juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (I should have been born a cat)
I hate New Year's because I find it toxic to hang hopes on an arbitrary calendar date when I know things like illness in the family and a six month depressive episode will persist. So! I don't really do end of year lists, but I do sometimes do best media encountered in an arbitrary period of time lists. These are things I discovered, but which were probably not released, in 2014, and I think they were amazing.


Best Books:

Fate/Zero by Gen Urobuchi. Intelligent, ruthless, ambiguous, id-writing to the highest degree; a tour de force of basically every trope I've ever loved. If you liked the anime or anything else Urobuchi has worked on (Psycho Pass, Puella Magi Madoka Magica), please pick this up and talk to me about it.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Less Wrong/Eliezer Yudkowsky. This felt like reading The Fountainhead as a teenager, and while it probably has as many flaws (although hopefully not the same ones), it was important in a character-defining way.

Magical companion animal trope. Examples include: The Beast Master, Andre Norton; Ariel, Steven R. Boyett; Assassin's Apprentice, Robin Hobb. Truth is, I'm here for the cumulative effect; not every individual example does much for me, but tracing the trope through them has been satisfying.


Best Television and Film:

Hannibal. This is the world inside my head, a morally gray menagerie of the compelling and questionable, id-level and indulgent; Hannibal is fully one of the best things I've seen, and helped set the tone for what I look for in similar media.

Maleficent. Magnificent, important, and instantly one of my favorite films. Magic and relationships between women and inspired casting; there's something flawless in Maleficent, not in result but in effect; it is greater than the sum of its parts.

Orphan Black. It's bizarre to see a sci fi show (or anything, really) entirely live up to its potential, but this does. It's sci-fi done right, a ruthless exploration of women's identity and bodily autonomy, phenomenally acted and well shot.

Elementary. This gave me something I didn't know I needed: a Sherlock retelling, and moreover a piece of media, fueled by admiration and love; it has an essential sense of goodness, but not simplicity, that I believe to be important.


Best Games:

Skyrim. This game was what I needed it to be: vast and immersive, rather than particularly good. Thanks to mods, it's better now than it was on release.

Dragon Age: Inquisition. Hands down, game of the year. Inquisition occasionally overreaches, but the truth is that it's a triumph: the best that the Dragon Age team can do taken to a grand scale, realized with intent and skill.

Gopher's Let's Plays. (And Skyrim mod reviews, too.) Eminently soothing and immersive, and funny too; Gopher became one of my favorite LPers when I watched him play Vampire: The Masquerade, and I continue to admire his work.

Twitch Plays Pokémon. I was there when they beat the Elite Four—this was a fascinating landmark in internet culture, as well as a unique experiment, and was downright enjoyable to watch in the way that only intense frustration and snail-like pacing can be.
juushika: Photograph of a row of books on a library shelf. (Books Once More)
What are you currently reading?
I'm at the tail end of the Fate/Zero light novels. The fan translations are exceedingly unpolished; elsewise this has been a phenomenal read. I loved the anime when I watched it, but revisiting it in a media I find easier to retain while in constant contact with a friend who's also a big fan has been intensely rewarding, because this story deserves minute observation and rumination. Fate/Zero's hallmark is a complex web of characterization, motivation, and interaction, and each of these is more explicit in the light novels (there isn't time or potential for similar exposition in the anime). As a result, every scene is fascinating and can stand up to the scrutiny it invites. This is what I talk about when I talk about id-level media: I eat this stuff up, even though I've been taking the novels at the same slow pace I approach any series. The anime may still be the place to start with Fate/Zero, because it's great and a little more accessible, but the light novels are perfect.

What did you recently finish reading?
The Secret Country, Pamela Dean (review here). I'm deeply unsure if I plan to continue the series. I want to read The Hidden land to complete this story, and The Dubious Hills interests me for its premise, but I only ever found a stray used copy of The Secret Country to begin with; both of my libraries have little Dean, and even if I didn't prefer to borrow first, I certainly didn't love The Secret Country so much that I feel compelled to search for the sequels. We're probably headed to Powell's next week, so I may find them then; we'll see.

What do you think you'll read next?
No idea! I try to keep a couple of books at hand without making specific plans, because when I read at whim with no sense of obligation I tend to enjoy it more. Right now some classic horror, a reread, and some Mary Renault are all in my maybe-someday-soon pile, but I may chose none of them.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Title: Loups-Garous
Author: Natsuhiko Kyogoku
Translator: Anne Ishii
Published: San Francisco: Kaikasoru, 2010 (2001)
Rating: 3 of 5
Page Count: 458
Total Page Count: 143,427
Text Number: 421
Read Because: reviewed by [livejournal.com profile] james_nicoll, purchased used from the Book Bin
Review: In the near future, humans, even children, communicate almost exclusively through computers; real world meetings are rare and state surveillance is common. This should make murder nearly impossible, but the serial killings of Japanese youth catch the interest of a group of female students, their counselor, and a wayward policeman. This is a murder mystery with supernatural themes and an intelligently constructed futuristic setting; the intent is strong but the execution is poor. What Loups-Garous lacks is immersion, a willingness to throw the reader into the story despite the strange setting. The world is thoughtfully developed but over-explained; like Glukhovsky's Metro 2033, almost all dialog is appropriated for detailed worldbuilding, and the awkward translation makes this even more clumsy and unbelievable. The plot has a satisfying complexity, but it's padded by so much exposition that the book is frequently a slog; the climax has better pacing but a comically large scale. What Loups-Garous does well is intriguing and even haunting: its supernatural elements are largely metaphors but they're effective ones, finding the animal that lingers within mankind's hyper-industrialized, artificial world. But the book needs to trust the reader, cut out a hundred pages, and let the world—and its demons—speak for themselves. As it is, I appreciate the effort but don't recommend Loups-Garous.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Fate/Zero
ufotable, Gen Urobuchi, Type-Moon, 2011-12
25 episodes

Seven mages summon seven Heroic Spirits to compete in the 4th Holy Grail war—the prize for which will grant any one wish, no matter how impossible. Emiya Kiritsugu, skilled more in assassinating mages than fighting mage wars, will do anything to win the Grail and fulfill his unlikely wish.

I came to Fate/Zero because fanart told me I would love Ryuunosuke. A serial killer who discovers a purpose for his hobby?—of course I would, and did: his arc is fantastic, and ends perfectly. But in the end, I stayed for the entire cast.

Every single last one of them.

Fate/Zero begins slowly, because it has a large cast and complex premise to introduce. Initially its art is merely average, competent but unremarkable, without much in the way of style. Both pacing and art improve with time—the former when the various battles begin because, despite the fact that they're initially abbreviated into mere teases of forward progress, they're beautifully choreographed action and rich with character interaction, bringing life to the intrigue-rich plot; the latter is a gradual change, but is in evidence as soon as Berserker (a computer animated character within a cell-drawn anime, therefore preternaturally slick and smooth) is introduced. Eventually, the entire cast is distinct, the plot has vast forward momentum, and the art style improves such that the climactic final battle is thoroughly satisfying.

There's a few ways you can work with characters. You can define them, make them distinct and unique. You can develop them, show them progressing through an arc that impacts and changes who they are. You can have them interact with other characters, perhaps in ways that the relationship between characters almost becomes a character itself. Fate/Zero does every single one of these things with almost every single one of its characters—and the one or two dead-end characters at least have the grace to die in ways that develop the rest of the cast. I can't overstate how impressive this is, or how fantastic it is if you're me and you feed on character motivation and character relationships. The four confusingly similar brown/black haired dudes each become real people by the end. The whiny schoolboy in a ridiculous relationship with a burly dude actually drove me to tears. There are multiple strong female characters, one of whom offers up perhaps the creepiest scene I've ever watched*. My favorite character interaction was actually a four-way mess of motivations and desires and rivalries and fascinations**, and was pretty well flawless.

Which is not to say Fate/Zero is that, by any stretch: a slow beginning, initially shallow/cliché characterization, art which never excels, roadbumps in story delivery (worst of which is a long flashback), a bit of characterization by way of women in refrigerators which is handled with comparable grace but remains problematic, all plague it. These weaknesses are generally counterbalanced by the show's various strengths, or at least serve enough of a purpose to excuse them, but they linger.

But I have never cared so much about such a vast cast. It's Durarara!! levels of large-cast mayhem, but (so help me) even more of them are even better realized, and the level of complexity is towering. It's not the sort of attachment that makes you beg for happy endings, which is good: there are few happy endings, here. It's the sort of attachment that makes you want to see everything, good and bad, development and climax, fallout, reactions and changes—because so many lives hang in the balance, and much more than mortality is in jeopardy.

* The end of Irisviel, Jesus me, it's like End of Evangelion just got creepier.

** Gilgamesh/Kirei/Kiritsuju(/Kariya) LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT MY FEELINGS. No really, if you have read or watched this please let us talk about how this interaction is pretty much the definition of perfect, please.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
I read Hamada Shouko's Yume no Kodomo, and you should read it too.

It's blatantly dated and starts out with awful art and worse translation, and it'll seem familiar if BL manga is your thing: teenager with his heart on his sleeve, reclusive mid-twenties writer with a bad attitude, inevitable love, background emphasis on the arts. But this is what Gravitation might of been had Gravitation been any good, and it's fantastic. The characters are well-rounded, even when you least expect it: female characters not only exist but are wonderful (how rare is this in BL manga? very rare); apparent villains gain depth, and one of them becomes an awesome character. The lovers manages to hit a dozen tropes, but never lose their authenticity: Youji is a naive teen, but undergoes significant character growth without losing his identity or defying belief; Ren's mercurial emotions have predictable causes and reach predictable extremes, but he's always convincing and is neither a stagnant adult nor a vulnerable victim; the relationship between them is the relationship between a teenager and a young adult: imbalanced, problematic, but not inaccessible.

It's idealized of course, because you never doubt that everything will work out okay, but this is still a story about that work and isn't that rare. Falling in love isn't an epiphany but a process. Entering a relationship may be accompanied by titles and landmarks—partner, sex—but is not defined by them alone. Relationships must be maintained, because they are forever evolving. A relationship between two people changes the people within it, and continues to change them as that relationship continues to change; conversely, personal growth impacts a shared relationship.

In a way, you can't fault an early BL manga for its clichés, because at that point it was more likely defining them than interacting with them—not that Yume no Kodomo is first generation: it's not (it's second generation, really, but here I'm getting from point). But even where it flirts with danger (a bit of stalker-apologism that brushes too close to "rape is love"), Yume no Kodomo does what may be the best you can with a straight trope or cliché: engage it because it's probably attractive/popular/existent for a reason, but explore it fully, rather than relying on that superficial appeal. The manga's not perfect, either as a story or as an exploration of those tropes—but it is a pleasure. As a bonus, the art even becomes acceptable by the end, and those background artistic themes serve a purpose, giving explicit and often affecting voice to the emotional arcs of the cast—both the lovers and, surprisingly, some of the supporting characters, because in this story almost everyone is given the chance to grow.

That's the long form. The short form is:

Title: Yume no Kodomo (Children of Dreams)
Mangaka: Hamada Shouko
Length: 6 volumes
Rating: 4+ of 5
When his beloved sister goes abroad, 17-year-old Youji moves in with her friend Ren, an unlikable and bitter mid-twenties writer. But as they live together, and Youji discovers who Ren really is, he beings to fall in love. Familiar, dated, but authentically good, Yume no Kodomo is old-school BL that engages a number of overly familiar tropes with startling authenticity. Occasionally improbable, always idealized, but pure at heart, it becomes a truly affecting and enjoyable manga. Supporting-characters shine, and the central love story is an earnest success. Its early art is horrible, but the style develops as volumes progress; the available translations are shady, but I've seen worse. I was sorry to see this story end, and I recommend it.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
I more or less intentionally saved Big Windup for a time just like now. A few years ago, I read enough of it to know that it was absurdly up my alley—but in one of those embarrassingly indulgent ways which, for me, is better watched than read, because watching is more passive and therefore lines up well with embarrassing indulgences. But I knew that one day (when Hulu or a similar service finally had the sub, and I was in a truly rotten state of mind and needed some sort of pure pleasure to drag me though) I would watch it, and love it; and I do.

Sports anime are one of my weaknesses, with a loose definition of "sports" that includes tennis and martial arts and cars that go zoom. Their pacing is addicting, with as many horrible cliffhanger episodes as there are hugely satisfying victories—and since they usually have massive casts and a ridiculous number of episodes, they're the gift which keeps on giving (no really you just cannot make them stop). They mix just enough fascinating detail with plenty of absurdity, and things like using a gutter to hug a corner or a pitcher with a nine-quadrant strike zone become, so help me, cool. And there's conflict and company: conflict between teams, conflict between players, conflict because the true battle is the one against yourself; bonding between teammates, the love/hate camaraderie of well-matched opponents, and the love a player has for his sport. At my heart I care most about relationships and motivations, and sports anime are rich in both: they are about who we fight and why. It's popcorn watchability mixed with surprisingly complex blow by blows; it leads to characters like Vegeta (king prince of relationships and motivations) and scenes like Takumi crying when his engine blows because he has come to love that car and this sport just that much.

Big Windup is the distillation of sports anime. The manga is still running and the show—at less that 30 episodes (aaaaah no I'm more than halfway through)—is literally condensed: prodigy protagonist front and center, tears everywhere and it's all about the love of the game, your biggest rival is yourself and your biggest ally is the teammate that will carry you to glory. In fact, it's embarassing—embarassing in the same way that the BBC Sherlock is embarrassing: it's so self-aware and shameless as to be insulting. Did you ever notice how very clever Sherlockain mysteries are? would you notice it if we painted all the details in CG overlays and/or had John constantly compliment Sherlock's brilliance? Did you catch that Sherlock and John have this intense friendship going on? would you catch it if we made a comment about how gay it is to strip off one another's clothing in a closed swimming pool at night? Well yes, thank you you idiotic little show, I had actually noticed but—don't stop. The desperate cleverness, the stupid 'ship teasing, it works because it's what you're there for; you feel insulted, but perversely fulfilled.

Well, asks Big Windup, did you notice that this particular match was intense or that Mihashi is so moe you teeth hurt or that everything about Mihashi's relationship with Abe could be construed as romantic? would you notice if we—YES THANK YOU, thank you Big Windup for your incredible subtlety, but so help me if I did not cheer when they won their first game, and if Mihashi is not the cutest thing, and if his relationships (with his sport, with his catcher, with his team) doesn't push every single button on my id except the one that's labeled "subtext" because there is no sub here, guys: it's just text.

And bless, unlike the unnaturally developed "middle schoolers" of Prince of Tennis, these kids actually look and are high school freshmen, complete with ill-timed references to masturbation.

Anyway, Devon had to leave early to prep for a big meeting on Monday, and I'm still pretty much tied together with string, so if you need me I'll be over here narrating baseball matches to my cat. And man, they are awesome matches—even when yes, and I saw it coming, saw it from a mile away, they end the episode with the start of Mihashi's first goddamn pitch.

Adopt one today! Adopt one today! Adopt one today! Adopt one today!
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Dear dub: you royally blundered this bit, didn't you. "I didn't care, I didn't care about being better than Kakarot, I didn't care about being a Super Saiyan," my ass.

"The time came when I realized I was at my limit. [In the flashback: "I'll never surpass Kakarotto like this!"] And then, from the anger I felt towards myself, the Super Saiya-jin within me suddenly awoke! I was left shaking from the joy it gave me. Finally I had overcome Kakarotto, and the time for me to return as Prince of the Saiya-jin had come."


That—that is something entirely different.

I've reached the point in the show where my firsthand knowledge becomes spotty—I saw the prelude to the Android Saga, missed some stuff after that, saw some of the middle episodes, read some of the later chapters, much of it out of order and over a significant time gap. Come the later sagas, I've only seen bits and pieces. Of course I know what happens—I have plenty of secondhand knowledge via my involvement in fandom. But seeing it firsthand, properly arranged, is a wholly different experience. Likewise I knew about changes to the English dub: fandom-gleened knowledge told me they were there, some of them were obvious, but I'd yet to see the source material and witness the differences for myself—in things like production quality, but also in things like content.

So I knew that Vegeta hit SSJ1 through self-directed rage. I knew because I'd seen the transformation in the dub, even if his monologue had been changed; because rage is how SSJ1 works, and it's what the wikis point to.

But I know it now, not intellectuality but personally, and from the heart, having seen it, experienced it—

and yes, here we grow silly, me and my anime obsession, but fuckit I don't care

—is terrifying. What draws me to Vegeta is his character type, a character type I should finish that essay about someday: the strong rendered powerless, the badass bitch. I find the tension between the character's potential strength and situational weakness complex and compelling, because it's a combination that causes character suffering and demands character depth. I also adore Vegeta because he's so shamelessly nasty—he's an awful person, no bones about it, and that makes for awesome character interactions, meaningful backstory, and some plain old fun. I've written essays before (yes, a dork, I know) about these things are connected: how Vegeta's nature, and the history that created it, is often what makes it so difficult for him to take advantage of the opportunities that others like Goku can successful exploit. Or, in Goku's words:

"If body and mind ain't completely united, you won't get any great power."


And Vegeta's are not, and he suffers for it. He suffers for it because he doesn't have the sort of social connections that are strong enough to trigger SSJ1's rage—but Goku does. Because he can't unite with the universe and harvest its energy—but Goku can. Because again and again he fights and loses, because he can't become quite strong enough, and his own failure hurts worse than any injury ever could.

And sometimes he comes out of his tears in a blaze of anger, and he finds power not by changing or bettering or uniting, but by hating himself so much that he can overcome himself.

I find Vegeta fun and sexy and fascinating, but I also find him sympathetic—because his character is surprisingly well-developed, but also because it hits home. I understand what it is to have a division within oneself, a division so deeply rooted and long-lasting that it's nearly indelible. I understand being unable to achieve—not because you don't have the potential, but because you can never exploit it. I can't understand a self-hatred quite so strong as his because I have never been there, but I know that sometimes that place has been just this side of the horizon, and seeing it in the distance terrified me. I used to compare myself to a phoenix, when I was constantly crashing and burning and rising again; now I live at a more even pace, and that's a good thing. But what would I do, on that barren rock, in the middle of that electrical storm? I would fail and fall, but would I burn brightly afterwards?

Would I want to?



(Juu blogs too seriously about a silly TV show, post #52. And thank goodness the art in this episode was above-par, is all I'm saying. Awesome episodes deserve awesome art, but the very next one—with its awesome character interactions—had sad and shitty art. It happens to the best of 'em.)
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
The gore doesn't bother me—it's more funny than it is anything else—but eating dinner during the bug-chewing scene of Tokyo Gore Police was, perhaps, not the single smartest thing I've ever done.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Umineko no Naku Koro ni (When the Seagulls Cry)
Studio Deen, Chiaki Kon, Ryukishi07, 2009
26 episodes

In October 1986, the Ushiromiya family gathers on an isolated island to discuss the future of the family's fortune—but their family conference is interrupted by a typhoon that traps them on the island and a slew of bizarre murders which threaten all of their lives. Battler, one of the youngest in the family, pits himself against Beatrice, a powerful witch, in order to solve these murders—or else they will repeat indefinitely.

Umineko no Naku Koro ni (When the Seagulls Cry) is, in a word, strange. It's a murder mystery that the viewer can't solve (because the solution is a constantly moving target when it exists at all), it's a paranormal event which denies the paranormal, a horror story filled with frivolous humor, a character drama chock full of overacting and off-the-wall artifices. Yet despite and often because of this mishmash of strange and incomprehensible aspects, Umineko is also a surprising success. By engaging and then rejecting murder mystery conventions, by indulging in but constantly questioning the paranormal, it transcends the limits of its genre—and the result is unusual and thought-provoking. The mood whiplash between humor and horror often serves to make the horror elements that much harsher and darker by comparison, and the excessive plot twists and strange story conventions orchestrate interesting character developments and interactions, sometimes to great emotional effect. It's still a strange story, but like the gratuitous violence that's rather the point: if you're not there for the creepy child, maniacal witch, and silly overacting, if you haven't come for the impalings and strewn entrails, then you're in the wrong place. But if you have, Umineko transforms this mishmash into something delightful: it's over the top but authentically creepy, absurd but surprisingly meaningful, and always a thrill to watch. To the right sort of viewer I recommend it with glee—I found Umineko as enjoyable as it is strange.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)


Gundam 00
Sunrise, Seiji Mizushima, Yosuke Kuroda, 2007-2009
50 episodes

In 2307 A.D., mankind has harnessed solar energy via orbiting solar power collectors and has coalesced into three governing superpowers, but continues to wage zero-sum wars for power and energy. Celestial Being is an private military organization dedicated to ending war by using Gundams to attack aggressors. Gundam 00 is almost exactly what you'd expect it to be, and as such it's quite satisfying. A group of unique young men with a variety of angsty backgrounds (and altogether wonderful character design) gather, using giant mecha (of interesting, but hardly iconic, design) to fight a rebel war for peace. Political machinations, battles, and upgrades abound, balanced by intelligent character development and interactions. A spiritual successor to Gundam Wing, even taking on the same underlying question—is it possible to win peace through war?—Gundam 00 sometimes feels redundant, but for the most part it's a successful, if familiar, iteration of the Gundam series: philosophical, political, character-driven, with mech battles aplenty.

Gundam 00's first season is awash with intriguing gray morality, and the plot (especially in the second half of the season) is smart and unrelenting. The second season has a rocky start and never quite reaches the standard set by the first—in part because increasingly blatant black and white morality strips away much of the intriguing ambiguity, in part because it falls victim to a number of clichés like excessive powerups (where every thing is better than the previous thing, just because they say so) and death fakeouts (where core characters seem to die, but return again to resume the same cycle of battles) which deaden the show's believability and impact. Still, the second season is rich with wonderful character growth and has substantial emotional and psychological impact despite its faults, and the series as a whole comes to a satisfying conclusion. That's what this anime is: it's not quite remarkable, but it throughly meets expectations and it's constantly engaging and enjoyable—which is to say, it is satisfying. Fans of Gundam, in particular Gundam Wing, would do well to give it a try.

Beware spoilers in the comments!
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)


Mononoke
Toei Animation, Kenji Nakamura, 2007
12 episodes

In Japan's Edo period, a medicine seller travels the city and countryside to peddle his wares—but in his journeys he encounters a number of supernatural events caused by spirits called mononoke. By discovering the identity, history, and motivation of these mononoke, the Medicine Seller can destroy them. Mononoke's plots are murder mysteries with mythological bents, and its art is vividly colorful and highly stylized. Despite its brevity the series manages to offer an mysterious protagonist, a number of intelligent and confrontational stories, and a truly unforgettable art style. So, while it has its flaws, Mononoke is an unequivocal success—if the style and themes appeal to the viewer. I recommend it.

Mononoke is a bold experiment of style and story, all the more desirable in that it's also a success. The art resembles traditional Japanese art. Its exaggerated character art and plentiful still-frames can be disorientating and may turn away some viewers, but they function to highlight emotion and action and to mimic traditional art. But at its core Mononoke's visual masterpiece is color: sometimes in bold riot, sometimes in dramatic accents, always remarkable and perfectly at home in the series's unique style, the colors are unforgettable and add plentiful drama and depth to the stories. Those stories are a combination of murder mystery, Japanese mythology, and drama, providing satisfying plot alongside surprising emotional depth and horror as the Medicine Seller's investigations of the mononoke reveal the darkness and desires within the human heart.

The show's episodes are only thirty minutes, but with two to three episodes per story arc there's plenty of time to go in depth with each one. It's a fine balance between complex plots and an adequate number of them, but the series achieves it; each arc is fascinating, but there are enough that the mere 12 episodes still provides satisfying variety. The downside to the story arc format is that the arcs vary in quality. For the most part they only get better, such that the series grows increasingly magical, disturbing, and well-wrought throughout—except for the final arc, which takes place in a more modern era (approximately the 1920s) and may be the weakest of the series. The arc's themes are still strong, and the modern setting turn the Medicine Seller into a timeless, universal figure, but both plot and setting clash against the show's traditional art style. Even if this contrast is intentional, it's a little too disconcerting, and so the series ends on a low note. But even with this weakness, Mononoke is exceptional. If the style appeals to you, I highly recommend it. It's a combination of visual delights and meaningful story, and there's nothing like it out there—a statement which has perhaps never been so true as it is for this bold, successful experiment.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Summer Wars
Madhouse 2009
Directed by Mamoru Hosoda

Math-wiz Kenji is roped into visiting his upperclassman's family home, but when he's there a disaster occurs: an artificial intelligence hacks OZ, an online world which stretches so vast that by controlling it, the A.I. is able to bring the real world to a grinding halt. With the help of his new friends, his classmates, and his math abilities, Kenji must wrestle control of OZ out of the A.I.'s hands.

Summer Wars begins with a clichés aplenty: a smart but socially-inept protagonist caught in an awkward situation with an attractive female classmate. But the film's very first scene is an introduction to the colorful, cartoony, vast world of OZ, and this sets the tone: Summer Wars is not your usual seinen coming of age. Instead it finds character development through a slew of brilliant aspects: a vast and vivid cast, fine emotive animation, a setting which comfortably straddles the minutiae of daily life and the magical, digital world of OZ, and best of all a plot that balances character development against well-paced action. The film is sometimes a little too funny, but that prevents the plot from becoming too dire; similarly OZ is sometimes too cartoony, which while visually striking doesn't make for the most realistic worldwide digital universe. But for the most part, Summer Wars is faultless.

In fact if I had to make one complaint, it's that the film is a little too perfect. Plot points tie together too nicely, everyone does just the right thing at just the right time, the end is too happy—there's a slight excess of good and awesome in the film. Nevermind the digital world that's the setting of half the plot, it's this abundance of perfection that makes the story tend towards unbelievable. I begrudged this not at all while watching, but as the final scene of celebration drew to a close I felt a bit cheated, like it had all been too easy and too neat.

That issue isn't enough to distract from a wonderful film, though. And Summer Wars is: smart, fun, detailed, colorful, imaginative, clever, and altogether wonderful, this is a movie to rouse cheering and a pleasant choked-up feeling. The only version I've been able to find online was fairly low-res and has soft English subtitles over hard Korean subtitles, but if you can put up with those inconveniences I highly recommend you seek out Summer Wars. And if you can't, keep it on your radar: when a clearer sub is available, you will want to see this film.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Kuroshitsuji (Black Butler)
Based on the manga by Yana Toboso
24 episodes

In Victorian-era London, Ciel Phantomhive is the 12-year-old head of the noble Phantomhive family. He runs a toy manufacturing company, investigates mysteries at the behest of the Queen, as is set to revenge his parents's murder—all with the aid of Sebastian Michaelis, a demon who is sworn to serve as Ciel's butler in exchange for Ceil's soul. Kuroshitsuji is a supernatural mystery, a dark comedy, and the perfect excuse to combine Victorian aesthetic, incompetent grim reapers, underage crossdressing, dinnerware used as projectile weaponry, plots inspired by Sherlock Holmes, and gratuitous bondage into a surprisingly enjoyable, intelligent series. It starts off a bit superficial and comedic for my tastes, but Kuroshitsuji matures into a beautiful, intriguing supernatural drama that never takes itself too seriously, and I recommend it.

The first half of the series tends to be episodic, or at least conscribed to short plot arcs. These do a decent job of introducing the wonderful cast, in particular the coldy intelligent yet vulnerably young Ciel, and Sebastian who hides dark humor and an intriguing demonic nature behind the veneer of the perfect butler. It also holds the viewer's attention in a series of kidnapping cases and murder mysteries, but these limit plot progression and are heavy on the humor. I have a narrow sense of humor, so take with a grain of salt that much of the comedy in Kuroshitsuji did nothing for me: I adored the dark humor, but the all-out farcical elements like reaction images and chronically incompetent servants left me cold and clashed with the darker and more serious aspects of the show.

But as Kuroshitsuji continues it builds an overarching plot around the mystery of Ciel's past and the demise of his parents. The plot grows stronger, the story more intriguing, and Ciel and Sebastian become ever more fascinating as the history and nature of their bargain comes to light. There's a certain subtly to the characterization that makes it delicate and believable despite the supernatural setting, with just left unsaid to capture the viewer's imagination. Meanwhile, farce is toned down as secondary characters gain depth. The humor that remains is enjoyable dark comedy mixed with exaggerated characters and just a touch of farce—it actually becomes quite charming and balances out the show's darker elements. I found the first half of Kuroshitsuji entertaining, but the second half was absolutely fascinating: it may not be top-tier entertainment, but the Victorian aesthetic, black comedy, and ambiguous, unusual characters all delighted me and I was sorry to see the show end.

Really, nothing sells Kuroshitsuji better than its concept: if a 12-year-old dandy in a Faustian contract with his battle-butler seems like your kind of show, give Kuroshitsuji a try. It's stylized, exaggerated, supernatural, but also has surprising smarts and subtlety in its characterization, a combination which keeps the reader engaged as well as intrigued. I've never watched anything quite like it, and enjoyed it immensely. (On a similar note, I wish I could find something similar—know of any other anime that might suit? Recommend me! Manga are also welcome for future reference, but for now I'm looking for something to watch.)
juushika: Photograph of a row of books on a library shelf. (Books Once More)
I've been reading a ton of manga and barely reviewing a fraction of it, a combination which still leads to a few reviews piling up unshared. Same old warnings apply: these manga contain explicit sex and may contain BDSM, rape, or student/adult relationships. So to begin:

6 various BL manga reviews. )

3 Minase Masara BL manga reviews. )

And finally, 1 straight/hentai manga review. )
juushika: Photograph of a row of books on a library shelf. (Books Once More)
After reading Mukizu ja Irarenee (find the review here), I said that I would run off to read more of the mangaka's work. In fact, what I ended up doing was rereading Mikuzu ja Irarenee, and I'll be damned if it isn't even better the second time around. So after that I did go and read more by the same author. Not just more: almost everything I could find. Since there's so much, I'm splitting these reviews into their own post; since a number of the volumes have sequels, I'm posting them out of alphabetical order (in fact, they're posted in the order which I read them). Same old warnings here: these manga contain explicit sex and may contain BDSM, rape, or student/adult relationships. Here are my thoughts on Sadahiro's oeuvre:

11 reviews of BL manga by Sadahiro Mika. )

When I sat down to read more of Sadahiro's work I started with Buddy System and Angnus Dei, which were such disappointments after Mukizu ja Irarenne that I assumed that Sadahiro's older work was still developing (and therefore not as good) whereas her more recent volumes were more mature and better done. My love for Haito Diamond threw that theory out, of course. Now, I believe that Sadahiro has considerable talent, but her talent shines best in her longer, more serious works. Sadahiro's not shy about drawing porn—which is wonderful, don't get me wrong, but sometimes floods out necessary, realistic character and story. She tends towards overly dramatic plots, a potential drawback in all of her work but particularly detrimental in her short works, where all that drama leaves no room for realism. But when she is able to balance these aspects with realism, Sadahiro's work is astounding. In her love of porn and drama, she draws incredible sex scene and has all sorts of fascinating and delight dark, troubled characters and relationships. As an added bonus, most of her characters interchange uke and seme roles—a real scarcity in BL manga, sad to say.

Sadahiro strikes this balance most often in her longer, more complex, more serious efforts. In all my reading, Mukizu ja Irarenee remains my favorite—stripped of soap opera-ready settings, this story of three fairly normal youths is realistic, complex, twisted—and beautifully rendered. My other favorites are Haito Diamond, Under Grand Hotel, and Pathos, in that order. These series are somewhat more dramatic, but they retain Sadahiro's strengths and are intense, enjoyable reads. In all, Sadahiro's work was sometimes disappointing but more often harmless and, at best, truly wonderful. She was a great mangaka to discover.

Yeah, I'm a dork.
juushika: Photograph of a row of books on a library shelf. (Books Once More)
So I've been reading manga again, and as we know I'm not like to let anything pass by unreviewed. But I've been reading pretty much strictly boys love manga. I'm reviewing them anyway, in part for my own records—and yeah, I'm pretty sure that reviewing porn makes me a little weird—but keep in mind that all of these manga contain explicit homosexual content, and be warned that they may contain student/teacher relationships, dubious consent/rape, shota, or guro. So if these are of no use or interest to you, pass them by! Because I've read so many, I'll split them in half: recommended and not recommended. Due to the nature of these manga, I'll put it all under LJ cuts.

Recommended: 7 manga. )

Not Recommended: 7 manga. )
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
I haven't been around LiveJournal much lately, which isn't that big a deal but I suppose is worth noting at least to confirm that I've not died and become a book-reviews-only ghost. I just haven't felt like delving into the depths of my friend list for a while, but I will be back eventually. If I'm missing anything important—well, I am still checking comments, so feel free to leave me one and let me know if something big is going on. Other than that, I'll be back to regular posting and reading when I decide to come back to it.

Meanwhile, I've been watching a lot of Prince of Tennis. A bit of series info and pairings chatter under the cut. )
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)

Ergo Proxy
Manglobe, Shuko Murase, 2006

In the distant future, in the vast wasteland of the world, stands the domed city Romdo, a utopia where humans and androids, called AutoReivs, peacefully coexist under the ever-watchful eye of the ruling government—until some AutoReivs are infected with the Cognito virus and become self-aware. A series of murders results and while investigating them, Inspector Re-l (pronounced Real) Mayer, working alongside her AutoReiv partner Iggy, encounters a mysterious, unbelievably powerful humanoid lifeform called a Proxy. Meanwhile, immigrant Vincent Law, charged with hunting and disposing of infected AutoReivs, flees Romdo for the wastelands beyond, and Cognito-infected child companion AutoReiv Pino follows in his wake. Re-l's investigation leads her in pursuit of Vincent and to a journey where she must discover the truth behind the domed cities, the Proxies, the role of self-awareness, and her own existence.

I have been meaning to write a review of Ergo Proxy since I watched it some months ago. Now, at [livejournal.com profile] circle_of_ashes's prompting, I've been reminded to do so. Ergo Proxy is a post-apocalyptic/pre-apocalyptic/post-cyberpunk/steampunk/scifi anime with a slowly-revealing plot and a heavy emphasis on character motivations—almost as hard to categorize as it is to summarize. In many ways it resembles Ghost in the Shell, investigating similar concepts of self-awareness: what makes a human being? at what point does an AI become human? does self-awareness create free-will, or are our actions still predetermined? Ergo Proxy's pre- and post-apocalyptic setting presents issues of self-awareness on both a personal and a global scale. Re-l's journeys within and without Romdo bring her face to face with a number of individuals struggling with issues of self-awareness and freewill: Vincent Law, who is running from his past; Pino, a doll who is becoming a real girl; finally Re-l herself, as she discovers that her family and her past may both have engineered to put her where she stands now. Meanwhile, what Re-l learns about the role of the domed cities and the worlds outside of them puts these personal struggles on a world-wide scale: the whole planet is struggling to balance self-awareness and freewill with safety and fate.

These issues are of course couched in a show entire. The plot unfolds in arcs: at first confusing, then revealing itself, then becoming confusing again as a new layer is drawn. This confuse-and-reveal pattern allows for a number of surreal events (at one point, the entire cast is duplicated; at another, they become lost in a living theme park) that allow for even more introspection into character mindset and motivation, all the while resolving to a more logical science-fiction-based plot. The overarching plot and various themes are balanced against half-hour episodes that are reasonably self-contained, as well as moments of humor, romance, inter-character interaction—all number of little things which make each episode interesting and satisfying, and keep the story and characters grounded despite the reach and gravity of the show's themes. All of this appears in the show's distinctive style, a combination of 2-D and 3-D animation, high-contrast with selective saturation, and somewhat stylized, particularly in the almost-human AutoReivs and Proxies. Character design is distinctive and intentional: Re-l's hair style and eyeshadow, both of which become plot devices, Pino's adorable bunny suit, and most of all Vincent Law, whose narrow eyes widen through the course of the story. The settings and background details are similarly intentional, giving a gritty steampunk/post-cyberpunk detail to the post-apocalyptic world and a deceptive sparsity and shine to the would-be-utopias.

In fewer words, Ergo Proxy is a brilliant show that is both watchable and meaningful, mixing plot and introspection, science and philosophy, localized characters and generalized themes. It has a distinctive, beautiful style, skillful pacing and script, and achieves a great deal in its mere 23 episodes. I would compare it to similar introspective sci-fi anime like Ghost in the Shell and Neon Genesis Evangelion, although it has its own style and flair as well and its own particular answers to the same questions of self-awareness, identity, and freewill. Likewise, I would recommend it just as strongly as I would GitS and Eva—to scifi anime fans, but to others as well. It's unique and may take time to adjust to, but in the end the show's specific style is one of its best features. I'm glad to have seen it and plan to rewatch it—I expect that there is even more depth the second time around.
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
I just finished replaying the first Kingdom Hearts game, and am currently deciding between continuing with (ported) Chain of Memories or a replay of Kingdom Hearts II. Meanwhile, I'm enjoying the pleasant glow that comes with completing a really good video game. And true to my over-analytical form, I come with some thoughts on the game, and how it was to replay it.

Kingdom Hearts was the second console game and RPG that I ever played (the first was Final Fantasy X, which I've also loved and replayed). I played it for the first time some years ago (just after it came out, I believe), never played Chain of Memories (as I don't own a GBA), and played KHII as soon as it was released. I loved both games, but I noticed a gap in information—years had passed since playing the first game, and since I'd never played the sequel, I was missing a lot of information coming into the first game. Granted, KHII is playable under those circumstances, but they aren't ideal. So it made sense to come back to the first game—and, well, it's a great game in its own right, and warrants replay.

For those that don't know, Kingdom Hearts is about a young boy named Sora. He begins on Destiny Island, and has two close friends, Riku, an older male who has always been his competition, and Kairi, a female that often becomes the source of contention for his friendly battles with Riku. The three of them dream about leaving Destiny Island for the greater worlds beyond, but their dreams become reality when their island disappears into the darkness, scattering them on the worlds beyond. Sora awakens in a world-between-worlds called Traverse Town and soon teams up with Goofy and Donald, who have been sent by their King Mickey to track to find the Key: a magical weapon that holds the power to fight the darkness, and to save and seal the worlds threatened by the darkness. Sora is the Keyblade Master, and together the three go off to discover and seal new worlds, and to try to find Riku and Kairi. It's an RPG with real-time "slash and hack" action battles, and a combined effort of Square (who contribute a plot worthy of Final Fantasy and many FF cameos) and Disney (who contribute many character designs and the worlds that Sora and his friends visit).

Some thoughts on Kingdom Hearts, a replay. )

There were definitely some annoyances, but I was incredibly pleased with this replay of Kindgom Hearts. The story, plot, and characters speak for themselves: they are all at once idealistic and realistic, with sights set on concepts such as the Heart of Hearts, Light, and Darkness while struggling through the personal issues of identity, belief, choice, and fidelity. The combination of Square and Disney is remarkable and unexpected—it's a bit foolish and exaggerated, but the plot and the characters still bring it back to the realm of delicate and nuanced. The gameplay is fun, and a friendly mesh of RPG and action, which means that it works well for players that rarely stray beyond RPGs and/or are somewhat lacking in manual dexterity (myself included).

It was a fun game to play the first time, and even more enjoyable this second time. I'm glad I came back to it, and let me tell you, the bittersweet glow at the end of the game is truly enjoyable—and it glows all the brighter knowing that I have the sequels sitting there just waiting for me.
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
I rewatched the anime film Spriggan the other day and was just about thisclose to writing fanfiction. Spriggan is one of the smaller fandoms—by which I mean incredibly tiny—but since I first saw it, the characters have appealed to me. In this rewatch, I was impressed by how my understanding of the characters had matured. So impressed, in fact, that I wanted to write about: to dabble with them, play around with them, see what I can make them do. I, of course, mean a fanfic.

The problem then is this (other than the fact that I'm writing a book): Wanting to play around with characters does not a plot make. In this case, even being a rabid slasher doesn't help with the plot. What I really want to write is an introduction, a bit of character exposition, and some hot hot mansex. Exciting. Also no longer my scene. So I decided against it.

But I did write two paragraphs and it sure was nice to get into a different voice and mindset. Refreshing, really, which makes getting back to work on the rest all the easier. But I still have these paragraphs hanging around on my computer... And for lack of anything better to do with them, I'll throw them here.

If you don't recognize this film or this fandom—no worries, you're really not supposed to. Mostly I'm just indulging myself. And so, with no further ado: two paragraphs, in there just-barely-retouched state.

Two paragraphs of a Spriggan fanfic. )

And for the curious: I do highly recommend this film. It has some hokey bits, but the characters are lovely and ohsogay and the plot is clever. It's an enjoyable film.

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July 2017

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