平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ: Mercy Mercy Me

Last Takahata film for a while, I think, if only because I’m running out of them (he’s not terribly prolific). Not the last anime or even Ghibli: I’ve still got Whisper of the Heart and FLCL to get through.

Anyways, this film is about tanuki, which as far as I can tell are not actually meant to be the same thing as racoons, despite the subtitles’ insistence. If every raccoon was a tanuki, Super Mario Bros. 3 would’ve been a lot easier. So what do I know about tanuki? Well, according to the aformentioned videogame, they can turn into statues, and according to this one kinda disturbing real-estate ad I saw on the internet, they have giant testicles. Both of these properties are in evidence in this film.

This film is intriguingly more Miyazakiesque than Takahataesque in some ways, and unlike both in other ways. The central drama of the story is conflict between the human world and the sprit/natural world: if you can’t name at least 4 other Ghibli movies exploring that theme, get off your duff and start watching ’em. It’s a Miyazaki theme, really. although viewing it from the sprit-world’s point of view’s an interesting wrinkle. Takahata’s influence can be seen, I guess, in the defeatism and disappointment suffusing the film. Takahara’s always a bit of a downer, isn’t he? The element which didn’t seem suggestive of either is the idiosyncrasy of the art-style, closer at times to some of the less realistic symbolic representations of mainstream anime (such as chibi-mode) than to the generally stylistically clean art typical of Ghibli.

Anyways, I didn’t find myself taking much home from this, really. It had a lot of fun but didn’t seem to really measure up in plot, theme, or art to the usual Ghibli fare. It’s still preferable to about 90% of mainstream anime, but it’s kind of a splattery ball of ungelled ideas: it’s as if a Shinto Carl Hiaasen decided to write Animal Farm.

See also: Nausicaa.net, IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

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おもひでぽろぽろ: Persistence of memory

There was Hayao Miyazaki, and then there was that other guy. The other fellow who did Grave of the Fireflies and made up the other half of Studio Ghibli. Somehow I’d always thought of him as sort of a second-stringer to Myazaki (really, who isn’t?), but he’s a respectable creator and worthy of having his name remembered. So if I forget who Isao Takahata is, go ahead and thwack me with a rolled-up newspaper or something.

Only Yesterday is a pretty sweet film full of childhood vignettes and simple pastoral scenes. It’s not Miyazaki-sweet, full of delightful characters you want to hug the life out of, and in fact, on analysis there’s actually a kind of melancholy undertone of disappointment and sadness. Most of the vignettes center around 10-year-old Taeko over-reaching herself in an attempt to get her desires and ending up with nothing or at least disappointment. It’s presented well and poignantly. For the first hour or so, I didn’t feel terribly drawn in: the vignettes were too short to keep me interested, and the experiences and crises of the adult Taeko were remote and absent respectively. But emotionally the first hour is vital, building up to adult Taeko’s own crisis and her own resolution of it, and that I felt immediately and profoundly moved by.

The art, of course hardly needs any explaination or apology. It’s Studio Ghibli art, which means it’s warm, expressive, reasonably lifelike within the stylistic conventions of anime, and detailed. The voice acting was appropriately passionate, as far as I can tell from the Japanese. It’s nice to be able to see a subbed film on TV again (althoguh Ghibli dubs are also generally good, but that’s usually with oversight by Disney, which only applies to the later Ghibli films). Although, looking at an online script, the subs look a little lacking, like some lines were missed.

Oh, and I absolutely loved the math lesson. Especially when it became clear that Yaeko didn’t really know why it was the way it was either. Also, adult Taeko’s observation: “It seems like people who could divide fractions easily would have little trouble with their life after that, too.” Ah, if only it were so easy, Taeko.

And Toshio listens to Hungarian folk music, too. Score another obscurity that makes me grin.

See also: Nausicaa.net, IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

ガルフォース: Girls’ Night Out

AZN has a habit of showing distinctly mediocre feature-length anime (with the notable exception of Grave of the Fireflies), but somehow I never learn, and found myself watching Gall Force: Eternal Story.

There is a lot here which should be good. Spacefaring small crew ship, intergalactic war, all-female cast: seems like it was designed to appeal to superfanboys. Too bad they couldn’t wrap something compelling around all those ideas. And there is the really big problem: the plot is pretty good, the art is fine, but… the characters are, well, basically nonexistent. There are only 7 of them, and don’t get too attached to them, because they start dropping like plague rats. Ideally, this would be a good thing for characterization, except that they kill off all the wrong ones. Lufy has the most assertive personality—the only one with an apparent personality, really— so she disappears about 15 mintues in. The problem is, without any characterization, nothing that happens later is motivated. Catty doesn’t do anything to arouse Rabby’s suspicion about her (she’s aloof and mechanical, but that doesn’t distinguish her from, say, Patty). Pony’s sacrifice seems absolutely pointless. Patty becoming the center of the story is a big disappointment, too, since of the three survivors, she’s the one with the least actual characterization, and being the plot device du jour doesn’t make her develop any more personality.

Other odds-and-ends: I don’t get the ending. Specifically, I don’t get what dangerous thing they’re doing to the planet at the end to drive off/destroy the landing crafts. I also don’t get the 5-or-so-minute postscript of women walking in a city. Is that supposed to be the descendants of Rumy and Pat, or something? Two visual effects struck me: first, ship-to-ship weapons do this weird netting/focusing thing where they arc out at an angle to the ship and curve in towards a focus point. Despite the physical implausibility of such a design, I must admit it looks graceful. Second, all the text on-screen is in English, which is pretty normal. The English appears to be mostly spelled right and all, which is a bit supernormal. But then they waste all that hard work by putting it all into a script almost, but not quite, unlike Roman. It looks a bit like Cherokee, also. Numerals are also abstracted, so it’s peculiar, but then, I guess it’s supposed to look alien.

Parting shot: is it just me, or do the Paranoids look a lot like the Skeksis? And if you think “Paranoids” is a dumb name for a race, keep in mind that the girls belong to the “Solenoid” race.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

Dune: Glad I read the book first.

Dune was a great book, full of all sorts of ideas which don’t really translate into a cinematic portrayal. I’ve seen the David Lynch film before, but I wasn’t really “watching” and it was a shitty VHS transfer and all, so this time I actually did it properly.

It is full of pretty things and no expense was spared to make a vision come to life. But even that can’t save a cinematic portrayal of Dune (the miniseries handled a lot of things better). Part of it was what they kept (too much inner monologue!), part was what they left out (Yueh, Kynes and the Shadout Mapes are barely there; Paul’s induction into the Fremen was drastically modified), and part was what they added (what was the deal with “weirding modules” and syllables with power and whatnot).

The casting choices are, to say the least, interesting. A handful of extremely recognizable faces peer out of a generally workmanlike crowd. Sting is well-placed as Feyd-Rautha, if only because the role only demands a limited range of looking pretty and smirking. Patrick Stewart is rather appropriate as Gurney Hallack, but since his face has become recognizable and he’s become a star since this film, there’s a certain discomfort in seeing him in a bit role, and every time he was on screen he distracted me a lot from what was going on. Not that much distraction was necessary, mind: between the weird additions and modifications and omissions, it was hard to see the original story, or indeed any story, shining through.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

The Plot Against America: It’s not fanfic if you’ve got a raft of awards

The Plot Against America is an alternative American history. Everyone sort of has to decide for themselves if they like that sort of thing: it’s traditionally one of those lowbrow writing pursuits, like fanfic, but Philip Roth is a Real Writer, which means we can count on, if nothing else, competent execution of the project. Roth has a strong sense of history, too, so we can expect something executed with good internal accuracy too. On the other side of the scale, it’s from the point of view of a boy named Philip Roth living in suburban Newark, so it’s not only alt-history, but autobiographical alt-history.

But, anyways, moving past all the genre classifications which mark this book as kinda sketchy, the actual writing’s a treat. Our expectations are not amiss: Roth delivers a solid well-crafted narrative with internal consistency, a good sense of integration of the personalities already on the political landscape at the time, and a number of interesting and diverse characters. My main complaint about this work, actually, is the last chapter and a half: both the plot and the writing seem to derail a fair bit. From my point of view, dropping a historical overview at the end of the penultimate chapter was a bad idea: it sort of sucked all the life out of the remainder of the book that it had all been laid out in advance. But even without the overview, the ending seems awfully abrupt.

The Strange Incident of the Dog in the Night-time: The other autistic detective agency

(geekpoints for knowing what the original “autistic detective agency” was)

This was totally the big book a while back. Everyone seemed to be reading it, so I caught the trend nice and late, after it had passed everyone else. All in all, the writing’s pretty good. The narrative style is strong and characteristic, and there are subtleties in the text I probably didn’t pick up on. The plot is kind of enh, but the plot is really just a device to let us into Christopher’s world. I wish I had more to say here, but I read this months ago and my memory isn’t as sharp as it was, and everything worth saying about its quality as a bridge between autistic-spectrum people and non-autistic-spectrum people has been said. On that note, I think I’ll mention, on a personal level, that I think my personality disorder—or cluster of personality disorders, as the case may be—is not actually autistic, although there are a few autism-like elements, but I think all social-anxiety looks a lot like autism.

Jones Soda Holiday Pack (regional version): A Bishop’s Reviews Special

This doesn’t fit the usual form of things I write about here (movies, TV, music, books, etc.), but it’s such a novelty that it needed a writeup. I came across this particularly grotesque novelty item in World Market at half-off, and for $6.50 I figured it was worth the amusement of drinking and forcing on other people. And I was right.

For those who aren’t familiar with this particular phenomenon, Jones Soda is an indie-ish soda company which makes interesting and generally pretty good sodas. In 2004 they decided to make a “Holdiay Pack” of sodas with a lot more interesting and a lot less good. The idea was so wildly popular among masochists that they did it again this year, with two different packages. This one’s the Regional Pack; the National Pack overlapped only in the traditional Turkey and Gravy Flavor.

Our test began at Tayopa’s family Hannukah party, and relocated partway through to Lestat’s. Alexander, Tayopa, and I were the core testing panel, with a crowd of satellite testers opting in (or more wisely, opting out). Nobody threw up, even the girl we paid $1 to chug a full testing glass of all of them mixed together. So, without any further ado, our more-or-less raw impressions, in the order in which we sampled them:

Corn on the cob
Tasted mostly like butter. Eric thought it resembled cheap beer. It’s salty, and tastes more like corn the more of it you drink. It’s not absolutely vile.

Smoked Salmon Paté
It’s far too sweet for what it’s supposed to be. It has an extremely unpleasant aroma, a bit like bile and a lot like decomposing organinc matter. The flavor is slightly smoky but not otherwise undistinguished, but the aftertaste is distilled essence of vileness and only gets worse the more you drink of it. It’s mildly stomach-upsetting, and Alex declared it vile. One of our testers tasted mango and barbecue; Lunchbox smelled tomato soup and tasted barbecued corn. All people can agree on the basic smokiness and general godawfulness.

Turkey and Gravy
The classic, the original, and probably the same awful stuff they pushed on people in ’04. This one was popular enough that they sell it separately. I can’t see why. It’s got no real aroma, although Alex identified the aroma as “canned turkey gravy”. The flavor is unanimously identified as orange soda mixed with mop water. There’s also a hint of caramel. Lunchbox smelled “oak and pine” and tasted “Lucas candy” (with whcih I’m not familiar). This one was generally considered more drinkable than the salmon.

Broccoli Casserole
Once more, too sweet, and carmallier even than the turkey. Tayopa tasted carmelized sweet-n-low. Others couldn’t quantify the smell, but I thought I detected anise. This was also described as: fake maple syrup; honey and herbal tea. Although the mouth-flavor is pretty inoffensive, this one does something suspicious as it goes down your throat, like it’d like to crawl back out. Lunchbox, who went through them in reverse order, actually preferred it to the pecan pie.

Pecan Pie
Little but fake caramel going on here. Tayopa and Alex got a lingering aftertaste; further consumption confirmed a nutty and— dare I say it?—almost pecanlike flavor. Lunchbox tasted maple syrup. Generally regarded as harmless.

Concluding comments
One of our testers identified the problem, and in particular the carmely flavor, as Splenda. There are Splenda sodas not so aggressively caramelish, so I don’t know about that. Opinion on the relative drinkability of the sodas was pretty uniform: pecan pie was the least offensive, followed closely by corn. Broccoli and turkey fought it out in the middle, with turkey generally regarded as less drinkable. The salmon was almost universally reviled.

Final note: later in the evening one of the baristas asked to be shot with a taser. I bring five of the most loathsome beverages of the year to a coffeehouse, and I’m still not the most masochistic thing going on. What’s up with that?

See also: Official Holiday Pack 2005 Website.