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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Disinterested Lecturer - Touhou Music 101

I talk a lot about music from the series of bullet hell shooters known as Touhou, specifically about works based off of them.  Naturally, anyone coming across this on the internet likely doesn't know what a Touhou is or what music sounds like.  This is problematic.  For one, people won't understand half of what I say.  While it's obvious I don't write this with the idea that people actually read it, it'd be nice if any hypothetical readers were able to understand it.  Also, Touhou music is amazing and people don't know about it: this is a huge problem.

So, to help with this, I've put together a guide to 15 of the most prominent compositions from the Touhou series, along with a short explanation.

The ZUN Scale - Menu Music

F A# C D# C A# F A# C D# C A# F A# C D# C A# F A# C D# C will hear this on opening almost any of the windows era Touhou games.  It may not be in the same key, or in the same place compositionally, but it will be there.  It gets you in the mood to dodge rain high above the scenery of Gensokyo - a serene yet surreal place where gods have nothing better to do than shoot lots of magic at each other and drink tea and sake.  It's not as often you hear it arranged, but when you do, it's usually the first track on the album.  For instance, R.E.D. from Sound Holic's album Metallic Vampire.  ZUN says the theme sounds "Japanese" to him.  ZUN says that about a lot of his work, and still nobody really knows what he means.  It's definitely a very calm and airy sort of progression, and as ZUN pointed out himself, doesn't sound much like a shooting game.

Bad Apple!! - Elly's Stage Theme (Lotus Land Story)
While arrangers frequently use music from the PC-98 era Touhou games - you still see lots of Casket of Stars and Romantic Children - few of the originals are within the fandom's consciousness.  They're known almost solely by their remixes.  This is mostly because the PC-98 soundtracks were not encoded into mp3 files, and must be played through an emulator.  Bad Apple!! is Elly's stage theme from Lotus Land Story, but is more commonly known because of Alstroemeria Records' seminal work based on it, and the PV that helped make it famous.  The Alstroemeria verison's riff is actually slightly different: it ends up at the bottom of the octave rather than the top of the next.  Its actually kinda odd, being used to the one that ends in A#6 instead of A#5.  It's also a good place to track the progression of ZUN's style, since according to him, this is like his earlier works from before he began making the Touhou games.  Most obviously, all the PC-98 compositions had to be simpler in structure because FM-synth only allowed for so many tones at once, without as much variety in tone type.

Beloved Tomboyish Daughter - Cirno's Theme (Embodiment of the Scarlet Devil)
Cirno is a simple character, and she has a very simple and melodic theme.  ZUN set out to write a stupid sounding song, and in a way, I suppose he succeeded.  It has a certain air of innocence and simplicity about it, certainly.  There's not much complexity to the composition itself: a beat, a bass guitar, and a keyboard part (followed by a piano part).  A few measures into the main body of the piece after the introduction, the keyboard joins the piano, and there is some minor polyphony between them.  This is a popular song to play on the piano due to the simplicity of its arrangement, and yet, one does not too often hear doujin arrangements of it.  In a way, having such an easily recognizable and simple melody makes it hard to make an arrangement of it that doesn't simply take the song verbatim and transpose it onto different instrumentation.  No matter what you do with it, it'll always be Beloved Tomboyish Daughter, and nothing else.

Locked Girl - Patchouli Knowledge's Theme (Embodiment of the Scarlet Devil)
ZUN wrote Locked Girl to be very heavy despite its fast tempo.  He rather succeeded.  The composition is fast, with a constant percussion part and base, but the melody itself has a sort of air of melancholy to it, as well as the grandeur given to it by its form.  The introduction of the piece with a strongly stated melody rather reminds me of some of some of the more bombastic stuff to come out of the late classical and romantic period.  Certainly, Dvorak loved this trope.  We also get introduced to ZUN's love of trumpets here.  Those trumpets appear in freaking everything.  Locked Girl is known in the fandom both on its own, and also for Cool&Create's arrangement of the same name.  Understandably so: both the song and PV are ridiculously cute.  The melody and feel of the song lend itself very well, being already very expressive and voice-like.  At least, that's what I seem to take from it.

Septette for the Dead Princess - Remilia Scarlet's Theme (Embodiment of the Scarlet Devil)
Remilia claims to be a descendent of Dracula himself.  This is a rather obvious lie, but nobody calls her out on it: she has nothing to prove, and would rather sit inside and drink tea all day anyway.  Because of this, her theme doesn't sound much like a final boss theme at all.  It's got ZUN's signature percussion, and despite the complexities of its many layers, has a strong central theme to it.  It's one of the most "charismatic" songs from the Touhou games, befitting Scarlet.  It's not actually a septette: there's percussion and trumpet, piano, and some other synthesized instruments that don't quite have any equivalents.  Unlike most of his other pieces, it doesn't have a real prominent continuo or bass part, not like, say, Locked Girl anyway.  ZUN says it's a Jazz-Fusion sort of piece...ZUN's descriptions can be pretty weird sometimes.  Given how he writes most of this stuff while drunk, this is unsurprising.

U.N. Owen Was Her? - Flandre Scarlet's Theme (Embodiment of the Scarlet Devil)
Flandre is gonna kill you all.

But at least the last thing you hear will be here theme song.  It's probably the second most well known composition from Touhou besides for Bad Apple!! and Doll Judgement.  It's been spread around the internet as McRoll'd and as John Stump's Death Waltz (the latter was how I found Touhou to begin with), some people never even realizing what it actually was.  It's a pretty strange piece structurally.  You have the intro segment with the rapid fire riff, string continuo, and weirdly non-metric percussion, which goes into the much simpler coda that transitions to the main melody.  It's a simple melody, as always, and a powerful one.  There's a tempo shift as it goes into the next segment, which is several octaves lower and serves as a coda back into the melody.  ZUN said he had a lot of fun writing this one.  It definitely comes through.  It's interesting to note that the weirdness with the tempo and meter creates some pretty big problems for people who have tried to make arrangements of it.  Incidentally, here is the arrangement through which I discovered Touhou in the first place.  It's like Scott Joplin decided to write a piano rag that could only be played on player piano.

Doll Judgement - Alice Margatroid's Theme (Perfect Cherry Blossom)
Kirai...kirai LAABIN~
Dare ga, dare ga KAN BI ALI FAU TSU
Doushite?  Naze kashira...

For doubtlessly a good 90% of Touhou fans, they will feel the urge to sing these lyrics on hearing this song.  This is called IOSYSitis, and it kills untold multitudes each year.  In all seriousness, the IOSYS arrangement called Marisa Stole the Precious Thing (listen at your own peril) is probably why it's so well known, but it'd be one of my favorites regardless.  It's got ZUN's ever common busy piano work, which works with some synth sounds to create some rather eerie feeling polyphonies, that lead without coda into the main melody.  ZUN says that he composed this one with renewed vigor, and that he wanted to emphasize how laid back these girls are as they blast each other with arcane power for fun and profit.  I don't think he quite nailed the laid back part, not with the erie feeling and melancholic melody.  A lot of ZUN's better work feels kinda melancholic, come to think of it.  That, and nostalgic, but this is definitely not a nostalgic piece.

Ancient Temple - Youmu Konpaku's Stage Theme (Perfect Cherry Blossom)
If you were to ask me which composition most embodied ZUN's style, it'd definitely be Ancient Temple.  It's got the eeriness and nostalgia, the laid back feeling, the pentatonic scales, the key shifts, and the semiquavers, all conversing the same ideas and melodies.  It doesn't feel much like any other soundtrack I've heard, and doesn't fall neatly into any compositional category besides romanticism.  ZUN said (I feel like I'm quoting Confucius or something) that it expresses a "nostalgia that is deep within every Japanese and the frantic feeling that arises when someone is approaching."  For once, ZUN's commentary actually makes a whole lot of sense: the pentatonic scale and shinto-like flutes and percussion seem very nostalgic, and yet, I also get a strong feeling of ZUN despite it.  I wonder if ZUN would want to live in Gensokyo...he always comes through so strongly here.  The music helps define the world, so it's very much his world, reflecting his beliefs.

Love Colored Master Spark - Marisa Kirisame's Theme (Imperishable Night)
This one isn't nostalgic at all though.  Marisa climbs through windows and borrows peoples books with no intention of returning them.  She spends all her time coming up with inventive and impractical spells and teaching youkai lessons in respect with her love-colored magic.  When it comes down to it though, make no mistake: she's chaotic, but chaotic good, and her theme reflects it perfectly.  It's got the ZUN trumpets, and an electric guitar part, a heavy beat, and lots of energy.  It's got a grandiose sort of feeling, but it's also very directed.  I don't really have much to say about it compositionally, except that it seems to have a very FM-synth like continuo part during some segments.  Perhaps it is a callback to Casket of Stars, one of her themes from the PC-98 era.  Come to think of it, Marisa has a lot of themes, but this is really the only one you ever hear about.  Anyway, it's rather direct for ZUN - it's very game-like.  He doesn't do game-like often.

Maiden's Capriccio - Reimu Hakurei's Theme (Imperishable Night)
This is the theme of Touhou's other rather dubious protagonist.  It is not actually a capriccio.  Like Love Colored Master Spark, it's a very game-like and direct.  It fast in tempo, and it moves along quite rapidly structurally too.  Unlike Marisa's theme, it has a strange feeling of valor and power that really doesn't feel like Reimu.  She's the protagonist of these games only when people yell at her enough to actually do her job and keep Gensokyo from falling apart while she pretends to clean up the shrine and drinks tea on the veranda. I think it's the fact that it feels like a victory march played in double time, with the constant trumpet melody and simple structure.

Maiden's Capriccio is also a victim of IOSYSitis, with their seminal earworm Neko Miko Reimu.  Sing it with me:

Neko Miko Reimu, ai shiteru! (Cat-eared Miko Reimu, I love you.)
Neko Miko Reimu, nani shiteru? (Cat-eared Miko Reimu, the hell are you doing?)
Neko Miko Reimu, shuran yurari... (Cat-eared Miko Reimu, hopelessly drunk...)
Neko Miko Reimu, muron furari! (Cat-eared Miko Reimu, and aimless, of course.)

Lunatic Eyes - Reisen Udongein Inaba's Theme (Imperishable Night)
Actually, come to think of it, most of Imperishable Night's soundtrack was pretty heavy.  However, there's nothing so "heroic" in Lunatic Eyes as Maiden's Capriccio or Love Colored Master Spark.  It's actually a rather spooky theme, which is fitting for an encounter with an uncanny lunarian rabbit in the middle of a bamboo forest during an unnaturally long night.  The frantic lead-in piano and synth to the kinda hard-rock-ish melody feels like an idea I've heard before somewhere, and not just in other soundtracks either.  I think the defining feature of this piece is how its A melody is a restatement of the same riffs in different keys.  I think there must be something inherent to that construction that resonates with us as being "frantic" or "insane."  Anyway, Lunatic Eyes also has a well known IOSYS arrangement called Stops At the Affected Area and Immediately Dissolves.  It will not leave you singing any lyrics, only saying to yourself "wh...what just happened to me?"  I think this song is the closest I'll ever come to an acid trip.  There's rabbits...and everyone is speaking nonsense...and some girl who looks like Robin Hood if he were a girl and dressed like a nurse talking about suppositories...and now they're playing DDR...WHAT'S HAPPENING?

Flowering Night - Sakuya Izayoi's Theme (Phantasmagoria of Flower View)
Sakuya had a theme in Embodiment of the Scarlet Devil, but this one is probably her better one, even though I hear arrangements of both with equal regularity.  It's a softer feel to it than her other theme, though it also feels a lot more generic in form and structure.  It's got a simple melody without too many moving parts.  It's A segment goes C G F# G F# G A G F# G D E B A B A B D B A B in various keys over and over, unless it's doing the B segment, which does something else over and over again.  This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing, it's just a trait it has.  ZUN said that he wanted this one to sound more human, and at the very least, he made it sound not nearly as noisy and cluttered as Lunar Dial (her theme from Embodiment of the Scarlet Devil).  It's another one of those pieces one doesn't see too many arranges for, except on piano.  It lends itself quite well to piano (I even taught it to myself for the computer keyboard - it's not difficult either).

The Gensokyo the Gods Loved - Nitori's Stage Theme (Mountain of Faith)
In a way, you can call this "Gensokyo's theme."  ZUN wrote this to be a liberal and melodious piece to reflect the scenery of Gensokyo that appears to Marisa or Reimu as they enter the Youkai mountain: a place of majesty and beauty where mythic beings live apart from humans, unused to them.  For this reason, it's a simple piece, with a strong but complex melody stated in different keys by ZUN trumpets and piano, with his usual percussion and subtle FM-synth continuo.  Unlike, say, Ancient Temple, this composition isn't generally associated with the boss it precedes - Nitori Kawashiro.  For this reason, it made a good choice for Yuuhei Satellite to arrange for the OP to Manpuku Jinja's Memories of Phantasm: The Spring Snow Incident.  Given how well The Spring Snow Incident embodies the soul of the Touhou games, it was a good choice.

Naitive Faith - Suwako Moriya's Theme (Mountain of Faith)
Gensokyo has many gods, and yet, none.  To ordinary humans living there, even the lowly fairies are gods, not to mention the human magicians and mikos that can strive even with the real gods.  This is the theme of a god: a rather childish looking god with a hat that looks like it has googly eyes stuck on it.  Such is Touhou.  Befitting such a character is a rapid, childish sounding theme.  ZUN used lots of piano in Mountain of Faith, and it shows up here, doubled up with some sort of synth string.  In structure, it's not unlike The Gensokyo the Gods Loved, except far more rapid and game-like.

It suffers from IOSYSitis, at least, to people who understand some Japanese.  The song in question is Kero⑨Destiny, which turns it into the worlds weirdest childrens' song.  Odd how the life of a several thousand year old god who once led an army has been simplified to that of a child.  There's a lot to be said about Suwako's character in general, really.

Nuclear Fusion - Utsuho Reiuji's Theme (Subterranean Animism)
Utsuho Reiuji - better known as Okuu or Chernobyl-tan to fans - is the most outright "villainous" boss character of the Touhou games, but not because she means to be.  She was a hell-raven who obtained the power to control nuclear reactions and misheard some voice that she thought told her to destroy the surface world.  A misunderstanding or not, in terms of sheer power and dangerous intent, she's one of the most formidable characters in Touhou, and her theme - Solar Sect of Mystic Wisdom ~ Nuclear Fusion - reflects this.  ZUN tried to make it as "boss-like" as possible, and gave us a very heavy and complex piece with trumpets and pianoforte and heavy percussion.  It starts with a descending scale reiterated in different keys, starting strong, and going into an A melody, and flowing naturally into the main B melody: a strongly stated, dangerous piece, aided by the persistent percussion, and yet always remaining clear.  Though they are both final boss themes, it's interesting to note how diametrically opposed Septette for the Dead Princess and Nuclear Fusion are.

Personally, I consider Demetori's version almost canon.  The original may as well be metal anyway.

Homework Assignment:
Now that you've been introduced to the barest essentials of the Touhou musical canon, if you've got another 20 minutes, here is an excellent piano medley, which includes all of the songs mentioned here.  It highlights some of the problems encountered when trying to arrange these compositions, as well as ways in which these problems can be turned into features.

Here are some of the better known doujin composers:
TAMusic: Makes good chamber music, crappy electronic-chamber hybrid.
WAVE: Arranges for a real orchestra, forgets what they were arranging.
Virus Key: Arranges for a midi orchestra, adds faux choir to ALL the things.
Buta-Otome: Makes cool fusion arrangements of Magical Astronomy.  Also, sometimes actual Touhou.
Alstroemeria Records: Makes house, sometimes quotes Touhou and calls it an arrangement.
Syrufit: Makes electronica and engrish.
Demetori: Makes a lot of incredibly awesome noise.
Xi~On: Makes slightly less noise, slightly less awesome.
ShibayanRecords: Makes bad easy listening, kick-ass electronic music.
Unlucky Morpheus: Makes kick-ass Jazz, kinda neat speed metal.
EastNewSound: Makes you forget you're listening to pop.
Sound Online: Doesn't make much nowadays, but used to make really clean sounding electronica.
Sound Holic: Makes lots of different stuff with varying degrees of awesome.
Cool&Create: Makes alternative rock, funny sounds into the microphone.
Tomoya: Makes awesome piano music, awful recordings.
REDALiCE: Doesn't make much anymore either, but used to make lots of really fast techno.
Yuuhei Satellite: Makes awesome PVs and electronic music.
IOSYS: Makes absolutely no fucking sense.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Compound Backlog Increase - Issue 3

Yay, this isn't anywhere near on time.  I started writing it a week or so ago, but that never happened.  I had too much stuff to do.  I still do have a lot of crap to do, actually, and it feels a bit like the whole damn academic sky is deciding to fall on my humble head all at once, but that's unimportant.

To the blog, I mean.

Anyway, this one is about crap I've been watching.  I can't decide how structured I want this to be.  I don't feel much like writing long tracts right now, so probably pretty broken.

Bodacious Space Pirates
It's kinda like this, except not at all.
Well, in Japanese it was called Mouretsu Pirates, but that's boring, so I'll call it by its English name.  Can you believe there are actually people who don't like that title?  It sounds like the most fun thing ever...well, assuming you like fun, and all.  Also, assuming you didn't live through the 80s when people actually said "bodacious;" then I can imagine it being annoying.  Fortunately, I'm a 90s kid, so yay.

Anyway, the show - so far - is about an ordinary-high-school-girl who is heir to a pirate spaceship, and the whole thing is a bildungsroman where...

...okay, if I spell out the premise like that, it sounds intensely awful, and then I'd be doing a disservice to the show.  I won't lie and say it's not trope heavy: it's trope heavy.  It's not a deconstruction either: the tropes are being played with, certainly, even occasionally subverted, but there is nothing edgy or groundbreaking here.  The thing with Bodacious Space Pirates is, even though it's only seven episodes in (eight, if you're watching fansubs or a paying member of crunchyroll - I am not), while it has these tropes, there's always a level deeper than what meets the eye that turns what would be surface level cliches into rather interesting characters, and an otherwise standard setup into surprisingly intricate science fiction of the sort not normally seen outside of literature.  While this alone does not a show make, it's well made, and rather fun in a way that few shows nowadays are.

As I was saying, it's about a girl who becomes the captain of the pirate ship Bentenmaru, a vessel handed down to her by her mother, operated under a letter of marque.  Technically, this makes them Bodacious Space Privateers, but since it takes five or so episodes for her to even come to the decision to take up the offer, I suppose the emphasis isn't really on the "pirate" part of the title.  The show sets up the protagonist, Marika, and her life before being a space pirate before anything else.  As it's a 26 episode series, it has more than enough time to do this, and I think this sort of leisurely pace helps ground the show quite well.  We get a good sense of Marika's motivations and character, and a good sense of the general mood of the show (unless the unlikely happens and things take an Evangelion-like turn, but this show is too tightly produced for that).

I get the odd sense that this is a project that the director and writer got more exited about than it deserved from its conception.  It's undeniable that the tropes here pander very much to the merchandise-buying Japanese otaku.  The opening credits seem like someone looked at a list of theme songs from successful otaku-bait anime, chose some elements at random, and hashed something together from that.  They feel like the opening credits to the show this by all rights should be, but somewhere along the lines, someone with talent got exited and started writing actual characters behind the tropes, and thinking up how the mechanics of future space actually work.  I seem to remember in particular something that happened early on with the mysterious-transfer-student, where with one line she manages to not so much subvert her character type but build underneath it into something still recognizable as a mysterious-transfer-student, yet divergent in some fundamental way.  It's a shame that what and when this effective piece of writing actually was, of course...but it happened, I swear.  I remember that, at least.  Derp.

I shouldn't have to mention that it has a bunch of really heavy handed self-realization metaphors - it comes with the territory, but maybe I have a weakness to that sort of thing in the framework of a space opera.  Somehow, it doesn't evoke much narm bathos in me.  So far, anyway.

It also gets points for not being over the top with fanservice, which, given how in the future, people seem okay with wearing skirts on spaceships in null gravity, is rather surprising.  I can't remember which of the first classic Sci-Fi writers it was who first pointed out the logistics of such things.  Asimov, I believe it was.  He seems like that kind of guy.

The Sky Crawlers
It's a bit like this...
Mamoru Oshii is probably Japan's second most visible auteur in the west, second to Miyazaki.  Oshii directed the adaptation of Shirou Masamune's manga Ghost in the Shell, a work which explored themes of transhumanism and the mind/body problem in the context of cyborgs doing cool things in future Japan, with lots of gunfights and (totally symbolic) nudity.  It partially inspired The Matrix, and is one of the few films that people will go to besides the works of Hayao Miyazaki upon being asked what anime is.  Oshii's filmography also includes the Patlabor films, none of which I've seen, but which I hear are quite excellent.  His films are known for having very sparse dialog, and yet, also for ridiculously dense - and sometimes contextless - exposition.  He has stated outright that in his films, visual elements come first, before story, and before characters.  Meaning he emphasizes visual storytelling and atmosphere to create meaning, as opposed to dialog.  In a way, he's Quentin Tarantino's polar opposite.

The Sky Crawlers is about a young fighter pilot who, knowing no other purpose than being a fighter pilot and accepting his eventual death as a given, goes through the motions of life without much care or motivation, only with a sense of malaise.  As all the pilots, he does not remember where he was a year ago, and likely wont remember where he was a year from now.  The pilots are "kildren" - likely clones of various other pilots - perpetually young, though whether this is because of genetics or because none of them live long enough to grow up is never quite made clear.  The young fighter pilot flies for Rostock, a private military corporation waging war against another PMC called Lautern.  They are disconnected from the rest of the world, waging their war visibly, but never intersecting: only there in the back of society's mind.  There is a nominal antagonist in the form of Teacher, an unbeatable ace flying for Lautern, but defeating him is only tangentially related - though important thematically - to what's going on.  The film is focused on Yuuichi (the main character) and his existential problems, which is conversed mostly through scenes where he and another character come to silent realizations, up to and including the final shot, which is held for a good 30 seconds, and involves the dog standing around before deciding to join the others and walking offscreen.

It also involves cool planes tearing the crap out of one another.  That happens.

Oshii has stated the film is meant to be a commentary on the malaise of Japanese youth in general, but also specifically of otaku who are content to consume entertainment of tired tropes reiterated over and over again rather than living actual lives with real motivations.  As Yuuichi himself says while one may travel the same path over again, it's always possible to have new experiences.  However, I don't think I really have much to say about this, so if you want to read a good analysis of the film's main theme, check out Justin Sevakis' review here.  It is a theme well served by almost every aspect of the film, though perhaps not obvious enough that it'd be apparent to many viewers.

However, it also appears to me that the metaphor of the road traveled down repeatedly, and yet new experiences being possible can be applied to any sort of genre film.  A film which takes a certain framework, with the initiative of the writer and director, can say something new or different while still retaining its shape.  As a matter of fact, I am tempted to say that Bodacious Space Pirates provides an excellent example of this (though I am pessimistic about the prospects of it saying anything truly new about self-determination).  Oshii believes the industry as is to be creatively bankrupt, and yet his own Ghost in the Shell certainly has genre elements, so it's not too much of a stretch to believe that this might be intentional.  All this reminds me a bit of Neon Genesis Evangelion, which frames the issue in a similar, though far more hard-line way: Anno believes that true originality in anime is mostly impossible, and that everything must inevitably be conversed through recycled elements.  I rather think that Oshii would disagree (and he might point to Anno's own work to prove it).

What I found rather striking about the film that I'm fairly sure was not intentional on Oshii's part was the way it depicted - or rather, mirrored - the life of a fighter pilot as it might have been during, say, the Battle of Britain.  The film is very quiet for most of its length, punctuated at times with periods of life-or-death struggle.  Part of the film's premise is the fact that these pilots might be called upon at any time, and may at any time die, which I imagine was not a situation unfamiliar to those of the RAF.  What made the pilots of the RAF different, of course, was that they had motivation, purpose, and personality.

Of course, when aerial conflict does happen, it's really freaking sweet.  Oshii is not a dry art film director, and I am doing a disservice to him with this dry article.  The animation of the planes is videogame-like 3d, in contrast with the flat and ghostly characters.  The use of CG is very conspicuous, but perhaps because it does not try to hide, it is not a problem.  The aerial sequences are "breathtaking" and "stunning" and all those adjectives that people seem to love throwing at beautiful aerial sequences.

Also, Engrish, Engrish everywhere, Engrish so you start wondering if you're really the one who's saying it wrong.

Other Stuff
Seeing it in thumbnail form is kinda depressing, actually.
I was originally planning on talking about Tree of Life as well, but I don't think I really have enough to say about it for a full length spiel.  In short, it's a really freaking well directed film: it captures something deep about the human experience in its imagery and atmosphere.  These characters feel incredibly real and compelling, and the cinematography is easily the best I've seen all year.  Yet, like 2001, I can't help but feel that the themes that it actually tries to converse are rather simplistic and ill-fitting the feat of filmmaking serving them.  While I enjoyed the film, something inside me rejects it at a level that I can't really recommend the film other than as an interesting piece of art, much less call it anything like a favorite.  At least this film has more of an actual structure than 2001, though I don't really see the point in the "creation of the world" scene in the beginning, other than as a rather sarcastic response to the question "why are things this way?"  It's beautiful, but if your film's plot synopsis includes the line "the universe was created," then your film better be about gods, and certainly not a Texas family in the 1950s.

I don't think Tree of Life really deserves the oscar for best picture, but Terrance Malik definitely deserves the award for achievement in directing, and Emmanuel Luzbeki way deserves the award for cinematography, even though it does a disservice to Robert Richardson, Hugo's cinematographer.

Incidentally, I hear Terrence Malik convinced the special effects artist who did 2001's stargate sequence to come out of retirement just to do this film.  I'm not surprised.

Don't you see that releases like these are necessary for
the industry to survive this new market?
Puella Magi Madoka Magica is coming out on DVD and BluRay!  Four episodes at a time.  For 30 dollars each installment.  Over four months.


The first installment (containing the first four of PMMM's twelve episodes) came out earlier this February, released by Aniplex.  Aniplex follows the Japanese model, which is to release shows slowly and at a high price, but with a bunch of collectors items packaged with it.  This model serves to make a profit only off of the ones who are guaranteed to buy it: the otaku.  It's a model that has worked in Japan, and I suppose it's a model that makes very good sense for a market that generally sees anime as a disposable form of entertainment.  However, that does not make it any less ridiculous that a 12 episode series - one that is best suited to be marathoned over a short period of time - costs 90 dollars over four months.  I fully intend to buy this show.  But I have not yet.  I am hoping that eventually it'll come out in a box set for, ideally, not 90 dollars.  However, there is absolutely no guarantee that Aniplex will ever do that.  They already have it streaming on CrunchyRoll, so perhaps it doesn't even make any business sense to do so.  I'm worried that a year from now, there will still be no word on a box set, and it'll be already out of print.

I'd imagine the scenes inside the witches' barriers would look quite excellent on BluRay.  Except my laptop doesn't do BluRay.  Damn proprietary media formats...

Madoka Magica is one of those shows that I often worry about forgetting why it was I liked it in the first place.  Being able to watch it all the way through again - legally - would be very nice indeed.

Speaking of things I want to re-watch, I also still want to see Rebuild of Evangelion 2.22 again.  I saw it in the theatre, once, and my impressions of it were strong, and yet, only of the film as a whole.  I want to watch it again and get a more detailed impression, especially since it was so (seemingly) awesome.  I wonder whether I should get it from Netflix and waste my parents' money by taking up a slot, or just get it on DVD and waste my parents' money that way...

Man, I really need to find a part time writing job on the internet somewhere just so I can have some money I can actually spend on stuff that's not food or school supplies.  Then again, it's not like I could show anyone this blog as an example of my writing, not with the severe lack of effort I put into it.

And Another Thing,
Since I'm pretty sure I won't be crippled with work, I'll probably finally be getting around to writing that thing on Touhou Tonari tomorrow.  Probably.  If I don't decide to do something else instead.

It's a good thing I'm doing a variety now, because this spring is going to be a spring of epic gaming.  Here are some games that are coming out (or have come out) that I'm likely going to be picking up:

- Mass Effect 3 //Well duh.
- IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Steel //So I can get my ass kicked online by people with xbox flightsticks.
- SSX //One of the few parts of my childhood I don't mind returning.
- Asura's Wrath //Once it goes down in price...a lot.
- The Witcher 2 //Well, if I have time for another really long story-focused game.

That, and I'm still slowly making my way through the Touhou games.  I wish I could run them full screen, that'd make it quite a bit easier not make some of the sillier mistakes.

But that'll all be tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Compound Backlog Increase - Issue 2


Okay, here's what happened: instead of writing about the Mass Effect 3 demo last night, I stayed up finishing Lilly's story in Katawa Shoujo.  I had the time to stick to my schedule and do a double post about Touhou Tonari and ME3, but I can write about those pretty much any time I please.  On the other hand, I'd rather write about Katawa Shoujo now than later, since I might forget important things about what struck me as I finished the game.

So I think I might as well jump into this one.  Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, in the magical land of 4chan, a land known to the rest of the Internet as a home to anarchy, trolls, and exceedingly strange people who say incredibly strange things and post singularly strange pictures, there was a man named RAITA.  He was not a writer, but an artist, and he drew this picture:
It was a picture of a bunch of cute girls with physical disabilities.

It proposed that a romantic visual novel about disabled girls might be pretty neat.

For reference, a visual novel is a novel that plays out in illustrated scenes with text boxes, and occasionally prompts you to make a choice that will affect how the rest of the novel goes.

Naturally, the people of the magical land of 4chan thought this was the greatest idea ever.

Fortunately, so did a bunch of people who actually knew how to write, and had the initiative to turn this idea into a reality.

So, Katawa Shoujo is an interactive romance novel about disabled high school students in Japan as developed by people who organized on what is widely considered the place where the internet goes to die.

If this sounds like the worst idea ever, you're not the only one.  However, if you want to read about someone talk about the idea of a visual novel about disabled girls at length without having actually played the game, there are god knows how many people that have already done so.

Here's the thing: I loved Katawa Shoujo (or rather, the one path I've played so far), but if I want to talk about why it's good, I feel like I first have the burden of having to show that it's not horribly misogynistic and awful, but I don't want this to become an apology in the greek sense of the term.  There are lots of those too.  Fortunately, part of why it's good is also the reason why it's not misogynistic.

See, if the main character were a blank template for the player to insert him or herself into, and if the novel were structured so that it was a game with the objective being to date one of the girls, that would be horribly misogynistic, since that would be making the characters gameplay elements instead of characters, elements to be manipulated towards an end.  Fortunately, neither of those are true.

The main character of Katawa Shoujo is not the player, it's Hisao Nakai, a senior in high school who was living a perfectly normal life...until his previously dormant arrhythmia caused him to have a heart attack.  His previous life gets unceremoniously cut off as he finds himself in a hospital, taking medication every morning and evening to stay alive, his friends' visits stopping, and ultimately, unable to return to his old school for health reasons.  He's set adrift in the unfamiliar world of Yamaku High School, a boarding school for people with physical disabilities.  He does not know how to handle himself there, and in the distance, the prospect of what to study when he graduates looms.  He's good at science, and he has a natural curiosity about the world, but other than that, he's anchorless.  The people that he meets at Yamaku will change him in the coming months, and he will realize many things about himself and the world around him.

If this doesn't sound like a self-insert character to you, good.  Hisao has his own, distinct worries, personality, and motivations that come through no matter what choices you make.  No matter what you do, it's in character for Hisao, not the player.

This brings me to the second point.  Like all visual novels, you are occasionally presented with choices of what to do.  It would be unfair of me to try and compare how choices work here to how they work in other visual novels, because I haven't played any other visual novels.  However, I can say this: choices in Katawa Shoujo are never petty things like "do I say sorry or slap her in the face," but more realistic and well considered choices where a real person might have genuine indecision as well.  It's not so much about playing a game as it is choosing which of these novels you want to read.  You read Katawa Shoujo, not play it.  It's a novel, and I will approach it as such.

Okay, now the obligatory apology is out of the way,

Pictured to the left is Lilly Satou.  It was her story that I read.  She's an 18 year old girl attending Yamaku high school.  Her family is affluent, but as of the start of the novel, she hasn't seen them in quite some time.  They live in all the way in Scotland, and she spent several years living with her older sister, Akira, before attending Yamaku.  She's a very polite sort, and her poised demeanor and tendency to worry about others more than perhaps she should has made her somewhat of a mother figure to the rest of her class, and to Hanako Ikezawa, her best friend.  Yet, it becomes clear through her story that even though she is liable to worry about others, she is very reticent about sharing her own concerns with others, even with those she most cares about.  Despite her air of maturity, she admits, in the end, to being rather foolish about that.

She's also completely blind, something that she has learned to live with quite well.  She is not uncomfortable with having to rely on others, but she'll poke fun at you if you for a moment try and pity her for it.  She doesn't like it when people worry about her, which creates a nice dichotomy when she inevitably starts worrying about others, and fails to share her own.

She's a well thought out and realistic character, and the fact that she's blind, while a factor in her character, does not define it.  However, it does bring out certain aspects of her character in interesting ways, and creates for some very effective situations.  For instance, walking to town one day, Hisao had a heart murmur.  She cannot see Hisao, only hear him in pain.  The subtext here is never explicitly stated, but how would you feel if something were happening to someone you cared about, and you couldn't see what's happening?

Lilly would seem to fall very loosely into the "yamato nadeshiko" archetype.  She's well mannered, tall, kind, can cook, and would be considered by the standards of another age to be an "exemplary woman."  This, of course, is very much deconstructed over the course of the story as it becomes clear that she's not a perfect woman: she's a normal person with her own needs and motivations who's really almost as lost as Hisao himself sometimes, only she has a hard time showing it.  It's also worth mentioning the dichotomy of the "yamato nadeshiko" character being a tall, blonde, blue-eyed, half-Scottish girl.  Perhaps this is part of the game's message about outward traits not defining one's personality?  Only in animeland, I guess.

She was the subject of the story, but Katawa Shoujo is not a dry, super serious character study.  It is populated with not only the other girls, but also side characters that give Yamaku high life.

First, all of the dateable characters in Katawa Shoujo fall loosely into genre archetypes.  If they're as well realized as Lilly, I have no doubt they're more than they appear to be.  Lilly's best friend is Hanako Ikezawa, a girl with severe social phobia and burns down all of one side of her body.  Hanako is also a dateable character, but since the two are friends, their paths are largely interconnected such that you find out a bit about her as well.  She would at first seem to fall under the "reticent bibliophile" archetype.  As someone with a poster of Yuki Nagato above his bed at this very moment, I'm quite familiar with the archetype, familiar enough to know that Hanako really doesn't fall so neatly into the tropes as it would initially appear.  I haven't played her path yet, but I'm interested to.  Even if this is the sort of game to have characters that fall into tropes, it's not the sort of game that would let that get in the way of having interesting and compelling characters.  Everyone here follows real world logic, and all that entails.

Rin is another one of the dateable characters.  She's an artist with no arms and a of personality.  She has a very dry, ludicrous sense of humor, and seemingly no connection with the outside world.  She wanders out into the town at night once and stands on a corner.  She doesn't know why, she just does.  ...I think I know Rin.  I think quite a few of us have known at least one Rin in our lives.

Akira Satou: brash young lawyer, or half-Scottish mafia boss?
In fact, the side characters of Katawa Shoujo aren't so much genre archetypes as they are "we all knew that guy" archetypes.  I know an Akira, except she's not somebody's sister, he's a teacher I had in high school.  I know a Nurse: I recently had a dentist appointment with him, as a matter of fact.  I know a Mutou: he's my Logic professor.  I know several Kenjis (Commonwealth Academy was funny that way).  What makes this different from genre tropes?  Well, at a basic level, I don't suppose much.  I can't take that away from the, of course, since the result is most often hilarious, and it does take a certain amount of skill to codify one's life experiences in such a way that you can epitomize them in a character.

For all the research that seems to have gone into this game to accurately depict characters with physical disabilities, the writers don't seem to have even bothered trying to accurately depict Japan or Japanese society.  This game takes place very firmly in animeland, and it's unapologetic about this fact.  The writers drop it for the sake of the story, and it's a stronger work because of it.

On the other hand, certain anime-isms like Misha's ridiculous pink hair are called out in universe and explained: Misha's hair is dyed for reasons that I expect I would know better if I were reading Shizune's path (Misha is Shizune's interpreter and best friend).

At any rate, Katawa Shoujo is definitely the product of people who love the genre and its tropes, but instead of being every cliche ever, it feels almost like a sort of Tarentino-esque tribute to visual novels: playing with the genre tropes, sometimes subverting them, doing them right when they are actually played straight, and ultimately creating something more than the thing which it would seem to do homage to.

Oh yeah, and there are sex scenes.  They flow as logical progressions of the narrative and were written by people who had maybe had sex before.  I suppose that comes with the territory.  If it were a normal novel, nobody would give a second thought about it, naturally, but Katawa Shoujo is most certainly not porn.  Mostly.

It made a very nice contrast with Mansfield Park, to say the least.  Mansfield Park is probably the "better" novel (if we are to judge novels by their influence and depth of content), but I know which one I enjoyed reading more.

Well, I wanted to talk more about the story, and maybe about some of its context, but it's too late at night now.  I might have to write some more thoughts on it in the next part.  We'll see, I suppose.

Again, I feel like I've written too much of a review and not enough of my personal feelings about the game, or even any sort of analysis.  What did I really spend all this time writing, in truth?  Everything I said I didn't want to write.  Oh well.

Incidentally, I want to play this game:

Katawa Shoujo is freeware, for PC, Mac, and Linux.  If you're curious, download it here.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Compound Backlog Increase - Issue 1

I've been meaning to do another issue of Compound Disinterest (or whatever the hell I'm calling this blog nowadays) for quite a while.

Sorry, I've been meaning to do another issue for way too goddam long.

Yeah, that's much closer, I think.

Anyway, I've had so many things I've been meaning to write about, and so little time to do it, if I wrote one huge update, it'd be far too long to read, boring, and most of all, I wouldn't have anywhere near enough time to actually write it.  Instead, I'm going to write something once per day for this week.  Here's what I'm going to try to do, ideally:

Monday (this update): Music. //Get that out of the way
Tuesday: Mass Effect 3 demo. //Yeah, me and everyone else.
Wednesday: Two by this Side, Three by the Other Side. //And, by extension, doujin manga.
Thursday: Assorted thoughts on film and anime. //Including Mouretsu Pirates.
Friday/Saturday: (Riff Club/Good Move Night)
Sunday: Katawa Shoujo //If you want a preview, here's what I had to say about part-way though act 1.

I had been planning on talking about all of these for quite a while, each individually, but for one reason or another, I've never actually done them.

These entries will be much more succinct and blog-like instead of rambling masses of stuff nobody cares about.

But speaking of things nobody cares about, let's begin.

Kokoro Vibrations
Reisen's bangs are in the way of
her Lunatic Eyes.
This was an album I thought that I was going to like far more as a whole at the beginning than I actually ended up liking at the end.  However, I'm not entirely sure this is because the latter half of the album is worse than the first half in any meaningful way.  Rather, it's possible, perhaps, that ShibayanRecord's style may not be one that's conducive to listening to for long periods of time.  I find this rather unlikely, but I have a hard time really coming up with any other decent reason why a circle as obviously talented as Shibayan can make such good - sometimes stellar - work on this album, and yet I can't give the album a complete recommendation.  Yes, all of the tracks on here are good - really good - and yet...but let's see:

Shibayan is electronic, but not in the same way as Alstroemeria or ENS.  Their music is far more experimental in nature rather than more conventional house or trance.  The first track on the album - WAP-WA - demonstrates this in its most extreme form, with a glitch aesthetic that, while perhaps repetitive, is very interesting and feels very cool.  As a thematic introduction, it serves its purpose well, and more.  Autumnal Fan takes this theme and takes a more conventional approach, keeping a very profound feeling, funky base, and building on it a really cool vocal track with fun harmonies.  I can't quite put its feeling into words, but it's my favorite track on the album.  Apparently, it's supposed to be Fall of Fall from Touhou 10 ~ Mountain of Faith, but I didn't recognize it at first, and it took me a while to figure out exactly what parts of it they used in this track.  The next track is Castle of Thorns, which has the same approach to its feel, with similar musical attributes, save for the vocals, which are an entirely different.  Here, Chie Fukami gives an adept, but regrettably high and whiny performance that, while actually rather impressive, I find disagrees with me.  It's seven minutes, illustrating another trait of Shibayan tracks: they're always really frakking long.  Next is a really funny sort of track with a funny sort of name: MyonMyonMyonMyonMyon!  Myon is the sound cats make in Japan, and is also the name of Youmu's ghost half.  Myon(5)! is the track where 3L does the incredible feat of hitting what I think is something like C8 and not being incredibly annoying.  Nevertheless, to the benefit of the track, her part does not constitute a significant part of the track, which headless proceeds for eight minutes of myon to infinity and beyond.  It's probably the most inventive interpretation of Ancient Temple I've ever heard, and Shibayan's clever use of electronic effects make for lots of fun that somehow doesn't get old for me.  (Internet history lesson: speaking of Youmu and things that go nyan, this video existed at least a year before nyancat: know thine history)  The next track - The Color of Flowers Is... - is, naturally, funky and cool, but less profound feeling than some of the previous tracks for qualities that I can't quite place but may have something to do with how the progression and arrangement work with each other.  Here, through no fault of its own does it not feel as epic as some previous tracks: it has more to do with the original: Riverside View.  I think Shibayan may have tried to do something with it that didn't quite work.  Or rather, doesn't start working until about the four minute mark, where all of a sudden it gets kinda epic with lots of harmony, interference, and coolness all of a sudden coming together and working perfectly.  All of this, and the vocalist - yana - is doing it again, and doing very high octave vocals that actually work really well with the song, which is saying something, because it's a really challenging part, and I can't hear any signs of pitch tampering with her voice.  Dammit Minoshima...  Anyway, Candle-Magic of Lunar Age 11.3 (I have to be reading that wrong: it sounds like an Engrish title, except it's in Japanese) is more of Shibayan doing their thing, this time with the ever-popular Locked Girl, which fits their style very well, and yet Shibayan chose to go with a very vocal-centric aesthetic here.  I don't quite understand the decision, but it doesn't fail, per se, so much as it's unexpected.  The only problem here, I suppose, is that it's been a whole lot of basically the same musical idea so far, even despite the slight change in style of arrangement.  Star's Tears (or rather, simply Hoshi no Namida, since it's spelled in katakana) comes next, is a sans-vocal track based on The Primal Scene of Japan the Girl Saw.  Unfortunately, since I can't quite quantify some of the things that Shibayan does in their instrumentation, I can't describe why this track is good, only that it is, and that the ways it plays with the song's rhythm and progressions are really fun.  The next track has an incredibly awesome name: Huge Bunny Explosions.  Naturally, it's based on Lunatic Eyes - Reisen's theme (the lunarian rabbit featured on the album cover).  The arrangement feels a bit thinner than the other tracks on the album, which I suppose ends it on a different note for an album that is largely the same brilliant idea for about 53 minutes.  Here, an Alstroemeria vet is brought in for the vocals: Nachi Sakue (ha! I remembered: it's Sakue and not Sakagami).  She does well enough here, but compared to 3L and Chie-san, it does feel like a bit of a step down.

Anyway, if you liked Daft Punk's Homework, or some of Kraftwerk's less experimental stuff, then definitely give a listen to the album: just not all at once.  It's got one really great idea that it does over and over again in different flavors, and it makes for some really great singles, just not for contiguous play.  A rather odd conclusion to come to, and one that doesn't do credit to ShibayanRecords, but there you have it.

Other Stuff
I got into a discussion of fusion jazz the other day with my dad, and he gave me a couple of recommendations that I have now forgotten and must ask for again (I know one was Weather Report and the other was Return to Forever, but nothing besides that).  It coincided, oddly enough, with me finding the Touhou jazz fusion album Keyboard Cat 4 by Buta-Otome.  I'm not going to talk about it, because I really don't have the time or will right now, but I do recommend it.  If nothing else, check out their version of Hiroshige no. 36. called Dream Travel Journal.  The original is from one of ZUN's standalone albums, Retrospective 53 Minutes.  I need to listen to the whole of that album, because I still haven't, and I'm curious to see exactly what ZUN does when he's not writing music for games (except I already know the answer: pretty much nothing different).  The album is a bit of a musical poem about Mary and Renko: two humans who find themselves traveling Gensokyo.  There's something very interesting about these characters: humans filled with wonder as they explore the quiet countryside.  I wish I knew of more doujin about them: they could be really interesting, or at least really funny characters.  Fittingly, the image is really quite Hiroshige-esque.

Anyway, enough Touhou crap, have a metal version of Skyrim's theme.  I've seen some of this guy's other stuff too: this guy's technique is freaking incredible.

Anyway, I'm done with my homework, so I'd better read some more Katawa Shoujo.  I just realized: I said I'd read something that's the length of a novel (and has the content of several novels) by the end of the week.  Ah well, there are worse fates.

Incidentally, I've decided to go with "read" instead of "play" in reference to KS.  It sounds far, far better to say "I'm reading a romance novel" than "I'm playing a romance game."