Lupin the Third, Baccano! and the broken narrative – an analysis

So I blame Simon Templar.

Yeah, so he’s a fictional character, but when I was fairly young I caught the end of an episode of The Saint. Now I barely remember it, but it left enough of an impression that I’ve been kind of obsessed with the character since then. And by extension, caper shows/movies/books.

Okay, so I don’t want to spend the entire post trying to explain what I mean by caper stories. So I’ll sum it up without going into too much detail. A caper story centers on the commission of one particular crime (usually a robbery). It usually features characters who are slightly over the top, but still believable. Think Snatch, Ocean’s Eleven, The Perfect Score, Confidence, etc. Granted, it sometimes happens that one crime sets off another crime, but generally it starts with a single crime.

So it isn’t really surprising that I downloaded “Baccano!” and bought Lupin the Third (Dead or Alive and The Book of Nostradamus to be exact). But what makes the two of them so interesting is how they’re on opposite ends of the trend in caper shows. (Some people might disagree with my classification of “Baccano!” as a caper show. But in a lot of ways it looks like one to start.) And all of this got me thinking about magic tricks.

Yeah, that’s a non-sequitur right there. But bear with me for a moment. So all story-telling is illusion in its own way. With a magician it’s his job to make the audience believe something that is blatantly not true. Essentially he does this by misdirection or in a way creating a fiction on the stage. Storytellers do the same thing. They create an illusion through images. Make the audience buy into it, through creating believable characters that the audience wants to invest their time in to. Then puts the characters into a situation which creates tension. So in essence, a story is an illusion told through words or pictures and dialogue.

Oh yeah, and narrative. This is what I’ve been thinking a lot about watching both “Baccano!” and Lupin the Third.

The classic caper narrative vs. the new caper narrative

So the classic caper narrative starts with the reason for the crime. In the Italian Job it was revenge. But mostly it’s usually about money (Ocean’s Eleven) or the thrill (The Thomas Crowne Affair). Then it moves in a linear direction. The hero collects his crew, faces some complications and then the story climaxes and it ends. In a lot of ways this is the storytelling equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat or sawing a woman in half. The audience knows that the story is supposed to go in that direction and doesn’t have to work to figure out what’s going on.

Lupin the Third is that kind of narrative. In fact both stories had almost the same plot structure. Now that doesn’t mean they had the same plot, but the way the narrative arc started with the problem, added rising action, built up to a climax, had a resolution and then the denouement was the same. (Although I could do an entire post on the missing denouement in anime).

Now, the new caper narrative is (in my opinion) largely the work of Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarrantino. Essentially the story starts wherever it feels like starting. Pulp Fiction, for instance, starts at the climax and goes back to the introduction, then has some rising action, the denouement and then some more rising action and then goes back to the climax and resolution. Now in the case of Pulp Fiction it’s a deceptively tricky set up. Essentially there are several different classic stories built around one set of characters. Now other stories have taken the idea and run with it (with mixed results). Then Guy Ritchie came along then with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and added fancy camera work to the mix – jump cuts, time lapse, time stop (with interior monologue), and some other stuff. This again has become part of the canon for the new crime/caper narrative.

Ironically, I can’t decide whether “Baccano!” starts with the denouement or with the introduction or whether that section of the story serves both purposes. Then it moves backward and forward through time, changing POVs (another trick of the broken narrative), until eventually it sorts itself out into a selection of stories. It has moments of denouement sprinkled into the story. It isn’t as broken as say 28 Grams but it comes close.

Now in a lot of ways, this is the storytelling equivalent to making the Statue of Liberty disappear or escaping from a block of ice. It’s risky. It’s flashy. It gets a whole lot of attention.

But when it fails, it fails hard.

Which one is better

Now if you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you’ve probably figured out that I’m a bit of a traditionalist. I like my stories without a whole lot of fancy tricks. But I do make a little bit of an exception when it comes to the broken narrative. I like it… sometimes.

There is a good reason why the broken narrative has become so prevalent in crime/caper stories and that’s because there’s a limited amount of plots that you can have. Essentially the Hope Diamond can only get stolen so many times before people start saying, “Yeah… it’s another one of those movies.” The broken narrative works to add a bit of tension to a story on the part of the audience. We have to piece together what’s going on from the dribs and drabs of information that we’re given until we can get a picture of what’s going on.

The problem is that much like Guy Ritchie’s jump cuts, it’s just storytelling trickery. Now in the case of “Baccano!” it worked because of something I mentioned with Pulp Fiction that the parts of the stories were in themselves their own stories. “Baccano!” used a similar method with breaking down each scene into its own mini-story and having each of the episodes focused around a particular set of characters (almost creating an arc within the arc).

But whenever I see one of these type of tricks employed I wonder how much more they could have done if they just told the story straight. That’s the limitation of the broken narrative (especially when it jumps between storylines and POVs), is that it leaves characters less developed then they would have been if the story was told straight. So while I don’t mind it, I’m not in love with it either.

I mean who really cares whether the Statue of Liberty disappeared. It’s still just smoke and mirrors.

Wait? Seirei no Moribito?

So there are plenty of days that I remember quite clearly.

Like the day the Challenger blew up, I was sitting in a third-grade classroom, huddled around a television with about thirty or so other students. Pretty much all because Christa McCauliffe (the teacher on the shuttle) was from New Hampshire (and I was in school in New Hampshire).

I remember where I was on 9/11. I’d just woken up in my dorm and I was heading outside for a cigarette, when my RA stopped me in the hall to tell me someone had just flown a plane into the World Trade Center.

And I’ll remember where I was when I found out that Seirei no Moribito was picked up from Media Blasters.

Okay so it isn’t as dramatic as the other two, but it’s still a bit of a shock. And adding to that, Media Blasters announcement makes this the first show to be salvaged from the shipwreck that was Geneon.

Now if you’re like me, you probably had to scratch your head at that one. Wait? Seirei no Moribito? First? Don’t get me wrong, SnM is a great show. And I will buy it when it comes out. But of all of the shows stuck in limbo, this is not the one I expected to get saved. For some reason, I get the feeling that SnM was the store brand, sitting next to the top shelf items like Black Lagoon 2nd Season or Hellsing Ultimate.

Not to mention the laundry list of older titles that haven’t (and probably shouldn’t) be picked up: Trigun, Hellsing, Lain, hell even X (TV).

But as bizarre and surreal as it is, I’m still dancing around on this one. So for all you SnM fans out there, it’s time to celebrate. Sometimes being second tier does mean you come in first.

In My View: Why the Otakusphere hates to love and loves to hate Answerman

(I want to thank The Animanachronism for this idea.)

So Daryl, Gerald and Clarissa may try. Scott and Rym may deserve it. Mike Nichols and crew may avoid it.

But no other non-blogger raises the amount of pure
emotion (either
for
or
against) in the Otakusphere as one man:

Zac Bertschy and his Hey Answerman column.

So the question remains, why? I mean there are a lot of reviewers on ANN who say bad stuff about shows. There are other people with just as loud of opinions and to be fair with worse opinions (though I won’t say who.) In fact the Internet in chock full of people with something to say and a soapbox to say it on.

But none of them have the type of credibility Bertschy does. Now I’m not going to go into whether he deserves that credibility or not, but I will say that when he speaks, we tend to listen for better or worse.

And he’s a jerk.

Now he personally might be a man among men. He might deserve sainthood and be a great guy to get a beer with after work. But as soon as the first words of Hey Answerman appear on the screen, I know I’m going to get an unequivocal opinion (whether it’s well informed or not). There’s simply no doubt about where he stands on any particular issue. There’s no gray area. And there’s certainly no wiggle room. So when he states that he thinks Seven Seas shouldn’t release Kodomo no Jikan in the United States (and calls the people who read it a bunch of names), there isn’t any doubt about it. And when he states that fansubbers are a bunch of entitlement freaks. It makes a large section of the Otakusphere notice.

And it makes it really easy to disagree with him. In fact, his arguments are generally so narrow that any slight deviation makes for a good column. All you have to do is change a number. For instance in a somewhat recent column he stated that three episodes was an adequate preview for a series. After that people should start buying the show. And if they aren’t buying it after that then they’re stealing. And if they are stealing then they aren’t really fans. Now parts of that I agree with. Yes, I think people should buy anime. Yes, I think freeloading off of the fansubs is stealing. But three episodes? Come on, I couldn’t tell that I liked Twelve Kingdoms until I watched the first eight episodes.

And that’s just one example. There’s dozens of them. In fact, there’s at least one Bertschy revelation every week. Even someone like me, who generally agrees with him, can disagree on some of his particulars. And if you disagree with more than just the particulars. Well then you’re in post heaven.

But all that said, he writes opinion columns. He should, well, have an opinion. I don’t fault him for writing his opinion, or stating his opinion. Granted, I do miss the short-lived Hey Ms. Answerman. But Bertschy’s columns aren’t bad, and I’m not going to fault the guy for making a living.

But I do think there’s at least a small case of Trenchcoat envy going around. I mean here’s a guy who gets paid for what bloggers do for free. Now personally, I think he’s put his time in, so I don’t really get jealous of him. Even worse than that here’s this guy who got a job that we’d kill for, and he’s not even a fan. He’s pretty much blantantly stated that. On top of that he’s got credibility that only the likes of a tj_han or a dannychoo or a darkmirage has the hopes of attaining. (Granted there are some people out there that are fairly well known and well respected but those are some of the biggest names I’ve seen in these circles.)

So it’s easy to dislike the guy and he’s got the dream job. I mean what’s to like. Well unless you agree with him and then what’s to dislike.

But believe it or not, I’m actually grateful for the Bertschy’s of the anime world. I mean without him, I wouldn’t have half the stuff I write about. He does provide some good insight into what’s going on in the industry. And whether I agree with him or not, I can usually get a good post out of one of his columns.

Parsing the Epic – An Analysis

So recently, The Animanachronism posted a really interesting piece about LoGH, comparing it to old-style epics. In classic iknight style, he did an excellent job breaking down his points and making some pretty apt comparisons and noticing some things I didn’t even see.

What was really interesting though were some of the comments. One in particular kind of got me thinking about this subject. Kaioshin_Sama stated:

And I have to agree that the word “epic” has been degraded to the level of a buzz word along with “quality”, “win”, and “Trainwreck”. A lot of people don’t seem to understand what it means. It’s really quite simple.

The Iliad=Epic
Kamina/=Epic
U.C Gundam=Epic
Simon’s story in Gurren-Lagann= close but no cigar
Der Ring des Nibelungen=Epic
Clannad /= Epic
Romance Of The Three Kingdoms=Epic
“Epic Fail” Or “Epic Win” /= Epic

So that’s got me thinking, what exactly defines an epic. I mean is it fair to compare a multi-volume poem like the Aenid to something like X/1999? Can we look at something like Lord of the Rings and put it in the same category as Eureka 7? Honestly is it even possible to call anything an epic anymore. Or should the word itself be retired?

The Two Meanings of Epic

It is important to note that the word epic rose out of story-telling. In particular, it rose out of multi-part tales about gods and wars and monsters and heroes. In fact, the tales themselves formed a genre of sorts. In fact there are actually conventions for the epic poem. But what’s important to note is that epics were big. They were big in scale, in scope, in character and in length. The hero came back a different person (if they came back at all.)

This has lead to the second meaning of the word epic. Big. Okay, maybe big doesn’t quite cover it, but awesome doesn’t really have the right connotation either, perhaps huge. This leads me to the point of this post.

The Current State of the Epic

Now, before I dig this hole any deeper, let me start off by saying I am solely going to refer to the “literary” conventions of the epic. And when I say literary, what I mean is books. And when I say books, I mostly mean commercial, mass market books. I do realize that there is an entire subgenre of film called epics. But honestly, I think they will fall under this argument just as well. Okay so now that that’s out of way, let’s get onto the main point.

The epic as a genre is dead. Yeah, I said it. I’ll say it again, if you want. The epic is deader than the proverbial parrot.

I think The Animanachronism laid out the life cycle of a genre pretty well, so I’m not going to retread tired ground because I think it applies so well here. Now, I can’t pin the blame on one villain. It could have been T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King.” Or it could have been the sheer amount of fiction that rose out of the Industrial Revolution and afterwards. Perhaps, I could trace it back to The Canterbury Tales, but that might be pushing it.

What is important to note is that “epic” is not a genre. Even stories like the Odyssey or the Aenid would be considered firmly in the fantasy genre if they were written today. Although the idea of a narrative poem wouldn’t really fly with today’s publishers, but that’s neither here nor there.

But on the other hand, Kaioshin_Sama is right, the word epic persists. And it should. I mean how else could I describe “Lord of the Rings” or “The Belgariad” or even “Red Storm Rising”. So while epic no longer exists as a genre, it has to exist as something.

Now, I would argue it exists as a sub-genre. The fact is that when most people use the word epic, they are also using it in conjunction with something else. For example, “Lord of the Rings” is an epic fantasy. This can easily be applied to anime genres as well, Twelve Kingdoms is epic fantasy. Even the epic in the “war epic” isn’t really referring to the genre (which is a war story) it’s referring to applying the traits of the epic to said war story.

This leads us to the crux of the problem.

What defines an epic?

Okay, so I’m going to defend all of these in future posts. But for now let me lay out what I believe defines an epic. Now to be fair, I don’t feel that an epic has to have all of these to qualify as an epic. In fact, I’m probably going to bring up some examples where stories don’t have one or two of these elements and it actually makes them a better story.

First, it has a grand scale and a large scope. The fate of the world, literally, rests in the hands of our heroes. Again, X/1999 is a good example of this, where the decisions the characters make will save or doom the world. Granted there are less drastic examples of this, such as Trigun. Now usually all of this is accompanied by a cast of thousands, basically if there’s one mecha guarding the gates than it’s facing down a whole squadron. If it’s a whole squadron than there’s an entire army. And on and on. Basically everything occurs on a much grander scale than normal life. (On a side note, one could argue that ‘slice of life’ stories are the anti-epic, which is sometimes the case and sometimes isn’t.)

Because the story takes place on such a large stage, the characters have to be larger than life too. That doesn’t mean that they’re perfect. They may have doubts. They might even have angst. But when they do something the entire world feels the repercussions. Lelouch and Suzaku of “Code Geass” are both good examples of this, although Lelouch more so.

And the last is that the epic must be of some length. Now, I’m going to be arbitrary here and say that an epic is usually longer than movie length. But this is probably the most fuzzy distinction and at least in my mind the least important. Although it does lend strength to longer stories.

In fact, what I’m hoping to show through the next few posts is that it is quite possible for something to have one or two of these qualities and still be epic. Although the more of these qualities it has the more epic it will be. Hence why a show like LoGH is definitely an epic, while I might have to argue the BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad is also an epic.

I Got some ‘splaining to do

So contrary to recent accounts, I have not died. Really. But I have been kind of sick lately.

Although that’s got nothing to do with why I’m writing this blog post. As most people who read this blog may have noticed, I’ve kind of been on hiatus. Now I could make up a bunch of excuses, saying that I kind of ran out of ideas. And right in the middle of my post-block (there really should be a blog specific word for writer’s block), I got some results back from a fiction contest I entered. Now I didn’t win, but it did inspire me to finish up a novel that I had sitting around for the last two months.

I mean I could say all that, but it doesn’t really matter does it?

Honestly, I should apologize to all the people who’s blog I normally read and comment on that I have blatantly ignored because I’ve been busy with finishing said novel. Now I won’t get so arrogant to apologize to the people who read this blog too, expecting a interesting opinion. Because the posts I didn’t put up. Well there was a reason I didn’t put them up.

Anyways, I just want to say that I’m back. At least until the next bout of writer’s block strikes. And thanks for bearing with me.

In My View: The angsty angst of angst

Ahhh… angst. You are my only friend. Except when I see you with that other guy, the one with the looks and the money and the talent. Shit, why can’t I be like him? Oh my God, I can’t believe how miserable I am.

Okay, enough of that. So I’ve been chastised pretty frequently about using angst as a criterion for judging shows. And it’s a fair complaint. Much like pretentious or overrated, angst is one of those buzzwords that float around anime circles until it takes on a life of its own. Now my friends at Merriam and Webster define angst as, “a feeling of anxiety, apprehension, or insecurity.” That seems like a fair definition, so what’s wrong with that huh? I mean anxiety, apprehension and insecurity are all parts of what builds tension in drama.

And they’re also hallmarks of character growth. A character that is ALWAYS sure of themselves, and never doubts their place in the world is unlikely to ever do anything different. So without some angst, it’s unlikely that a character would change. And to top it off, even if the character did change, without at least a small period of angst, the change isn’t really going to be believable. So angst is necessary, right? To top all of that off, those three emotions can be a motivating factor for characters to do some pretty lousy stuff. They can cause them to lash out at friends. They can cause the characters to whine and cry and gnash their teeth.

The important word to note here is “some” angst. Because yes, there is such a thing as excessive angst. And this is where my first problem with angst starts. The thing is that angst by its very definition is an internal emotion. It pulls the viewer (and/or reader) into the character’s mind and away from the external going ons. And instead of leading to actual action on the part of the characters, it more often than not simply paralyzes the characters. In the worst cases of this, the character stops actually driving the plot and the plot starts happening to the character. Now short bouts of this can be okay. It can show weakness in an otherwise strong character. For any real length of time, it starts to get tiresome. Part of being the protagonist of any story is that they have to DO stuff.

But this leads to an even more crippling side effect. When the hero stops doing stuff, he distances himself from the audience. Now that’s not to say every character has to be likable. But even unlikable characters can be interesting if they’re doing interesting things. But once a character gets caught in the angst trap, they’re lost in a cycle of insecurity and fear. Personally as a viewer of fiction, I want the hero and heroine to be heroic.

Which leads to my main problem with excessive angst – it’s anti-plot. Essentially, it’s used as an excuse to stop the forward momentum of the plot and character development. While a little bit might push the character forward, too much stops the character’s growth all together. It drags out arcs that should only last one or two episodes and makes them into full blown seasons. It turns scenes that should be heart-wrenching, into long drawn out yawn fests. Essentially excessive angst is lazy storytelling.

And that’s my problem with it.

Why not Gundam Zeta?

Normally I don’t pick on the disabled.

But some people seem to really love Gundam Zeta, so I feel compelled to point out something. This show sucks.

Okay, okay. Maybe sucks is too harsh of a word. There are things about Zeta that are interesting. The relationship between Camille Bidan and Jared is one of those things. I’ve always liked shows that have dueling characters and show both characters being right if you look at the world from their point of view.

And I’ll admit the ideas in this show are interesting. I’ve always liked the tension between Earth and the colonies. I really like the fact that because of the war with Zeon, the Earth has become a dictatorship. I like that the world has come full circle. I even like the idea of super-humans who are trying to figure out what it means to be super-human. That’s the thing about Zeta, the actual foundations for an interesting plot are there.

But really that’s the only thing good I can say about the show. Everything else is a roadmap of what not to do in a fifty-some-odd episode anime. Take the pacing for example. For the first half of the series, it seems like a race for how many characters can get killed off in two episodes or less. It starts off as, “Oooo, new artificial Newtype is introduced. Camille meets them. They fight. Artificial Newtype dies. Introduce new artificial Newtype.” In fact the only villain who seems to last any length of time is Jared, and even he gets the shit kicked out of him more times than I can count.

It gets real boring really fast. But like a masochist, I kept on getting beat around by this series. The second half has the exact opposite problem: nothing ever gets resolved. Essentially an entire crew of bad guys gets introduced and NO ONE DIES. It keeps going on until it feels like there’s an entire parade of characters who steal the spotlight from the one or two interesting villains that the show has left. And what makes it worse is that bad guys get resurrected from the dead, just because they realized that they’d chewed through them too quickly in the first half of the show.

On top of all of that, you get super-combining, amazing Gundam stuff, which honestly is a death knell for any “real robot” show. It’s not that I mind improved robots. Because I really do like them in say Code Geass. But here they all feel hokey, and even worse, they feel like they were thrown in so some toy manufacturer somewhere could make an extra buck off of the people buying model kits.

Oh yeah, and then there’s the rest of the cast of thousands. I’ll be honest, I spent most of this show hoping Char would get knocked off. Hell, I spent most of this show hoping most of the cast would get knocked off. The only character who was consistently interesting was Jared. Even Camille got a little stale towards the end.

I won’t pick on the artwork or the soundtrack because the show is old. And the fact that they’re dated doesn’t really mean that much to me. There are plenty of shows with dated soundtracks and animation that are actually good shows.

It’s just that Gundam Zeta isn’t one of those.