Saturday, May 30, 2009

A real boy

Released by Manga Entertainment to capitalise on the theatrical distribution of Casshern (the live action version of the story), Casshan is a remake of the 1973 TV series of the same name, which was created in the first place to replace the hugely popular Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (a.k.a. Battle of the Planets).
The similarities are noticeable in the design of Casshan’s helmet, as well as his robot dog that also handily transforms into some sort of jet.

Though released much later than Manga’s initial flurry of self-consciously ‘adult’ releases of the early nineties (it was released in the UK on October 31st, 2005), Casshan very much fits in with the sketchy quality of those titles.
Featuring a dated art style, re-use of animation sequences (common in TV productions) and fairly generic enemy design, with robots having a biomechanical appearance similar to the enemies seen in everything from Blue Gender to Beet the Vandal Buster, Casshan is guilty of numerous anime stereotypes; there is even the obligatory shower scene for the female character. Whilst many 80s horror films utilise the shower scene in order to promise a little nudity and appeal to the target male adolescent audience further, at least the exploitation is in keeping with the theme of the films – the woman is rendered even more vulnerable when naked to whichever nasty is offing people in the film. In anime, however, the shower scene rarely benefits from even a hint of context (Vampire Hunter D is an example that springs to mind).

So far, so-so. The plot involves robots taking over and at war with the humans, Casshan being humanity’s last hope as he is able to take the robots one-on-one. You’ve got a recurring anime theme of the protagonist being created or having a companion created for them by their usually absent, genius scientist of a father – in this case the father Dr. Azuma is responsible for creating the android leader of the robot army, as well as the suit with which his son Tetsuya melds himself to become Casshan (in a scene echoing that of Cronenberg’s Fly transporter).
As Casshan is now an android, we have scenes that briefly touch on what it means to be human, particularly as Tetsuya’s old girlfriend (she of the human resistance and random shower scene) insists that he still has a human spirit. This is an idea that crops up regularly in anime, particularly in Ghost In the Shell but originally in Osamu Tezuka’s Astroboy, where Astroboy is created by Dr. Tenma to replace his son Tobio who was killed in a car crash. Tezuka (often dubbed the godfather of anime) was in turn inspired by the 1883 story of Pinocchio, where Geppetto is the character who would become the mad scientist in Shelley’s Frankenstein and then reappear over and over again within the sci-fi genre.

The standard military fatigues of the soldiers emphasise the ridiculous costume that Casshan's love interest wears.

Fascist imagery crops up throughout, from kaiser-style pointy helmets to this Nuremberg rally scene.

Despite Casshan’s mediocrity, it is worth a watch if only for the commentary by Jonathan Clements, co-author of the anime encyclopaedia and a man who knows his stuff. Not only does he touch on the themes I previously mentioned, but he sets the context of the original story – not just the desire for a Gatchaman replacement but the social and political context of an early 70s Japan. Internally the country was experiencing the terrorist attacks of the Red Army who sought to overthrow the political conventions in society, in much the same way as the Baader Meinhoff Group in Germany and the Weather Underground in the US. Externally the Cold War was at a peak but Japan was left without the benefit of identifying with either super power involved in the threat of nuclear apocalypse.
As well as this he sets the scene for the creators of the remake – not just the practical limitations of a production for TV before digital animation became widespread, but the wider circumstances of the early 90s, which led to scenes influenced by the Gulf war and the Japanese economic collapse.
Whilst the commentary doesn’t improve the anime itself, it makes for much more interesting viewing and helps give further grounding in the history of anime itself – any Clements commentary is worth a listen and it is genuinely worthwhile seeking out the Manga releases on which his commentary tracks feature, regardless of the quality of the particular title.

The use of Christian imagery for aesthetic purposes in early 90s anime (see Judge and more famously, Neon Genesis Evangelion) is touched on by Clements.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The hand that feeds

To start with, a refresher into my cola coverage to which this handy link will direct you:

My search for a Vanilla Diet Coke alternative has been fruitless, but it has led to a mini soft drink adventure, the latest leg of which is now before your very eyes.

Fentiman’s botanically brewed Traditional Curiosity Cola smells like cola bottle sweets, and the initial taste is the similar but with a hint of the plant extracts that have been used – there is definitely a faint ginger hint. Oddly, after this first hit the liquid is curiously tasteless. It is a clean brew, however, going down easily and leaving no unpleasant aftertaste. There’s nothing wrong with it at all, but there just isn’t enough there to inspire any overwhelming affection. This cola is not excessively fizzy, but there’s enough of a kick to provide at least one satisfactory belch.

Ingredients are listed as: “Fermented ginger root extract, carbonated water, sugar, catuaba extract, gurana extract, caramel (E150), phosphoric acid (E338), cola flavour 9594 (flavouring), caffeine.”
I’ve encountered these before, apart from catuaba, which is a bark extract that according to Wiki is used in aphrodisiacs and remedies for erectile dysfunction…I’ve been unable to find any mention of flavouring 9594 so far.
Most interesting is the label stating that it contains “not more than 0.5% alcohol by vol.”, which makes me wonder if it’s flagged as an alcoholic beverage to retailers (as it tends to be stocked with soft drinks) and what the legality is of selling this concentration of alcohol to under 18s…

The bottle itself is a satisfying product, evoking the old-school charm of the era that calling something a ‘curiosity cola’ tries to conjure up.

Not entirely sure why there is a Star of David on the underside of the cap.

Still, the presentation is subservient to the taste, and as the taste is very minor in the grand scheme of cola I doubt I’ll be returning to Fentiman’s, particularly as it only comes in a sugared variety and my dentists are becoming progressively unreliable, so I’d like to avoid any visits beyond periodic check-ups.

Having said that, I’m prepared to take the risk this once in order to continue the cola investigation, toothpaste and mouthwash are not far away.
For the sake of detail fetishists I am rinsing the glass thoroughly in between to prevent taste contamination.

The can is so busy it is hard to work out what this is meant to be called, so we’ll go for Whole Earth Sparkling Delicious Cola.
The line below this is “Drink made with a dash of organic lemon!”, which surely should be preceded by “A”, otherwise the name is ridiculously long.
The front of the can also has “Nutty cola nut” with an arrow pointing to the top of the can, and “Whole Earth organic drinks are 100% delicious” and “And mase with bubble-licious sparking H20!” situated either side of the Whole Earth logo.
The initial impression is one of design by committee, too many cooks as it were, the can front being so cluttered it almost seems like a prototype design with all of the product features displayed at once accidentally made it to production, with so many cans manufactured that it was prohibitively expensive to scrap them.
In comparison to the back, however it seems sparse, with all the information barely squeezing in the available space.
To be fair, the ingredients are presented in four languages, which at least explains the abundance of text.
“Sparkling water, organic agave syrup, organic lemon juice from concentrate (2%), barley malt extract, natural flavouring, cola nut extract. Contains barley and gluten.”

"Natural flavouring" is clearly not descriptive enough, but we can only assume that it doesn’t represent a health concern. Cola nut contains caffeine, which itself is a flavouring, so it could be referring to caffeine. Agave syrup comes from the agave plants native to Mexico and are used as an alternative to sugar in cooking, so that’s the sugar substitute.

After the first pour it seems that the Whole Earth has a good deal more carbonation, but on introducing the nose over the lip of the glass it is an effort to try and draw forth an odour from the drink. There is a very slight fruitiness, more cherry than citric despite the mention of lemon on the front, but as I said this smell is hard to come by.
The taste itself is very bizarre, a fruit flavoured cola with massive emphasis on the fruit, and yet not like any fruit you have tasted.
The lemon is definitely there, and there is a syrupiness that you associate with colas, although the traditional cola taste is barely evident. It’s almost like a carbonated fruit drink for people who don’t like fruit and like their drinks brown. And organic. And Vegan. And not very carbonated, despite how it looked after the first pour.

What with the Whole Earth cola being so right-on and Fentiman’s being ‘botanically brewed’, it’s not a huge surprise to find one of the major players catching up to the bandwagon, with the introduction to the market of Pepsi Raw.

Whilst not as aesthetically pleasant as the Fentiman’s bottle, Pepsi’s Raw bottle is nicely streamlined with wibbly lines around its lower half. It’s a shame that the labelling is literally that, a clear label rather than something etched or blown into the glass itself, but I imagine that the ingredient details would be hard to produce en masse via etching. Going for the pop-top rather than the screw-on of the Fentiman’s, it’s heartening to see the Pepsi logo is off-centre – an unfortunate accident or a design decision in order to fir with the ‘organic’ nature of Raw?

The pour gives an impressive head, threatening to escape the confines of the hiball, but the odour is an unpleasant extremely earthy smell, very much reminiscent of the Red Bull Cola aftertaste. That same aftertaste is there in the Raw, too, the bitter earthiness is present in the sip but comes out more strongly after the swallow, and there don’t seem to be any other flavours to offset this. The kola nut is said to be bitter and that is certainly evident here, the cane sugar and caramel flavouring only offering weaker support tones to the acrid and musty kola nut taste, with a hint of the bitterness of coffee beans.

In contrast to the Whole Earth can, the Raw bottle is clean and simple in design, with the text white on the clear glass and taking up little of the bottle surface. It would have been good if they had left the RDA indicator (sugars: 28.8g or 32% of an adult’s daily maximum) round the back, but quite a lot of room is taken up with the barcode.
The ingredients list reveals “Sparkling water, cane sugar, apple extract, colour: plain caramel, natural plant extracts (including natural caffeine and kola nut extract), citric, tartaric and lactic acids, stabiliser: gum arabic and thickener: xanthan gum.”
The apple extract comes as a surprise as it’s very hard to detect, but on reading the Times article about the drinks launch (apparently UK only to begin with):
we find that coffee leaf is one of the ingredients, so presumably the source of the “natural caffeine”, which helps explain the final taste.
The Times reports that with the introduction of Raw, Pepsi hopes to gain ground over Coke, and that they have not introduced any new drinks for ten years. The Times isn’t clear whether it is talking domestically or internationally, as according to Wiki Pepsi Jazz was introduced in 2006.
The official Pepsi Raw site also goes into a little more detail about the ingredients (tartaric acid is found in grapes), but it’s strange that the Pepsi Company has decided to tap into this market. I would imagine that the demographic who actively seek out organic produce includes a significant proportion who would avoid products from dubious multinational corporations. The fact that it tastes worse than its equivalents really does it no favours. When it’s touch and go as to whether you are preferable to Red Bull Cola you probably need to take a long, hard look at yourself.

Last up is a variation on the daddy of colas, good old Coke itself.
Now, I know this looks like Coke Zero, which isn’t new to anyone now. Especially not me, after I first tried it out back before the swaggering-cock adverts that brought it to the nation’s attention.

It’s actually Kosher Coke Zero. Yes indeed.

As you can see, it builds up froth just as you would expect normal, ‘artificial’ colas to, though not to the extreme as Raw.
It smells as you would expect Coke Zero would do, sweet in an unnatural way, with that very subtle metallic hint underlying it all that reveals the move from the Diet Coke taste towards that of the full sugar variety.
It tastes as you would expect Coke Zero to, too, somewhere between Coke and its Diet brother, not quite as sharp and bloody as the former but not as sweet and light as the latter. To be fair this does taste ever so slightly closer to Diet than normal Zero does, but not so much that you’d notice if you weren’t sitting and drinking different colas all day.

I’m not entirely sure what makes it kosher.
The ingredient list doesn’t bring much enlightenment: “Water, Carbon-Dioxide, Caramel color (E150d), Edible Phosphoric acid, Sweeteners: Aspartame* and Acesulfame-K, Flavours, Acidity regulator: Lemon Salt (E331), Caffeine. *Contains a source of phenylalanine.”
I’ve included the capitalisation and bold type over from the label.
It appeared in my local Sainsbury’s during Passover and once that ended, they reduced their remaining kosher Coke and Zero stocks.
The ingredients are normal, no surprises there as even lemon salt or E331 is just another name for citric acid.
As none of the ingredients in themselves pose no particular problem, there must be something different in the method of production and/or preparation that renders this particular drink kosher, perhaps ensuring there are no leavening products in the factory where the Coke is produced.

I have learnt that Vanilla Coke is still available in the US, with a Zero version rather than Diet. Unfortunately Cyber Candy, the junk food importers, only lists full-sugar Vanilla style for sale.

My search continues…

Monday, May 11, 2009

I'm not the gay.

Hilarious. If Rambo 4 could possibly be read as a audience-baiting challenge for people who enjoy action films, Crank 2 is the ultimate action movie as comedy, taking the piss out of action movie violence itself rather than attempting to inject humour via characters whilst keep the action straight (see Pineapple Express) or lampooning the genre.

The Crank films recognise that the very idea of action movies are ridiculous, and throw the improbably named Chev Chelios into one insane situation after another, maintaining a breakneck pace via a McGuffin which sees our man Chev having to race about a nondescript and dirty-looking Los Angeles, this time around trying to juice up his newly installed artificial heart so that he can last long enough to get them what done this.
Statham is excellent as the unapologetically cockney hardman, the frequent swearing fitting perfectly with the sketchy character whilst managing not to become a grating cartoon (there is something meaty in the way that he spits out a throwaway “Cunt!” at the body of a henchman, in the manner of another bullet fired in anger at daring to slow Chelios down as he chases the guy what he thinks done this). Maintaining a deadpan demeanour throughout succeeds in convincing us of his character within an unconvincing world of inane caricatures, creating a friction that racks up the laughs, albeit hysterical ones.

The nearest comparison I can think of is to the films of Takashi Miike. The unreasonably prolific director varies wildly in the quality of his output, but with such a large number of releases this makes for a favourable number of hits. The common aspect that unites his films is that they rarely ever stick to the genre. Mostly working for the Japanese straight-to-retail market (the Hollywood equivalent would be the fetid production houses that help Wesley Snipes pay off his tax debts), Miike is in the position that would usually be filled by hacks, churning out solid but predictable B pictures with low budgets. Instead, Miike takes the genre staples as the bare bones of a framework, and drapes them in the flesh of what sometimes resembles the aftermath of a nuclear attack on an ideas factory.

Of recent entries into the Western action picture, Taken is a good example of the usual high-water mark. It is solid with well-shot action set pieces, convincing fights and a generally lean plot that serves as a means to get to the meat of the picture. Whilst it is good at what it does, Taken doesn’t vary from the blueprint of the one-man army actioner and is remarkable mainly for Liam Neeson taking the starring role.
The Transporter films, also starring Jason Statham, follow the formula too, with smatterings of decent fight sequences, car chases and the odd explosion filling out the most basic excuses for plots. On the whole they perform their jobs well, taking the time and effort to produce quality set-pieces that you would expect from an action film, but again they don’t try and do any more than this.

It’s not that Crank 2 doesn’t know its limitations – it is keenly aware of its status as an action movie and the stereotypes and genre trappings that come with the territory. Whilst accepting that it is only meant to go from A to B, it decides that there’s no reason that it can’t do that the long way round, by launching into orbit before landing smack back down to earth in a pink monster truck.
Similar to the first film, Crank 2 is cram-packed full of stylistic bells and whistles, including 8-bit video game graphics, 80s style talk show interludes (in the vein of Trisha), split-screen, animated still shots, slo-mo and fast-mo and an Ultraman/Godzilla style tokusatsu fight.
Not without its faults (worst of which is the casting decision for the young Chev – surely they could have dubbed a better voice in later?) Crank 2 gets by due to sheer force of will coupled with an absolute barrage of ideas – whilst borrowing Miike’s method of taking something pedestrian and coating it in bat-shit craziness, it also uses his working method of putting out so many ideas that for every dud there are two gems.
Not only did I want to carry on with Chev as the film ended, I’d quite happily see it again soon as it’s the kind of disposable but highly entertaining film that deserves repeat viewings.
It would be a little premature to hail 2009 as the year of the Stat, what with the release of Stallone’s action-fan wet dream, The Expendables, next year, but I have the feeling that it will be hard to match the inventiveness of the Crank films in a production packed with so much muscle I can’t even think of an adequate jokey comment.
Even if he is going to be called Lee Christmas.