I am looking at my calendar and seeing that it is once again time to dip a toe into the murky waters of anime. Under the microscope today is Redline, a tasty combination of interstellar racing, futuristic weaponry, gangsters, and muscle cars. I suppose there are some people out there who won’t like this, but considering the features listed above, I think it should be required viewing for everyone. In fact, it is available for free at and Youtube, so there is no excuse to not check it out right now.

Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way first. Redline is the directorial debut of one Koike Takeshi, who has worked in the past as an animator on many notable things that I have not seen. His decision to hand draw everything gave the film a seven year production time, and no doubt a correspondingly sprawling budget. The visuals are appropriately jaw-dropping, much edgier and, dare I say, realistic than typical anime. I’m not really an expert and will leave further commentary to the pros, but Redline is a feast for the eyes. James Shimoji wrote a soundtrack of throbbing techno beats that powers the action. Most of it isn’t really my bag, but I would drop the “Redline Day” theme in a club set once in awhile, were I to ever start DJ’ing. Finally, I had subtitles on for reference, but didn’t pay close enough attention to the translation to comment. The DVD I borrowed had the Japanese version; streaming options appear to only have the English dub, which I have thus far avoided. All of these points are better addressed at anime specific sites, by people who know more than I do.

Now for the fun part, wherein I explain why everyone should watch this. The single biggest reason to enjoy Redline, besides the incredible animation, is the protagonist, JP. He has a massive pompadour (called a ri-zento in Japanese), looks like a particular sort of Japanese punk, and appears to drive a late 60s vintage Pontiac. He also has a heart of gold and ends up losing races because he is too nice. I’m not generally a fan of yanki- (literally “Yankee,” but actually a fashion for juvenile delinquents), but anyone who drives a muscle car in rocket-powered, far future faces is alright with me. Bits and pieces of his life are told in flashback during the buildup to the big race.

The race itself, called the “Redline,” is held every five years for winners of various smaller races – the Yellow Line, Blue Line, etc. It is the World Cup of racing, probably illegal, effectively rule free, the center of a galaxy’s worth of gambling, and held at random places throughout the universe. This time it will be on RoboWorld, the domain of a particularly crazy and xenocidal dictator. Naturally, he wants nothing to do with the race and promises to blow everyone to smithereens if they so much as try to race on his turf. A real life parallel might be found if someone sponsored an airlift of elite rally car squads into North Korea, with the finish line in downtown Pyongyang. JP backs into the Redline to race against a motley assortment of humans, machines, and aliens.

The supporting cast is appropriately weird. JP’s best friend and fixer has mob connections and wears zoot suits. This mechanic looks like a creepy ode to a character from Spirited Away. The RoboWorld dictator and his posse are suitably over the top. One of the other racers, Sonoshee, catches JP’s eye; they may have some sort of past. If the characterization is not particularly deep, it is at least entertaining. The people aren’t the star of the show here, but they are sufficient to move the story along between races.

Most of the plot beats follow a typical sports underdog path, albeit one with exploding rocket-powered cars, alien mob bosses, gigantic and vengeful babies, egregious boobs, and three extra tablespoons of awesomeness. There is even a love story I can (mostly) get behind. It’s a bit like Star Wars pod racing done right. I think it’s one of those movies to show to people who wouldn’t normally watch anime, since it skips a lot of the dumb stuff and gets right to NASCAR with laser cannons. Realistically, what more could I ask? I give it three thumbs up, because I’m one of the multi-limbed aliens in the stands.

Broken Blade

Broken Blade (Anime)

Today’s post digs back into that favorite of topics: Giant Fighting Robot Anime. (Properly called “mecha,” but I much prefer the other.) I finally, two or three years after starting, wrapped up the six-part series Broken Blade and can bring my impressions to all. I was hipped to this back in my movie business days; it was a big new release from Bandai and they were eager to get it into heavy promotional rotation. Curious what I was pimping to my unsuspecting customers, I started watching fan subs online. More recently, the library happened to have the now-available-in-stores DVD set, so I was able to see this through to an officially sanctioned end. As always, I watch my anime subtitled, because the English dubs just never work for me.

Broken Blade started life as a manga than ran for a couple of years before being optioned as a movie series. In Japan, both are known by the more grammatically tortured name Break Blade (ブレック・ブレード). The manga appears to have been translated part way into English, but the publisher went out of business before finishing the series. The movies are backed by slightly more capital, so there was no risk of getting stranded part way. Despite being short, 50 minutes each, all six Broken Blade episodes saw limited theatrical release in Japan, making these “movies” rather than “OVA” (original video animation, I think). I haven’t seen the manga in either language and have no idea if the story has since carried on.

The world shown in Broken Blade is a mix of fantasy and SF, with a sheen of originality painted over a solid collection of tropes. (We will see this technique again later with plot and characters.) Most people in the world of Broken Blade are born with the ability to telepathically manipulate quartz. Our hero, Rygart, was not, and thus is a loser. He has to use actual hand tools to accomplish things, which really sucks when everyone else around him is waving their arms and causing quartz to fling itself through the air. The highest form of quartz manipulation is, naturally, the act of piloting colossal robots in combat. Most of the fantasy stems from the still feudal economies powering the castle towns that everyone lives in and a basic inability of certain rulers to understand trade. The former leads to the requisite kings, warriors, and peasants. The latter drives the conflict, as the Athens Commonwealth invades the Kingdom of Krisna in a bid to get at Krisna’s bountiful quartz mines. (See? We can tell that they’re being subversive because Athens is the bad guy! Get it?) Apparently nobody told Athens that they could just offer to buy some quartz, or maybe swap grain or chickens or something. Much more cost effective over the long haul.

Science fiction makes an appearance when Krisnans discover the “Delphine,” an ancient relic of a battle mech. We all learn what it is when, as is tradition, Rygart falls into the cockpit at a battle’s most desperate hour and miraculously activates it. For whatever reason, nobody but “unsorcerors,” the Special Ed kids of Krisna, can pilot the Delphine. There is no explanation given of whatever fallen nation created the Delphine, but it fills in admirably as the obligatory lost, high tech civilization. This is about the extent of the world building; it’s a bit of a ramshackle collection of cliché and plot convenience, but more or less holds together. I have to keep myself from thinking too hard about the economics of it all and instead just be grateful that the writer at least made an effort. (I realize that it’s not entirely fair to bring my Hard SF-appreciating, Policital Science-oriented brain to bear on what is basically just entertainment for adolescents, but somebody has to do it. Cue the plaintive voice pleading, “Who will think of the electoral systems?”)

Broken Blade is really about the characters though. Rygart, of course, is the focus of things, with his quartz handicap and affinity for a butt kicking giant robot. We are also treated to numerous flashbacks of “high school,” (thanks Japan!) when Rygart attends military school with three people who just happen to become the king of Krisna (Hodr), the queen of Krisna and head giant battle robot engineer (Sigyn), and a military leader in Athens (Zess). Rygart and Sigyn have an unacknowledged, unrequited Thing, Sigyn and Hodr are married, and I have no idea why Zess is even a part of this. In fact, he fades into the background in the second half of the series. Maybe he isn’t important after all. There is also a standard assortment of archetypes: the loyal troops and cannon fodder, the brilliant but unstable ally (or is he??), the do whatever atrocity it takes to win bad guy, the wise mentor, and others. The wise mentor, Baldr, is really the only one who matters, because he looks like this. I would bear Baldr’s children if, you know, he wasn’t animated and if I was a woman. That’s a couple of big ifs.

The love triangle bit has some teeth, though fortunately restrains itself from dripping all over the place. (Perhaps learned a lesson from Macross?) Some of the relationships and conflicts show a surprising depth for this sort of thing. On the whole though, we end up with a lot of angsty teenagers piloting huge and impractical bringers of death. It’s rather like the cast of Dawson’s Creek running an epic Battletech campaign. (Whoops! Just dated myself with that sentence! On the other hand, the thought of James Vanderbeek behind the controls of a battle mech is pretty funny.) The leaders seem totally shocked when the introduction of veteran troops swings the course of the war widely in one or another direction, though in this case, “veterans” means adults more or less in control of their hormones and having a passing knowledge of battlefield tactics, I will give some credit though: the movies are at least sufficiently self-aware to mock Rygart once in awhile for his clueless attempts at fighting.

I’m not being entirely fair I think. The war scenes are visceral and violent; like much of the anime in the Gundam tradition, this is an unflinching look at war. There is very little glory here, just death and pain. Broken Blade is a fairly dark series, with little fun or sunshine to ease the tension. On the other hand, I would prefer to not yell at the screen, “CAN YOU PLEASE JUST STOP FEELING FOR A SECOND? I’M GETTING A HEADACHE FROM THE EMOTING!” If I were fourteen, maybe this would be about right. Hard to say. At least people die here, even if the deaths are telegraphed pretty clearly. No Storm Troopers and their legendary blaster accuracy in this movie.

Speaking of being fourteen, I’m still trying to puzzle out the messages about women here. There are almost as many women in the robots as men. In fact, some of the strongest warriors are women. And then there is Sigyn, who is clearly the smartest person in the room and the only reason Krisna isn’t completely flattened by the more powerful Athens. At the same time, the women in this world have strangely massive and buoyant chests. All of them. Do I really need to say that the fan service is exceedingly awkward? I should hope that’s a given by now. And finally, a little bit of my soul died when one character said to another, “Even if you have giant boobs, you’re still only twelve, so stop acting so old!” Japan, just between me and you, I’m not sure what you’re trying to accomplish, but this whole pederasty thing just makes you look creepy. Also, breathe through your nose sometimes, too.

So, yeah. Two steps forward, one step back, ladies.

How to sum up? The production values here are fantastic – clearly they had a budget to work with. The art and music are both top notch, to my uneducated eye. (I wouldn’t buy the soundtrack necessarily, but it was very functional and professionally done.) If someone were to ask me where to start with Giant Fighting Robots, I probably wouldn’t start them here. I suspect that Broken Blade is better appreciated by those who will spot the tropes and enjoy the tweaks. Still, it’s a decent enough story, with just enough in the tank to give the appearance of being smart. The emotions are a bit overwrought and it certainly has its flaws, but everything holds together. While I doubt it will be remembered decades later as a masterpiece, neither is it an unworthy addition to the mecha canon.

Mobile Suit Gundam (Novel)

Mobile Suit Gundam (Novels)
Tomino Yoshiyuki

Some time ago, I watched and reviewed the anime series Mobile Suit Gundam in my quest to experience the foundations of Japanese science fiction. I enjoyed it well enough, but expected future installments to wow me more. At the time, I was unaware that a novelization of the first series had made its way into English, though I knew that many books and manga existed in Japan. Lo and behold, Del Rey released a translation of the three original novels in 1990; they quickly went out of print. (I have no idea why Del Rey thought this was a good idea, what with anime’s utter lack of mainstream popularity at the time and the financial difficulty of licensing the Gundam franchise.) Stone Bridge Press released an updated translation in 2004 as a single volume and the series has stayed in print this time around.

Some background for the anime impaired: Gundam is the premiere franchise in the Giant Fighting Robot genre. The first series aired in 1979 (followed shortly by the novelization reviewed here) and the expanded Gundam universe rivals Star Wars or Star Trek, both in size and influence. Tomino Yoshiyuki, Gundam’s creator, began the series in a bid to escape some of the sillier conventions of giant robot anime. These include, but are not limited to, simplistic tales of good and evil, random kids falling into robot cockpits and just happening to be genius pilots, and wholly implausible robots doing stuff that would make an engineer’s head explode. Gundam cannot completely escape the gravity well of cliché, but it does make an honest attempt.

I wonder if this was part of the motivation to write the novels. The anime, while unquestionably dark and mature for its target demographic, makes certain concessions. The book makes none, beyond the inclusion of wholly implausible robotic creations. (I’m sorry, but no amount of detail and planning will ever make 600m tall humanoid fighting machines anything but fantasy.) The world building and setup are identical, but by the second quarter of the books, the plot has diverged completely from the anime. Among the non-spoilery changes: Amuro Rei is a pilot in the Federation, not some whiny punk who stumbles into a conveniently open Gundam, Brite is squawky and insecure, and the civilian refugees are not idiotically forced to remain on a warship heading into combat. (No more scenes of children yelling, “WoooooOOOOOOOaaaaaah,” while the ship makes high-g combat maneuvers that should be turning them into smears of tomato paste on the walls.) The changes are almost universally for the better. Also, the book focuses much more on New Types, with the robots fading more into the background. I found this interesting, as it changes the focus and meaning of the story.

Some things are not awesome, both thematic and technical. Tomino clearly has issues with women. I forgive (barely) the cringe-inducing “relationships,” because I have seen real life Japanese courtship in action. It is not pretty. This doesn’t mean I want to read about 20 year olds acting like it’s 7th grade all over again, but I can at least see where they’re coming from. However, there is an undercurrent of, if not misogyny, at least an obvious discomfort with The Ladies. I think I’ll leave the heavy analysis to someone else, but it was something that occasionally rankled. He was trying, I think, but it’s awfully hard to not be a jerk sometimes. Beyond this, I can tell that Tomino is not primarily an author. Things can be a bit choppy, with sudden info dumping interrupting the flow of action, or random side trips into philosophy. He is a natural storyteller though, and this generally covers a multitude of technical faults.

We’ll wrap up this review with some reasons why people should read Mobile Suit Gundam. (Fans are going to read the book anyway, so the challenge here is to pitch it to readers more likely to be skeptical of Giant Fighting Robots.) The most obvious reason is to experience a canonical piece of Japanese science fiction. There is a lot of SF out there that we never see in English, so when something major like Gundam is translated, serious readers owe it to themselves to take a look. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, attacking Japanese SF without acknowledging Gundam is like looking at American SF without Star Wars. It’s not the most literary, award-winning stuff out there, but you can’t toss rice ball in Tokyo without hitting a Gundam fan. It’s a bit of fiction that has transcended the genre and become part of the cultural background noise of one of the biggest entertainment exporters in the world.

I also recommend Mobile Suit Gundam because it holds up well as SF. (I make no promises for other novels or manga in the universe.) The future history is convincing and compelling. Tomino keeps everything in Earth orbit, with much of humanity now living in “Sides,” or artificial habitats located at various Lagrange points. The war between Zeon, a Third Reich re-imagining based on one of the Sides, and the Earthbound Federation is plausible, with enough internal politics to feed the ever-shifting morality of the sequels. The characters are interesting, if a bit broad, and with enough possibilities that Tomino can use them as archetypes in future stories. Much of the story is wrapped up in the ethical quandary of war: what are we to do when the default human response is violence, despite our collective desire to rise such base instincts? The Japanese are hardly unique in examining this question, but their warlike past and nominally pacifist present give them an oblique take on the subject not often seen in Western fiction.

There is also a moment, more in the anime than the books, that seems a dead ringer for a scene in The Legion of Space, when a Nazi-esque speech and crowd response on Zeon mirrors almost exactly a similar moment in the Purple Hall. I wonder if Tomino read Jack Williamson and other pulp writers in translation, or if this is pure coincidence.

There are plenty of holes to poke in Mobile Suit Gundam, as one would expect for a novelization like this. It’s not perfect, and not even canonical in some crucial points, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. In fact, I enjoyed it more than the original anime, though I have been advised that later series are much better. It inspired me to pick up my occasional viewing of Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam and perhaps read further into the novels. I think it’s definitely worth checking out for those not already initiated into the joys of the Giant Fighting Robot.

The Sky Crawlers

The Sky Crawlers

I’d better put the Anime Disclaimer out here again, since it’s been awhile and I fear that this review could open me to anime fan ridicule. I found The Sky Crawlers quite by accident at the library, picking it up when I saw that Oshii Mamoru directed. Oshii helmed the groundbreaking Ghost in the Shell, a personal favorite that remains his most famous production outside of Japan. (Not so in Japan. My wife has only heard of Ghost from me, but knows Patlabor and Urusei Yatsura quite well. I haven’t seen either of them.) The cover promised Oshii brilliance and a lot of airplanes, all packed into just 120 minutes, so I gave it a try.

Sky Crawlers is not what I expected. No cyberpunk, some action but not wall to wall, and much more subtlety than the cover suggests. This reaction is partially a reflection of my ignorance, but my wife was also surprised, knowing as she does only his older TV work. While watching the movie, I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not and had to trust that Oshii would deliver in the end. It’s not a film that reaches out and grabs the viewer, but instead goes on its merry way and is happy if someone wants to sit down and watch. How one reacts to the final ten minutes or so will likely determine the final opinion.

Things start with a dogfight that showcases the visual wizardry to come and promises frantic action. The pace changes almost immediately after the credits, however, as the main character Yuichi arrives at his small airbase, meets the others, and settles into his new routine. From the first frames, something is not quite right. It’s difficult to pin down what exactly feels wrong, but everything is just a little off-kilter. The pilots are detached, mostly expressionless, and completely out of touch with the people around them. We learn early on that they are basically children who know full well that their entire purpose in life is to fly airplanes and die. In a striking scene, a military leader (a regular adult) is complaining about one pilot’s immaturity. “Of course,” responds Yuichi. “If we’re going to die tomorrow, what’s the point of growing up?”

Feelings of unease aren’t limited to the characters. There is the mystery of the pilot Yuichi replaces, who obviously wasn’t shot down because his airplane is intact. Rumors swirl about his possible murder. The war raging is only vaguely outlined, with no clear purpose and an enemy who isn’t mysterious or hidden, but never defined beyond “the other guys.” We may wonder who the good guys and bad guys are, but nobody in the movie ever asks or explains. It also never explains why all of the pilots appear to be Japanese mercenaries fighting in England. A vague sense of menace permeates every scene, between the possible murder, the war, the strange soldiers fighting it, and the way they seem to fall into roles and situations as though reading from a well rehearsed script. Finally, while the airplane scenes are fluid, lifelike, and rendered in flawless CG, the characters on the ground move in jerky, unnatural ways, as if they aren’t completely conscious, or even alive.

But the planes! The airplanes are amazing. Part WWII vintage, part Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, part modern-day prototype, the airplanes are beautiful. Everything is prop driven, no jet engines here, but are obviously highly advanced. The propellers might be in unconventional locations on the fighters (the back) or in impossibly massive ranks on the bombers (picture a prop driven B-2 stealth bomber the size of a B-52). The pilots use only guns, so the fights are close, personal and brutal. None of the distant, high speed tussles over heat seeking missile lock here. Pair this with the hyper-realistic CG, and we have some breathtaking set pieces. The largest campaign, that I thought would fill up the entire back end of the film, is a brilliant feat of animation. (It was much shorter than I expected, alas.) This reminded me of why I used to drool over military aviation.

But then the flights end, the characters go back to hanging out at the base, and all the tension returns. It’s very subtle, so much so that I didn’t realize it was there until the tension suddenly released itself. I knew that I felt uncomfortable, but couldn’t put a finger on why. The only comparison I can make is to music: Oshii introduces hidden dissonance little by little, that winds up the suspense without ever actually showing its hand, that leaves the viewer fidgeting but unsure of why sitting peacefully is impossible. And then, with just a few minutes left in the film, Oshii resolves the dissonant notes with one abrupt action, and a sound that was all tritones becomes perfect fifths. That moment was when I knew I was watching something brilliantly crafted, when in an instance, the tension drained suddenly out of the characters and out of us, into a situation that, while not happy, is consonant.

Of course, things continue a little longer after that, introducing a new twist to the story that I didn’t initially appreciate. Without spoiling anything, I will just say to watch through the closing credits. The epilogue draws everything to a close that is necessary after the final scene.

The Sky Crawlers is not, perhaps, for everyone. It is slow, contemplative, and obtuse. Oshii mostly eschews simple moralizing, even when his characters might be presenting his philosophy in monologue. (It’s hard to take drunk child soldiers as reliable narrators.) A quick sample of Internet commentary ranges from “work of genius” to “wow, that was boring.” This review goes into spoilery interpretive mode about how Oshii is using the film to roust Japan out of its strange cultural malaise, cajoling people to fight against complacency and make something of their lives. Then it explains how the movie is actually a scathing condemnation of the anime industry and culture, which is an interesting, if self-absorbed, take. I tend to believe that Oshii has bigger fish to fry than anime fans, but I make no claims to know what I’m talking about. I do think I see what the author’s point is, though, about finding meaning in what we do, creating something of value even if the day to day seems pointless and monotonous. Still, what I will remember is less the Important Message and more the dogfights, and that one moment when Yuichi deflated the angst that built up for 100 minutes.

Rating: One of those matches that drags on 0-0 as the crowd gets more irritable and antsy, until someone scores a sudden goal in the 90th minute and everything goes crazy.

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water Pt. 1

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water
Part One

It’s been awhile since I last dipped a wary toe in the fertile but mossy lake of anime. The opportunity came again several weeks ago when my wife brought home an unfamiliar DVD from the library, thinking to give the kids an excuse to hear somebody’s Japanese besides ours. Normally I wouldn’t pay much attention to anything besides giant fighting robots, but the cover said something to the effect of “the best anime series ever made” and “based on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Consider my curiosity piqued.

Nadia comes from a pretty unassailable pedigree. I was a big Jules Verne fan back in the day, with the venerable tale of Captain Nemo a favorite. The original idea for Nadia was put together by none other than Miyazaki Hayao, back when he was just some guy doing animation for other people. It seems, though, that he never did more than outline a story. Finally, the team of Anno Hideaki and Gainax Animation, those crazy minds behind Evangelion, did the full production at the behest of NHK, Japan’s quasi-public TV station. One would think that this combination is a sure thing, so I decided to give it a try.

This is Part One of our Nadia coverage, through Episode 16. It remains to be seen if Part Two will happen, based entirely on whether or not I make it any further in the series. The entire series has 39 episodes, but widespread Internet commentary says that almost a third of those, from the early twenties to the mid thirties, aren’t worth watching. This means that I have seen over half of the good bits, which is probably enough to make some judgments about it all. Thus far it is a mixed bag. The good parts are intense and impressive, the bad parts are about what one would expect from a TV anime geared towards 10-15 year olds. At its heart is a raging schizophrenia; Nadia can’t decide if it wants to be a tense sci-fi thriller or a zany kids’ show.

In that there is a captain named Nemo and his submarine, The Nautilus, Verne’s story gets a nod. That’s about where the similarities end, as the main characters are teen-aged Jean and Nadia, who stumble, as is the tendency of animated youngsters, into a plot much more complicated than they ever dreamed. Jean is a French inventor, while Nadia is a circus performer with a pet lion cub, both of whom are hinted to be from Africa. Immediate and surprising bonus points for Nadia being black, the series for being aware of it, and the occasional nods made toward racial equality. Anyway, they find themselves involved in a vendetta between The Nautilus and some guy from Atlantis who wears a funny mask and calls himself Gargoyle. There are various confusing twists and turns, an array of side characters, and a lot of questions still unresolved at the end of Episode 16, not the least of which concerns a strange crystal called Blue Water that Nadia carries around.

When the series tracks this story, especially the Gargoyle – Nemo conflict, it cranks up the tension, asks some hard questions, and tells a good steampunk before there was steampunk kind of story. Disc Two in particular comes ready to play, with some amazing shots of the bad guy’s hidden fortress, wild technology, and action intense enough to scare off my kids. As befits a TV series, some of the art is comparatively amazing. There are also plenty of easter eggs for anime fans, many of which probably went over my head. Two that I immediately noticed were Nemo, who is a dead ringer for Global from Macross (not so much when he takes off the hat), and at least one scene with Gargoyle’s people that was straight out of the original Gundam and its Nazi-ish Principality of Zeon.

I have narrative whiplash, however, from watching this thing boomerang from serious SF to crazy kiddie cartoon. Gargoyle will be making some grandiose speech about genocide and destiny in one minute, then kids will be running around the next dodging clumsy bad guys while making stereotypical anime expressions with giant mouths and floating sweat drops. Overly dramatic deaths are paired with comical (?) romantic subplots, while slice o’ submarine life bits interject themselves into underwater battle scenes. I suppose it’s rather obvious which parts I liked and which parts I occasionally skipped through.

Add to this some troubling gender imagery and an irritating female lead and the result is several episodes (hello, entirety of Disc Three) that are completely disposable. Nadia says something cringe-inducing at least once per episode as she randomly goes off on a militant vegan tear, accuses someone of cold-blooded murder after a battle of self-defense, or decides for whatever reason to be angry at Jean. I’m uncertain why they keep her around, though I suppose the secrets of her past (Nemo’s child perhaps?) give a plot-related excuse. I would prefer that she stay quiet and let the cool people (Nemo, Gargoyle) take the stage, but it’s a pain to mute the TV every time Nadia starts talking. (Apparently this all gets worse in the bad episodes, which frightens me.) Finally, despite this being on NHK (generally harmless and dowdy) and directed at 10 year olds, anime never fails to deliver chillingly awkward fan service. That may be a redundant phrase.

The most important question for me is: will I brave the remaining 8-10 non-crappy episodes? I don’t know. I’m curious to know what happens to Nemo and Gargoyle, why the Atlantean Empire is still around and blowing things up, and whether or not Anno and Gainax deliver any more nifty scenes. On the other hand, I can do without any more comedic hijinks and would like to keel-haul a major character. If I can get my hands on a movie compression, I may watch that instead, or just read some episode summaries on Wikipedia. Three plus hours is a lot to ask of a viewer when half of it is pointless. Part Two may eventually follow this review, but I have some other, higher priority stuff to get through first. Stay tuned, but I caution readers not to hold any breaths.

Rating: Freddy Adu. He started with much fanfare and promise, tailed off terribly in the middle, but may yet accomplish something great.

Anime Philosophers

Anime Philosophers

By: Jose

I will be the first to say that rumors of my demise have been exaggerated.  Here at Two Dudes, there are many important things that have to be done behind the scenes (such as making sure that the attic is clean, the Mountain Dew has been restocked, and neckbeards reach the proper level of dishevelment), and one could say that I have been fighting the good fight for some time to make sure that high quality posts come to all four of our readers.

That said, certain rumblings of discontent from Pep have forced me to come out of my cave and make a post.  I’m under the impression that he thinks it’s quite important for continuing to grow our somewhat meager readership.   To that end, I will admit here, freely, under the cloud of complete anonymity, that I occasionally watch anime.  I will not point people towards the anime disclaimer, but rather simply state that I enjoy giant robots, explosions, and occasional bursts of “burning spirit.”  Like all things, it vacillates rather exceptionally in the quality presented. [1]

However, occasionally I come upon something so utterly and completely ridiculous that it makes me writhe in agony, drop to my knees, and scream “Japaaaaaan” in much the same voice that Darth Vader takes at the end of Episode Three.  In today’s case, it is the following:

To preface the following rant it must be noted that I was a philosophy major in college.  I spent nights agonizing over things like “world” and “being” and “truth.”  To this date, I’m unsure if this actually did anything for me other than give me a substance abuse problem, but there is something so utterly ridiculous about the philosophers being transposed into the bodies of magical teenage girls that it fills me with something vaguely between rage and agony.

I’m really rather annoyed at the way each of the philosophers are presented.  The sort of twin like mentality of Hume and Berkeley seems to be indicating some sort coherent identity between their philosophies.  In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Berkeley struggles with the existence of reality that is not directly perceived [his ultimate answer is that things don’t disappear because God is watching everything. QED], while Hume is much more concerned with direct assaults on the ivory tower of metaphysical thought.   While Hume’s philosophy is extremely well done, most of it is done in the way we think of more Critical Philosophy now-a-days.  He points out a foolish assumption [something like causation], identifies that we have no perception of it [i.e. we can’t perceive cause and effect], and then asserts that some fundamental frame work of our everyday existence is actually just a habit of mind.  While they’re both very concerned with the perception of existence, their interaction with the philosophy and the ultimate thrust of the empirical philosophy is completely different. [2]

Kant makes a certain amount of sense, but unless she’s got a weird sort of worship/hatred relationship with Hume, then it completely misses the point of what caused Kant to create the Critical Philosophy. [3]  Kant was originally a Leibnizian rationalist, but after reading Hume, basically fell apart and slowly put himself back together intellectually.  [This is a common occurrence after reading Hume for the first time.]  Hegel appears to have a giant rack.  I have no idea why.  And the fact that Spinoza is having a panty shot raises feelings of extreme ire.  [4]  Nietzsche looks rather angry, which I suppose is sort of correct, but one needs to realize that Nietzsche was in no way actually a nihilist.  He basically said it himself.  Rather, Nietzsche should be thought of as the Anti-Plato.

Descartes looks completely boring and in this sense is probably the most accurate, but I’m sure Japan will find a way to screw this up too.

tl;dr: Keep your damn anime out of my intellectualism.

[1] Unfortunately, anime often feels the need to provide things like fan service (which I find awkward at best, and downright weird at worst) and very warped representations of human relationships.  I’m sure Pep understands the reasoning behind all of it, but anime’s general idea of how people interact with one another often leaves me frothing and wanting to throw things.

[2] Berkeley is still very much in the tradition of the old metaphysicians– his primary concern has to do with God.  It makes sense, he is an Archbishop at the time of his writing.

[3] The Critical Philosophy is best expressed through his magnum opus: The Critique of Pure Reason.  Effectively, this is an attempt to save Metaphysical & Religious thought from what Kant thought was the damning thought of Hume.  Whether or not he saves it is a matter of some debate, but the Critical Philosophy forms the basis for pretty much all philosophy that comes after it.

[4] For those of you unawares, Spinoza was a philosopher who was SO God-Drunken that both the Jewish Faith and the Catholic Church found him rather odd and summarily kicked him out.  He basically lived as a lens grinder and wrote letters to various philosophers about how his geometric proofs, in fact, proved that we were all actual modal existences of God (don’t ask).

Macross Plus

Macross Plus

Having made my way through the Big Three of sci-fi anime (Mobile Suit Gundam, Space Battleship Yamato, and Super Dimension Fortress Macross), it is time to dig further into the major franchises. Macross II is widely regarded as a failure and was promptly disavowed by the franchise creator, so I skipped that and headed straight for the next in line, Macross Plus. This four-volume OVA (Original Video Animation, direct to video in our parlance) gets rave reviews in the anime community and is often cited as must see anime. I have yet to settle on an opinion; I hope that in writing this I will be able to make sense of it all. As always, please read the Anime Disclaimer before leaving scathing comments.

The easiest place to start, and least difficult to untangle, is production values. Macross Plus was apparently made with a massive budget for its time and it shows. From the opening titles, the art and animation are light years ahead of the original. I’m not much of an animation connoisseur, so if the difference is clear to me, it must be the equivalent of getting slapped in the head with a full-grown tuna for true anime fans. I especially enjoyed the cityscapes and wondered if they borrowed at all from Blade Runner (which is, of course, modeled on Osaka). As an art-related side note, I was pleasantly surprised by the relative lack of fan service. I am told this was remedied in the movie version, and an appropriate number of breasts are on display. (Unconfirmed.)

Music is, naturally, the other area where Macross Plus shines. The franchise has always given music a central place in the narrative, though I spent most of the original series irritated at the songs and wishing that Minmay (the dopey idol singer) would go away, or at least shut up. Plus, however, does the music right. I’m more impressed by the breadth of the soundtrack than by individual tunes, as it swings smoothly from Sharon Apple’s pop songs to driving electronica to traditional orchestral movie scores without ever missing a beat. There is even a musical Star Wars Easter egg that made me laugh out loud during the final battle. I won’t go so far as to buy the soundtrack on CD, but the mere fact that it is available in the States gives some idea of importance the franchise places on music.

Those are the easy things to praise. Once I start to think through the plot, ambivalence rears its ugly head. With four episodes of about 40 minutes each, Macross Plus is mercifully free of the bloat that haunts many TV series. No clip shows, no weird side stories, no random filler. In spite of this, the pacing and overall arc feel a bit off, considering the lean narrative style. The first episode sets the stage and introduces the requisite love triangle, the second and third fill out the details and allow the conflict to develop, then the fourth unexpectedly veers off in a new direction and blows a bunch of stuff up (literally). In the negative column, this really feels like the producers needed to balance the last bit of the plot more, or find some other way to resolve the initial conflict. It felt very strange to go from “Top Gun, only Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise hate each other and have always loved Kelly McGillis” to “Holy crap the AIs are EVIL” so abruptly. On the plus side, this didn’t occur to me until later. While watching, I was fully engaged and caught up in the story.

The characters are another set of mixed feelings. The ostensible Hero isn’t very likable. He doesn’t just start out arrogant and condescending, the story never forces him to stop being a jerk. Usually these characters show a better side, or at least take a moment for self-reflection at some point in the narrative, but not Isamu. It’s hard to cheer for someone I would punch in real life. His rival, the bad guy until the Real Bad Guy appears, is actually more sympathetic than the good guy. Yes, Guld is rigid and distant, but he’s also honorable and shows a protective instinct. In almost any situation, the viewer can count on Isamu to be a self-centered wanker, while Guld does the responsible thing. And yet, we’re supposed to cheer for the jerk. The point opposite the hypotenuse of the love triangle, Myung, is relatively unremarkable. She’s nice enough, though I would have told her to get her crap together before looking to me for love and support.

The development of this triangle is the biggest hole in the story. I suppose it’s a love triangle (because this is Macross, and it has to be a love triangle), but one point of the triangle never really shows up. Guld hovers over Myung and appears to make it to at least second base, but Isamu is a non-entity. He’s busy flirting with other people, and I suspect there is little room in Isamu’s heart for anyone but Isamu. Guld is constantly threatened by him, though, and Myung apparently loves him anyway, though we are only told that, not shown. At the end, there is a big reveal of why the two men hate each other so, but this just raises more disturbing questions about them. The exact order of events is never clarified, but either this violent hatred arose from a medium-sized misunderstanding and argument, or someone got raped/abused and the two guys laugh it off as “just something that happened in the past.” This is either somewhat trivial or exceedingly troubling, which may be why the show shies away from clear explanations. Finally, the end of the series fails utterly to resolve the triangle. This was alright by me, though, since I didn’t really care about it anyway.

To sum up: While the Macross franchise is generally seen as a love triangle involving musicians against the backdrop of interstellar war, Macross Plus replaces interstellar war with pilots in a training program. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it focuses the viewer on a character study. Music’s role in the narrative changes also, downgrading itself from a key factor in the end of war to a somewhat relevant plot enabler. Finally, Macross Plus removes most of the silliness from the first series and stays in much darker, more adult territory. How viewers feel about these three factors will likely determine their response to the series. In my case, I enjoy the adult tone, kind of wish that music was restored to its pedestal, and much prefer spaceships blowing up to half-formed relationship quandaries involving people I don’t care about. However, as I said before, as long as the tape was rolling, I was caught up in the story and couldn’t get it out of my head.

Rating: Tottenham Hotspur. The club has moments of high drama, triumph, and pathos, enjoys passionate support of a certain group, and puts a respectable team on the field every match. They don’t win championships though, and I’ve just never gotten into them.

Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell
Shiro Masamune

Something about cyberpunk gives a buzz unlike anything else in science fiction. I’m not sure what it is and the only answer that comes to mind is generational. Cyberpunk really exploded when I was a young adolescent, playing a lot of computer games, dabbling in pre-internet BBS culture, and planning on attending Rice University before getting a job at Origin Systems. (Yes, this is doofy. To make it worse, that dream was updated to “co-own a jazz coffee shop in Seattle” in later years. Now I live in the Northwest and work for a certain IT behemoth, so no telling what any of this says about me.) I’m not sure that baby boomers felt the same about Neuromancer, or any of the younger crowd would get that “just over the technology horizon” sense of excitement that William Gibson and his crowd could generate. To us though, watching the dawn of the Information Age while we read about hackers, cyberspace, or AI, this stuff was dizzingly intoxicating. (For a fun counterview, read the second paragraph of this post by Jo Walton. As much as I like her articles, we have very few tastes in common.)

Shiro’s Ghost in the Shell is hardly the first shot fired in the cyberpunk revolution, but the manga was published in 1989, just four years after Neuromancer. The film adaptation in 1995 helped usher in a Second Wave of sorts, characterized by anime, The Matrix, and some other stuff. (I’m not nearly the expert I should be about this, so apologies for being shallow and/or vague. I have, however, read Shockwave Rider, so I’m no poser.) This article will address both the original manga and anime, but not sequels, follow-ups, or hangers-on. Shiro was already in the manga/anime pantheon for Appleseed (unseen, but on my list) when he took a break to create Ghost in the Shell. Oshii Mamoru directed the movie adaptation; he too is no lightweight in the anime world, so there were some heavy hitters lined up for this tale. As a final note, the English title, “Ghost in the Shell,” bears no resenblence to the Japanese title, “攻殻機動隊 Kōkaku Kidōtai,” or roughly “Armored Riot Police Squad.” It is much cooler, which is not something that happens often.

The first question for our busy readers is no doubt, “I just don’t have much time for this anime stuff. Which one is better? I’ve got to consume efficiently here.” For once, this is a difficult question to answer. I will give a couple of suggestions here, then break them down in further detail in the following paragraphs. The short answer is, “I can’t pick just one.” This is not just because I am indecisive and wishy-washy, this is because the two actually have different strengths and weaknesses. In terms of narrative integrity and intensity, the film is a better choice. For a larger look at the world Shiro creates, and for more time to ruminate over the questions of existence that the characters ask among themselves, the manga offers greater reward.

But because it is a manga, it was published weekly over a period of some months and is prone to wandering hither and yon with the plot. This was explained further to me by my wife last week, as she read a gooshy romance series all out of order. “Well, these things that happen are just self-contained episodes, so you can kind of take them however they fall and set everything straight at the end.” Longer manga are much bigger offenders here, but there tends to be a single, mainline plot to a manga that is compartmentalized into weekly or monthly sections. Side stories happen, characters go on vacations, some random person will pop into the story and be important for a bit before disappearing, weeks will pass without any progress on the main story, but things will always gravitate back to it at some point. Mind you, I’m not a manga veteran by any definition, but even in limited reading I’ve noticed this. I suppose it could drive some people batty, but if taken the same way computer RPGs, with their subquests and diversions, or even Victor Hugo books are dealt with, it’s not a deal breaker.

In the case of Ghost in the Shell, this allows Shiro to track the main plot, where Motoko Kusanagi and her special ops police force hunt down a hacker named The Puppet Master, but also gives enough flexibility to send the squad on other missions, demonstrate the larger society at work, and let the squad hash out questions of identity. Kusanagi is a cybernetic hybrid, and spends large portions of the manga trying to come to terms with notions of humanity, how they apply to AI and cybernetics, and how these affect notions of Self. The “Shell” in the title refers to the bodies the characters are given, while the “Ghost” is something like a soul, or consciousness. These questions are a necessary part of the story and are present in the film, but not with the shambling, philosophical bent of the manga. This lack of time constraint also gives Shiro a chance to blow a week on conversations between Fuchikomi (spider-like AI robot henchmen) as they debate overthrowing the human regime. That was my favorite part. I should point out that even within this flexible setup, Shiro apparently didn’t have enough room to get out everything crammed into his head, because there are copious footnotes. These aren’t necessary to the plot, but they shine a light into Shiro’s unquestionably brilliant, but deeply strange mind.

Oshii suffers no such distraction. He gets in and out with maximum efficiency, taking a compact 80 minutes to trace Kusanagi’s hunt for The Puppet Master. The movie basically stays faithful to scenes from the manga, but eliminates all the side stories and navel gazing. What this loses in context, it makes up for with insistent pacing, a flawless arc, and about ten pounds if style in a five pound bag, to borrow a favorite Dave Barry-ism. The manga is also a cyberpunk tour de force, but in color and in motion, the film is the quintessential near-future, urban noir aesthetic. Anything we owe The Matrix in terms of 21st century style, we actually owe Ghost in the Shell. (The Wachowskis are, or were at least, fairly open about this influence.)

The real answer to the question posed earlier is, “Get them both.” Ghost in the Shell is influential, engaging, intelligent, and stylish. Nobody can be serious about cyberpunk without, at the very least, watching Oshii’s film. I plan on seeking out the follow-ups and posting reviews in the somewhat near future.

Rating: Nakata Hidetoshi. Japan’s essential footballer as the Samurai Blue went from nothing to global relevance, and Japan’s first major football export. He played the game with an uncharacteristic intelligence and grace, and is also really into fashion.

Mobile Suit Gundam

Mobile Suit Gundam

I am finally getting to the last of Japan’s Big Three SF Anime. (The other two are Super Dimension Fortress Macross and Space Battleship Yamato. Say what you will about the Japanese, but they sure like long, descriptive titles that may or may not make any sense.) Gundam is probably the definitive science fiction experience in Japan; it is comparable to Star Wars or Star Trek here. One can watch Gundam movies (possibly based on Gundam comics or books) while building plastic models from the show, then re-enact the whole thing in a video game, and finally tell friends about it later at a Gundam convention. There is even an anime series called Gunpla Builders that tells stories about, I kid you not, kids who build Gundam models and enter them in competitions. The original series came out in the late 1970s, the current series gets its next scheduled theatrical release in November of this year. It’s pretty much impossible to understand Japanese SF without confronting the Gundam behemoth at some point.
The best news? Many (but probably not all) of the Gundam stories are worth experiencing. On the surface, there aren’t many things sillier than gigantic robots piloted by angsty teenagers, flying through space and whacking things with glowing swords. And yet, somehow Tomino Yoshiyuki, the Gundam mastermind, pulls it off. It probably helps that he appears to be manic depressive and uses these stories to confront his personal demons. In Tomino’s hands, what should be moronic, adolescent fantasy turns into a dark meditation on the confluence of war, violence, and growing up. There are also giant fighting robots, crap blowing up, and occasional gratuitous shower scenes. (Note: the robots do not, repeat not, transform in this series. They only bash things and fly.)
The Gundam universe is a somewhat near-future creation, where humanity is split between Earth and several orbiting space habitats. The Earth-bound folk are The Federation, while the break-away orbitals are part of the Principality of Zeon. In the original series, Zeon are the rebel scum and the Federation are scrappy and decent. These roles are fluid though, with the sides trading white and black hats depending on the creator’s mood at the time. This being a Japanese story, there are multiple factions within each side, and ever-shifting degrees of good and evil. Char, the chief antagonist, is the epitome of this. He fights for the bad guys, but is operating for his own mysterious purposes in ways that both harm and help the heroes. He is also much cooler than the whiny protagonist and more sympathetic than any of the truly evil bad guys. Char and his clones play a major role in the Gundam universe, but now is hardly the time to delve into what has become a complex and detailed mythology.
Mobile Suit Gundam crashes merrily along a cliché ridden path. The hero is young and must come of age. (He’s also a dork for the first two thirds of the story and I had no compelling reason not to wish for his horrible death.) He literally falls into the cockpit of a Gundam (the giant robot) and demonstrates almost supernatural gifts for piloting it. Everyone is shocked, though if they had any idea they were in an anime TV series, they would immediately realize that of course the hero can drive the robot. After all, he used to bulls-eye wamp rats back home in Beggars Canyon, and they’re not much bigger than two meters. Whoops! Wrong dork who comes of age. Fortunately for all involved, the hero doesn’t find true love this time around. This is Japan, so most love is either tragic, unrequited, poorly executed, or some combination of the above. (A reflection of real life??) Again, there is no way this should work. And yet! I enjoyed it and plan on watching more.
Gundam benefits this time from finding a length sweet spot. I have complained in other reviews that Yamato was too short to engage and Macross needed to lose about one fourth of its episodes. Gundam clocks in at about nine hours across three DVDs; Tomino condensed the 30+ episode series and is, according to something I read somewhere, happiest with this length. I concur – three DVDs forces the editor to cut out clip shows, side stories, and other narrative fat, but allows enough room to build a convincing world and facilitate a rapport between audience and character.
I realize that in this review I have spent more time talking about the world, mythology and context of Gundam than I have the actual series. This may be appropriate, as a friend of mine explained to me that Mobile Suit Gundam is basically Tomino’s world building exercise, and that the story really gets going in the second series. This may be true. The first series is interesting, I’m glad I watched it, and I plan on watching more, but I think it leaves plenty of potential untapped. I consider it to be must-see anime for anyone who is serious about understanding Japanese SF or who just likes big robots, but suspect that Gundam’s best days are waiting for me on a different set of DVDs.
Rating: Pre-season friendlies. Fun to watch, full of useful scouting material, and an endless source of gossip and speculation, but not to be confused with the meat of the regular season.

Space Battleship Yamato

Space Battleship Yamato

Best to get the anime disclaimer out of the way first, as I press forward in my quest to experience the pillars of Japanese science fiction. Yamato is the second of the Holy Trifecta of Japanese SF Anime, the others being the original Gundam and Macross series. Yamato is the oldest of these, predating even Star Wars. Savvy anime veterans will know that Yamato blew through the US as Star Blazers back in the day. Like a lot of Japanese creations, this enjoyed life as a TV series, a movie, and a manga. And, like pretty much every Japanese export, I missed the boat as a youngster. I am addressing the movie in this review.

I have mixed feelings on whether to recommend the movie condensation of this story, or push readers to invest the time in the whole series. Here, at least, my decision was influenced mainly by the contents of the public library: Star Blazers was available as an English dub, but to get Japanese language I was restricted to the movie version. Movie it was. (Also, the time commitment required for a 40+ episode series is more than I was comfortable with. As it is, the movie is long at three hours.) I suspect that, if language and time are of no concern, the full series may provide a more emotional experience. Language may not be a problem anyway, as I think I saw Yamato on Crunchyroll somewhere.

First, a quick summary and review. Earth has been pounded into submission by the evil Gamilas. The only survivors live in underground cities that are threatened by radioactivity from the surface. A spacecraft crash lands and gives humanity a message: build a ship with the enclosed plans and travel to the planet Iscandar. The mysterious Stasha awaits there with technology that will save the Earth. The lucky humans dig up the real-life Battleship Yamato (sunk during WWII) and retrofit it with new technology, at which point it flies off into the stars to save everything.

What works about this? As a stylized space opera, this is good fun. The bad guys are nefarious, the crew of the Yamato is plucky, the fate of all humanity hangs in the balance, etc. Also, seeing a WWII-era battleship flying through interstellar space and firing its wave cannon is awesome in a crazy kind of way. There are twists and turns in the plot to keep viewers engaged. There is a kind of fake complexity and moral ambiguity that gives the impression of watching something challenging and profound, without actually being taxing in any way. I was happy at the end, when (spoiler alert) the good guys save the day.

What doesn’t work so well? Many of my complaints might be a result of seeing the movie rather than the series. The characters are a big problem for me in the movie – only one of them has any real impact (the captain), while the rest flit in and out of the story without ever distinguishing themselves. Two characters fall in love at some point, but those scenes must be on the editing floor somewhere, because I never saw it happen. I would also question some other editing decisions, as aspects of the plot that seemed important were skipped over quickly, while side stories that could have been addressed in five minutes, if at all, bogged down the main story arc. Beyond that, my complaints are rather predictable. This is, after all, a story whose target audience includes boys in upper elementary school grades. While I don’t expect total plot coherency or an absence of incredibly random problem solvers in my cartoon space operas, it would have been nice.

What really grabbed me, however, was not the story or the canonical importance of Yamato, but the relationship of the events on-screen to Japanese history. I’m uncertain if the creators were conscious of this, but Yamato is basically re-fighting the end of World War II. The parallels are far from iron-clad, but within the first 30 minutes similarities were leaping off the screen. The Gamilas reign radioactive death from the skies, launch from a forward base taken from Earth and now beyond the reach of Earth’s ships. Humanity fights bravely, but is ultimately helpless in the face of superior technology and production and reduced to suicide attacks. The battleship Yamato, originally launched (and subsequently sunk) in a hopeless attack against the invaders was Japan’s last gasp in the naval war. For those not up on Pacific War history, this would be roughly analogous to, in order, be the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Okinawa, and the end of the war in general, when the full might of US industry was bearing down on Japan.

Miraculously, the story somehow tucks this into the narrative without ever addressing more controversial (from Japan’s point of view) circumstances surrounding the war, or caving in to nationalist cliché. I don’t mean to imply that Matsumoto Reiji and the other creators are trying to rewrite history in Yamato, indeed I am uncertain if the parallels are even intentional, but I couldn’t ignore the possibilities inherent in this kind of tale. Even if it is just a reflection of the history embedded in Japanese culture at the time, the reference to the war is fascinating.

What is my final verdict then? I’m still not sure. Yamato is worth seeing as a part of the canon, as a cultural artifact, and probably as a way to relive Star Blazers if one is so inclined. It is not without faults, so I can’t give it a whole-hearted recommendation. My feelings on compilation movies vs. TV series are mixed; Macross could certainly stand to make a quarter or so of its episodes vanish, but Yamato loses a lot by cutting out so much character development. I felt more invested in Macross when it ended, even if I was gnashing my teeth every time Minmay started talking. Yamato never irritated, but never provided that final catharsis either. In the end, I will give it a rating just this side of lukewarm, with the caveat that increased time put into the TV series may generate increased emotional rewards.

Rating: The Carling Cup. Drama to be had, if one is into that sort of thing, but nothing compared to a full season of play.