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Monday, December 23, 2013

PMMM: The Rebellion Story

It’s never wrong to hope! - Madoka Magica TV
Well then you’d better start hoping some more. - Rebellion Story
Gen Urobuchi is a little bit like Homura, and not only because they both look like they could fuck up your day, hardcore. See, he too had to find a way to bring Madoka back, and he had to break his world to do so. I’ve thought of a bunch of different silly readings you could make of the movie, but by far my favorite is the one where the movie is a metaphor for itself. All the characters live on in doujinshiland doing happy things, but no mere contrivance could make things like that. A disinterested race has put Homura in limbo and are trying to recapture Madoka’s power - bring back the old days for their own benefit. Homura doesn’t want a reset though: she wants to write her own ending. So she does something dramatic: breaks the Law of Cycles and undeifies Madoka.

The Kyuubeys on the production committee started this cynical enterprise, but Urobuchi, like Homura, aims higher. Urobuchi tries to make it have impact, have it make sense thematically. Certainly it’s better than what would have happened if the Kyuubeys had control of Madoka’s power themselves, but does that mean the movie succeeds at what it’s trying to do?

…kinda.

If we take the movie as pure connective tissue from one season to another, then sure. It’s all in place. Homura’s arc is shocking, but she was never a hero, and divorced of the movie’s actual execution, it fits her character. Unfortunately, you have to be in Earth orbit to be so detached as to see why. We have to take it on good faith that Homura has been so desperate to see Madoka again all this time - that her pure love has driven her into impure obsession. There are some good visual hints, but they only make sense in retrospect. The movie simply does not stop to take breaths often enough to drive home the character beats it needed to have driven home.

Part of this is the fault of the movie having to do all this in 115 minutes while also setting up its byzantine plot and finding time for a song about cake. Clearly this movie had priorities, and when you’ve got only so long to work with, and a theatrical budget that was likely twice as much as the entire TV show ever had, you want to use it on scenes where stuff is happening.

But another important cause is also maybe the movie’s greatest strength: the visual style. You thought the series had a really far-out aesthetic? That’s cute. Wait until you see this one. Almost all of the movie takes place in a labyrinth, and it’s clear from almost scene one, because there are little pieces of Inu Curry’s influence in almost every shot, and I don’t just mean because of the pervasive presence of the familiars. I mean the unnatural lighting and color palette, the bizarre mise-en-scene, and all the visual details that make the sense of foreboding leading up to Homura’s revelation so very heavy. Inu Curry put a lot of work into this one, and it looks both otherworldly and completely amazing.

It’s not just the visual aesthetic though. Shinbou did a really good job of making the little things just slightly off. The fanservice fluff is clearly fanservice, but it serves a dual purpose. It’s inconsistent with the established visual language - with the very foundation of Dokes’ world. The cake song isn’t just fanservice - it’s something that should never happen in Dokes as we know it. Shinbou knows what he’s doing alright. He’s not Ikuhara, but he knows how to do expressionism.

But back to the point, because it’s focusing so much on the foreboding atmosphere and fanservice scenes, it’s very hard to focus on what the characters are actually doing. It’s sensory overload. We can’t get close to Homura because between her mind and the audience is the phantasmagoria of an uncanny city.

The other characters get even less room to breathe than Homura. Kyoko and Sayaka get to fight a little, say some lines, eat some cake, and really don’t do anything else. Madoka continues to be a complete non-entity, but at least that’s consistent with the series. Mami just up and disappears from the movie entirely around the middle of the second act. You might be able to write them all out of the movie entirely and replace them with characters from a different show, and except for the fanservice, the movie would be about the same.

Lacking any real emotional impact, the characters actions feel hollow, but that’s not all the movie has to offer. It’s a worthwhile film if only because the imagery is just that good. Mitakihara burning is one of the best things to come out of the franchise. The bus feels almost like it came out of Rintaro’s body of work. Even the ridiculously long transformation sequences are beautiful and completely worth the five minutes the film devotes to them. I was never bored during the entire runtime (though I was beginning to get a headache).

Rebellion Story doesn’t really work as a narrative in and of itself, but maybe that’s not what we should be asking. Clearly there’s going to be more; a movie, a TV series, OVAs, who knows? And clearly this movie is only there to make it possible to use more already existing characters than just Homura, Kyoko, and Mami, because they want to aim for that otaku money. The movie did its job, and now we are only left to ask “where are we now?”

It’d be easy to paint things in a pessimistic light. In a single empty gesture, Homura and the rest of the Puella Magi are enemies, and it’s hard to see past the cynicism. But I’m not a cynic, and I’m not a pessimist. What I am is a fan of the work that results when Urobuchi, Shinbou, and Inu Curry collaborate. Surely they have not run out of interesting places to go - interesting things to say. The movie didn’t work as drama because it had to balance the demands of reviving a franchise, having the characters make sense, and finding the time for a five minute transformation sequence and cake song. But now that it’s over and done with, they’re in open water. They can give that characterization which the movie sorely missed. If they couldn’t make the decisions feel weighty, they can certainly make their upshots hit home.

The original TV show will always be there, a perfect little 12 episode story that wraps up and subsists on its own. It will always be a favorite anime of mine, in isolation from all else. Whatever comes next will be completely different - a new story to tell. And I refuse to believe that just because it’s a cynical endeavor that nothing good can possibly come of it.

Because it’s never wrong to hope.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Marketing as subtle as a nuclear explosion.

The first thing you hear in Gojira is the sound of rending steal distorted into the roar of an unfathomably huge monster of terrible power. Not a single person in any theatre across the Home Islands had even a moment’s confusion as to what this movie was really about. The year was 1954, not a decade had passed since the horrifying destruction of the American bombing campaign, and just a few months prior a Japanese fishing boat and her crew were irradiated by a nuclear weapons test. Thoughts of science and destruction and the state of Japan in the international community were first and foremost in the minds of the audience, and Toho knew it. Nowadays we call Gojira “historically and culturally important.” Back then they called it “exploitative.” And it was. Totally. A close reading of the theatrical trailer may tell us more.

Before we get to that, there’s some groundwork to do. What are we comparing this to? There aren’t really any sources that document how theatrical trailers were put together in 1954 Japan (that I can find), but my own research (watching a bunch on youtube) seems to show that they had a slightly more thematic proclivity than what you’d expect of a western theatrical trailer at the time. This was true both of Shochiku and Toho published films. It’s common to open onto a character speaking about the subject matter, or to some piece of imagery which in some way captures what the film as a whole is like. They’re really quite admirable in some ways. There’s no common structure like what we have now, so I don’t think you could say Gojira really deviated, since there was nothing to deviate from.
Indeed, Gojira is very clear right from the start. What are the images that Toho thought most important to put at the front of the trailer?

00:00-->00:03: Toho logo.

Okay, right after the front of the trailer.

00:03 --> 00:14: Immediately we’re presented with a bit of a difficulty. The shots chosen give the impression of a storm bearing down on an island from the point of view of the people in the midst of if. A shot establishes the force of the storm by showing it blow past trees, and then we cut to show a group of people huddling down behind cover. Another cut, and apparently we’re on the inside of a house as the roof collapses and lightning shines through. Cut again and a man covers his face in terror. On its own, the editing is ambiguous, because it implies spatial relationships between the people outside behind cover, the house, and the man in the house that might not actually exist. And yet, it’s not exactly montage because there is no building of images. Because of this, I’m not sure precisely to what extent I can read this accurately. Nuclear weapons testing took place primarily on islands, and while this figures into the movie itself, I don’t think an audience would consciously look at the images as presented and conclude that it’s a movie about atomic weapons and the devastation in postwar Japan. Typhoons are common enough in Japan that there might not be anything especially unusual.

The strongest tie you might be able to make from atomic weapons to these images is the light coming through the roof, followed by the man in the house covering his face. In the movie, this would have certainly been part of the metaphor.

00:15-->00:20: A boat explodes. A mass of people on the shore of the island stand up and start pointing. The title “Gojira” appears in katakana (the Japanese equivalent of bold face) superimposed.
This, on the other hand, is significantly more clear, and significantly more heavy handed. The reference here is to the Lucky Dragon incident, which took place the first of March, 1954. Filming of Gojira began shortly afterwards, and the film was released in November. The incident occurred when the tuna fishing boat Daigo Fukuryuu Maru (Lucky Dragon Number Five) was caught within the fallout of the Castle Bravo nuclear weapons test conducted by the US over the Bikini Atoll. The captain and crew had believed themselves to be in the safe zone, but unanticipated weather patterns had blown fallout much farther than predicted.  The entire crew had been given acute radiation syndrome, and the radio operator died of it in late September of that year, his last words expressing his hope that he would be the last victim of an atomic weapon. The incident would have still been in the news due to negotiations on a settlement between the Japanese and US governments.

Not only would almost any audience member at the time would have recognized this imagery, this imagery (or rather, the seeming reaction of the people on the island to it) is immediately associated with the title of the film.

Now, the audience has no idea what a “Gojira” is. The word doesn’t mean anything in Japanese, and since it’s written in katakana, which is a phonetic way of writing, none of the individual characters have meaning either. The only thing the audience knows about this film so far is that it’s about people in the middle of a disaster which involves suspiciously topical imagery.

00:20-->00:26: Emergency vehicles move past a crowd in the dark. “THE FINAL DAYS OF MANKIND” flies into our faces. This movie is clearly not messing around, no ma’am. There is a distinctly apocalyptic and desperate feeling to this trailer so far, and now Toho is outright telling us “IT’S THE FINAL DAYS OF MANKIND!” They really, really wanted to make the audience feel the terror and panic that the editing, imagery, and dark lighting (did I mention that this film is shot really dark yet?) had been creating and will continue to create throughout the trailer.

00:26-->00:30: A man being restrained warns “the light will enrage him!” The audience responds “who is this him?” What is the cause of this suspiciously topical panic? We must know!

00:30-->00:44: And oh boy does Toho let us know. I cannot embed pictures without padding the length, but go look up historical photos of what firebombing at night looked like, and then watch what unfolds in the trailer. It’s uncanny. On purpose. But let’s still dissect this piece by piece.

The first we see of Gojira is his head imposed on the backdrop of a dark sky, walking through a building, the debris of which is falling towards the camera. There is little depth in this shot, which is one of the many techniques the filmmakers used to make their guy in a rubber suit look more convincingly like a monster, but also serves the purpose of obscuring what this thing actually looks like. So even though the audience could surmise that the giant, vaguely reptilian looking head belongs to “Gojira,” it’s still a bit of a mystery, and the focus is still on the destruction.

It follows, this destruction, in a flurry of edits. Walls collapse and massive flames erupt from the city as the narrator tells us how hydrogen bomb tests have enraged the monster in the pacific. Now we’re drawing fully on the imagery of the allied bombing campaign. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are what we think of primarily when we think of the destruction, and the shock of the terrifying and up to that point completely inconceivable power of the atomic weapon was what caused Japan to surrender, but what would have been more familiar to the people who had lived through the war would be the destruction of the firebombing. More people died in the firebombing of Tokyo than in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and in fact, the route Gojira takes to Tokyo is the same one the B-29s took. Gojira may be a metaphor for atomic weapons, but the imagery the filmmakers are using is the much more familiar imagery associated with that, and it’s this imagery Toho chooses to show off to market their film.

It follows, this destruction, in a flurry of edits. Walls collapse and massive flames erupt from the city as the narrator tells us how hydrogen bomb tests have enraged the monster in the pacific. Now we’re drawing fully on the imagery of the allied bombing campaign. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are what we think of primarily when we think of the destruction, and the shock of the terrifying and up to that point completely inconceivable power of the atomic weapon was what caused Japan to surrender, but what would have been more familiar to the people who had lived through the war would be the destruction of the firebombing. More people died in the firebombing of Tokyo than in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and in fact, the route Gojira takes to Tokyo is the same one the B-29s took. Gojira may be a metaphor for atomic weapons, but the imagery the filmmakers are using is the much more familiar imagery associated with that, and it’s this imagery Toho chooses to show off to market their film.

Finally Gojira appears in full view, walking through the city and breathing radioactive flames, as the narrator talks about the monster releasing radioactivity in Tokyo. At this point, Gojira as a monster is fully associated with atomic weapons.

A shot of a burning building is held for longer than normal as a buffer between this flurry of imagery to the next point the trailer tries to hit.

00:44-->01:05: Having made a visceral impression on the audience, the trailer shifts gears and we start discussing the more intellectual engagement of this movie, with a conversation between two characters. There’s nothing particularly special about how this shot is framed or anything, the dialog is the focus. The older fellow says “Gojira is unknown to science; a fantastic opportunity for Japan.” The younger fellow objects “but we can’t just let it wreak havoc.” This is one of the larger conflicts from the movie, epitomized in this exchange.

Oh hey, guess when Japan first started building nuclear power plants. 1954. Eventful year.
Japan uses science-fiction to deal with the question of “can we use this thing which caused so much destruction for good” a heck of a lot. Gojira does it. Astro Boy does it. Space Battleship Yamato does it. But the fact that the first real dialog we see in this trailer – the first glimpse of the characters – is of them literally discussing the metaphor of the movie tells us that maybe this is what Toho wanted the audience to walk away with.

01:05-->01:17: Here, we see the younger man from before ask a man wearing an eyepatch (because of course he is) to reconsider diving even though he isn’t a diver, to which the eyepatched man replies that so long as he’s alive, he may be “forced to use it again.” We then cut to the woman in the background of the previous scene, who asks “what if it’s used for evil purposes?” This sequence shows one of the stranger quirks of the actual movie: that it seems to have not one but two metaphors for nuclear power going on. Gojira is the destruction of nuclear weapons – nuclear energy as a destructive force – while Serizawa’s invention (the oxygen destroyer) is a metaphor of nuclear energy used for good. There’s no reason to introduce this in the trailer itself, however, except to let the audience know even more that this movie is not solely exploiting the imagery of destruction but actually discussing it as well. That said, simply putting this in the trailer out of context, favoring it over any sort of emphasis on character, is a way of exploitation too.

01:17-->01:22: “What is this terrible invention of young scientist Serizawa’s?” asks the trailer as it pans over a generic 50s B-movie laboratory set. I do wonder. It does deserve mentioning that this is the first time anyone’s name is mentioned in the trailer. The characters are just that unimportant to Toho.

01:22-->01:29: Here we have a sequence of images which imply character conflict. That is, the trailer is trying to let the audience know that not only is there the external conflict of Gojira vs the world (but actually just Japan), but also internal conflict not dissimilar to the internal conflicts of the discussion of nuclear power.

01:29-->01:34: But in case the audience had forgotten, we have two shots which show Gojira breathing radioactive fire on a sporty looking car. I don’t think I can really draw any semiotic significance from this since that would probably be giving the editors too much credit, and I don’t think a Japanese audience would react to it in any special way. This part seems primarily just there to remind us of the monster’s existence and provide context for the next sequence.

01:34-->01:35: People running away. Presumably from Gojira. Scenes like this were probably common during the bombing campaign, but what’s interesting is that the editing seems to imply that they’re all running towards…

01:35-->01:46: …some sort of official looking meeting of official looking people in an official looking room. While the trailer has let the audience know that this movie is in some ways about Japan as a whole, this is the first time Toho gives us images of a definitely public body. After the experience of World War 2, there wasn’t exactly a strong desire for nationalistic or authoritarian imagery in films, so this makes perfect sense. The government is fairly useless in the film itself as well.

What’s interesting is that the superimposed titles associate these images with a conflict of “love versus reason.” I’m not exactly sure what to make of it myself. “Love versus reason” is a common theme across cultures and time, and there are some Japanese films of the period which also deal with something like that, but there’s no reason in particular for its association here. Maybe I’m just missing something.

01:46-->01:58: We have images of the military mobilizing and civilians in cramped quarters, the former being “land, sea, and air forces with the latest weapons,” and the latter “refugees fleeing from Gojira.” Some of these “refugees” are seen protesting out in front of a governmental building. Toho seems to want to play off fears that the government may be powerless to do anything to prevent nuclear weapons from becoming a threat to Japan. The movie seems to agree with this sentiment: some dude with a cool eyepatch is the savior here, not the JSDF.

I should note now – and it will become more relevant later – that the JSDF is using American equipment here. There’s a sentiment here that is not precisely anti-American, but is certainly in favor of Japan not relying on America to solve its problems. At the time, America was still very much involved in Japanese policy making, both public and foreign. So this trailer isn’t entirely one-note.

01:58-->02:06: Here, a politician tries to argue for covering up Gojira for the sake of Japan’s standing in the international community, and the official people in the official meeting make a clamor in protest. More text along the lines of what the trailer has already said of the government.

02:06-->02:12: Kyohei tells HIdeto they’re counting on him, as the trailer asks us “can we defeat Gojira?” I think this may be the first sequence in the whole trailer that isn’t in some way exploiting the zeitgeist of 1954 Japan. It’s just a man saying “Hideto-kun…we’re counting on you,” and Hideto responding with a confident “yes sir.” Very ordinary action-adventure movie like.

02:12-->02:45: The trailer’s final few shots are of the JSDF (again, using American equipment) attacking Gojira as the trailer proclaims how the special effects surpass American films, and how much money and talent went into the making of this spectacle. This is fairly ordinary for action movies like this to claim, but comparing Gojira to American films definitely seems like an appeal to the sentiment of the time, especially when paired against images of American-produced F-86s, American produced M2 machine guns, and American produced 88mm howitzers failing to take down the monster, as is made apparent when in the very next shot Gojira smashes into a train.

The parting words: “the year’s most talked about film.” Well, Toho sure tried their damndest to make it so.

To conclude, if you were to ask me how Gojira was marketed to the Japanese moviegoing audience of 1954 – what the underlying expectations were – I would answer you this: “just watch the trailer, it will tell you everything you need to know.” Toho expected a genderless audience of Japanese moviegoers 20 and up who had at least a peripheral knowledge of the day’s issues and sharp childhood memories of what Japan during the final days of The Second World War was like. They expected them to respond to the trailer’s imagery and for word of mouth to spread.

And they did.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Dumb Questions with Complex Answers: What Is an Opinion?


"You get to have an opinion" is a proposition you see all the time on the internet, usually followed by "…but here’s why you’re a dipshit nonetheless." The sense of the phrase is, as near as I can understand, “I will not try to stop you from expressing your opinion." It always seems to have more significance about the wish of the utterer to seem amiable than anything else, and I can even see how you might call it an illocutionary act of sorts. Its usage is very interesting.

It very rarely, however, has the sense that you would understand it to have literally, that “there is a class of thing ‘opinion’ which you are allowed to form (by some external agent)." This is because understood that way, the claim it makes is baffling. What is this mysterious higher being which grants the power of opinions? You? Ishtar? Misaka Mikoto? It seems intuitive that nothing of the sort is the case (but…who knows O.O).

However, I don’t merely think the literal phrase is baffling, I think it’s completely nonsensical: opinions aren’t the sort of thing that can be sensibly talked of in those terms. This is because knowing a fact about the world and having an opinion are actually the same thing.

Let’s look at what an opinion is.

Actually, let’s take a look at how opinions are formed, and then we will know plainly what it is.
  • I have experience.
  • This experience pertains to the facts of the world, but does not contain within it the facts of the world as knowledge. That is, experience before logic is not knowledge. Even ∃x is a logical proposition. x is not.
  • Logic discerns the world from experience. (i.e. the existence of things, the disposition of things, the relation of things to each other, etc.)
  • From this, we have knowledge of the facts of the world. (i.e. there is a glass on the table, I am having a thought, the streetlamp is currently on, etc.)
  • These are the facts. We call them that because they are elementary and evident without much conscious thought.
  • On continued thought, the amount and complexity of the facts compounds. From “there is a thing called the sun, the sun moved relative to me across the sky many cycles, and cyclical things without clear contingency tend to recur unless halted," we arrive at “therefore the sun has a high likelihood of rising in the morning."
  • While inducted from other facts, we have no problem calling this a fact as well.
  • As the facts become more generalized, our tendency to call them opinion increases. Let’s look at a few kinds of things.
  1. "Bertrand Russell wrote many things influential to modern philosophy."
  2. "Bertrand Russell is the most influential modern philosopher."
  3. "Bertrand Russell is my favorite modern philosopher."
  4. "We should read A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell."
  • All of these are things are facts (or at least they could be - they are at least valid propositions), but we are very much tempted to say 3 and 4 are opinions.
  • While 2 might need a citation to be used as a fact in a debate, intuition says that it is indeed a fact, if it is supported by everything else (and assuming “influential" is unambiguous).
  • 3 is clearly a fact about the utterer, but we call it an opinion because it is a fact about something in the world contingent on facts about the utterer. This is the distinction why “I am a human male" or “I am 21 years old" are not opinions, but "I think Mazinkaiser SKL is totally rad" is. Value judgements, then, can be either a fact about the object or a fact about the utterer, depending on what the involvement of personal taste is. We would call the latter an opinion for sure.
  • 4 is intuitively different from 2 because it’s making a normative claim about what you and I should do with our time. We’d say this is an opinion. However, it is the same basic underlying form. If we can derive a goal from the facts (i.e. “history and philosophy are intrinsically valuable," or more likely, “we are both interested in history and philosophy"), and establish that A History of Western Philosophy contains a wealth of knowledge about both history and philosophy, and the fact that we should do things which are in our interest, then it would follow as a fact that we should, given the time and patience, read the book.

First, the concerns.

1) I am treating present sensory experience and memory experience as the same thing for this argument. It’s clear from neurology that they are not the same, and moreover that memory itself is more complicated than I understand. I will not argue this, because while there may be a distinction between “facts about the world known from memory" and “facts about the world known from stream of experience," it is not a distinction of opinion. I do not see where the argument would diverge.

2) I seem to be acting almost like I think logic is known a priori. Else, how can we ever know anything about even our own thoughts, since we need it to even say ∃x? I say that you cannot have experience without gaining logic - that you cannot have a thought x without knowing ∃x. It seems contradictory to think that I can perceive a thought without knowing it exists. This is the same logical form as the Cogito.

In any event, regardless of where we get the logic, we have it, and it pretty much unambiguously serves the function I claim it does.

3) I am handling only cases in which it’s clear the train of thought is logical and correct. This is not the case in the real world. Emotion being a component seems mostly irrelevant, since we’re taking an external view, not an internal one. “I think avocados are da bess" is based on an emotional fact, but logic probably doesn’t come into play in the utterer’s mind.

4) I likely did not cover all the types of propositions that we would call opinions. There may be more that I have not uncovered because I simply have not thought of it yet. I cannot come up with a general rule for opinions, and I suppose that’s part of the point.

So what can we say about opinions?

A definition at this point could read,
An opinion can be either a fact about the utterer in regard to an object in the world, or it can be a normative statement.
This is nothing we didn’t already know, but now we know it more plainly and with a greater understanding for its implications.

What is more interesting is its implication that opinions are the same sort of thing as facts. In fact, things which we may be tempted to call opinions are indeed facts about which we have confusion about the identity of the subject. When something like “you should listen to Demetori" fails to be a fact, it is because the utterer has derived it incorrectly, or is misinformed about an underlying premise (i.e. you enjoying metal).

This sort of outlook, however, is dangerous. You learned incorrectly in school the distinction between fact and opinion for a reason: there’s so much that can go wrong. Asserting facts about yourself while believing them to be general (i.e. “this anime is terrible, you have to be a pretentious asshole to like it") is common. Asserting facts without consideration for other relevant facts that may change the analysis is also common. This is the true issue at the heart of things.

I am unsure if it’s possible to have an opinion which cannot be wrong. Any opinion can be wrong if a constituent fact is wrong, but I cannot find any way for “I think Roger Florka is swell" to be incorrect. Roger Florka may not exist, but so long as the utterer thinks he does, then the opinion refers instead to his own belief. Properly understood, it’s “I believe a Roger Florka to exist, and that according to my criteria, my conception of him is swell," all of which are true for the utterer. Swell is also subjective. Now, it’s possible to subsequently learn that “Roger Florka murders cats" and that opinion to change, but that does not make the previous opinion wrong because the holder was right in holding it, according to his own knowledge.

So,

>Given that deducted facts make up our knowledge of the world (or if you’re Wittgenstein, compose the world), including thoughts.

>Given that without the facts of the world, there is no human experience, even solipsistic.

>Given that opinions are a certain type of fact.

Then it is nonsensical to say “you get to have an opinion," because opinions are necessary to our very human experience.

Or else, Misaka Mikoto really does control whether you get to form an opinion or not, and we should all just accept the fact.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Sillypunk: Cyber City Oedo 808

Last night* I saw a film called Frances Ha. As the first twenty or so minutes of the film passed, I said to myself, "I'm gonna love this movie!" As the movie came to an end, I had no idea whether I loved it anymore. Most of that movie's working parts are hard to discover at first, and it's something that really deserves to be looked at more closely.

Frances Ha, however, does not have a scene where she fights a psychokinetic robot on top of a massive radio tower by punching it in the face. Cyber City Oedo 808, does.



















Really, there's not a lot I need to say about it other than that.

Actually, while I love it for its craziness, and as weird as it is to say, there's nothing novel for an anime of it's vintage to be crazy like this, especially one of Kawajiri's. The thing that makes Oedo stand out is that unlike many (or even most) anime of that sort, Oedo is unironically good. Kawajiri has a good eye for imagery and his workmanship is very solid. Some anime from that time are enjoyable despite themselves - because nobody really knew what they were doing and were trying crazy things to make up for their 30,000 dollar budgets - but this is good because Kawajiri can draw from that same well of craziness and has the talent to make it work.

I might be making a mistake by associating it with a lot of those other anime though, because despite the punched-up Manga UK dub, it's actually not nearly as violent or lewd as a lot of its contemporaries, including Kawajiri's other work. While there's certainly blood, and the heroes are criminals, it's actually not that dark. It's not misanthropic, it's not misogynistic, its heroes are likable, and there's never any real risk of the heroes dying. As far as anime of its ilk go, you could almost call it a lighthearted adventure.

One of the things that makes it work is the Manga Entertainment dub. Since this was the period when publishers saw anime's biggest obstacle being the age ghetto, Manga overcompensated by inflating the age rating with added profanity completely absent in the original Japanese script. The result, in this case, is not strictly a good dub, but in a lot of ways it is a good script rewrite. Here's a line from the original Japanese with its subtitle script translation.

「長谷川十蔵、心配すんな。あんたの思う壺にはまってやらあ」// Don't worry Hasegawa, I'm swallowing your bait.
Here's the dub line.
"Okay, okay, I don't wanna buck the trend. I accept your most generous goddam offer."
Now to be fair, the subtitle script doesn't really capture the spirit of the original.「あんたの思う壺にはまってやらあ」is a hell of a lot more brusk than "I'm swallowing your bait," but even so, the English line is just plain better. Even if the dub is ridiculous, it's still by far the most enjoyable way to watch the OVA.

So where does this leave Cyber City Oedo 808 standing?

On a space elevator, fighting robodogs that fire lazors from their maws.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have the sudden urge to read the Cyberpunk 2020 SRD again.

*not actually last night anymore

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

This Is Why I Don't Do Ratings: Star Trek Into Darkness

I am having a very difficult time talking about this movie, because I find myself constantly reassuring people that I actually did enjoy it. It’s true, but maybe you shouldn’t have any reason to believe me, because as I watched the movie, every single observation that occurred to me was negative. I agree with Tarantino when he says “never hate a movie,” but that doesn’t stop me from saying that this movie is actually pretty terrible.

So how do I reconcile all this?


















(by the way, there will be spoilers, if you care about those)

The first sequences we get in this movie are of Kirk and McCoy running across a vibrant red landscape. This opening is effective because of the punchy character interaction and flurry of images which give us something interesting to look at every few seconds.

The problem is that this movie never stops running. It never pauses to take even a single breath of air and keeps on running with more or less the same character dynamics, same editing style, and the same cramped framing right up until the end credits. I feel as though the film is yelling “I’m late, I’m late” as it passes by, leaving only a vague impression of a movie.

Khan’s character helps illustrate what I mean. The idea that he’s evil is telegraphed by camera angle and musical cues before the second act even begins. How do we know he’s evil? We don’t even have any idea of what he plans to do from one scene to the next, and the only thing Khan actually does is look intensely into the middle distance. He does nothing else, because the movie doesn’t dwell on any one scene - or even one shot - long enough to give us much information.

Part of this is the writing’s fault. In fact, most of what’s wrong with this film can be found in the script, because while the characters themselves are entertaining, the actual character writing is very, very lazy. I had trouble not giggling in the theatre during the first act while Kirk and Pike basically talked about each others character in the guise of having an argument. It’s easy not to notice it sometimes because the editing and acting is so out-there that you almost don’t notice what anyone is actually saying - as if what they’re actually saying isn’t important.

It’s not that the script doesn’t try to do some interesting things. Kirk and Spock discover some things about how each other face death, and about their characters, and those were some of the strongest moments in the movie for me. They’re interesting thoughts. It’s just that the movie doesn’t seem to have any time to dwell on them before it’s all swept up again in the overall plot, and overall, the script really doesn’t do much with the characters which isn’t strictly required by the plot itself.

On the other hand, maybe I’m not being fair. Star Trek is a latter day tentpole action movie, and when you’re making a film to those specifications, you can either have your characters be complete milquetoasts with guns, or vibrant but very broad. This movie, like The Avengers, goes for the broad approach, and it works. Orci and Kurtzman assembled some good actors, and JJ knew what to do with them. I don’t think any movie ever chooses to have boring characters, but the new Star Trek franchise seems to have chosen not to.

The plot itself, it seems, is concerned largely with connecting its action set pieces in a way that makes sense from moment to moment (and tries to make a statement about the war on terror, because that’s what smart movies do I guess). I don’t ask that a movie have a plot that makes sense, but the problem is that it informs the decisions characters make, and makes things feel inorganic. Characters end up doing things and showing up in places out of convenience and since nobody in the movie seems to notice how weird everything is, it takes a while for it to register with the viewer as well why everything feels like it’s taking place in some kind of weird, lens flare filled dream.

As much as it’s easy to make fun of the lens flare, I do think JJ Abrams can be a good director, but this movie is jarring visually, and it’s not just the editing. Simple sequences of characters walking or talking are shot at weird angles, and there are precious few anchoring shots to be had. Everything is very tight and very dramatic, and it’s all very weird and sometimes disorienting. The action sequences especially fall into the category of films that try to use disorienting montage to convey urgency a la Saving Private Ryan or The Bourne Trilogy without realizing the things that made it work in those films. They’re not exiting, they’re just there.

Some of the film’s most effective imagery is the imagery that it borrows from The Wrath of Khan, which also helps because this is also the point where the movie slows down the most. When Kirk dies a dramatic death after fixing the warp core (by kicking it a lot - I kid you not), the movie actually succeeded in making me feel something. It’s a good moment until the dramatic music starts and the sound fades out. After that, it’s just a matter of waiting until Spock has a fight scene with Khan and they bring Kirk back with Khan’s blood (which is telegraphed rather obviously towards the end of Act 2).

So the one most sincere moment in the film is cheap and kinda manipulative, even if it is effective. That alone is something praiseworthy, I guess. I don’t fault films for being “manipulative,” though on its own, I don’t think it makes a movie. It does not make this movie, in the end.

I guess I can sum up how Star Trek Into Darkness went for me like this: I sat in a theatre for 2 hours while stuff happened and I wasn’t bored but I had no real experience otherwise.

I’ve written far more than I thought I would, and honestly, I could probably write even more about how it shows how filmmaking has changed since 1982 when The Wrath of Khan came out, but maybe I’ll do that another time. After all, it’s been many years since I last saw that movie. Maybe it’s time to revisit it.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Why yes, they do still make 'em like they used to.

I just had an experience.

Or, I had one over the span of the last few days.*

Sit down, and I'll tell you about them: two anime, very unalike, and very unusual. Second for second, both of them have more great stuff going on than most any show you'll have seen this last anime season.

So let's not waste time. Mazinkaiser SKL was released in 2011. But that doesn't matter. Where it comes from, time has no meaning, and Mazinkaiser SKL comes from hell!

Or at the very least, from the anime section from your old Blockbuster video.

I don't feel like I can do this. I am not metal. Only the metal can write about something this metal. Can I handle the power? CAN I HANDLE THE POWER?!

Apparently, director Jun Kawagoe could handle the power. Here's why. Metal is not in the things that the characters ostensively do. Metal is not Loudness singing about the Soldiers of Eternity in the opening credits. If you want your anime to be metal, you have to be able to handle that awesome power. Channel it. Cut it. Arrange it. Put it into order. Jun Kawagoe could have just shown us a slideshow of Mazinkaiser doing cool things, and that wouldn't have been metal.

No, Jun Kawagoe understands Metal, and his sense of editing is perfect. No shot is held too long. No shot is held too short. It has a rhythm. It flows, but it is not languorous. It's not hyper, like the lame double-petal attacks of wannabes like Dragonforce. It's 80s heavy metal drumming. Powerful. Effective.

But editing isn't Metal. Yasujiro Ozu was perhaps the best editor to live, but he wasn't Metal. You know what is Metal though? A giant black robot with a skull cockpit that has fists which are missiles and guns which are axes, and can inexplicably rise from fissures in the ashen earth itself! That's metal. A shot of a giant tornado glowing innerly with untamed power, framed between massive stormclouds, as a giant robot with spike nipples that turn into a polearm shoots through the gap at supersonic speed. That's metal.

You ask, though. You ask, what's it about?

...uhh...

...there's, like, an island where everyone is fighting all the time, and there's a massive energy generator there for no good reason, and it's melting down, and it's going to destroy the world, so Japan sends these two dudes there in a giant robot called Mazinkaiser to fix it. And then they fight a lot. Sometimes they fight alongside some warrior chicks in toga robes with some sort of weird techno-magic. Sometimes they fight alongside this engineer who came to do the actual generator fixing along with some other guys who crash land and die at the start of the movie, and she also has a mech because the commanding officer died and...

You know what? Don't worry about it. The plot makes no goddam sense, and the main characters can be described with little lost nuance as "cold gunslinger, hot-blooded sword guy, and engineer chick," so that's not important. The script is shallow and nonsensical, but at the very least, it's well paced and it isn't overly ridiculous in the harmful sense.

There's a bit of a thematic statement about fate, I think. This movie is very anti-fatalism. So if you want to take away something, that's the thing. Your one thing. Fatalism is lame. Hey, I'm down with that.

Anyway, if you're in the mood for some good 75 minutes worth of entertainment, go find this. Now's the time when I should say, "they really don't make stuff like this anymore." Except they do. They just did. It's called Mazinkaiser SKL.

Changing gears a bit, Little Witch Academia.
















You know what's dumb? Representing animation with a still frame. I am loathed to pick a picture to represent what Little Witch Academia is. Luckily for you and me, I don't have to. Trigger, bless their divine animator souls, has uploaded the short in 1080p with English subs on their site. Here it is. Don't take my word for it, go watch it. My words will be here when you're back.

Have you watched it?

Yes? No? Either way, you're here for my thoughts and my thoughts are that Little Witch Academia is really spectacular. It's a labor of animated love in the same way as Redline - an animator's animation. One of the reasons animation became viable as a niche industry is the idea of limited animation: that you don't have to exaggerate models, or try to replicate the fluidity of live action, or have so many moving elements in a scene at a time. You could have still frames and individually animated elements and have it still look OK.

Trigger was having none of that.

See, Little Witch Academia is a contribution to a program called Anime Mirai: a program funded by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs to train and promote the works of new animators (read: help keep the anime industry from dying off because of terrible wages and stressful work). This short is a chance for the new (and old) talent at Trigger to show off all their enthusiasm and talent.

What they made seems to have a foot on both shores. On the one hand, it's easy to say that the super fluid and exaggerated animation style and very closely played magical school tropes make it an homage to American cartoons. It might not even be inaccurate - I'd have to imagine that these guys were watching mid-century Disney in animator's school as much as Miyazaki or Matsumoto.

But this is not a love letter to American cartoons. You can see the anime conceptions of magic in there - the emphasis on bravado and soul. You can definitely see the influence of years of magical girl and moe anime in the characters and setting (all girls, all the time), and in the way they interact. It doesn't feel like almost any other anime I've ever seen, but it still feels like anime.

Don't get the wrong idea. Trigger didn't put this on celluloid because they like drawing cute girls. Trigger put this on celluloid because they like drawing. Certainly, not because they like writing. It would be unfair to call the writing in this short bad. It's not. Some of the banter is quite nice and plays off the animation well. Despite being about as shallow as a koi pond and questionably acted as well, these characters have charisma. All of the other elements are handled competently, and little more.

It is, however, a very trivial anime if you're looking for anything except a light 26 minute visual nosh. However, I must say, if you really are going into something called "Little Witch Academia" looking for Goethe, I question your judgement and sanity as a fellow fan of Japanese cartoons. Little Witch Academia is Shining Chariot: panache and wonder - seemingly shallow and easily dismissed - yet actually deeply important to the continued survival of the anime industry. Anime desperately needs its gene pool mixed up a little.

Seems like our hope for the future just got re-affirmed.


*Actually, weeks. This post got pushed way back. So now I can also recommend to you another Anime Mirai short: Death Billiards. Go check that out too.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cool Cinema in 2012

I think this is my third time re-writing this damnable thing. Be published and gone from my thoughts, vile list!

I originally intended to write a huge thing about film in 2012, but I ran into two problems. First of all, I didn't have the time or motivation to do so. The second problem was that I didn't really see enough films this year to do it with any sort of conviction. I didn't see Holy Motors, I didn't see The Raid: Redemption, and I didn't see The Master, as well as any number of smaller art house films that are probably better pieces of film than almost anything actually on my list, which, when you come down to it, is pretty pop. My excuse is that I'm only really home during the summer, so all I see are summer films.

Given that and since this was a bit of a "yeah, that was decent" sort of year to me, this is a top seven, not top ten. Some runners up were Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Avengers, Argo, Lincoln, and Skyfall.

⑦ Life of Pi
I wasn't going into this film expecting anything great. I expected bromides. I got some of that. It's not as much a film for old white people to feel pan-cultural as I initially feared, but I still do find the milquetoast audience surrogate character to be unneeded and undercutting. I am giving a terrible impression by saying these things right off though, because the rest of the film is so extremely pretty. It is a vibrant film, not just in color, but in the way it uses motion and depth. Ang Lee uses 3d the same way that a lot of American animators use animation. Life of Pi is a film with a great sense for visual space, and that is its main appeal. I do not find Pi's journey especially engaging, or his philosophy interesting, but I like Ebert do appreciate how the film does not "romanticize the tiger." Doing so would ruin the metaphor. Such as it is.

Not Hobbes.

⑥ The Hobbit: An Unexpected 
I don't find it nearly as difficult as I should to put this on my list. It's not a very good film. I might simply be projecting my love and nostalgia for the Lord of the Rings onto The Hobbit, but despite the film being in all honesty a mess, I enjoyed watching this mess. I can diagnose why it's a bad film - it tries to follow the book too closely in structure but makes a half-hearted attempt at making it fit the Hollywood model in terms of characters - but I can't give a general diagnosis for why it still works despite of it. I'd have to tell you about those few vignettes and scenes in the film that hit exactly the right stride and made the rest worth it. I loved how the conversation with the First Age Gang about the Morgul sword played out. I loved the feeling of weight and power the rock giants had. I think the film could have ended on that shot of Erebor in the distance, and I would have been more than happy. The Hobbit does not always hit its stride, but when it does, it hits it quite well.

A hobbit far away from home.
⑤ The Grey
I am not sure why this is up so high on my list. But it is. Maybe I like this film less in retrospect. I'm not sure, but I do know that The Grey gives us something rather uncommon. Liam Neeson's character is badass, but he's a quiet, complicated sort of badass. Middle-aged, working an anonymous job for a faceless company, his skill is made of years of experience. Our protagonist is not emotive, but emotional - he stops short of a suicide attempt within the first few minutes of the film, but he is quietly depressed for relatable, "my wife is dead and I have wasted most of my life" sorts of reasons. Our fellow survivors are equally humanized and characterized in an equally quiet sort of way. Never is the film melodramatic because it's scared it won't get a reaction from us, or that it won't get its point across. Neither is it a work of genius. As I described it above, this film would be Oscar worthy, but parts of it are there in concept but don't work in execution. A lot of the repeated motifs about the guy's wife and childhood are cheesy and dumb and doesn't deserve to be repeated ad-nauseum to us, but I still have a lot of respect for being an action movie that feels so very much unlike a modern action movie.

A wise and complicated badass.
④ Django Unchained
In retrospect, this film suffers just from its having to be compared to Inglorious Basterds. I recognize that as a film, Django might be more important just for its complete evisceration of how the American South is glorified, but I found it lacking in the same charisma that Inglorious Basterds had. Nonetheless, I'm writing this because I enjoyed the film, and it is up very high on my list for a reason. I'm not sure what I should say. Tarantino has a pitch-perfect grasp of visual vocabulary, of how cinema works, and it's not surprising that it's good. Add his own personality to the near flawless technical filmmaking, and I find it difficult to believe that this film could have ever been bad. All the actors give charismatic and entirely non-naturalistic performances (nobody ever thinks for a second that they aren't in a movie, and they don't care), and are super fun to watch, even given the terrible things those characters sometimes do. Standard 20 year old film guy opinion of a Tarantino film: completed.

German dentist + former slave
③ Zero Dark Thirty
I saw Argo. I enjoyed it. Originally, it was on the list, but it got cut due to budgetary restrictions. Also, because I couldn't think of anything interesting to say about it, because when I take a step back and really think about exactly what it was in Argo that I really liked, I found that I was at a bit of a loss. I liked Aflek's 80s hair, I liked how it built suspense, and I liked how it felt fairly mature. Yet, it has that Hollywood soul where I can't quite loose myself in the puppet show because I can see the strings too well.

I don't respect it nearly as much as I do Zero Dark Thirty, which has a soul very much of its own. Zero Dark Thirty is a brave movie. Zero Dark Thirty is not scared that it isn't showing the whole sociopolitical picture, which it feels no real need to show. It is not scared of torture, which it feels no need to address. Zero Dark Thirty cares about a professional woman obsessed with finding Bin Laden, and how she did it. Zero Dark Thirty barely even cares about the character herself. She's directionless once she gets on the C-130 to go back home. Even in the end, the film isn't very intimate with her. It doesn't care if we feel anything - the audience can choose to feel what it will about her ambivalence. Of course, the audience does feel, and it feels quite a lot, because the character is great and the story fascinating. I guess its distance makes it impersonal, but it's never ever cold the same way something like 2001 is cold. The film is just too exiting for that. The third act drops everything to show us the actual operation to kill Bin Laden, and even though this should be a bad choice, it works. Really well.

Maya: CIA agent and hikikomori.

② Moonrise Kingdom
I couldn't care less about two kids and their Newberry-winning coming-of-age story. If Moonrise Kingdom were the sort of book we read in middle school, I would have hated the crap out of it. Books like that feel phony. Something deep in me rejects it like a bad blood transfusion.

Unless, of course, it's by Wes Anderson.

Unlike all those other stories, this film convinced me that the characters have some emotion in them that isn't prescribed by the story. It gives me something to tell me that they're human. Our two kids are seriously troubled, and I love and sympathize with them anyway. No, more than that, I love and sympathise with them because of it. It gives me these completely abnormal, strange, engrossing characters, and then tries to put them through the coming of age formula. When something in the formula doesn't ring true with our characters, it changes the formula. Wes Anderson has made the most quirky and bizarre coming of age film as he could, and he did wonderfully. And naturally given its director, it has an aesthetic to match. Cinema vérité would have only felt hollow. Cinema vérité would have been the death of the film, so it abandons any pretense that anything but the underlying emotions have to be true to life. How boring would it be to shoot a movie like this in by-the-numbers continuity editing? I certainly wouldn't want to make that film.

And, it doesn't forget to have lots of fun either. That's very important. We're all going on a really cool adventure, all things considered, in this whole life thing.

I'm sure they'll find their way.

① Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Beginnings + Eternal
I am a dirty cheating cheater, and here is the test to prove it: I am already in love with the TV anime series of the same name, and these films are not significantly different, so I could have told you these would probably be at the head of the list before I had seen a single other thing. And you know what?

I don't care. I couldn't put anything else as my 1º for cinema in 2012. With all conviction, I hold that these films are important artistically. I acknowledge that they're untenable for a wide audience because of the artifacts of an insular anime industry, and I acknowledge that they have structural flaws that would damage any normal film, but neither of those things are significant.

All that matters is that these two movies are absolutely beautiful Every aspect of the design from the bottom up paints a whole of incredible atmosphere and intricate thematic detail. I find an almost Kubrick-like level of attentiveness and stylistic fingerprint. Magical girls in magical girl anime often fight witches, but never the things that we see here. When we see the enemy, they are profane and arcane and poetic. It all comes together in the form of a script which gives us heartfelt and dynamic characters, and maps out the course by which they will be deconstructed noble intention by noble intention until they lay a broken mess. Only then are they put back together again a shining new whole. Yuki Kajiura composes an eerie, sometimes dramatic, sometimes serene, always very, very memorable score to accompany.

These movies are in equal parts deconstruction and reconstruction. They are cruel and terrible movies about loneliness, uncertainty, despair, and entropy. It rejects self-sacrifice, it rejects egoism, and in the end, even love is uncertain. Yet in the end, it rejects despair too - and embraces hope. Not through any of the trite and bromidic ways we have come to expect - Madoka Magica earns the right to have the message it does, and earns it well and hard. I recall few things that were ever so simultaneously cohesive and compelling.

I have few pieces of media I like as much as these films. I can never be certain who is capable of getting the most out of anime and who isn't, but if you appreciate good film and are open to occasional moments of inexplicable weirdness, I cannot recommend these films enough.





IN SPES CREDEMUS. IN MADOKA CONFIDAMUS.