Monday, May 28, 2007

A sweeping generalisation


Each season dozens of new anime shows are broadcast in Japan.
A handful of these are chosen by the various fansub groups for translation, and are released for download over the net. A further proportion of these titles are then picked up by the anime distribution companies, and then another fraction are picked for UK distribution, meaning that the majority of titles never see the light of day here.
It’s true to say that this filtering process does do the job of filtering the wheat from the chaff, but a lot of great series are never picked up and even those that make it can often take years to reach our island.

For the moment the fansub community offers the best opportunity to catch series that you might otherwise never see in translated form, and as ever this season has offered up a smattering of shows that peak the interest.

Darker than Black is set in the near future, where shadowy government operatives called contractors use their psychic powers to do whatever it is shady agents do, and adopts a straight-faced more realistic tone akin to that found in the acclaimed Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. After a couple of episodes it’s hard to say if this is worth sticking with, but it certainly is ‘dark’.

Denno Coil is also set in the near-future, where cyberspace is integrated into the real world via hi-tech goggles and holographic pets are the norm, but the tone is completely opposite to Darker than Black, focusing on the experiences of a young girl who has to move to a new city and meets a young cyber-detective investigating illegal programs living in hidden cyberspace. The show reminds me of My Neighbour Totoro, with its cutesy animals and the tumbling, giggling little sister to protagonist Yasako, who shouts “poop!” at everything. Despite the initially simplistic style, Denno Coil sports some sophisticated animation.

Claymore is set in the favoured anime backdrop of a generic medieval world of swords and sorcery. In this case, the Claymores are half woman-half demon warriors who travel from town to town, answering requests to despatch demons, or Yoma, who disguise themselves as people in order to have ready access to their favourite food – human guts. The set-up is initially clich├ęd, but the story quickly picks up the pace and by episode 8 has turned into a shocking and gripping show.
Lots of bloody violence which crucially comes second to the character development.

El Cazador de la Bruja also treads familiar ground, dealing as it does with bounty hunters, and that old “children who have escaped from labs with uncharted special powers and who are on the run from secret organisations” chestnut. In this case the setting is Mexico and our kind hearted bounty hunter forms a female double-team with the escaped super-child. There are flashes between the action as our girls outsmart/fight their pursuers, and the wider plot as we see who we assume to be the man in charge of the super-child programme do his secret organisation thing. It’s totally generic and unlikely to go anywhere particularly interesting, but is polished with a fair amount of charm that keeps it worth watching.


My favourite of the season, though, is yet another entry in the well-worn category of High School rom-com.
Lovely Complex stars the unlikely duo of Otani and Risa, a short boy and tall girl who are unlucky in love, thanks, it seems, to their height, and end up hanging around each other, constantly bickering as their friends pair up around them. They both have a lot in common and it’s clear from the off that these two are meant to be together, but it’s a rocky road.

Lovely Complex manages to mix the comedy well with the drama. You do care about the characters, particularly Risa who realises first that she and Otani could be an item, which is no easy task when the jokes are so prominent. With lots of exaggeration of expression, physical comedy and misunderstanding, Lovely Complex is genuinely funny and highlights the popularity of this genre in the West. Whilst a number of comedy shows mercilessly lampoon popular culture, it is hard to get a lot of the jokes when said culture is unfamiliar. On the other hand the various situations related to love in high school are familiar to most people; the unrequited love, love triangles and the squirming attempts to ask your dream boy/girl out are things that many more people can identify with than Ultraman parodies.
Even though you can barely breathe for anime high-school romcoms, Lovely Complex stands out for me as one of the better examples, and indeed a decent show in its own right.


I would have loved to include a clip from the show as animation is unsurprisingly key in anime, but the only thing available on Youtube at the moment are snippets of the live action version of the show, chocked to the brim with some of the worst acting that you could ever hope to avoid.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Crocodile

Movies are often designed to elicit emotions in their audience – the fear of the horror film and the joy of a comedy are examples of two genres which offer up efforts that aim to do their utmost in bringing about the desired feeling in the viewer.
Two genres that everyone is familiar with, and kin to the weepie, a type of movie often aimed at a female audience and deigned to tug the heartstrings via some doomed or troubled romance that usually, but not always, wins through in the end.
I like to think that I’m too cynical and knowing to fall for the obvious attempts of some movies to increase hankie use, but even I, stiff-upper-lip Englishman that I am, have found the tears welling up thanks to some films.

The majority of movies that have moved me have come about in the last few years – could it be that movies are getting more cutting, or am I just going soft in my old age?

The first film I remember leaving me in danger of wet cheeks was Dancer in the Dark, Lars Von Trier’s case against capital punishment which featured Bjork in her first and last starring role.
You do kind of expect that a film about a self-sacrificing, single mother, who is slowly going blind as she desperately tries to provide for her son before being unjustly sentenced to death, may try to elicit a response. And you’d be right. But what could have been a worthy but stodgy TV movie of the week in another’s hands, becomes, due to the direction of Von Trier and the influence of his Dogme background, a devastatingly intimate story that earns rather than forces its empathy from you. After the film finished, all I heard around me in the dark as the credits rolled were the snifflings of the Curzon Soho patrons penetrating the stunned silence.
Don’t hold the fact that it’s a musical against it.



Not long afterwards I caught a screening of the Grave of the Fireflies as part of a Studio Ghibli season at the Barbican. Directed by Isao Takahata, the co-founder of the studio alongside the better-known Hayao Miyazaki, the film tells the story of a brother and sister’s desperate struggle for survival when they are orphaned as a result of the Tokyo fire bombing in World War 2. The death of parents and children in peril are themes that are admittedly ripe for the cynical heart-string pluckers of the weepie world, but even though the body of translated anime offers few examples that transcend the realms of adolescent fantasy or romance, Fireflies succeeds in telling the tale with no little subtlety and care, allowing you to develop a real attachment to the children that would have been so hard to achieve with live actors and their fine line of schooled ability or unskilled naivety both potentially pulling you out of their world.
Again, a hushed auditorium punctuated by wet sounds as people dragged themselves, dazed, from their seats.



Alongside the films of Satoshi Kon that match live action cinema for their craft in storytelling, beauty and immersion, Grave of the Fireflies is one of the finest anime movies ever made.

No films got to me as deeply in the intervening years. Some like Seul Contre Tous, or Funny Games, succeeded in shaking me to the core so that I felt shaken for hours afterwards, but these weren’t sad films so much as a type of horror film that needs not rely on monsters and are all the more horrifying for it. United 93 also left me affected, as surprisingly for a film in which you know the entire plot from beginning to end beforehand it was and is the tensest film that I have seen in my life, but it didn’t push the same buttons.

Then last year came Children of Men.
I have spoken of this film before, and it is truly a film that deserves to be seen before you learn anything about it, but suffice to say it was the best film last year. I’ve written about it before (link), but it needs to be said that it not only brings you close to the characters so that you fear for them, but it says things about the world today that also cut me deep. Without giving to much away, after one of the most superlative scenes of the film (and, indeed, cinema) I had to literally fight back the tears for about ten minutes, such was the urge to just burst out sobbing. It is a truly affecting film and I would urge (again) that everyone who thinks themselves a fan of cinema owes it to themselves to see it. Looking back on what I’ve written, I suspected that I might have built it up too much.
But I haven’t.



Reign Over Me is an odd one. I initially resisted the idea of seeing it chiefly down to the casting of Sandler. I’d never actually, watched an Adam Sandler movie from start to finish before, so my dislike was firmly irrational, but that feeling was enough to have me avoid him until now.
After a favourable write up in Time Out, though, combined with my free cinema pass and a work related journey near one of the few cinemas screening the film, I decided to give it a shot.
The tale of a dentist bumping into the college roommate he has not seen in years, it revolves around the fact that his old friend, Charlie Fineman, lost his wife and kids to one of the planes used on the fateful day of September 11th 2001, and has retreated into an adolescent bubble ever since, aided by a huge compensation payout.
In part it seems a typical Hollywood offering, with schmaltzy sentiment and some skirting round the more difficult problems faced by the characters, but there is real warmth there, too, along with some great acting from Don Cheadle who shines in the lead role of the everyman Alan Johnson, a character that could so easily have been a bland foil to Sandler’s occasional Rain Man-esque histrionics. Jealous of Charlie’s freedoms, Alan feels trapped by his job and his family, and finds some release through his visits to his friend, but comes to realise that what he has is actually what he needs blah blah blah. Ably supported by Liv Tyler, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Saffron Burrows, with a brief but hearty cameo from Donald Sutherland, Reign Over Me manages to move almost despite the seemingly cynical origins of a film that seems designed to tug at America’s heart(land)-strings and provide Sandler with another crack at getting taken seriously with that whole acting thing.
Whilst Sandler is admittedly responsible for the scene that actually caused me to well up, be it from the power of ACTING or the situation of his character, it is nevertheless Cheadle’s movie and makes you wish that he wasn’t so often stuck in supporting roles, playing that second fiddle. Whilst certainly not one of the greatest movies dealing with grief, it’s worth watching for the Don alone.



It also has one of the greatest examples of movie product placement with Sony’s Shadow of the Colossus, rubbing your face in the fact that Charlie Fineman Has Retreated Into A Fantasy World.

Most recently though, it is the marvellous This Is England that has been worrying my tear ducts.
Set in 1983, Shane Meadow’s latest follows 12 year old, fatherless, Shaun, who gets picked on at school and generally has a rough time of things until he is welcomed into a gang of skinheads by Woody and finds happiness with his new friends and surrogate family. Inevitably this joy is short lived thanks to the return of Combo from a stretch inside, who quickly divides the group with nationalist speeches, and takes Shaun under his wing when Shaun decides he wants his dad’s death on the Falklands to mean something.

This Is England is an uncanny glimpse at early 80’s Britain risen from the dead, with every performance note-perfect and a devastating and gripping story despite the predictability of things all going wrong.
As Combo, Stephen Graham succeeds in the unenviable task of portraying a racist, thuggish skinhead as a three-dimensional character, but it is Thomas Turgoose who shines out as Shaun, exactly like a 12 year old boy from ’83, with that intangible mix of wisdom and innocence that films fail to capture with child characters again and again.
Even though you can see the events at the close of the film coming from a long way off this builds on rather than detracting its power, making for a searing and sobering experience.
A massive contribution to the emotion involved comes from early in the film where a few scenes of the gang together somehow seem to distil what it means to be friends, and is as touching as the tragedy that rears towards the end.

This Is England shares with A Room For Romeo Brass and Dead Man’s Shoes a wonderful naturalism from the performers, so that it never seems that you are watching a film with players but rather are catching a slice of people’s lives. This Is England joins the aforementioned films as some of the best British cinema has to offer and marks Meadows as a director to watch, if only to see how he plans to follow what he has achieved so far.
Best film of the year.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Down. In the dark.


This little clip is both a test of embedding Youtube clips and an indication of the possibilities of Wii. See how much fun they're having? You could too.


What if you launched a console but nobody came?

Barely a month on from the next gen console war peaking with the release of Sony’s stunningly monikered PS3, it already seems as if an age has passed.

Not long ago Sony Europe announced their European Launch a huge success, after taking £100 million in the first two days.
Success

Such jubilation hardly sits well with the nigh-on simultaneous laying off of 160 Sony Europe employees, from mainly UK sources:
P45
And the rest of the Sony world isn’t necessarily safe:
Fear in Hi Def

In other news, Sony announced a PSP price drop:
Cheap, hand held fun
Hardly controversial at this stage in the console’s life, but the PS3 was offered at over 5% off the RRP (at less than £400) at numerous online sites just days after launch, lending weight to the theories that the hefty price tag is holding back all but the most ravenous Playstation fans. Now over a month later, the software is changing hands at £30 a go:
And not just the crap games
Sales for the third week after release have the freely available PS3 at 17,000 units, whilst the Wii, coming up to 20 weeks from UK release and still in short supply, shifted 25,000 units according to this:
DS still wins

Then this week there has been a media fury, predictably from the hateful Mail newspaper, about the European launch of the critically acclaimed God of War 2 on Playstation 2.
But this time they do have a point:
Goat slaughter and topless waitresses


As media stunts go this one’s pretty fucking weird.

So, it’s not a good sign for Europe. But what of the other main territories? Gamecube and Dreamcast died horribly in the UK, but in the US and especially Japan they enjoyed somewhat more success, so is the PS3 held back by the comparatively massive prices Brits have to pay?

For most of this year the Wii has been outselling the PS3 by two-to-one in Japan (with 360 sales barely a fraction of these) and the NPD US sales figures speak for themselves:

February sales figures:
Wii 335,000
360 228,000
PS3 127,000

March:
Wii 259,000
360 199,000
PS3 130,000

Then to top it all off, Ken Kutaragi steps down as the head of Sony’s Playstation division.
Jump or pushed?
Demoting oneself is rarely the action of a successful businessman.

In the UK it’s fair to say that the PS3’s initial (as in two day) success was fuelled by fans waiting a long time, but it is not being picked up by those who are only curious as it’s too big an investment, unlike the Wii, which offers something different from the norm that consoles have offered for a long time, and comes in at a comparatively budget price, as well as possibly offering some kudos thanks to it’s perpetually ‘sold out’ status at the moment.
A valid criticism of the Wii is that there are just too few decent games on the system, without delving in to the Gamecube catalogue, but the sales figures point to the fact that Nintendo have successfully hit the market of ‘non-gamers’, who aren’t too worried about a smaller crop of games as they buy them less frequently anyway. How this demographic will impact on software sales and therefore developer support is a worry for the future of the machine.

With all the negative press, it’s all too easy to assume that the PS3 is dead or dying, but with their still imposing brand name and dedication to producing decent software, it is more likely that this time around the battle of the formats will be on a much more level playing field.

For the first time I’m really torn between the machines on offer.
The Wii is a great little machine which more than any other promises of shiny potential that you haven’t even thought of yet. But at the moment it is plagued by a dearth of titles, and those that are available consist of an uncomfortably large proportion of lame kids’ movie tie-ins, ports of very old games from the last lot of machines with usually shoddy optimization for the new control system, the horrific curse of the ‘party game’ and only the distant promise of the Nintendo first-party blockbusters, which are all just nth generation updates of hoary old franchises anyway. I hope that that potential isn’t lost before it has a chance to be found.

The 360 is a great machine backed with great games, great looking, great sounding and great fun. But none of these games are any different than what’s been offered before. Lush graphics, sharp sound and some extended gameplay thanks to the extra horsepower, but the games on offer are the same games we’ve been playing for years. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the resurgence of ‘retro gaming’ would attest. But it’s hard to get very excited about.

The PS3 isn’t much different, with the same sort of old-gen-game, next-gen-polish line up on offer, and the integrated Blu Ray drive is essentially the audio-visual equivalent – it like DVD, but looks and sounds better. Besides the free “Home” online service (compared to the 360’s subscriber service), the PS3 has little different to offer, more so as previously exclusive titles such as Devil May Cry 4 and Assassin’s Creed hop onto to the Microsoft platform, but there are promises shining through in the shape of games such as LittleBigPlanet. Click when you're linking

It’s a shame that Sony aren’t known for keeping their promises.

But rather than doom & gloom, things in the world of games are actually fantastic, because the people behind Lego Star Wars 1&2 are bringing out Lego Batman:


Now that Play.com are offering the Playstation 2 for only £69.99 I am so tempted that I can actually smell and taste it. I've long resisted the lure of the thing as it looked cheap and nasty, and seemed built that way judging from the number of friends who have had to return faulty machines, but there are a wealth of critically acclaimed games that just aren't available elsewhere.
I am desperate to play the God of War games thanks to what I've read about them, I've been dreaming of the gorgeous looking Okami for months -

- and others, such as Rockstar's Canis Canem Edit, the Devil May Cry games and the second volume of the Capcom Classics Collection have taunted me with their exclusivity.

I know that this path is that of madness, as even as I covet Sony's last gen dominator, dozens of unplayed Xbox and Gamecube titles call to me and a copy of Eledees for the Wii will shortly be joining my little library, but I almost can't help myself. Should I give in? I have the money, but will I ever have the time...

An Eledee. Or Elebit. Depends which country you're in.