. I have a chibi-me running around the house, a wife, a job...all that stuff. So yet another schoolboy doing derring deeds saving the universe while looking longingly at the fanservice-intensive female lead probably isn't going to get me very interested most of the time.

So I'm always looking out on the margins. What's new and sounds strange? What are older seinen like me in Japan watching? What can I watch that I won't automatically compare to the last five things I saw just like it?

Here's some fun stuff that has come out of this search:

1. Old stuff. Yes, there's more great old stuff around now than there was five years ago. Central Anime in Kansas is doing a great job of fansubbing on the Uchuu Senkan Yamato cycle (see my capsule review of S1 here). They're using the cleaned-up R2 DVDs released to vintage otaku types there. I've run across some of the Harlock series as well, but the subs haven't been very good. I also ran across a nice dual-audio copy of Vampire Hunter D, and a good fansub of Macross from the restored R2 DVDs (I'd never seen the original Macross before - wow is that OP song bad).

I think I ran across Legends of the Galactic Heroes somewhere, and there's likewise the entire Gundam franchise which I've never watched. I should be set for vintage space warfare for quite some time. My one big regret so far is that nobody seems to have English subs on Heidi, girl of the Alps, which apparently never ran in the US. No, I haven't lost my mind - I have a rug rat to entertain, and he digs Yamato and Nurse Angel Ririka SOS down to the ground. What's not to like about a Shoujo show made by Miyazaki and Takahata?

The above points out that not all obscure old stuff is from people you've never heard of. Studio Ghibli, for instance, has an extensive back catalog. You probably haven't seen everything in it. I haven't, yet, and I'm making an effort. Mimi wo Sumaseba (called Whisper of the Heart in the US, but more accurately titled as If you Listen Closely), for instance, is a fine example of a perfectly nice teenage romance you've never seen with all the characteristic Ghibli pretty views and (generally) good soundtrack. I'll warn you, though, that a John Denver song figures prominently in the plot, although the heroine (to my amusement) says the lyrics are trite after translating them literally.

My favorite seldom-seen Ghibli movie is Omohide Poro Poro, which translates as something like "Memories Falling Like Raindrops." It's a more adult story than most Ghibli offerings, and is set in (mostly rural) Japan of the recent past. If you ever wondered what a slice-of-life Ghibli movie would be like, you need wonder no more. So check out the back catalogs of big names you know - you might find a gem or two.

2. Stuff meant for older viewers. The first HD series I downloaded right when I got back into anime after the decade hiatus was Kamichu! It sounded fun and quirky, and I wanted to see how good it looked. Right on all counts. It's set in Onomichi of the 1980s, so has a distinct nostalgic feel for anybody who lived through that time, even if on a different continent. Turns out it's designed to micro-target men my age...

Milady, who is the same age I am less a few months, is an avowed fan of Hataraki Man. The Go-Gos-like OP tune sets the mood perfectly, and it definitely speaks to her. I find it amusing as well, even though several of the characters fall into shoujo/josei stereotypes. I'll say this: the workaday world of Japan doesn't often make it across the pond to be fansubbed, and it's our loss. All of the few work-life comedy anime and manga I've seen were enjoyed, and some are favorites.

I haven't really got it figured out yet, but I think Binchou-tan might fall into this category as well. It's so purposefully sparse verbally (less than 150 words spoken in the first ep), so pretty to look at. So pathetic. In its own way it evokes the Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou manga for me more than the two OVAs did. It's too slow for kids, so I think it's actually seinen as well...

3. Odd fish. The manga/anime industry in Japan is so big that they semi-randomly create wonderful mutations. Somebody takes a silly idea (say tactical cyborg loli-assasins) seriously and creates something sad and wonderful like Gunslinger Girl.

Or a couple of guys get together and do a what-if show about breaking down the barriers between the internet and the physical world which, amazingly enough, is really good, like Serial Experiments Lain.

Or somebody sells Bandai Visual on this great novel idea they've got involving aerial warfare, lolitas, ancient priesthoods, forgotten wisdom of the ancients, teen-age sex changes, and some other stuff I'm probably forgetting. Something like Simoun results.

Or somebody decides to do Thelma and Louise, except with Thelma being kickass at kung-fu, and Louise being deadly with a katana walking around Edo era Japan with lots of slapstick comedy, like Kazemakase Tsukikage Ran.

These mutations are such prizes. And they inevitably have a long shelf life, and are usually well made. I always hope the next thing I discover will be another one.

Sad Manga Good and Bad

There was a discussion at Mangaupdates about sad manga and anime. One of the things I really like about manga/anime versus most American stuff is the willingness to create an honestly sad story. You can't have apparent brightness without contrast.

There were a number of citations, some of which were shounen action manga with a sad plot development somewhere, some of which were various flavors of sad-ending shoujo romance, and some of which were actually pathetic in the model of Russian fiction. Here is my take:

I think the reason people's responses are all over the map here is that there's more than one kind of "sad" and different people respond to different things:

The commoner kind is the "unhappy plot development" variant. If you've read Video Girl Ai, you've seen the part where Ai gets taken back by her maker as defective. Not pretty stuff to read, since you already know Ai well, and you (if you've been reading this long) are quite attached to her as a character. Of course, since it's a happy-ending shonen romance, the situation is used as an opportunity for Yuta (the male lead) to grow a pair, as is often the case with these plots. Usually the mangaka will throw in something like this in a shonen manga with a romance sub/primary plot about 2/3 the way through the story arc. A slower (shoujo) example of the same thing is the stuff that goes on in Arima's head through the last third of Kare Kano.

A rarer, but recently more common sad setup is the "pathetic" variant. Pathetic, here, is used in the Greek drama sense, meaning "inspiring pathos in the reader." Even Ghost in the Shell has a little pathos about it, but if you really want to wade neck-deep into the pathetic, you can't beat material like Gunslinger Girl or Eden. Takahashi's Mermaid series (which I like best of all her work) is more upbeat, but still definitely pathetic in tone. To make a pathetic plot work, you have to set up likable characters in a continuing horrible situation. This is easy. The hard part is to be a good enough story teller that anybody actually wants to read it. One story I thought that bit off way too much but somehow managed to chew most of it was Kirara. It manages to be funny while still having a pathetic least until the confused, hurried ending.

What keeps people coming back to stories like Crying Freeman, the Mermaid Saga, Video Girl Ai, Eden, or Gunslinger Girl (to use a more recent example) is not that the readers are gluttons for punishment, but that the author has done a good job of creating characters you like and situations you wish they weren't in.

Speaking of Gunslinger Girl specifically, I think it hits you a lot harder if you are somebody's parent. Likewise, I grew up around military working dogs, and recognize most of the conditioning and resultant behavior (accurately portrayed by the mangaka), which just makes it creepier.

Quote from corallein

Random thought: where would this put Grave of the Fireflies? I know a fair number of people that absolutely refuse to watch it because it's too sad.

Well, I'd file it in the same category as All Quiet on the Western Front by Remarque, and a goodly body of Russian fiction (like The Little Match Girl for a short and typical example).

Yes, it's really sad. That's pretty much its purpose as a movie. William Tecumseh Sherman said it best: "War is hell." Takahata designed the film to set up a pathetic and empathetic situation and used the framework to make a simple statement about war, its effect on civilian populations, and the consequences of putting pride and principles above pragmatism. I would argue that when Seita dies at the end of the film, it's a release from suffering and thus better than his alternatives at that point. It's very much like Russian fiction in that way.

Yes it's definitely pathetic. And what I've observed of different people's reactions to the film suggests that their opinion of the film is shaped almost entirely by their opinion of Seita and his actions. If the viewer empathizes strongly, he will be moved emotionally. If he regards Seita as a pompous callow youth, a less profound reaction results.

I think that one reason the movie is so generally effective is because Hollywood (and much of the Anime industry as well) have conditioned us to expect an 11th hour reprieve and happy ending. Movies (and books, and manga) that have the cojones necessary to deny us the happy ending are often better, but seldom big box-office hits. Consider the lawsuit over the ending of Blade Runner to be a good lesson in why really sad movies aren't often made. Ridley Scott finally got his happy/unhappy ending in Thelma and Louise, and I'd have to say it worked pretty well. Likewise, Ai-Ren isn't anybody's idea of a happy-cuddly story, but it nonetheless manages to say some profound (and hopeful) things about love and humanity even as both of the lead characters die. Sometimes you have to risk big to win big in literature, just as in other forms of gambling.

The great pity, of course, is that a movie by Isao Takahata (cofounder of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miazaki's favorite producer) is only available at all in the USA at all because Central Park Media managed to get rights to it. Practically nobody in the USA outside of anime fandom has seen the movie. Pathetic, isn't it?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Manga for the Canon?

Teck-Loh at Mangaforums started a thread asking for nominations of manga for a hypothetical literary canon of manga worthy of study. I'd been thinking along these lines as well - American Comic books and pulp novels get (probably more than) their share of scholarship these days, and are the subject of a number of term papers, dissertations, and thesises. Frankly, if Spiderman or HP Lovecraft is worthy of academic study, a number of manga are far more so. One manga that leapt immediately to mind because I'd re-read it recently was Chobits by CLAMP. Here, revised and expanded as usual, is my attempt at an argument for including Chobits in such a canon:

Chobits definitely qualifies. Features in common with other great literature:

1. Can be read on multiple levels: Magical girlfriend story, Polemic on the nature of being and personhood, story about the different forms love can take between two people.

1a. That Chobits is, in its first aspect, a magical girlfriend story isn't really likely to be an issue of contention. It meets all the criteria in any definition I can name and is, in fact, cited as an example in the Wikipedia article.

1b. The polemical nature of Chobits is subtle, but I think the case can be made that it has one. Chii's existence as an android (referred to as a 'persocon,' a portmanteau of 'Personal Computer,' in the story) is accepted as fact, as are the rights of self expression that humans enjoy in Chobits' Tokyo. However Chii's right to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of hapiness' is an issue of constant questioning, discussion, and dramatic importance. In the world of Chobits, persocons legally are chattel property of their masters. Having been built and programmed with the specific purpose of serving humanity in mind, they generally seem to be content with this arrangement, like the self-aware robots encountered in Asimov's robot stories. It is apparent that there will be no "rise of the machines" in this world. They are, however, at the mercy of their masters in every aspect of their existence including its continuation and the continuity and violability of their memory.

As in the Asimov stories, different types of persocons have varying levels of self-awareness and complexity of intellect. The reader is presented with examples of this variation: Dita, Zima and Chii are very heuristic and self-aware, capable of abstract philosophical reasoning, and display emotional responses stated to be different, but apparently indistinguishable from human ones. Yuzuki and Kotoko are likewise self-aware, and exhibit some apparent emotional responses, but are not shown to display the ability to radically alter their own behaviors (programming) in response to environmental changes in the way that Dita, Zima and Chii do. Sumomo and Yumi (through Ueda's recollections) have much more limited abilities of reasoning and abstraction and apparently no behaviors not explicitly programmed.

The ability of a persocon to exercise apparent free will varies with its complexity; all the persocons except Sumomo and Yumi are shown doing so, sometimes to the surprise and/or dismay of their human owners. In one notable example, Kotoko publicly exposes her owner's theft of Chii, indicating Kotoko's displeasure with his actions. While it is made clear in the story that she is incapable of lying because of her programming, she volunteers the damaging information unasked, which certainly is in excess of the requirements of any such truthfulness-enforcement algorithm. The stated existence of such an algorithm is interesting in itself: Persocons as complex as Yuzuki and Kotoko are apparently normally capable of lying independently as they determine the occasion warrants. That Kotoko's owner felt it necessary to install such a program is suggestive.

So, having created robots that can modify their own programming in response to their environment, feel emotions, and lie, we're presented with the simple reality of cybernetic personhood. The question, then, is do these cybernetic people have the right, or even the ability to be happy in this world created by and for humans? The most complex persocons demonstrate the ability to feel romantic love for humans or other persocons. Why they might do this is not explored; it is presented as a fait accompli.

The question central to Chobits' plot is: are humans capable of accepting this love for what it is and is not and reciprocate it in kind, or are all human-loving persocons doomed to suffer unrequited love? An elaborate back-story of the creation of Chii and her twin sister as surrogate children by the inventor of android persocons is presented. The unhappy ending of Chii/Elda's sister Freya's story illustrates the nature of the problem: A persocon capable of feeling intense emotion can, in the Chobits universe, have its 'heart' broken, just as can happen to a human. Having loved unwisely and too well, Freya pines away and eventually dies, and Chii carries a download of Freya's consciousness within her as an internal protector and mentor.

Here's where we get to the polemic. Asimov's robot stories present us with robots that are only happy as long as they do not too closely approximate humanity in appearance and cognitive power. In Asimov's world, Humans don't want lifelike androids, and robots are happiest, safest, and most useful when they are strongly distinct from and more limited than humanity. Probably the best example of this is in the story, "The Bicentennial Man" (an acknowledged part of the SF canon), in which the protagonist yearns to be ever more human, changing his appearance and mannerisms over a more than a century of existence to more closely approximate humanity. Eventually he petitions the human government for recognition as a human and is denied, because of his immortality. His solution is to poison himself slowly to death, and thus he completes his metamorphosis into the desired human state at the expense of his continued existence.

In Chobits, however, Chii and her fellow persocons don't want to be human, and neither state nor exhibit any indication of yearning for greater humanity. They just want to be loved for what they are and are not by those whom they love. They are also not assumed to be immortal - accidents, component failures, and planned obsolescence all limit their runtime. This difference is crucial: in a very real sense, CLAMP is asking why an android would be unhappy with its existence as Asimov did, but proposes a completely different answer (and a much happier outcome) than Asimov's.

1c. If read casually, Chobits seems to spend a lot of ink wandering around the point. Many peripheral characters are introduced, a number of side and back stories are developed, and, in many cases, these side stories and characters marginally advance the principal Chii-Hideki plot if at all. There's always a common thread, though: All the side stories illustrate different ways humans and persocons can love each other in all the possible permutations. CLAMP carefully presents us with a spectrum of love relationships and their consequences: Hideki's classmate and friend Shinbo elopes with their married cram school teacher, who is a 'persocon widow,' having been completely displaced in her husband's affections by a persocon. Ueda the baker married his persocon assistant and was bereaved when she ceased to be after a hard disk failure. He later falls in love with Hideki's coworker, and after much misunderstanding between them, eventually forms a second love relationship. The love between Hibiya and Chii's creator was so great that Hibiya does not even consider another romantic relationship after his death. Minoru, after observing Hideki's honest affection for Chii and being surprised by his own emotional reaction to Yuzuki nearly being destroyed when she tried too hard to fulfill his wishes unasked, re-evaluates his desire and ability to love her and decides he does and should. Zima and Dita (both persocons) have their own relationship which Zima acknowledges to be only definable by the word love. Kotoko and her owner have a dysfunctional relationship: she, like the cram school teacher, is also a 'persocon widow' in spite of being a persocon herself. Her owner discovers that while she may not be a woman scorned, she is quite capable of expressing her displeasure in ways that cause him discomfort.

The reader is presented with these different relationship models so that he, and presumably Hideki, can see that humans just love, and if persocons are built able to love then they will as well. Sometimes humans love each other, sometimes humans love persocons, sometimes persocons love other persocons. It's all presented as a set of attainable possible outcomes, along with the cautionary tales of Ueda dealing with planned obsolescence in the case of his persocon wife and Kotoko finding that being owned by your person is not a good thing if his affections are fickle (perhaps this is a cautionary tale more for Chii than Hideki).

Underpinning and reinforcing the 'real world' examples of relationships is the story-within-a-story comic book written for Chii's benefit by Hibiya, later revealed to be her mother in a very real sense. It explores the abstract philosophy of romantic love between humans and androids, and keeps the theme of love being what it is and unboundable by societal convention in the reader's mind through the entire story.

2. Since it's manga, we should care if the art is up to the story. Chobits' art definitely qualifies. CLAMP tried very hard to get a particular look into the manga, and did a good job with page layout and panel design as well. Initially, I thought the uber-moe foofy-dress-and panty shots character designs for Chii were the usual gratuitious fanservice, until I realized that they're a necessary part of the plot. If Chii weren't desirable as a romantic/sexual partner, then there wouldn't be any conflict for Hideki to deal with in just keeping her around as an appliance. Chii must be romantically appealing or there is no problem for the story, and CLAMP go well past the minimum requirement on this score. All the characters are drawn distinctly, the backgrounds are clear and distinct as well, an page and frame design are exemplary. The reader always knows where something is happening, who is speaking, and what is happening.

3. It avoids the common conventions (and pitfalls) of the genre.

3a. Chii is constantly trying hard (and generally succeeding) in understanding this new world she's living in. Like Midori in Midori no Hibi, she's not a doll, but a person, and her personhood is never a question to the reader, because we see her internal dialogs with her dead sister. It is, however, very much a question to Hideki. She's definitely not just a foil for Hideki to gaze at longingly - she has her own life to live, her own questions to answer, and woe betide the persocon owners of the world if she doesn't like the answer to one of them.

3b. Hideki, for his part, also avoids the conventions of the genre. He's not plain-looking, an irredeemably bad student, clumsy, helpless, effeminate , or wearing ugly glasses (like Keitaro in Love Hina). He's not a loser. Presumably he can get dates as well as most guys. He's from the countryside, so isn't quite up to speed on life in the big city, but this give him a fresh perspective on life with persocons as much as it makes him a bit of an innocent yokel in other matters. He's got farmboy good looks, and has a definite potential love interest in a (very human, very female) coworker in the early chapters. This is important, too. It points out, as with the parallel stories of the Ueda the baker and Hideki's friend Minoru, that Hideki doesn't choose Chii because she's the only romantic option he has.

3c. The supporting characters are all sufficiently well-developed. Even the bookshop owner seems to be credible for his few panels of exposure.


I think that, in a lot of ways, Chobits is a response to the arguments put forward in Asimov's "The Bicentennial Man" (a recognized classic of science fiction holding its own place in the SF canon). In "The Bicentennial Man," Andrew, the robot protagonist, ultimately can only find meaning and self-definition by denying his robotic nature completely and choosing to look, live, and die like a human. Note: The horrible Robin Williams movie is not an adequate substitute for the Asimov story.

Chobits takes a very similar premise and goes the opposite direction. Chii is decidedly a person, but she's not a human, and doesn't want to be one. Much of the story is about the right and wrong of deciding just what is the place of a person who isn't a human in a human society.

Chobits's message is universalistic: Love is what it is, and it can not be defined or limited by societal convention (CF William Shakespeare, among others). Ultimately, it takes Alan Turing's side in the debate of man-vs-machine: If a machine is substantially indistinguishable from a person you must treat it as one, and you (and your society's conventions and laws) must accept that it may well want to do what people do.

And that is why I say Chobits belongs in any canon of manga.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Dubs Gone Bad (with special mention for Eisner's Disneycorp)

Well, I wasn't planning on posting this so early, but I found myself ranting about Disney dubs sooner than I thought. This from, home of Hiyoko no Gao - my favorite scanslation group.

Certainly the newer releases have improved in quality, possibly because of the growing demand for anime / manga in the west. Another probem with the dubs is there seem to be a limited number of voice actors out there, with distinctive voices (Crispin Freeman, Carrie Savage for eg) so a character speaks for the first time, and all you have is an image of te last character they played...
Yeah, that's part of it, and most of the rest of it is that so often the VAs don't have any range. Most seyuu can usually manage two or three distinct voices that don't sound anything like each other except for the sex of the speaker. Crispin Freeman always sounds like Crispin Freeman, which frankly ruins the dubbed Chobits, for example, because he sounds, um, rather expressive/foofy to be a farmboy from Hokkaido (which is kind of the Japanese analog to Michigan). The original Seyuu, Sugita Tomokazu, by comparison, does a good gruff-but-earnest farmboy - it comes through even if you don't know any Japanese. Even though he's the same seyuu who does Kyon in Suzumiya Haruhi and Yuuichi in Kanon (2006), he manages to not sound exactly the same in all three parts. If only...

Even if the VA has range, the dub directors never seem to bother to use it. Somebody has to actually really watch the anime with subs and listen to the Japanese voice track. Whoever does that should write character voice bios (say a paragraph each) for each character. Dubbing can be done well, but it seldom really is.

Probably the very best dub I've ever heard is (oddly enough) the French language Disney dub for Tonari no Totoro. The inflections match well, and the French is very good. The English dub, by comparison, uses Disney stable 'star' talent with no range. The guy who plays the father is OK, but nearly everybody else is too generic sounding. Using sisters to play sisters sounds like a good idea, but the problem is that the Fanning sisters sound too much alike, which really adds a dissonance to the parts where both are speaking. The Japanese had no such illusions and cast two excellent and different-sounding seyuu to play Satsuki and Mei.

The latest make-me-grit-my-teeth dub moment for me was another Disney gift. The Disney dub of Nausicaa has Patrick Stewart as Lord Yupa, who is OK, but misses the venerable strength of the part, and Olmos's Mito is OK, I guess. The one that pissed me off was Kurotawa, who is done by Chris Sarandon (momma's little boy?), and sounds like an effeminate English pouffe. Specifically, he reminded me of Errol Flynn or Cary Elwes in fruity mode. (note - I'm not a homophobe - I don't care if people affect particular (non-sociopathic) speech or behavior patterns, I just think that dub tracks should reflect the character accurately, which is profoundly not so in this case).

Guys, The character is an experienced warrior and commander who was responsible for the successful reduction of Pejite, which, we later see, was an imposing and well-defended walled city. Just because the he has the usual warrior's philosophy about the changing fortunes of a soldier's life doesn't mean he catches instead of pitching. Watch a Kurosawa movie or two, sheesh! Or just look into history - Patton wrote (bad) poetry, but was about as far from effeminate as they come. Macarthur, however, was in fact a momma's boy. But then he looked and acted like one, too.

It really undercuts the deadliness of the situation when Kurotawa is having his soldiers hold the valley dwellers at gunpoint and gives some pouffy command. The sad part is that this is nowhere near the worst they've done to Ghibli movies. I guess they just can't stand being out of the running for best animation studio, or maybe they just think everybody's products are as hacked-together and undeserving of respect (at least since 1992) as theirs are.

My second-least-favorite Disney treatment of a Ghibli movie (haven't seen them all, yet, so there's room to move) is the dub track for Kiki's Delivery Service (Majo no Takkyuubin - better translated as something like "Broom Express," or "Witches' Airmail Express." They added lots of dialogue. Everywhere. Any place there was a beautiful Ghibli vista and some flying footage, they had Jiji and Kiki chattering at each other where there was little or no such dialog in the original. It wouldn't be so bad if the lovely as usual soundtrack weren't being walked on as well. I'm sure they focus-grouped it on sugar-crazed four year olds and found that the attention spans weren't long enough for ten seconds of movie without dialog... Earth to Disney: Four year olds don't buy Ghibli movies. Mommy and Daddy do. They do it because they can stand to hear and see them played over and over again, unlike most of the crap you guys make. Mess up the Ghibli goodness and you will hurt sales.

But that's not the worst thing Disney ever did to a Ghibli movie. That unique award goes to two excellent films that Isao Takahata directed: Omohide Poroporo (usually rather weakly called "Only Yesterday" in English), and Grave of the Fireflies. In "Only Yesterday's" case, they couldn't bring themselves to release it in the US, even after they bought the rights to do so. It's a hard movie to find in the US as a result, which is sad, because it's both pleasant and, in some ways, more adult than most Ghibli films. Apparently families bathing together and talk about menarch in middle school girls scared them off. Strange - the family bathing scene in Totoro doesn't bother them. Fireflies, at least, got a sufficiently cold shoulder from the mouse that Central Park Media was allowed to pick it up, so you can at least get it here - if you know what it is. Normally, I'd say that Disney didn't want to sully their reputation for "quality family entertainment" in passing it over, but, frankly, there's just as much violence in Nausicaa as there is in Fireflies.

The problem is one of perception. Somebody (or a lot of somebodys) in the management hierarchy at Disney can't see animation as anything other than "kids stuff" not worthy of serious attention by adults. Guys - it's just a way to make a movie! If any movie can be worthy of serious attention by adults, then an animated movie can. Certainly the ideas treated in Nausicaa and Howls Moving Castle, in particular, are as serious as anything that has won at Cannes in recent decades. Most of Ghibli's work is art, and deserves more respect than Disney grants it. It doesn't hurt Miyazaki, Takahata, or Ghibli when you do a bad job on a US release - it only hurts you. And the American fans.

Putting more effort into the dubs for these movies woudn't hurt their salability as kids stuff. Releasing Omohide Poroporo wouldn't hurt anybody, and it would certainly make more money than it cost to dub and dupe. Likewise, getting the rights to and releasing Grave of the Fireflies with a proper publicity push would be just fine as long as you put a PG-13 rating on it. You might actually get some adult cred for the first time since Beauty and the Beast. I'll remind you that adults earn the money and buy things - shares of stock in particular...

What Makes a Good Manga?

Somebody over at mangaupdates asked the title question. There were a number of good and some silly replies. I thought seriously about it and replied thusly:

A manga tells a story. It tells it with both pictures and text. So what makes a great manga?

1) a good story. There's no way around this one. What makes a story good (interesting to readers)?

2) good art. Great art is not required, but is a bonus. But the art has to be good enough to help tell the story. What's good?
  • good page design. If I have to hunt to figure out which panel comes next I'm not going to be as involved in the story. Chobits and Midori no Hibi are good examples.
  • character designs that convey emotion well. In a novel you do this with text, in manga you do it with portraiture. Examples: Kare Kano, Midori no Hibi, and Karin.
  • distinguishable characters. Do something so I don't confuse the male lead and somebody's uncle. don't be like: Love Hina, Fruits Basket
  • consistent backgrounds - you have to give a feeling of place, and if the place is the same it should look the same every time. Chobits and Mahoraba for the win here.
  • good frame composition. Avoid clutter. Whitespace is the greater part of art. Don't be like: Love Hina, Fruits Basket (sometimes).

3) good text. Yes, even though it's pictures, the words tell a lot of the story. Reading manga in translation is hazardous because the scanslators may butcher good text. I scanslate Futari Ecchi and believe me - translations move meanings all over the map. What's good?
  • words that fit the character. If the character wouldn't say it that way, don't write it that way. Would he even say it at all? Should it just be a picture? Some of the most powerful moments in manga have little or no text. Examples: Midori no Hibi, Kare Kano, Planetes, Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou
  • Words that get to the point. Unless the character is supposed to be chatty, less is more. Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell are both bad examples.
  • extra points for a good turn of phrase, but remember - you're not writing a novel here.

Note that I'm not pointing out perfect examples of anything. There are better drawn mangas than the ones I mentioned, and there are better written ones as well. I think the big deal is that if the story and characters are good enough, the drawing and text need to not get in the way. That's all. So the art in Mahoraba, Midori no Hibi, and Ai-Ren for example, is good enough that it enables a good story to come through. Chobits actually tries a little too hard at art sometimes and hurts the story (I think, anyway). Love Hina, contrariwise, is hurt by sometimes-lame art and bad page layouts.

But if you get the art right and have story defects, you end up with something listless like Aishiteruze Baby or I''s. Ai Baby's premise is perfect, and the plot is OK, but the big problem is that the characterizations are too generic. Nobody has personality quirks, so the characters don't leap off the page. To be fair, I don't like Ai Baby's art either but it is a popular style. Compare to Hotman, which has a notably similar plot in some ways, but has much more credible characters.

In I''s case, Katsura had just come off an excellent magical girlfriend manga (Video Girl Ai) which had gone on a little too long, and then jumped straight into I''s, which is the most lukewarm harem manga I've ever read. The art is beautiful (Katsura had really matured during Video Girl Ai), but it's all teenage angst, and it's not even particularly gripping teenage angst (Frankly, Bokura ga Ita does this much better). Most of the time, it's not even really a harem manga, because the other girls aren't really rivals for the (wishy-washy and undistinguished) lead's affections. It's too fanservicey to be shoujo, too handwringing to be shounen. However, if you want pretty pictures of pinup Japanese-ish high school girls in various states of dress and undress and a completely popcorn plot, Katsura has you covered.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Senile Seinen episode 00 Start!

Yes, I'm the cranky old man from the future come to fight evil (or at least boring TV) with my Purostaato-beemu. No, I will not do a "shooting the beam" pose in front of any camera ever for any reason (at least not until you buy me a lot of tasty ethanol-enhanced beverages first).

My apologies if you have not yet experienced the amusement of Suzumiya Haruhi yet. The anime is funny, if a little talky. It's good if you have a limited imagination and need to see the pretty pictures. If you can read faster than most NBA athletes, you might try the hilarious translations of the light novels available over at They're much funnier than the anime, in my opinion, though that may be because the narrator Kyon is probably more like me than any other fictional character I've ever read/seen, with the possible exception of Randy Waterhouse in Cryptonomicon.

So, why am I spreading my egoism around the web, he asked rhetorically? Mostly because I get into interesting conversations involving anime and manga in different places around the web and kept thinking I should centralize the content somewhere. If I'm going to do that, I might as well also publish it, which starts to sound suspiciously like a blog. So I, the crufty old web curmudgeon (when I was your age, we did our HTML in a text editor in a shell on the server and we were
grateful for it!) have finally bowed to this whole blogosphere thing. Ugh.

Well, let's get rolling. Here's some of the content of an email I sent today to a guy who used to be a coworker and is still a good friend, and manages to have geek cred and a life just like I try to have. He was asking if I'd bothered to catch up on the end of BSG S3. Here was my reply:

No, my holiday was not especially nice. I came down with something communicable from "my little disease vector," as I so often call him. Also found myself dismantling and cleaning the burner on the furnace on Easter morning. 25 degrees, snow, and no heat was not a popular combination. While I smelled like home heating oil for the rest of the day, we had a cozy warm house, and milady had the warm glow of affection she gets when I do something manly and resolve a household predicament.

E-chan and I finished up Space Battleship Yamato last night. I'd forgotten how sketchy the last ep is. I have the feeling they were going to do an hour-long show and cut the script in half (Yamato actually had pretty disappointing ratings in its first run in Japan, as I understand it - not unlike Star Trek TOS here). It was really fun pointing out to milady how much descends from this show - it was the first significant (1974) ship-based SF series to run anywhere after Star Trek finished in 1969. Apparently it got wide distribution via videotapes: Star Wars (1976) borrows from it freely (if you've ever seen the Wave Motion Gun, you know where the Death Star's main weapon came from, and R2D2 bears more than a passing resemblance to Analyzer), Glen Larson rips it off almost completely for Battlestar Galactica (1977). Several Star Trek movies and Star Trek Voyager have more than a little of that Yamato aroma as well.

I've got to say the show mostly hangs together pretty well - not bad for a "kids show" from 1974. All the Leiji Matsumoto themes are there - individual nobility, striving against unconquerable odds, personal loyalties cementing the group, etc, and there's a level of character development that shames nearly anything SF (current BSG excepted) done in the US before or since. Example: Sanada - the second officer and ship's engineer (the degreed kind, not the holds a wrench kind - they have one of those with a back-story too) and science officer gets his own back-story show and saves the ship with a surprise (but logically defensible) deus ex machina in the last ep.

Other stuff we watched over the weekend since the weather was so lame:

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (love the Joe Hisashi score, hated the Disney dub job, was grateful for a good subtitle track, added "ohmu" to e-chan's vocabulary).

a couple of showings of Kiki's Delivery Service for e-chan's benefit (added "airship" to his vocabulary)

Several episodes of Nurse Angel Ririka SOS, which is a magical girl show from the early 90s downloaded specifically for toddler entertainment and to explain what magical girl shows are to milady (if you have to watch one of the blasted things, this is one of the better ones). Now she gets the cosplay jokes, otaku jokes, and various fake magical girl characters in Welcome to NHK, Densha Otoko, Midori no Hibi, and Suzumiya Haruhi, among others. Notable item: The bad guy in this show actually took advantage of the long time required by the protagonist's power-up-and-change-clothes sequence as shown by intercuts of him chanting and gesticulating while she did her turn from fourth-grader to Nurse Angel thing.

Two episodes of Jigoku Shoujo (Hell Girl). Wow is this beautiful. Wow is this dark. I'd watch lots more horror movies if they were this pretty. Milady doesn't like it - too cruel and gruesome. I'll be watching the rest because I can't stand not to--it's just too pretty. The Shinto references are thick in this one - glad I watched Kamichu! first.

Two episodes of Simoun. I'm trying to define this one and I just can't really. Take Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, stir in some...Powerpuff Girls, maybe? until the colors go Studio Ghibli bright, add a heaping cup of Black Sheep Squadron/Baa Baa Black Sheep (or Band of Brothers if you don't know that one), but stop before the powerpuff girls start chain smoking, add some essence of the setting from either The Name of the Rose or the Brother Cadfael mysteries (believe it or not - there's even a bunch of Latin), put in a half-cup of Steamboy, dump it all in a pressure cooker, put an anvil on top of the vent hole, turn the stove on high, and walk quickly away. Yes, it's that hard to define. And more amazingly, it seems to have come from nowhere - there's no preceding manga or novel, just the anime. It's interesting, and a number of reviewers have gone drooling-nutso about it. I'm only up to ep 4, so I can't say I'm riveted yet, but i'm certainly interested in seeing how it turns out.

Two episodes of Hataraki Man (translates roughly as something like hard-working man). Slice of life show about the life of a woman (mid 20s) who is an editor and star reporter at a weekly magazine not dissimilar from "People." Definitely more adult in tone than most anime we get on this continent. Amusing note: the giant publishing company where she works is a verbal pun on Kodansha, which is Japan's largest publishing house, and which publishes the real-world Hataraki Man manga in Weekly Morning, which is its leading seinen manga magazine. Milady digs this one down to the ground because the lead is so much like her at that age. I've got to say that j-pop again works perfectly - the opening credit music couldn't set the tone of the show any better. It's a girl band doing kind of a punk/go-gos style with lyrics about working life.

Two episodes of Welcome to the NHK. We're well into the plot now with this one, and Milady is really enjoying it. I carefully waited to show her this until I knew she had enough understanding of the otaku stereotype in Japan thanks to watching Maid in Akihabara and Densha Otoko. Studio Gonzo has truly elevated my opinion of themselves with this one. It's thankfully a little lighter in tone than the (frankly often bleak) manga, but still is pretty true to the setting, characters, and themes. The fansub is spectacularly good - and another great example of why fansubs are better than commercial subs.

Two episodes of Gokusen (live action. Title translates roughly as "Mob Teach"). If you know what Great Teacher Onizuka is, you know what Gokusen is. If you don't, I'll describe Gokusen as Welcome Back Kotter mixed with The Sopranos except everything is Japanese. Good acting, a cast and scriptwriters who obviously read and liked the manga, and Japanese not-overpolished production values make a fun show.

One episode of Kazemakase Tsukikage Ran. This was actually run as an antidote to the showing of ep 2 of Jigoku Shoujo, but backfired - we got the only really sad-toned show in the series so far, where Meow meets her childhood friend who has gone down a bad path in life. Ended up reading three chapters of Fruits Basket to get everybody calmed down for bedtime.

And The Yakuza (1975 Robert Mitchum, Takakura Ken, dir: Sydney Pollack). This was because the lead (yakuza princess) in Gokusen made the comment that Takakura Ken was necessary for a good yakuza movie. I see why. Others have called him the Japanese Clint Eastwood, but that's not fair to him - for one thing he's incredibly buff, for another, he obviously really worked out at kendo every day, and for a third, his acting isn't all of the strong-silent-type mold. Not a bad movie for a '70s organized crime drama. Mitchum makes a surprisingly acceptable effort at the little Japanese he speaks, there aren't any glaring cultural gaffes, and the soundtrack isn't painfully '70s bad, just a little too soupy-strings for my taste. The only miscast was the supposedly-Japanese 20-something daughter, whose actress was a Nisei (American of Japanese family), and spoke English like a Californian and Japanese like one, too.

Oh, and no - I feel no urgency to watch the BSG shows I've not yet seen. I've got the first six shows of Space Battleship Yamato season 2 ready to go, and I remember even less about that one than I did about the first season.

So there you go. A typical sample of my "light-informal" style. Only the names have been removed to protect the innocent and guilty. Vocabulary: E-chan is my offspring currently age two. Milady is my significant other. I deliberately did a lot of series name-dropping here because my correspondent isn't as up on this stuff as I am, and I wanted to help him out. I posted this specifically because the effort required to come up with a good description of Simoun got me thinking that this wasn't bad reading. I was really nice here and tried to link everything out to a relevant wikipedia entry (because they're more stable links than ANN Encyclopedia entries, entries, or IMDB entries).

I'll also be posting stuff I've written for various forums around the web. It'll generally be on the subject of anime and manga. Likewise, I'll probably put some original content here as well (I feel a rant coming on about Disney dub tracks and general treatment of Ghibli movies, for instance). I am certainly not unwilling to review stuff, but don't expect to get a review every time, and I definitely don't plan on doing show-by-show blogging like some people do. More than that? You tell me. That's what the comments section is for.