Impressions: Air, Haruhi, Kurau and Innocent Venus

Yeah, so I’ve watched a lot of stuff lately, most of which I could do something longer on, but I thought I’d just run through my impressions on them.

Air (TV) – This is one of those shows where there was a lot that I liked and some stuff I didn’t. I didn’t have a horrible time with the fairly lacksidasical pacing. In fact, it reminded me a lot of James Blaylock’s In the Rainy Season, another story that combined a somewhat slow pace with somewhat bizarre happenings and had at least one girl in it (albeit in a different fashion.) Overall, I didn’t have a problem with the characters, but I didn’t fall in love with them either.

But what was up with the last couple of episodes? It just felt like they were trying to make up space. It left me wondering whether the rest of the story was picked up somewhere else, or if it was just going to leave me at that “Lady or the Tiger” moment. Overall, I didn’t love it and I didn’t hate it. But it just left me feeling a bit empty.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzimiya – Yes, I finally watched this show. And I know I’m the last person on the planet to do so. But, I have to say, why does everyone have a problem with Kyon? Honestly, he was the saving grace of the show. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much if it wasn’t for the dry rationalism (and the occasional perverted comment) that he brought. It provided a good counterpoint to all of the weird stuff that takes place.

Now I did watch the show in episodic order (versus broadcast order), so I don’t know how much that really affected my enjoyment. But I do have to say the Melancholy episodes were probably my favorite, most likely because they formed the longest arc of the show. But the lack of a real resolution to the fundamental question of why she chose Kyon does bug me. All of that said, I do think it’s a show that was worth the hype, but not necessarily the best show I’ve ever seen.

Kurau: Phantom Memory – I swear only BONES could have pulled this series off and made it as good as it was. But somehow they took a fairly simple superhero type character who’s getting chased by the government and turned it into a fairly complex psychological drama. Almost every part of this series was well planned and had excellent execution. So I do have to hand it to the director on this one.

All of that said, there’s a ceiling on how good this series could be, especially considering the tone they set at the beginning and the plot. And while Kurau surpassed my lowest expectations, it wasn’t earth-shattering either. Especially with the amount of times they shouted each other’s name. I mean you could have a “Kurau/Christmas” drinking game with this series.

Innocent Venus – And on a more mech side of things, I actually watched Innocent Venus. To be honest, it left me feeling a lot like I felt after watching Blue Submarine No. 6, which is to say it could have been a lot better with some more space. But, it does have one of the coolest betrayals I’ve seen in an anime in quite a while. It also has some good action scenes and some fun mechs (which actually remind me a bit of the mecha from Argentosoma.)

Impressions: Higurashi – tentacles and moe, oh my.

Every now and then I watch a series that makes me go totally fanboy. The last time was when I watched Code Geass.

But it’s been a couple months since then and even though I’ve watched some good series, I hadn’t seen anything that actually got me excited (in a completely non-sexual way, thank you very much.)

That was until I watched the first season of Higurashi.

First, I have to say… wow. There is so much to talk about this series. I mean I could talk about the structure (It’s broken up into six arcs, two of which are retellings or additional material). I could talk about the really great opening sequence. I could talk about the crazy girls with hatchets as big as they are.

Or I could talk about moe.

Where Elfen Lied tried and failed, Higurashi succeeded in using cute girls as a façade for crazy. Elfen Lied and Higurashi both used moe in similar ways: to set up a cognitive dissonance in the viewer. Basically they’re so cute, but so evil. Elfen Lied forced it a bit too far, making the more powerful characters progressively weaker and weaker, until the most powerful (and inhuman) had to be carried out. Higurashi doesn’t do that. In fact, the characters become progressively less cute as the story arcs progress. I found this twist on the slice-of-life genre both interesting and… well… Lovecraftian.

Yes, I know that summoning up the ghost of Lovecraft is pretty common when it comes to looking at horror stories.

And to be totally fair, Lovecraft wasn’t the first to use the idea of thin veneer of civility covering a wellspring of evil (how you define evil is up to you.) Arguably, Joseph Conrad did it in The Heart of Darkness and Poe did it in the Tell-tale Heart. But where Lovecraft is different is the idea that people are generally sane, it’s the world that’s crazy.

The structure of a Lovecraft story (for the most part) goes like this: Some random guy encounters strange events/items/things. Guy is driven insane by these. Guy either gets divine retribution or gets sent to an asylum or dies. Story ends. There are some variations to the theme. I mean he wrote a lot.

He did this by creating a completely alien landscape. I’ll be honest, the Cthulu mythos is still unlike anything else that I’ve ever encountered in fiction. You have Elder Gods, who in general like screwing around with people. You have the Old Ones (the giant tentacle things that live in space or in the earth), who are creatures of extreme malevolence. In fact, there really aren’t any good things in the mythos he created.

Which is a lot like Higurashi. Now the mythos in Higurashi is a lot more limited, since all of the stories take place in one village and really within the same week or two (although two of the stories dip into the past.) But still you have the Shrine God’s curse, which is that someone will die every year. You have the demon that descends from the mountains to take one person every year. There are other elements of the mythos, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t watched the series. (And really, go watch this show. It’s still available in it’s entirety in fansub form, and since it’s one of the Geneon titles that’s in limbo, I don’t have deep ethical reservations downloading it.)

What I found interesting while I was watching it was the fact that the entire mythos felt alien. Granted, not quite as alien as amorphous, tentacled blobs that live under the sea, but still it felt unusual and unusually cruel. The powers that be didn’t care about the lives of the villagers as much as they cared about their own machinations. Now part of that might be part of being an American viewer who isn’t really steeped in Japanese religion and folklore, but that is how it struck me.

So what does moe have to do with all of this? (Well other than the fact that moe drives at least one character crazy.) In general, the cutesy character designs acted as a reflection of the “sane” world. Much in the same way that educated (or non-educated) first person narration reflected the “sane” world of Lovecraft.

The Otakusphere: Micro-blogging, Identity and an unhealthy dose of navel-gazing.

So I’m going to try to avoid too much navel gazing in the post.

But recently there have been at least a couple posts about the nature of micro-blogging and its place in the Otakusphere.

What I found interesting about both Hige’s and Michael’s posts is specifically the idea of identity, both the identity of the writer and the identity of the blog. Now everyone takes on different characteristics depending on the role we’re playing at a certain point (some people do this more than others.) We’re different depending on whether we’re at work or if we’re at home or if we’re with friends or talking to teachers. Now these changes are greater or lesser depending on how drastically different the roles they play are.

Or at least that’s how I think about it.

But every writer has an identity. We generally refer to it as a voice, but largely it’s something we cultivate. To be honest, I think that’s where The Animanachronism’s micro blog comes in. It’s a little more personal, and it doesn’t really fit his identity as a writer (I can’t say anything about Owen’s because I haven’t really read it.) It might provide a scratch pad of sorts for ideas in later posts. But largely, it wouldn’t fit into the type of writing that we’d expect from him.

(If you’ll permit a little navel-gazing here, I’ll try to make it quick.)

Now, this is largely where I fit in. I have an identity as a writer. If someone pinned me down and made me describe it, I’d probably call myself an intellectual plebian. Basically, I’m smart enough to get myself in trouble, but I’m nowhere as smart as say, The Animanachronism, Martin, Hige or Michael. I’m not as good of a writer as bateszi, Hidoshi or CCY. I’m not as funny as Baka-raptor or lolikit. (I apologize if I left anyone out there, because I do think there are an awful lot of good writers in these circles.)

In fact, I’d say the strength of my writing identity comes from two major points. I try to state my point clearly (and forcefully). And I generally take a radically moderate point of view (although sometimes I just take a radical point of view.)

But largely, writers should cultivate a writing identity. Because, most readers read a blog or a column or anything because of the writer. (Or at least I do, so I might be generalizing here.)

Now a blog identity is a different thing. I think there is a good case for having a blog identity. Say if you write episode recaps and that’s what people come to your blog expecting to see. Essentially people are creating a brand. This way they’ll attract loyal readers. Or as Daniel states in his post, there’s a necessity of having standards.

Ironically, by accident and design, this blog doesn’t really have a brand in the same way. As most people point out, I tend to cover a wide range of topics. Now I do think that my identity as a writer sometimes shifts a little depending on what I’m writing about, but I’d like to think it remains fairly consistent. In a lot of ways, I’d attract a more loyal crowd if I picked a particular brand for my blog like bateszi has (with Bateszi, Afterimage and his posts in Nakama Brittanica). But unfortunately, I can’t seem to reign in the different parts of my brain so I can consistently write one type of piece.

In general though, I’m not sure if it’s a good thing to get strangled by your own blog. Because honestly, I’d read what bateszi wrote if he writes it on Afterimage or on Nakama Brittanica or on… well… Bateszi’s anime blog. I don’t think his identity as a writer shifts enough to really warrant three different blogs.

But that said, I’d read any of those three blogs anyway, so I doubt that it matters.

In My View: My war against derivative

That is it. I’ve had it.

I’m declaring war against the word, “derivative.”

At first, I thought it would fade away. That it would be one of those words that popped into the general lexicon and then fizzled away. I had hoped that smarter minds than mine would prevail. I had secretly prayed that someone, somewhere would raise a red flag and say, “Wait a second here…”

But this word is insidious and I’ve heard it used more and more often like some sort of mantra to describe why someone didn’t like a show. I don’t know what murky depths this word crept out of, but it is time to beat it back.

The problem with it is that it is by and large a MEANINGLESS word when it’s applied to fiction. Every story on a basic structural level is the same. There’s a problem, rising action, climax, resolution and denouement. But maybe that’s too general; perhaps I should say almost every mecha show is the same. There’s a teenager who encounters a robot who must use said robot to defend the world against the forces of evil. I can trace a direct link from Amaro Rei to Shinji Ikari to Lelouch Lamprouge much like I trace a direct link from Pyramus and Thisbe to Romeo and Juliet.

But no one ever calls Shakespeare a hack, now do they?

The thing is that people use this word as some sort of code sign meaning, “Well it’s too much like everything else.” But even that is a lame excuse. Honestly, I have to quote iknight from a comment (I think the first he ever left on my blog) on a post I wrote comparing Evangelion to RahXephon.

I’m not convinced that the clone issue is really the key one: RahXephon could be a clone of Eva and still be good, and it could be perfectly different and be awful

And that’s the fundamental point these people seem to be missing. A show shouldn’t be judged on how much like other shows it is, but on the strength of its characters, plot, themes and things that actually matter. A show can be fundamentally similar to another show and still have things that make it interesting and worth seeing.

But what makes this plague so worrisome is that it sets up an expectation in people’s minds that by some magic the show they’re going to watch will be something completely new, untainted by the tropes and conventions of whatever genre it might fall into. Those great story ideas come out of some magical spring that is isolated from the rest of the world. And creators would remain uninfluenced by the works that preceded them.

Because of course, they don’t need to know how people act, or how a story is structured, or how to create tension. I mean why would they need to know that stuff.

They’re creating something new.

An ethical dilemma: A minor problem with Library Wars Episode Three

Here’s an ethical situation for y’all:

You’re a reporter standing at an edge of a lake. In the distance, you spot a boy drowning. You have the means and ability to save him and saving him will not have any unintended consequences (he isn’t a child Hitler or anything.) There’s also no one else around who could save him. What do you do?

Believe it or not, this is really an ethics question I was asked in one of my journalism classes.

Now the ethical thing to do is to save the kid. He IS drowning after all. You can’t just let someone drown in the lake. But there’s always a follow-up question to this one.

Do you cover the story?

Make no mistake, it is news. If you’re lucky it’ll be front page, maybe even above the fold. Because as cold and callous as it might be, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Now it won’t necessarily be the type of story that would make or break a career, but it’d definitely make cutting out the clip a lot easier. And you could probably do a sidebar about water safety. Maybe you could spin it out into a whole week extravaganza.

But ethically, you shouldn’t write it because the moment you hit the water you stopped being a reporter and started being part of the story. This means that there isn’t any way for you to be fair about it. So while you might get you’re fifteen minutes, you aren’t getting the byline.

Now the whole reason I brought this up is that there’s a moment in episode three of Library Wars where the reporter offered the military the use of the news helicopter.

Um… yeah.

I know a lot of people think that the media are profiteers off of war. (And make no mistake they are.) That is a line that just shouldn’t be crossed. At that point the reporter stopped being an observer of the story and became part of the story.

And trust me, there’s no good way to get out of that sticky situation. Once the media actually starts actively funding the war, (which they are. I mean this isn’t a humanitarian mission or anything), they can’t start funding the other side of the war. So for all intents and purposes the reporter is screwed.

I’m sure there’s somebody right now who’s saying, “Um… why are you making a big deal about such a small thing?” And in a way that person is right. It’s not like I can expect reality out of fiction. But geez. It’d just be more interesting if the media didn’t help out.

The thing is that there is an ideological tension in the show between people who believe that a medium should be censored and people who believe that they shouldn’t. By having the reporter blithely offer the use of the helicopter, the show is saying, “Well the news media wants freedom.” But if they did the ethical thing (and not gotten involved) that would produce a far more interesting tension between people who want freedom and fight for it. And people who want freedom but don’t (or this case shouldn’t) fight for it.

But maybe that’s just me.

The Last Frontier: The reason for my love affair with Macross

So I just finished up episode six of Macross Frontier and I like it.

But I shouldn’t.

Not only do I like it, but it’s been one of the three shows that I’m following religiously (Amatsuki and InK, being the other two.) It doesn’t have the self-referential charm of Tower of Druaga. It doesn’t have the weird mind games of Real Drive. And it certainly doesn’t have the strangely cute, dystopian view of Library Wars.

Like I said previously, “It’s Macross.” It definitely has everything that a Macross show should have: an invading alien race, a catchy J-pop soundtrack, dogfights through asteroid fields. But I don’t think it’s just the action that makes me want to watch every episode. Action is great, don’t get me wrong. But I could get action from any shounen fighting show; I don’t need space battles to get that.

On top of that, I can’t say it’s the characters. Sure, Alto is a rebel. But he isn’t a Steve McQueen “I’m the epitome of cool” type of rebel. Instead, he’s more like an “I’m 18 and I want to go fight in this war, so I can fly” type of rebel. Don’t get me wrong, I still think he’s a citizen solider (which is interesting), but he doesn’t have the moral contradictions of a Lelouch or Suzaku, or the type of heady idealism that I find in Library Wars. In a lot of ways, Alto isn’t surprising. And if he’s not surprising then Ranka and Sheryl are downright true to form. The entire cast seems like it was lifted straight out of a paint-by-numbers sketch of how a mecha show should go.

But still, I like it. And it’s bugging me.

That was until I thought about one of iknight’s old posts (complete with a Warren Zevon reference at the end, I might add). Now for a large part, he’s right. Macross is a space opera and Macross Frontier is no exception. It comes complete with giant allies, faster than light travel and downright mystical singing abilities. But on top of that, it has something else:

A Camelot.

Now, I’m not sure if Camelot is really the best term for it, but the more I think about it, the more I become convinced that Frontier is a magical place. The streets are clean. Everything is bright and shiny. People are happy and dreams really do come true.

Now one of the big reasons why I think of Camelot, instead of say Avalon, is that Frontier isn’t perfect. The government is crippled by red-tape. Mercenaries make up the best equipped fighting force. And there is definitely heart-ache and a touch of pathos.

But I’d still want to live there.

Which is what I think is the big draw for me. It’s not necessarily the characters or even the society. It’s the fact that there’s this place where people coexist peacefully, where music does change lives, and love exists floating through the depths of space in a fragile glass shell.

And somebody wants to destroy it. More than anything else, it’s that tension that draws me into the show.

Related Links

Anime wa Bakuhatsu’s comparison between Do you Remember Love and Frontier.

The Otakusphere: Impz’s brief history of the world (or at least all of the world that matters)

You can blame Impz, Martin, Bateszi, Hige, Lythka, Author and Michael for this post.

Really, I know a collective groan goes up anytime someone starts talking about “the community”. But after reading Impz’s brief history of the Otakusphere (that’s still my word for the anime blogosphere), Kabitizin’s interviews and Os’s new blogging initiative (which is really cool by the way), it has made me wonder.

Why do we blog?

And I’m not going to talk about why I blog, because frankly, no one cares, but I’m curious about the stories from everyone else. How did you get started? Why did you start? Did you do research or did you just jump in? What type of niche do you try to get into? And probably, most importantly:

What do you get out of it?

As far as the readers of the blogs, who don’t have blogs of their own, what do you get out of reading them? Do you normally read for news or opinions or both?

Really, I’d like people to leave comments or leave links to posts of their own. I’m curious.