巌窟王/Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, full series

[Screenshot]A lot of basic information about this series was written up in my review of the first four episodes and then my review of the next four episodes. I’m stepping back from partial-series reviews these days because they leave me with less and less to say by the end. Certainly this series is no exception. The visual style continues to be fantastic and somewhat unnerving: it really is a love-it-or-hate-it effect for the most part. The use of textures is getting steadily less restrained near the end of the series, with more garish and violent combinations of texture and color. That may (or may not) be intentional. I was mildly disappointed by the increasing role of CG effects in the later parts of the series, though: as background decoration they’re brilliant, but as foreground elements they clash badly with the texture-wackiness. Also, the CG gives them an excuse (or perhaps an obligation) to do mecha battles, which I at least could have done without.

The Japanese dub is quite good; the American dub is passable modulo some peculiar design decisions: there is one character who always speaks in French in the original dub, and his dialogue is translated to English the same as everyone else’s in the American dub. While the original decision was a bit peculiar (having exactly one character speak in French, uncommented on by everyone else, in a story set in a futuristic France in which everyone else speaks Japanese is more than a little peculiar).

So, I’ve gone over the technical aspects, but I’m not sure what to say about the plot. It’s deeply divergent from the original story, which is not necessarily a problem: it’s a pastiche built over the characters and motivations of the original work, changing things liberally to fit the story desired (Franz is a much larger character than in the novel; most of the Morrels are absent completely and the few who remain have a considerably diminished role). Peppo, who I adored in the first four episodes, remains lamentably underused, but reamis a ray of sunshine occasionally brought out to play. The final showdown between Morcerf and Dantes felt weak and a bit problematic, but much that led up to it was in fact excellent.

I’d cautiously recommend this one — up to episode 17 it is absolutely fantastic, and from there on it depends a bit much on flashy CGI and lets the plot grind down, but even up to the 22nd episode it remains riveting and interesting. The last two episodes are a bit of a mess, but not in, say, Neon Genesis Evangelion territory. If you liked Dumas’s novel but not so much that you see a disordered recapitulation of its themes and characters as a travesty, then you might well like this series as I did.

However, the easiest test is just to watch the first episode. If the art style puts you off, no amount of intrigue and drama will really counter that. If you find the art fascinating or alluring, it’s probably worth your time at least for the first half.

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

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Brighton Rock

[Screenshot]Interesting news: there’s a new adaptation of Brighton Rock coming out this year. I basically had no idea, and watched this 40s classic without any particular intent of being relevant. It’s one of a great many lesser-known Greene adaptations, but arguably in the top tier of those (with, say, The Ministry of Fear, This Gun for Hire, and, if we’re feeling particularly charitable, the unfortunate 1958 version of The Quiet American). Atmospherically, this film definitely works: there is the darkness of noir and the bright cheeriness of the seaside town coexisting in the same film harmoniously, and reflecting the Brighton of a bygone day. Even as an adaptation it’s quite good: Greene was involved in the production, so it’s faithful to his vision and mostly to his words — no Mankiewicz butchery here! Where it falls down, in my estimation, is in casting: this work basically succeeds or fails entirely on the ability of Pinky to convincingly emote his character, and rising star Richard Attenborough, despite his later brilliance, would not quite fit the bill here. He was a mite too old even at the time for the youthful gangster, and his costuming and manner didn’t actually help matters. While the sadistic element came through in full force, it seems vital to the character and themes that Pinky be elementally innocent and derive his cruelty from that well, and Attenborough isn’t even trying to be innocent, just vicious.

That having been said, the supporting actors fit their roles comfortably. Where Attenborough fails, Carol Marsh succeeds, with an innocence that makes you want to slap her silly combined with an unguarded craftiness; likewise Hermione Baddeley comes across nicely as a character with a strong sense of justice but not anyone you’d actually enjoy spending time with.

Oddly, many of the Catholic themes seemed to get lost in the shuffle; both of the Catholic characters are terrified of sex in the original work, and this motivates much of their relationship. But sex is notably absent from the film; yes, it may have been the 40s, but surely there was a way to slip those themes in edgewise, as prominent as they were in the original work. It’s not even particularly clear in this adaptation that Pinky’s Catholic. Rose’s Catholicism comes across loud and clear, and of course they include that fantastic, conflicted line about the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God, but all the same, Catholicism seems to loom much less large than it seems like it ought to, in spite of the extent to which it’s hammered in the last five minutes.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

The Illearth War, by Stephen R. Donaldson

I had a lot of help getting through the first book in Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series. Unfortunately there wasn’t a second season of Fantasy Bedtime Hour, so I was all on my own tackling this one. Like in the first one, there is a lot of singing and difficult-to-pronounce italicized words and other material which broadly comes under the category of “worldbuilding wank”. But ultimately the series wants to be about a visitor from the real world to a fantasy land in peril where they are the Chosen One to rescue it. This series actually predates The Fionavar Tapestry, which I kind of think of as the primary example of that particular trope (other than Narnia, which as children’s lit and Christian lit has certain other expectations), and the Thomas Covenant novels confront the fundamental escapism of the conceit far more than Fionavar ever did.

The central schtick of the first novel was that in spite of story-structuring as high fantasy, the big Hero From Another World is actually a pretty horrible human being but that as their last best hope they find themselves obligated to at least try to work with him, in spite of his adamant resistance to behaving even remotely heroically. Parts of this idea end up rather muddled in the second book. The land comes across less as a place where they work with Covenant because they need him, but more because they feel automatically compelled to be decent to him in spite of his own shocking indecency, and would presumably do the same to anyone else. In light of his actual actions in the first book (which we are reminded of incessantly; see below), everyone’s admiration of him comes across as a naïve inability to be rude. Let’s not even get into the Elena’s passion for Thomas: temporal craziness makes it not squicky on the basis of age, but it is on pretty much every single other aspect, and it’s hard to figure out what it is that she sees in him (of course, her behavior is generally so bizarre from mid-book on that I’d buy into a third-book indication that she suffered brain damage or some-such).

I’m not sure what to think about the introduction of another real-world character. On the one hand, Hile Troy helps to set ol’ TC in relief, since he confirms that, no, it’s not just the confusion of being in the Land that paralyzes him, but that Covenant is actually authentically a more repulsive character than others who do embrace their destinies (also, unlike all the other characters, he twigs to the fact that Thomas is not actually a very nice person). But on the other hand, he kinds of undermines the fantasy-subversion, since he actually is the Hero from Another World who saves their ass.

Now, on to the elephant in the room, which is rape. In the original book, I was kind of caught short by the fact that for about two thirds of the book, everybody avoided even talking about the unpleasant fact that the first thing Covenant did in the Land was rape somebody. For the first half of book 2, everybody talks about it a lot. This was discomfort-inducing, but not for the reasons it should have been discomfort-inducing. Atrocity writing is a bit sensitive, and for reasons I find difficult to elucidate it felt like Illearth ended up on the wrong side of the line. It’s difficult to say much of anything about narrative overuse of an atrocity: call someone on it, and you feel like an asshole for trivializing an important thing; don’t call them on it, and you feel like a tool for granting criticism-invulnerability on the grounds of subject sensitivity. So I’d like to qualify my uncertainty about the way the rape themes were handled here with the caveats that (a) I realize narrative rape and real-world rape are different subjects, and hope I can be critical of the handling of the former without reflecting on the importance of the latter, and (b) Donaldson had valid bona fide narrative reasons why extensive reference to the rape became necessary, and wasn’t doing it just for the Dark Themes.

See also: Wikipedia.

Father Goriot, by Honoré de Balzac

This is a work perhaps of a very specific historical context, and coming from outside of that context I may perhaps misjudge key points. The setting is very firmly early nineteenth century Paris, with attendant social structures and conventions. On the outside looking in, it appears to be a culture of vastly misplaced priorities; that’s not the barrier to understanding which it might seem to be, though, since Balzac seems to basically concur with that assessment. Nonetheless, it is difficult to know what to make of the major characters: while Goriot’s blind devotion to his daughters can still be read as fundamentally teetering between farce and tragedy, I found it difficult to know what to make of Rastignac’s character. It’s still quite early in the story when he applies to his family for the means to ascend the aristocracy, a loan which he cannot realistically hope to repay; social status, it is apparent to the reader (and should be apparent to Rastignac) is not remunerative. It seems like there ought to be a parallel between Rastignac’s financial dependency and Goriot’s daughters’, but this theme is not actually explored, and indeed after the initial application for funding, this seeming stain on Rastignac’s character is never mentioned again.

That presumption that Rastignac had incurred a financial obligation to his family colored my entire impression of the book. The engineered match with Victorine, although arguably unethical on entirely different grounds, seems to be all-to-easily discarded: Rastignac’s ostensible purpose in his social climbing is a financially favorable alliance, which would be indeed fulfilled by marriage to Victorine; by my reading he has a familial obligation to make a greater effort in this direction (yes, I may be unromantic). It is entirely possible I am misreading the extent and manner of family expectations in the nineteenth century, but in a way this crucial character issue undercuts a primary theme of the book. Although the book draws a picture of naiveté slowly turned by the corruption of Paris to cynicism, I’d contend that Rastignac is in fact already corrupt, and in almost the exact same way as the world around him which he has ceased to respect, living high and comfortable on the suffering of those closest to him. Perhaps that hypocrisy was intentional, but I didn’t get an indication of it from the story.

To move on from the themes which I found troubling, the work is stylistically well-crafted, with a delightful mastery of rhetoric, even in translation, and a strong sense of mood and minute eye for detail. Our characters and locations, particularly Vauquer’s boarding house and its residents, are drawn with a deft hand towards their appearance and manners. The aristocrats are paradoxically less well-drawn (which is perhaps another reason why I find Rastignac’s unvirtuous obsession with Delphine troublesome; there’s just not a lot to her character), which may be an intentional means towards exhibiting the shallow vapidity of their characters.

Definitely there is a delicious viciousness to this book, but as the previous paragraphs suggest, I’m unclear on how effectively it’s directed. If we’re meant to identify with the social climber, why is he so unsympathetic? If we’re meant to condemn him, doesn’t that somewhat mitigate the extent to which we can give merit to his own disgust?

See also: Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg.

スクールデイズ/School Days, full series

[Screenshot]There are three important things to know about School Days. First, it’s based on an eroge*. Second, the eroge it’s based on is infamous for having really bad endings. Third, the anime series is based on one of those bad endings.

I don’t play eroge, but I get the impression a bad ending is usually “you don’t get laid”, or perhaps “you get laid, but skeeve people out to the degree that the epilogue makes it clear you’re not getting laid again any time soon”. School Days has these, apparently, but it also has really, really bad ones. Think about the worst relationship you ever had. This is worse.

I forget who recommended School Days to me, but they clearly hate me and wanted me to suffer, because this is an an enticing horror, like a car wreck. It’s actually a fairly seductive work, particularly because for three episodes it really is kind of sweet, with a pleasant Cyrano de Bergerac-flavored love triangle shaping up. It has a low-level pervasive lechery in its dialogue, but watching teen anime one kind of tunes that part out. Somewhat more distressing is its awful male-gaze shot-framing, where I keep expecting the female characters to break their dialogue to inform the animators that, no, their faces are actually about 2 feet higher up.

And then at the end of Episode 4, it all starts to go downhill, and gets really skeevy really fast. But by then it’s drawn you in enough to want to see the fate of these people. In fairness, I went in mildly spoiled. I knew (or thought I knew) what happens, but didn’t know who did it, and as the series progressed, I got an idea for who it was (I was wrong, BTW). So I wondered at first, “how are things going to get that dysfunctional?” but around episode 7 was wondering, “how do they keep from getting that dysfunctional for a whole 5 more episodes?”. Around episode 9, however, the producers evidently realized that for a series based on an eroge, there hasn’t been a lot of sex, so over the course of the next two episodes, Makoto fucks all but two of the named characters, including a character whose entire plot up to that point has basically been about being into a guy who is not Makoto. By the time the big Game Over was rolling around, I was actually cheering for it to happen, because he’d gone from being a sweet naïf to a thoroughly unlikable character. It was very cathartic but there wasn’t much time to enjoy the catharsis, because fuck me there’s the second ending nobody warned me about and ow good God I think I didn’t need that.

This is a series which is bad for your soul. It will draw you in with its innocent charms and then blast your psyche at close range with vile characters doing awful things to each other. And you won’t even want to look away. I warn you for the sake of your own sanity.

Of course, with a warning like that, how can you resist the urge to watch? It’s insidious how it works. But if you must watch a series based on a dating sim, could I instead suggest the mostly inoffensive and pleasant Diamond Dust Drops?

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

* For those not acquainted with the many names for varieties of computer games in Japan: an “eroge” or “H-game” is a dating sim with explicit sexual content. A “dating sim” is a visual novel whose main plot involves finding romance. A “visual novel” is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure with pictures. [back]

Dance Dance Dance, by Haruki Murakami

I’m trying to bone up on my modern geeklit, and Murakami’s one of those names that comes up as authentically literary fiction. I picked this one up more-or-less at random, and have a fairly nebulous idea of how it fits into his ouevre (it’s apparently a follow-up, in a shared-world sense, to a previous trilogy, although it stands on its own). It collects a variety of themes and styles into one place: the overall tone felt neo-noir, but the plot wanders through a very mildly fantastic urban adventure, dwelling chiefly on the futility of most modern vocations (almost all the adults in the story seem to be heartily dissatisfied with their jobs) and the illusions people maintain out of cultured civility. It’s ultimately a character study, about how our narrator and his entire social circle lead unspoken lives, and that their own lives only begin to make sense when they delve deeply into others’ lives. It’s a strange story, shot through with elements of the fantastic and a sense of a Big Picture which is never entirely revealed, which is mildly disappointing: it’s possible that the overall purpose is better revealed in light of its prequels. But even taken in ignorance of what the big lead-up is to, it’s a book with comfortable and pleasing themes, seeing the narrator grow closer to others and gain a greater comfort in his own skin and a greater contentment thereby.

I very much liked the style of the work as well as its overall structure. There’s a combination of the frenzied and the relaxed that makes it work, that in the midst of crisis and adventure the protagonist has time and energy for minutiae, in a way that reminds me, perhaps irrationally, of the emphasis on the minute in The Mezzanine. There’s a strong sensory sense in the narrator’s memories of the women he’s known, and of the places he’s been, which may explain the comparison to some extent.

Mostly, I just found this book to be an effortless page-turner, though. The narrator is sympathetically thoughtful, and his world is peopled with largely flawed but enjoyably deep personalities. There are bits that are odd bonuses for me: seeing the narrator mention the Beach Boys wasn’t wholly surprising, as the book’s named after one of their songs, but seeing a mention of the obscure 1971 Surf’s Up album— well, in truth it made me certain, if nothing else, that Murakami takes pride in his acquaintance with obscurities, which is a fine, geeky thing to do. Wandering from the obscure into the overly twee, I’m not sure I can really approve of the inclusion of a succesful but self-loathing novelist named Makimura; that’s maybe a little too self-indulgent.

See also: Wikipedia.

A Film Unfinished

This was not quite the film I expected, although in many particulars it conformed to my expectations. The central artifact of this documentary is a different film, an infamous and unfinished Nazi propaganda film of staged scenes of ghetto life, which had previously been taken as a mixture of staged and documentary scenes; however, discovery of an outtakes reel in 1998 indicated that even the less manifestly propagandistic scenes had been directed and staged. I was expecting a typical documentary, full of talking-head film historians and voiceovers musing about the German propaganda machine. The making of the propaganda film is in fact is not the thrust of this movie at all, and it devotes the bare minimum of interest to the questions raised by Das Ghetto (of which there are many: it’s a bizarre work even by the standards of Nazi propaganda); instead it uses the film, and the events of the filming, as a central motif in recollecting life in the Warsaw ghetto through the eyes of survivors, the journals of the dead, and the reports and later testimony of German officials. In spite of being staged, and highly offensively staged in respects, it is in fact the only video memento of that horror, and this film reclaims it with dreadful purpose, setting the scenes which bear a semblance of verisimilitude against survivors’ experiences of the same, and the wholly staged scenes against readings of entries form Czeriniaków’s diary relating to the stagings performed by the film crew.

It was affecting and horrifying, and distressingly real. There’s something to be said about the mediation of film, that in the scene depicting a mass burial I was startled and shocked to think that it wasn’t, say, Hotel Rwanda, and that I was seeing not a recreation or a dramatization but the actual atrocities being depicted. We are perhaps to a certain extent desensitized by re-enactment, and filter what we see on film as not being “real”. But no matter how many Nazi propagandists were massaging the cinematography to cast themselves as well as possible, this was a lens on the death and squalor and hopelessness of the ghetto, juxtaposed grotesquely with the staged luxury. Viewed just as a silent film, this work would be troubling but so intercut with patent absurdities as to be impossible to process. Taken in concert with appropriately chosen survivor memoirs and the cameraman’s testimony, we get a vivid view of the realities the camera evades.

Apropos of all this admiration for the film’s commitment to reality, I must confess a certain disappointment with the decision to re-enact some scenes of the German administrator’s reporting and the cameraman’s testimony. Re-enactment is rarely a useful tool, but particularly in the context of a film struggling with the concept of cinematic verity in gleaning truth from a much older work of fiction, I found it to undercut the purity of the endeavor and wished that they’d stuck to voiceovers for this, as they had done for reading the victims’ diaries.

See also: Wikipedia, IMDB