Impressions: Master Keaton – The Half Blood Prince

So there are occasionally shows that seem to float around the Otakusphere like poorly kept secrets and creep up every time someone mentions a latent desire for a particular brand of program that isn’t widely represented in anime.

Master Keaton is one of those shows.

Now, I’ll admit that I’d heard about Master Keaton well before someone else told me about it, mostly because I have a tendency to watch the previews on anime disks (I actually watch them on movies too. The sad thing is that I do it more than once sometimes if I really like it.) But I had heard it mentioned right alongside the likes of Monster by the folks over at Anime World Order. I do like Monster. In fact, I like Monster a lot.

And on the surface, the two shows do have some things in common. In particular, Naoki Urasawa drew the manga for both shows, so they have similar character designs. They both feature a fairly realistic story (arguably more realistic in Keaton’s case.) They were both directed by Masayuki Kojima. Last but not least, they both have a central theme which ties the episodes together.

That’s where the similarities end. While Monster follows a larger overall arc, while separately investigating the nature of the monster, Master Keaton examines culture clashes in a rigidly episodic formula. Don’t get me wrong, they are both good shows, but comparing the two would be like trying to compare MacGyver to The Saint – an interesting diversion, but largely a fool’s errand.

Like I said prior to this, I had heard about the show years prior to actually deciding to watch it. What had turned me off from buying it was the promo, which made Keaton sound like some sort of Japanese version of Wesley Crusher. The entire promo was capped off with the line, “He will find out that he is all of those things and more. He is a jack-of-all-trades and master of them all. He is Master Keaton.” And if that isn’t a cornball line, I don’t know what is.

The funny thing is that Keaton is easily the most interesting character in the show. In fact, contrary to the promo he isn’t really a jack-of-all-trades. For the most part, he’s an insurance investigator, who really wants to be an archeologist. He is a divorcee, who doesn’t seem to get to spend a lot of time with his daughter (we never see his ex-wife or his mother who also divorced his father.) He’s half-Japanese and half-English, but he doesn’t really fit into either culture fully. He gets clubbed over the head, dropped into a well, has his leg broken and gets left in the desert to die (all in different episodes.) So while, he might be good at what he does, he certainly doesn’t seem to have the Deus Ex Machina luck that Wesley Crusher has.

In fact, his character is best summed up in the last episode when he’s fencing with one of his former trainers in the SAS, “… you’re fighting style is unique, but the problem is that it’s too unique. That’s why you’ll never be a Professor, just a Master.”

And if anything is true about Keaton it’s that he is certainly unique. In fact, he sits as a kind of half-blood prince who doesn’t really have a homeland. And this tension between cultures permeates the series. You have the poor against the riches. The young against the old. Refugees and nationalists. It’s a show (much like Monster) that circles around these themes from every possible angle and as soon as you think you have the message figured out it switches on you. It is definitely a unique show for that.

But I’m not sure if it’s really good.

The problem with the show is that it’s episodic. And like most episodic shows, there are some truly stellar episodes and there are a bunch of decent episodes and there are some hackneyed cobbled together trash episodes that have no business being in the show. I mean it’ll have a tense desert escape episode right next to an episode about growing flowers. It has episodes like “Blue Friday” which is a clever homage to Casablanca. And then it has an episode about saving an endangered Malay tiger from the Tong. This leads to something that Monster never seems to have – tonal inconsistency. This isn’t helped by the horrible, horrible dub.

Both of those things work to undermine what could otherwise be a truly remarkable show. But instead leaves it as a show with some brilliant episodes that is largely forgettable.

 

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Otakon or Bust

I’m going down to Okaton. Going to eat me lots of… dangos? Pocky?

What is the preferred food of anime conventions anyway?

So yes, for the second time of my life I am actually going to an anime convention and I’m pretty excited. I mean it’s not a real big stretch, I live 20 miles outside of the Inner Harbor. Even with traffic, it’d probably take me an hour to get there. But still…

It’s not like I’ve avoided conventions for all of these years. It’s just that I never really saw the point. The majority of my friends weren’t really into anime the same way I’m into anime. They certainly wouldn’t bother making up budgets so that they could spend their money buying DVDs. And for the most part, I lived in the middle of a wheat field in Eastern Washington. Three hundred miles away from the nearest convention and I didn’t have a car.

So it isn’t a real surprise that I hadn’t gone until I went to Otakon 2006.

And I was severly overwhelmed. I think I spent most of my time watching stuff that either hadn’t come out yet, or stuff I hadn’t even heard of. And as someone who didn’t really download fansubs, it was definitely an experience. But this time, I’ll be prepared.

At least, I think so.

On Mecha design and heroes

So The Animanachronism’s recent post on the nature of mecha brought to mind a set of posts I did a while back on the role of the citizen solider and the Arthurian hero in anime (a set of posts I’m still a bit proud of.) It’s got me thinking about what is the role of the mecha in mecha anime. Other than to sell toys and other merchandise to people who seem to like that kind of stuff. And sure there are shows that seem determined to do that, but even those the mecha has to play some sort of role in the show.

If it didn’t, well there wouldn’t be much of a show.

But the thing about analyzing the role of the mecha in mecha shows is that they’re intrinsically tied to the characters who pilot them. I mean what does the cape clad, white Lancelot say about Suzaku. (Even beyond the moral questions that it raises.) Or what does the vague Escher-esque Big-O with its hammer of God message say about the role of Roger Smith. Honestly, I think there are some consistencies between these categorizations that I’ve seen.

A Tool of War

Now with the citizen solider, the mech is a tool of war. Now arguably the theme of war pops up in a lot of more Arthurian shows, but unlike those heroes the mech is rarely flashy. VOTOMS is an almost perfect example of a mech that is ugly, utilitarian and kills people. The same can be said about the mecha in Gasaraki. Now there have been some variations on this theme, but in general the mecha are also uniform. These people didn’t just happen across some mech in an underground storage shed, or if they did then they aren’t really any more special than the average toaster.

Now later shows have played off of this theme. The Arbalest from FMP is an example of an Excalibur like mech that is given to a citizen solider (Granted, I might be the only one who thinks it’s strangely symbolic that a pale, wispy girl tossed a nearly magical machine out of a giant lake to land at the hero’s feet.)

But even then it’s still a tool. A handy tool, but the citizen solider doesn’t rely on it to win his battles, unless it’s the right tool for the job. And because it’s a tool, the citizen solider mecha tend to be nearly person-sized. They’re rarely more than 10 or 15 feet tall. It could be said that the man makes the machine and not the other way around.

A Magical Totem

Whereas when we look at Arthurian heroes, it is the machine that makes the man. In fact, the machine itself sometimes takes on a life of its own, becoming an extension of the hero itself. Gundam Zeta’s various power-ups seem to fit into this category. And since the central question of the Arthurian hero is “What type of country do I want to create?” and the enemies have to get progressively harder (because otherwise the tension would drop) the totem also has to become more powerful.

Now there is some gray area here, because occasionally you do have an Arthurian hero who has to learn his machine better so that he can accomplish his goals. In these cases, the machine itself is as powerful as it can get, but the pilot has to unlock its secrets. (Escaflowne comes to mind here.)

And since it is a magical totem, the machine itself has to be impressive and unique. Generally these mecha are giants and tend to dwarf their pilots. They tend to range about 15 to 50 feet high (or at least from what I can tell.)

An Otherworldly Being

Adam’s mecha provides the most difficulty in analysis, mostly because there are so few of them and there is a good deal of variation. But in general, Adam’s mecha is the impetus of his epiphany. This is true in both Evangelion and RahXephon. It’s even true in Gasaraki. But in most cases, they also tend to be reflective of both the tones and the themes of the story. Unit 01 in Evangelion is almost bestial when it slips loose of its traces. Reflecting back on the main struggle between how Shinji perceives himself and how he wants others to perceive him. RahXephon is almost majestic, but it’s also alien and unpredictable. Reflecting back on the main theme of acceptance (both of the self and others.)

In general, what separates Adam’s mecha from the Arthurian mecha is that in the case of Adam these mecha are alien and they’re at best impartial, at worst possessed with motivations that the hero doesn’t know anything about.

In My View: On PiQ, ADV and sentimentalism

So I meant to write this when it was a bit more topical, but I got distracted by Final Fantasy V.

And to be honest, there’s something really fun about 16-bit graphics and turned-based combat. Something that reminds me of a time before computer RPGs got complicated by having to make sure you hit the X-button when the circle crosses the other circle so that you can get the full effect of your hit. No. If you hit, you hit. And if you don’t hit, then we all know what happens. The Skelesaur is going to beat the crap out of you because you didn’t level enough before you went up Dragon Mountain.

But in all truth, I’m a sentimental type of guy. I like little knickknacks of my past or at least the happier times of my past.

Which is why I hope that ADV makes it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any illusions that the capitalist system should be a pastel picture filled with fields of flowers while dewy eyed moe girls stare wistfully off into the horizon. There’s no room in the capitalist system for nostalgia or sympathy. The capitalist world instead is made out of steel and concrete, where those doe-eyed moe girls weep softly in the alley after being gang raped by a bunch of men in business suits.

And make no mistake; ADV has taken a lot of hits in the last few months. The least of which being losing Gurren Lagann, the Anime Network’s Linear Service closing down, having their production held hostage for almost a month and cutbacks in Europe. And now PiQ is shutting its doors. I mean if ADV isn’t heading for that slow slide into that good night, then I’ll be surprised. They are as one person put it, a company that rode the wave when it was high and now can’t find their footing once the wave has collapsed. Or at least that’s what it seems like to my untrained outsider point of view.

But still, I hope that they find a way to make it. Because like Central Park Media, Geneon and for most part Media Blasters, they’re an icon from a better time. Now as someone who has at least been on the periphery of this hobby for the last 10 years. I’ve seen it go through all of the stages: from the initial “Wow they’re releasing it on VHS?” days in the mid-1990s to the “Cool it’s actually on Cartoon Network” in the latter part of that decade, to “Neat, it’s in Sam Goody” in the early part of the decade to now when it’s almost become commonplace. (And dare I say mainstream. Although that’s another post for another time.)

And more than anything else, it’s that initial excitement that I feel nostalgic about. That feeling that anime was something different and new and kind of edgy or kind of silly. That it was something that could pull a few dozen people into a darkened room on campus so we could watch a few hours of it on a big screen because someone had bought a disk.

Granted, it was this same initial excitement that ADV capitalized on. And it’s silly for me to feel nostalgic about that, they are just a distributor. They don’t make anything. They just repackage it with subtitles and a fairly decent dub and put it out on the market. They’ve made their mistakes. They’ve gotten smacked by the market for it. That’s really the end of the story.

But I can’t help thinking that when they go a little of the magic of those times is going to go with them. I can’t help but remembering watching the last two disks of RahXephon on no sleep. Or popping in the disks from Gasaraki. Or any of the other memories, I have related to their releases.

And I can’t help but hope that they manage to make it. Even if sentimentalism doesn’t have any place in a capitalist world.

Shampoo Planet: The siren song of Ergo Proxy

So I’m seriously starting to question my taste.

Ever since I ventured into the Otakusphere last October, I’ve seen almost nothing but derision for Ergo Proxy. I’ve seen it called heavy-handed, tedious and downright coma-inducing. In fact, the only good thing I ever read about it came from Anime Sophist, who called it the best series he’d seen in 2007. But I’d started buying it, so I kept buying it, because I hadn’t had any problems with what I had watched.

So I finished watching it and well… I liked it. I’ll be honest, I didn’t find it overly preachy, I didn’t find it heavy handed, yeah a few parts were slow, but nowhere near as slow as the last half of Texnolyze (which seemed to grind to a halt after episode 13.) I liked the characters. And believe it or not, I didn’t have any problems with the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t love the show, but I enjoyed watching it.

Honestly, it’d be easy to prattle on about questionable religious connections. I mean the show throws around terms like Creator as if it meant you to see it. It also has enough allusions to classical literature and pop culture to choke a horse. We can run the gamut from Daedulus and Icarus straight to the “Mickey Mouse” episode. But I don’t really think that’s what appealed to me.

What struck me were two of the episode titles: life after God and Shampoo Planet.

Now the first one could have been a coincidence, I mean there’s a lot of religious references in the show and a lot of philosophical references. It could have just as well been a reference to Nietzche. Strange enough, it’s the title of a fairly lesser known book by Douglas Coupeland. But when I hit the second title (another reference to a Coupeland book) I figured I was on to something.

Honestly, what tickled my brain (and exposed me for the pretentious phony that I may be) was the fact that Ergo Proxy may not be about religion or philosophy at all. Or rather those things might just be trappings for the real allusion of the story which seems to me to be a sociological one, in particular the story of one generation clashing with another generation.

This is the land Our Fathers left us

Now what makes those references interesting is the fact that they both deal with Generation X. Now there’s some discussion about where Gen X really falls in the timeline (at least here in America) but generally it’s assumed that it starts at 1965 and ends around 1980 (some people put it at 1976, some people put it at 1981). And if I had to sum it up, I’d borrow a quote from Fight Club:

“God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off”

This is really at the heart of Douglas Coupeland’s books (and Fight Club as well). What makes this strange and strangely intriguing is how much this reflect’s Re-l’s speech at the beginning of the series and Vincent’s initial urge to be a “model citizen”. They’re both characters who start off without any real meaning in their lives, without anything that defines them as people. (Which is probably one of the reasons why they’re considered boring, and in all fairness I did think Vincent was a little bland towards the beginning.) They’re a generation of people who are doing even less than waiting to die, they’re waiting to live.

Now arguably both of them are pretty much the classic Adam archetype (with the one exception being that the story actually doesn’t start until the end of the first episode.) But that said, they’re both forced to confront the world that’s been left to them. Of course you could look at their Gulliver-esque travels as a series of thought exercises in philosophy. But there seems to be a consistent theme to all of the places that they visit. And that’s the fact that almost all of the proxies (and the people) are looking for a way to fit in, trying to find a place to belong in the world that had been left to them. Someone could definitely argue that the people outside the domes did have factors that defined their lives, but that said, I find them more lost than found.

The siren song of Ergo Proxy

Inevitably, whenever anyone bring up “generations” someone will say it’s rubbish or that it’s a marketing ploy or that it’s an overgeneralization. And to a point, I agree. We are individuals. We do experience life differently depending on our culture, surroundings, upbringing and personal beliefs. But having grown up during the height of Gen X and having friends and teachers from that generation, I’m inclined to say that there’s something to all of the talk. I mean I went through the recession in the 90s, I went through the rise of the Internet and the destruction of the Challenger. I definitely felt that same ennui that was prevalent during those times. And ironically, I’ve seen it replaced with a generation that is much more socially and policitically active and cares more.

But what appealed to me about Ergo Proxy was that intentionally or unintentionally it recaptured that feeling of being undefined and unaccepted and it structured a pretty good story around it. Maybe that makes me a pretentious phony, but there it is anyway.

In My View: The myth of supporting the industry

(Please note: I’m arguing from a Libertarian ethical standpoint. Your mileage may vary.)

So there’s been something that’s been bothering me for the last couple of months, but I haven’t really been able to put a finger on it. It wasn’t until I watched the special features on the Haruhi DVDs that it struck me.

Tucked in amid all of the rest of the credits on the ASOS Brigade special feature was a fairly innocuous line:

A special thanks to

All of the fansub lovers who buy the official DVDs and help support more creative works.

No special thanks to

Downloaders/bootleggers who never buy the official DVDs

Now in all fairness this little piece of propaganda has gotten fairly common in these circles in the past couple of years, and has spread like a cold in an elevator ever since the Geneon collapse. Now even past the self-congratulatory smugness of this statement, there’s something else that’s been bugging me: the idea that buying is ethically good. So let me set my opinion straight on this, the act of exchanging money for entertainment can be either a good or bad thing depending on the quality of the entertainment. But the simple act of “buying” is not necessarily an ethical thing.

That is unless you watched the fansubs. And then buying isn’t really an ethical act, but a form of penance, a way to pay back people who you took the entertainment from in the first place.

See what bugs me about this entire argument is that the focus is on the wrong thing. People seem to be confusing the cause with the effect. Anime is a product. DVDs are products. The anime industry, the studios, the directors, the distributors, they aren’t products. You aren’t and shouldn’t be spending your money to “support the industry,” you should be spending your money to buy a product. Now, I don’t blame the anime industry, I mean they got to sell DVDs, so they’re going to use whatever methods they can to convince people to buy. And I don’t really blame the fans; I mean everyone wants to believe that they’re the hero of their own story.

But, Jiminey Christmas, this idea that I need to buy to support the industry seems like it should come complete with children living in poverty stricken countries, while Sally Struthers tells us how, “You too can help the anime industry for low cost of $ .99 a day” And that’s my problem with it. If the product is worth buying, then I’ll buy it. If it wasn’t worth buying, then I won’t buy it. It’s that simple. I don’t need some sort of guilt trip to make me purchase a DVD. And I definitely don’t need some sort of pat on the back to tell me what my ethics should be.

But if the industry is compelled to say something, and evidently they are, a simple thank you would suffice. Because being thanked for correcting an action that was wrong in the first place feels a bit slimy to me.

In My View: Escapism? Don’t we all need a break sometimes?

“A lot of people don’t like their job Peter. What is important is finding something that does make you happy.” – Roughly quoted from Office Space

First before I write this post, I want to apologize to the women for butting into their conversation. But I think
they’ve offered a fascinating range of views on the idea of escapism and how people use anime as both a social tool and a personal tool for dealing with life. In fact, they provided so much material that it’s had me thinking about it for two days. (Oh and Paul too.)

That said, I find it strange how people use the word escapism. It’s not that I totally disagree that entertainment by its very nature provides an out to the harsh realities that surround us every day. Hell, I’m a 31-year-old phone sales rep. After a day of dealing with people the last thing I want to do is deal with more people. But it seems like we’ve developed a language that divides “real life” into things that are unpleasant and “escapist” life into things that are fun.

There’s got to be a middle ground there. There’s got to be room where a hobby is a healthy outlet or at the very least as Gia seems to hint at a way for those people who are less socially adept to interact with other people in a fashion that doesn’t involve taking people’s orders or working on code (I’m not saying that computer programmers are not socially adept, just that there are computer programmers that are not socially adept.)

This is where I’m stuck. Because escapist implies that we use entertainment to get away from our lives.

And yes, I do think there’s a level where we enter into the world the creators have developed and I agree that there’s a sense of relief when everything works out (or doesn’t work out) in the end. But I don’t think that we solely use entertainment (or any hobby for that matter) to get away from our lives, but rather so we can have a life.

Before people start freaking out at me, let me explain my thinking on this. Lelangir was quite right when he pointed out a while back that the Otakusphere has a social structure. Now I’m not sure quite how I’d define it or how it works or what affects it has, but there’s definitely a social structure there. For there to be a social structure, that would imply that people are socializing. In fact, again as Gia pointed out, there are various different social structures. You have conventions, fanfic, fanart, podcasts, blogs, forums, clubs, etc. What anime gives people in a lot of ways is a common interest and a common language that we can talk about these things.

And like any community there are going to be some people who don’t really fit in, but are they any stranger than the guys who slap on body paint and go to the (American) football game? Are they any less socially proficient than the writers in a critique group who say to the people reviewing them that they just don’t get it? Are they any more obsessed than the Chris Crockers of the world? And are there really that many more of them in these circles than in those circles? From my experience, I’d say no.

Now certainly this isn’t all encompassing. There are definitely those fans that’d rather spend time with their body pillows than with real people. And there are people for whom anime is a habit rather than a hobby. And I certainly don’t want to drift into the territory of whether they’re the majority or the minority.

But I will risk saying that they’re really not using the hobby to its full extent. So while I’ll agree that escapism may play a part in the hobby, it’s certainly not the end-all-be-all of it.