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Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Youkai, a Miko, and a Rabbi Walk Into a Bar...

Commando Miko Reimu?  I guess.
We still love you.  Note: this is probably
the only time you'll see me draw fanart.
The bartender runs away because he's never seen a youkai.  Poor bartender: these jokes never end well for him.  No wonder Moe was always so morose on The Simpsons.

I wonder how many decades that show has left, anyway.  Ah well, I don't know the last time I watched a currently running show on the television that wasn't Doctor Who or Top Gear, the two biggest English cultural achievements of the last few decades.

Seriously though, Doctor Who has been getting very popular over here in the States lately.  Not surprising at all, really: it may still be a guy going around in a space-time-traversing police box dealing with the monsters of the week, but it's got some pretty great writing, and a very charismatic main character.  Not to mention, some of the monsters of the week are actually pretty awesome.  The Weeping Angels is one of the best ideas for a monster I've ever heard.  But, no, there are actually people here that care about Doctor Who, and the rule of this blog is that I have to talk about a lot of crap that nobody gives a shit about...yet, of course.

Note: I originally intended to write about a couple other, non-Touhou related things, but it seems there was a lot more here to cover than I originally had anticipated, so you guys get another all Touhou megapost.  Sorry.  I still plan on writing all those things, but I'm going to have to put it off until at least Thursday.

The Touhou Project: It's Not a Game, It's a Lifestyle
Well, not really, but the thing about Touhou is that it has a large fanbase, a loosely defined canon, and lots of really creative people.  It's not like something like Star Trek fandom, where there's a set canon and the fans wedge their own ideas into it.  Here, the fans are actively building the canon.  And it's pretty cool.

Alstroemeria Records
You may remember the song Bad Apple!! from my last post.  I did not mention that it was the work of one Masayoshi Minoshima, a house composer who runs the Touhou doujin circle Alstroemeria Records.  A doujin circle is, for the lack of a better word, something akin to The Gorrilaz: a project with a revolving door of talented artists working along the same theme.  Like with The Gorrilaz, this leads to a very eclectic selection of music that can range from electro-house to Daft Punk-esque funky sort of house to tracks that, if the vocals were sung a few octaves lower, would qualify as tanz-metall (like Bad Apple!! itself).  Almost all of it is at the very least good, and quite a lot of it is downright awesome.

The reason this is even related to Touhou is that many of the tracks are based on compositions for the games' soundtracks.  How it works for Alstroemeria Records though, is that they tend to sample in the same way that Daft Punk does: most of the time, it's hard to even identify what song it's sampling.  The new track is so very different from the track being sampled, it's crazy to hold it against the artist for doing so.  The difference between Daft Punk and Alstroemeria is, of course, that Daft Punk normally samples rather unremarkable songs, while Touhou's soundtracks are already incredible.

Many tracks have vocal elements as well, and most of the Japanese lyrics are actually very well written.  Alstroemeria Records also has a habit of having Engrish samples that it's quite obvious neither the composer nor the vocalist actually understand, and have no clue how to pronounce.  It took me a while to even realize that Plain Asia was supposed to be English at all.  In retrospect, maybe I should have known better.

I'll explain more about the strengths and weaknesses of Alstroemeria's vocals later, but even though I'm sure that the concept of singing in an octave below C4 is not completely alien to Japan, I'm pretty sure the news hasn't reached Minoshima-san yet.  Tracks where Nomico sings, especially, seem to never go below C5.

Anyway, because ZUN - Touhou's sole creator - doesn't allow merchandise to be sold officially outside of Japan, there's no legitimate method of buying any of Alstroemeria's albums.  On the other hand, this just gives me a good reason to download them off of mediafire, so yay.  Here are my thoughts on the albums I've downloaded so far, in chronological order.

Pictured: Reisen Undongein Inaba.
Not pictured: batshit insanity.
Lovelight is a very good album in all, even if it has fewer truly awesome tracks than, say, Plastik World.  The first track, the eponymous Lovelight, reminds me a little of some of Daft Punk's early work, with the strong riff and looped (Engrish) sample, creating a catchy and atmospheric track, albeit not a particularly complicated one.  After that, we get the afforementioned Bad Apple!!  It's a very heavy track, even for Minoshima-san, with a compositional style and intensity that make me wonder seriously what would happen if Rammstein's Till Lindermann sung the vocal part.  The lyrics have an especially melodic quality to them, and even though Nomico "Helium Girl's" vocals are normally far too high for my tastes, her performance is emotional and sharp enough that it works exceedingly well.  It's still probably my favorite song from Alstroemeria I've heard so far.  The next track, Magic Girl, is another great reason not to sample English lyrics if you don't know what they mean.  Withered Leaf is an interesting instrumental piece with some very good use of synth and real instrumentation working together in a way that contributes to atmosphere instead of dissonance.  Silver That Can Be Crushed Like Crystal is a long, fast paced instrumental piece, fairly unremarkable except for the fact that it sounds a lot like a dance version of Excalibur from Ace Combat Zero in places, for some reason.  Ultimate Truth and Interlude are both pretty cool electro-house sort of tracks, as is Fractal Night, which is a pretty direct arrangement of Flowering Night, one of my favorite Touhou compositions.  Extend Ash doesn't have much going for it one way or another, except for the strange decision to use a synth choir, which just plain doesn't work, in an album that is at the very least competent at everything else.  How Is Your Eyes Crazy? is another pretty straight forward adaptation of a Touhou composition, this time Lunatic Eyes, but in the translation, it loses the power of the original's epic riffs, which could have been really cool to hear arranged Bad Apple!! style.  As a whole, Lovelight is a very good album to turn on and chill out to some house tunes.

...why is Keine wearing lipstick?  Oh fan
art, how I love you.
Plastik World
It's a pretty fantastik album, probably Alstroemeria's most consistently awesome.  It's a lot heavier as a whole than Lovelight, meaning more frequently complex, stronger tracks, but it's also slightly more pop-like.  The album opens with God Know Will You To Love From True [sic]/Plain Asia, an (completely original) intro track by Minoshima-san, followed seamlessly by Plain Asia, so that it's really very difficult to separate the two.  As the album is seamless, this applies to a lot of the songs to varying degrees, though not as much as on Haunted Dancehall.  Also, Engrish.  Wheel of Fortune follows, which is pretty standard Mei Ayakura material, which, fortunately, is pretty awesome.  It's followed by another track by Ayakura-san, Saigetsu, which is probably my favorite track of the album.  It's notable for having a very interesting call-and-response duet structure between two singers, one in C3/4, and one in C5/6.  It, along with the rest of the album really, reminds me a bit of Kaskade at his best (I still don't know who did the vocals for Angel on my Shoulder, but whoever she was, why the hell doesn't Kaskade use her more often dammit.)  The next track, the eponymous Plastik World, also reminds me of Kaskade, this time of what Kaskade vocals sound like most of the time.  Still, a pretty cool track.  The next one, m9, is a pretty funky Minoshima original that provides some nice variation on an album that, if nothing else, has a very strong and consistent style.  Times, a fast, lighter sort of track, also helps, though the sort of rudderless vocals do little for it.  Following that up is Twilight Tea Room, a...very oddly JPop sort of track by Nachi Sakagami, who as far as I know hasn't composed anything else for Alstroemeria Records.  It's actually a pretty good track, but it's very strange for something off an Alstroemeria Records album.  The next to last track is a light piano Outro...which isn't actually an outro, because it's immediately followed by Leading Phantasy, which sounds a lot like it should be an anime theme song.  Actually, hold on a second...I knew it!

Busy album cover is busy.
"Selections of Alstroemeria Records" claims the cursive subtitle, presumably in a French accent.  C'est vrai, Monsieur Subtitle, c'est vrai, and it seems like Minoshima-san picked well.  Predictably, the first track is Bad Apple!!  Fair game.  The second track is Dark Road, a pretty straight forward adaptation of The Road of the Apotropaic God, and which is probably one of my favorites from Alstroemeria Records in general.  Both versions have very strong motifs and well considered instrumentations.  Crystalize Silver and Dreaming are why I don't like Nomico, but they're still not actually bad, nor are they extraordinary.  Just...really...helium-y.  The vocals for Dreaming are partially based on Reimu Hakurei's theme, Maiden's Capriccio, which has another, more well-known adaptation, Neko Miko Reimu, for which the high octave makes slightly more sense.  Eighteen Four is another track with Misato's vocals, which, if nothing else, provide a nice change.  The instrumental arrangement is pretty blasé for an Alstroemeria Records track though.  However, it's followed by Dolls, which is a far stronger track compositionally, and makes good use of Misato's range.  It's followed, however, by Shinto Shrine, which sounds like it should be playing over the end credits for something, but is still a pretty solid, downtempo sort of track...which is a good thing, because it's also a good seven and a half minutes.  Then it's Helium Voice again for Shanhai [sic] Alice in 1884, another not bad but also slightly less good downtempo track.  This is followed by the very trance influenced Voile, The Magic Library, based on the Touhou composition of the same name.  This is probably the closest Minoshima has ever come to a by-the-numbers track of any genre, but it works.  Another trance influenced piece, Scolded By The Princess, clocks in at nine minutes and six seconds of laid back dance beats, and comes immediately after, so I hope you like FM Synthesis baselines.  Then it's time for more Helium with Alice Maestra, a pretty solid but unremarkable track, and The Last Judgement, another trance-like track, and probably the strongest of it's type on the album.  It leads into another one of Minoshima's piano Outros (which I can't find on youtube), which brings the album to a nice piano and synth string conclusion.

Youmu Konpaku: half ghost, master
swordsman, gardener, and now,
Alstroemeria's most adorable vocalist.
Haunted Dancehall
Alstroemeria Record's Most recent album, subtitled Living Dead <Danceable>, is also, while maybe not their best, in my opinion, almost certainly their most fun.  It's a completely seamless album, with songs often flowing into each other so well that it's hard to tell where one begins and the other ends.  For this reason, here's a youtube video of the whole album.  This is something you could just turn on at a dance party, and just leave playing, and it'd work perfectly.  Like in Plastique World Plastik World, it opens with a short Minoshima original, featuring a single looping Engrish phrase (Only In the Morning Upside Down After Moonlight), followed seamlessly by a song that builds off of it (Ancient).  At least for Only in the Morning Upside Down After Moonlight, the English is actually grammatical.  Together, the two tracks make for a fun, dangerously catchy, and surprisingly complex opening section, and includes some very cool polyphony with Mei Ayakura's vocals.  The next section, Witching Dream, is a pretty bright, funky house track in true Minoshima style (including another helium girl who's not Nomico, and who actually has a pretty good range).  This leads into an instrumental section - the eponymous Haunted Dancefloor - that reminds me an awful lot of Daft Punk's Voyager done Minoshima style.  This is followed by Border of Life, another pretty cool, bright house track, after which comes Little Love Girl.  Note, this is Little Love Girl, not Little Girl Love, which is how I keep on reading it; I don't know if it's me or Minoshima who's subconsciously a pedophile.  Anyway, it's another pretty solid track, though probably the closest the album ever comes to pop.  It quotes Cirno's theme, Beloved Tomboyish Daughter, in the vocals, even though it's not an adaptation in the same way some previous tracks on other albums have.  In fact, unless I'm mistaken, a significant amount of material on Haunted Dancehall is completely original.  Little Love Girl also provides a great example of why you really shouldn't be taking large samples of English vocals if you don't what they mean.  Unless Minoshima-san is really wondering "Where my homies at?  Where my bitches at?"  Which he could be, I understand the sentiment completely; I loose track of my homies and bitches all the time.  Anyway, this is followed by the funky (I've been using that word a lot in describing this album, haven't I) instrumental interlude Crescent Dream.  After this is Sky Ruin, another very nice entry, even if the vocals, while for once down in C3 throughout the song, are pretty non-desrcript.  The album ends with with Your Smile, Your Face, Your Lies, Your Love, a very nice nice track with some very nice percussive synth piano in the composition, and English lyrics that are grammatical and actually mean something (mispronounced as they may be).  I say it's the end of the album, and it is the end of the album as a contiguous whole, but it's not technically true, because it also includes a remix of Plain Asia from Plastisch Welt Plastik World.  It's a much lighter track than the original, but it works about as well.  Lots of glitchy sounds.  Very much old Minoshima in Nu-Minoshima form.

Anyway, there are still a few more albums I haven't downloaded yet, so I get to do this again for them too.  And who knows, maybe Alstroemeria Records will have another one for Comiket 82 (or whatever the next one is).

On Touhou Anime
I mentioned in the last post that a Touhou anime could stand to be very interesting, only peripherally knowing that there were already two examples of doujin produced anime's based on Touhou already in existence, one with a second episode already in production.  This is not the one I'd have preferred a second episode be made of, but I'll get into that later.  Neither of the two examples are quite there: they both have their strengths and weaknesses (the first mainly weaknesses), but they're both very interesting.

The first one of these is A Summer Day's Dream, produced by the independent studio Maikaze, and featuring some very well known Japanese voice actresses.  Now, the article on the Touhou wiki says it's uncertain where the studio found the money and the connections to get these voice actors, but to me it's pretty simple: they took it out of the budget for the animation and the rest of the staff.  Perhaps that's a bit harsh, but the truth of the matter is, despite ZUN's concerns that with such well known seiyuus attached to the project that people would mistake it for an official Touhou anime, there is no mistaking this for anything but a doujin production.  That said, this is still better than a lot of real, television anime that still manages to make even though this isn't the best possible world, I'm glad this exists.

Let's start with what this does right.  As I mentioned before, it has some high profile voice actors in it, and the voice acting is, if nothing else, professional and competent.  This is the level of work you'd expect out of your average television anime, even if besides for Reimu and Marisa, nobody delivers much beyond the baseline of this-is-convincing-enough-to-overlook.  To be fair, they do their best with the dialog and direction they're given.  And that's where the trouble starts.  In neither of the two examples is the dialog by any means great, but in the other example that I'll get to, the dialog is written for real people that fit the basic framework.  This show has dialog written for the basic framework.  Okay, that's unfair too: a few characters - especially Reimu - have moments where they not only act like a human being would probably act, but act specifically like the human beings that they'd ideally be acting like.  They have their moments.  But for the rest of the time, they have the same plausibility as Hetalia characters.  (cue nerd rage)

This is not completely the fault of the dialog though.  Another part of the problem here lies in the animation, specifically, the character animation.  Again, the problem is that these are not the expressions and emotions of real people, these are the expressions of tropes.  When someone is supposed to look nervous, they assume the standard this-is-what-a-nervous-person-looks-like-face, and when they're angry, the assume the standard this-is-what-an-angry-person-looks-like-face.  There is almost no subtlety here at all.  Of course, this is animation, and true subtlety in the same way a real actor can have subtlety is pretty much impossible, and in the end, all animated emotion is short hand for the real thing, but compare this to something like even the under-budgeted Neon Genesis Evangelion, or even the next example, and it becomes clear that something is deficient.  This isn't even counting the times that people look outright - and I swear I've tried to think of a better word, and this is the one that fits it most - derpy because the animators have gone off model.  The backgrounds at least are nice, if not particularly detailed.

All this is pretty important, but perhaps a bit nit-pickey compared to the overall lack of decent direction.  This seems to have been story-boarded, directed, and edited by someone who had maybe seen a bunch of anime before and picked up on a few things about how directors normally go about doing things like setting a scene, without really knowing why they do them that way.  This isn't (I sincerely hope) the work of someone who has actual experience making an anime.  Consider the first scene of the donation box being stolen, after the not-as-awkward-as-it-could-have-conceivably-been expository intro.  The camera pans down onto the forest near the Hakurei shrine at night to "crime happening at night" music.  There is a shadow moving through the trees.  There is a distance shot looking at the shrine, illuminated by...a spotlight?  Whatever.  It then cuts to a frame of the donation box, with the shadow approaching it, then cut to black.  Now, ask yourselves, even if you've never seen an anime in your life, how many times have you seen this exact sequence of shots before?  You know what it reminded me of?  Cyberchase, right down to the music.

Speaking of the music, for a game series so rich in truly great music, A Summer Day's Dream has some of the least inspired music I've ever seen used in an anime.  On the other hand, some of the sound usage is actually quite clever, and this is something that the next example gets wrong.  Using the sound of a distant jet for Aya's supersonic flight ability was actually pretty funny.  There are appropriate ambient sounds for most of the scenes, and very few stock sound effects that I recognized.

In fact, this all probably seems rather harsh.  This is not a great anime, but it is not unwatchable, and it has enough going for it that I genuinely want to see the next episode.  It's not a complete waste of 20 or so minutes.

On the other hand, we have Fantasy Kaleidoscope: Memories of Phantasm.  I've thought about it, and I've come to a conclusion.  You can, and I will, talk about how technically this is a far better constructed anime than A Summer Day's Dream, but the fact of the matter is that this version succeeds mainly because of the charisma of its main characters, but especially Marisa.  On paper, and especially in this version, both Marisa and, to a lesser extent, Reimu, are charismatic characters: they have strong personalities (if so far little true depth) and little real concern for what other people think of them.  People like this are fun to watch, and for a 16 minute adventure, very well suited.

Stanley Kubrick did not direct this anime.  However, the guy who did obviously had some idea of what he was doing.  This guy knows how to build images, how to use "camera" angles, and how to use little subtle things to do some pretty nice indirect characterization for what is, in terms of structure, essentially little more than a saturday morning cartoon.  I can only think of one poorly constructed shot or sequence in the entire thing, and that's the ending of the fight with Youmu, but to be fair, that was probably because animating energetic fights is time consuming, and therefore expensive (and the fight with Yuyuko makes up for it with a very cool depiction of danmaku combat).  There's also some very nice background detail.  Alice, in the ending scene, walks up and sees Marisa talking with Reimu, and watches with her normal cold expression.  Shanghai and Hourai - her animated dolls that accompany her everywhere - however, are ecstatic.  It's not quite subtle (and it doesn't have to be), but it's still a small detail that I highly doubt the director of the first example would have come up with, and it's the little details like these that help build up a living world and its characters.

The backgrounds themselves are very pretty, but what Memories of Phantasm does right that A Summer Day's Dream does not is character animation.  Here, we see plenty of hyperbole with face and body animation, as it should be, because these are hyperbolic people, but the difference here is that this hyperbole is used more sparingly, and to express more nuanced things than the previous example.  The shorthand doesn't say "this is what a frustrated person looks like; this frustrated person is Marisa," it says "this is what Marisa looks like right now; doesn't she look a bit frustrated for reasons that are uniquely Marisa's?"  It also gets points for depicting Marisa's confident grin absolutely perfectly (I use a cropped and resized screencap of Marisa from the anime as my avatar on ACS and Formspring, like a boss).

Visually, this anime works very well, but if it has a problem, it's with sound effects.  You see, I don't know much about who made this animation, and how it was made, but I do know this much: the original had no voices, just the Japanese subtitles, the music, and the sound effects.  It was, in essence, a silent film.  It was only dubbed later by another group of doujins, who, if what I read in the youtube comments section was true (hahaha), also did the dubbing for a Touhou parody of Castlevania.  I'll get to the voices and music later, but if this anime has a problem, it's with its use of sound effects.  For a silent film, there's no problem in having the occasional whacky sound effect to punctuate the silences.  It works when there's no dialog to go along with it, because it's a different dynamic.  However, having Cirno the idiot ice fairy get tossed outside with a whistle just doesn't work when you have Marisa and Reimu already talking away with background music as well.

The music, however, works great.  It's not hard to make a soundtrack for a Touhou anime: just use arrangements of ZUN's already awesome soundtrack.  This is what Memories of Phantasm does, and it's great.  I really wish I could find the version of Flowering Night they used with Sakuya's conversation with Reimu, because it's fantastic.  The opening and ending themes are pretty standard anime faire, but for standard faire they're both pretty good, and they work well enough for the show.  Quoting UN Owen Was Her at the very end of the closing credits was kind of funny though, in a "ha ha, I know this song, but why is it being used here" sort of way.

As for the voice acting, I don't know if any of these people are professional voice actors, but the ones playing Marisa and Reimu do a pretty good job.  Everybody else is on the verge of really sucking.  In fact, some of them actually do really suck.  Yuyuko's seiyuu in particular is pretty hilarious, and does nothing to improve her already questionable dialog.  Youmu's seiyuu is little better.  Still, Marisa and Reimu's do more than a decent job.  Marisa especially sounds pretty much exactly like Marisa should sound, even if she brings little actual subtlety or subtext to her performance.  Reimu probably gives a better one in terms of bringing subtext to the table that isn't made explicit in the dialog, but Reimu doesn't get as much screen time anyway.  This is a shame, because in something so short, subtext is a must if you're going to actually do things with these characters.

Of course, the script itself wasn't written to be read aloud.  As I said before, this was originally a silent film, only later dubbed by others, so there is some dialog in it that sounds sorta awkward when actually acted out.  Once again, poor Yuyuko gets the short straw, and she, along with Youmu get some really clunky lines that seem to be depicting them as card carrying villains.  This is very unfortunate, because Yuyuko has the potential to be a really, really interesting character, and yet, here is some real dialog that takes place between her and Youmu within the first few seconds of the anime:

Youmu: Lady Yuyuko, all is going according to plan.
Yuyuko: Heh.  Now, let's us begin, in this dark and unvisited land, the banquet of the Ghosts.
Yeah, I can totally see a real person saying this.  Really?  Really?  Oh well, at least Yuyuko has boobs, and that's all some people care about I guess.

Anyway, I guess Memories of Phantasm also runs into a bit of a structuring problem, wherein too much is going on where characters just sort of appear for the sake of them appearing.  It's made too much for people who are already familiar with Touhou, for them to go, "hey, it's Aya the reporter," or "hey, it's the Prismriver sisters."  Anyone who doesn't already know who the Prismriver sisters are is just going to scratch their head at the random klezmer band magical musicians floating around the entrance to Hakugyokurou.  This is all time that could be spent doing more productive things.

Anyway, I think the 16 minute run time structure is actually a very good fit for a Touhou anime.  It doesn't take as much money or time to produce, or to dub, and, lets face it, no matter what you do with it, these characters are never going to be the cast of the next Neon Genesis Evangelion, nor is the plot going to ever reach the sophistication of Legend of the Galactic Heroes.  This is as it should be.  Touhou is about these funny, interesting, sometimes whimsical characters doing things that threaten the balance of existence because they're bored, having crazy awesome danmaku fights, then all going back to crash at Reimu's place.  If you build up the characters enough, you can have some really great moments - the doujin manga The End of the Maiden's Illusion is a very good example - but it wouldn't work if you started out to do Le Samourai with Marisa Kirisame.

Memories of Phantasm is not there yet...but it's on the right track.  There is a short after-credits sequence that sets up for a second episode, even though I have not read anything official about one being in production.

I really hope there is a second episode in production.


There fucking has to be a second episode in production, man!

And now for something completely different:

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