Thursday, March 25, 2010

Mayumi Kojima's Blue Rondo

Mayumi Kojima's newest album, Blue Rondo, came out on 02/03, and I was finally able to try it out a couple of days ago. Now, having listened through it several times, I've come away slightly disappointed with how it turned out. All in all, I find Blue Rondo to be the weakest album in her discography so far.

Despite my harsh rhetoric, I didn't think it was horrible. To its credit, I was decently entertained, and never really bored. In fact, it's probably one of the stronger efforts I've heard out of the tens of albums I've listened this week while going through the backlog of music I've accumulated over the past quarter at college. Indeed, Mayumi's distinct voice is still here in all of its sensual, off-note, volatile glory, and there's more of that distinctive, jazz-guitar retro sound that she's loyally stuck with throughout her career. For those of you who have listened to Mayumi Kojima before, Rondo offers no departures into unfamiliar territory in terms of instrumentation. I can't comment on lyrical content because I can't understand Japanese I would have liked to hear more stylistic experimentation and exploration a la Ai no Poltergeist, but with her sound distinct as is, more of the same is most certainly pleasantly welcome. My main qualm is that this album just lacks the frenetic, wild, unpredictable energy seen in her previous outings. There's less of that visceral screeching, hissing, random vocal noises/alterations that I've come to love. Her belting seemed to be more measured and delivered with less reckless, reverberating abandon. The singles heading Rondo, "Arabesque" and "Merrygoround" are apt summaries for the rest of the album. They still get loud, there's a lazier, relaxed delivery; the crescendos are more predictable, and lack the untamed, brash edge we've seen in her previous works.

I admit that I'm just probably being a bit more of a harsh judge than I should be, since she happens to be one of my favorite artists, and the couple of delays pushing back Blue Rondo's release date hyped up my anticipation. If you've got some extra bank, you could do many worse things with your bling than importing this thing from CDJapan. Of course, if you've never listened to Mayumi Kojima before, I implore you to check out some other things in her discography first, Ai no Poltergeist and Me and My Monkey on the Moon at the forefront, before giving Blue Rondo a try.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Summer Wars

Instead of a clever attempt at a plot summary, I'll defer to ANN's:

“When timid eleventh-grader and math genius Kenji Koiso is asked by older student and secret crush Natsuki to come with her to her family’s Nagano home for a summer job, he agrees without hesitation. Natsuki’s family, the Jinnouchi clan, dates back to the Muromachi era, and they’ve all come together to celebrate the 90th birthday of the spunky matriarch of the family, Sakae. That’s when Kenji discovers his “summer job” is to pretend to be Natsuki’s fiancé and dance with her at the birthday celebration. As Kenji attempts to keep up with Natsuki’s act around her family, he receives a strange math problem on his cell phone which, being a math genius, he can’t resist solving. As it turns out, the solution to the mysterious equation causes a hijacking of the social networking site through which most of the world's social and business traffic flows.”

The subplots of the fiancé charade and Sakae's birthday aside, anyone familiar with the second of Mamoru Hosoda's two Digimon short films, Our War Game, will notice more than a passing resemblance to Summer Wars; this is compounded further by the look and developments (especially the climax nearly replicating the big twist and comeback!) of the two movies. Sadly, this does result in somewhat derivative moments -- even though in Summer Wars they may better those in Our War Game -- and perhaps more crucially, misses the urgency of the Digimon film. The plot is more than enough for the concise forty minutes of Our War Game, but lacks the intricacies needed to be fully satisfying when it's extended to over one hundred.

Then again, I thought Paprika was one of Satoshi Kon's lesser works, before on a second re-watch came to feel that it's his best film. Who knows how I'll see my current misgivings of Summer Wars later on?

Regardless, that's where the negatives primarily end, as it's the characters and ideas that hook themselves in your mind. While I empathize far more with Makoto (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time), Kenji's position as an awkward but principled nerd is shown quite honestly; his latent proactive attitude is the result of his own personality and talents, rather than arbitrary plot mechanics. Satsuki, while not as well-defined as Makoto, actually behaves like a real teenage girl, carefully nuanced (considerate, selfish and brave are just a few adjectives that can be applied) and developed over the course of the story. Her family is even better, with the grandmother, Sakae, being on the short list of nominees for Best Character of All-Time in animated film. She's the very embodiment of charisma, order and understanding, and also represents the film's key themes (the importance of connections, comprehending the extent of one's abilities and acting on them, and the meshing of the traditional and contemporary) in vital ways: her two important conversations with Kenji about his relationship with Natsuki; the order and invigoration she instills in the seemingly countless important workers and public officials across Japan as they deal with the Oz Crisis, never mind her family; and her mindful awareness of the family's history (both of centuries past and the present generations) and how it should be acknowledged in the future (her relationship with Wabisuke is most representative of this, with the information doled out at the most appropriate times). The rest of the family is admirably diverse and free of stereotypes, most of them well-defined based on just a few lines of dialogue, their posture, attentiveness (or lack thereof) to the situation at hand, et cetera. They're portrayed so authentically that my mind started linking all sorts of associations to my own friends and family (both the good and the bad!). Some are attuned to modern technology, others less so or not at all; in fact, the one most involved is Kazuma, a reclusive thirteen-year-old male that provides the most immediate help to Kenji, and who has his own growing pains to deal with (before and during the movie). It's the entire cast’s personal tics that engages the viewer for the first hour, and also stir the viewers through the action-oriented second half.

Oh, yeah, and there's the visuals. As with the story, Hosoda borrows and refines many of the visual ideas from Our War Game, but with greater, more consistent success. Even though they never reach the sheer plain of pleasure of the sixth One Piece movie, Hosoda... well, screencaps do a far better job than words (no actual spoilers):

Very different than the subdued tones of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, but very vibrant, well-composed work that gives a good sense of weight and motion. Wonderful stuff.

What's the most endearing aspect of the film, though, is one that should receive plenty of thought by viewers after the credits end. In fiction, the negative side effects of technological progress (environmental degradation, alienation amongst a sea of people, deepening issues of classism) are almost always given without much, if any reflection of the positives. Summer Wars adds this much-needed perspective where this greater ease of communication allows us an astounding amount of information in mere moments, the ability to connect with friends and family that we haven't seen or spoken to in years, and even save lives. The potential for cooperation and deep, transcultural relationships is there -- it's on us to reach it. It's an optimistic point that we need reminding of more often.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Boogiepop Darkly: The Scat Singing Cat

When a Towa agent -- the awesomely named Thelonious Monkey -- goes missing after a fight with a mysterious MPLS known only as Scatterbrain, Reset dispatches the infamous "strongest" -- Fortissimo.
Fortissimo is a bit like the Daleks in Doctor Who. He's inherently awesome, and cheapened by overuse. I know he isn't in every Boogiepop novel, but he's been in far too many of them, and been far too ineffective in most of them, so I was a bit disappointed to see him playing a major role this time around. But I'm guessing Kadono wanted to revamp the character a bit, because I honestly don't think he's been this fucking bad ass since his first fucking appearance. Walking on water, evaporating said water with a flick of the mind, ignoring crowds of zombies attacking from all sides as they bounce off him, making his own heart explode and reform so he can free himself from a mind-control spell with a bit of temporary death -- he's single-handedly Jojoing the shit out of this volume, and it was awesome to behold. I hope Kadono has the sense to keep him out of the spotlight so the next time he shows up his very entrance provides a thrill.
This is possibly the closest to outright horror the series has been in years. The section where Fortissimo reads Thelonious Monkey's cryptic journal, encountering puzzling references to a cat set randomly between accounts of people she knows not remembering her, and her not remembering people who clearly know her, is some genuinely chilling stuff.
The other story cross cut with Fortissimo's investigation involves the local junior high's photography club searching odd corners of the town in the hopes of finding evidence that Boogiepop exists. These four are archetypal Kadono characters, all presented as stock types before their interactions serve to knock each other off balance, their reactions never quite what we expect, so that they gradually take on a life of their own.
The structure here is classic Jojo's Bizarre Adventure -- a mysterious power is at work, and the bulk of the book is spent figuring out what it is and how it works, while being more than a bit afraid of it. For once Boogiepop is forced to play a fairly active role, even if that largely just means the climax of the book has more than it's fair share of cryptic riddle-speech. For better or for worse, Kadono is a man who never strays very far from his own set of foibles. But The Scat Singing Cat is definitely on his better side.

Monday, March 22, 2010

GoGo Monster

Man. After just one reading, I know I'm unable to deliver any sort of proper review for this. But what the hell.

The story follows Yuki Tachibana, a very internalized, eccentric third grader, and his growing friendship with Makoto Suzuki, one of the few human characters in the story that does not ostracize Yuki and attempts to gain a kind of understanding with him. The two other key characters are Ganz, an elderly caretaker that recognizes Yuki's position -- where, unlike the others, he is not a skeptic of The Other Side that the boy describes -- and IQ, an acute fifth grader with a box over his head, allowing one peephole to see the world outside of himself. Yuki contends at different points in the book with various choices: whether the monsters he sees are real or hallucinatory, and if real, whether he can hold onto communicating with Them, a group of good monsters, and also protect himself from The Others, a group of destructive ones. These and others threads, such as IQ's search for a white rabbit, all flow into each other in the otherworldly 120 page climax.

Going in, I wasn't sure whether this would be more akin to Taiyo Matsumoto's long-form works (Tekkon Kinkreet, Ping Pong) or his more bizarre short stories and opaque narratives (Brothers of Japan, No. 5). Despite the wild third act, it's firmly grouped with the former, most directly invoking Tekkon Kinkreet: Yuki reesembles White; Makoto, Black; Ganz, the grandfather character; the troubling awareness of two different worlds that children experience as they grow older, torn between that of childhood of adulthood; the importance of human connections; etc. If these sound like crude simplifications, they are; it's also important that Matsumoto inverts these ideas, where here the anchor is Makoto, and it is Yuki who directly faces the surrealistic descent into himself and The Other Side. Even then my word choice isn't entirely accurate, either, for it's ascending through the school to a nonexistent floor that Yuki reaches The Other Side. This kind of duality is reflected everywhere in the narrative, whether in the repetitions (why Yuki likes the school office in the summer and winter) or in IQ' ambiguous relationship with Yuki and his almost metafictional actions and words in the narrative itself.

Beyond all that, though, is an emotional narrative for the first three seasons (and much of the beginning of winter) of the school year, with elliptical storytelling that becomes slightly grounded with the inclusions of dates. This already shows a stark difference in approach that Matsumoto takes from most manga-ka out there; after all, the story itself could be told in one-quarter or even one-tenth of the total pages (about 460, technically), but the sense of time and progression, as well as reflection (a lot of elementary school memories came back as I read this) is far too important. Compared to the final product here, a shortened version would just dull the impact.

It's pretty much redundant to say that Matsumoto's art is amazing, but he really outdoes himself here: it has the same refinement of Ping Pong, and the more ambitious scenes (IQ "dissolving" and his photorealistic eye; Makoto's first daydream and his entrance onto the many rooms of the fifth floor) better the best portions of Tekkon Kinkreet. The dozen or so darkened pages in the climax don't even bother me, as the eyes, faces and monstrous shapes are defined just enough to give detail, while also anticipating the feeling of liberation when we arrive at the wide open finish.

I'm not sure where I'd rank GoGo Monster against Matsumoto's masterpieces (Hanaotoko and the aforementioned 90s works), but that seems irrelevant; it's simply a damn good book that's required reading for anyone interested in genuinely unique storytelling. I know I'll be reading it again and again.


Looks pleasingly grim.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Dulalala!! 11

So basically any other show in the world would be thrilled to have a scene as insanely great as either "everyone is in the Dollars" or "Celty rides down a fucking building" in their final episode, and Dulalala!! has both in one episode and ends on a cliffhanger. First book finale next week.

Isaac and Milia are in the Dollars!? The world does not contain enough exclamation points.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Hariyama-san, Center of the World 3

Wandering in the bamboo forest one day, a boy runs into a girl in a make-shift cloth bikini fighting a panda that seems to dodge every one of her attacks with the greatest of ease. Mortified, she attacks the boy.
Fortunately, he is a ninja.
Welcomed by his ninja parents, the girl reluctantly admits that she is an alien lifeform grown inside a stalk of bamboo; intended to spring forth full grown and capture the hearts of the planet (for strictly information gathering purposes) she has instead popped out aged twelve on account of the ninja panda attempting to eat the bamboo she was growing in.
While she quickly settles into a role as a star performer in the ninja clan's ninja village amusement park, they do run into some trouble with the local men in black, a regular thorn in their side since the head ninja was kidnapped by aliens in the color pages to the first volume in Narita Ryohgo's increasingly batshit short story collection series.
The second story in here takes Narita well outside his comfort zone, pleasingly -- the story of a man who only wants to pilot a giant robot, and thus becomes a robotics engineer for the express purpose of building a robot for himself to pilot. Problem is, just as his life's work is about to be completed, the company is bought out, and the new president wants to replace him as the test pilot with a fourteen year old child actor. (Because: Eva. Not named, but Narita says, "I don't need to, do I?") Eventually the man's opinion changes when the child actor sneaks into the factory to sneak a look at it, and he finds the boy standing in front of the robot sobbing openly at how fucking amazing it is. (The boy even admits to acting cool about the idea on TV because that's what a robot pilot would do.) Also features Hariyama's high school aged daughter for the first a small supporting role, of course.
The third story is another in his urban legend series -- this time focused on the men in black. A woman wakes up in a park dressed in a black suit. She has no memories, but slowly begins to piece things together...and realizes that she was part of a group of con artists posing as men in black to scam money of the bizarre shit that happens in town, but that they wound up falling prey to an actual group of aliens...that all wear black.
While there is no big cross over story this time, he does toss in a few page long epilogue which reveals that the ninja kid is friends with the robot pilot and that the alien kid from the third story is friends with the Hariyama boy.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

"Why me, and not you?"

Organ is ostensibly about a pair of cops that run afoul of an organ-smuggling ring, but that turns out to be misleading and irrelevant. Organ is actually a nightmare of indignity, mutilation, and degradation, the brainchild and directorial debut of Kei Fujiwara, who'd previously contributed to Shinya Tsukamoto's infamous Tetsuo.

I'm really not sure how to describe this movie, but I guess it's easiest to say what it isn't. It's not like the Nishimura gross-outs I've been following, those are actually fairly conventionally plotted and shot, they're just really campy and audacious poor-taste comedies like Peter Jackson used to make. Organ takes itself deadly seriously, and operates on some kind of mean dream logic I wasn't entirely able to process. The overall flow of the movie is such that it's impossible to tell whether any particular bodily flux is "really" happening or just hallucinations of a deranged mind, and that's before we even get into the revelation that one of the cops has a twin.

It's not like David Cronenberg's movies either; he and Fujiwara both relish in documenting fleshly mutation, but Organ never shows any catharsis or ecstacy in the change. The corruption is just the visible sign of the characters' spiritual decay; even the people who are outwardly unblemished are rotting on the inside. The thesis is that everyone is an oozing, greasy pile of meat stumbling through an immoral cosmos until we finally rot completely.

I wouldn't recommend this movie, or even say I really enjoyed it, but I can't seem to get it off my mind, and that definitely counts for something.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Maijo Otaro cubes meta

When 九十九十九 (Tsukumo Juku) came out in bunko, the covers happily described it as meta squared.
Tsukumo Juku himself is a character from Seiryoin Ryusui's meta/deconstructionist mystery novels (which are fascinating in theory but rather boring to actually read, sadly) and Maijo Otaro took the character and sprawled him into a horrifically long series of contradicting slices of his life, at one point declaring him so beautiful all who saw him fell in love, while also informing us that he has two heads and is disgusting. The character is regularly killed off throughout the stories, and at one point escapes into the real world and murders the editor working on the novel.
Maijo has been quiet for a few years; his last big project, The Disco Detective, has yet to come out in bunko (along with his second novel) but everything else kinda has. He did a thing on his website where he pitched a movie idea every week for a year, and each was more bizarre than the last. He seemed to be making a serious effort to move into film.
Apparently, he has. There's a movie out this summer called Neck (trailers appear to not be online yet), and he has a story credit. Plot appears to be standard boy meets girl, girl turns out to have a terrifying disembodied head in a tank in her laboratory. Never one to be satisfied with simplicity, he has also written a stage play on a similar theme.
Both productions feature a character who is a popular novelist name Echizen Mataro.
Echizen Mataro is launching a new series of books from BOTH Dengeki Bunko AND Kodansha Novels this April. One Pluto 0 novel from each in April, two each in June, and there's already one more scheduled for after that.
Echizen Mataro is giving interviews vehemently denying that he is from Fukui (Maijo Otaro is -- the fact that Maijo notoriously refuses to make public appearances is a small part of this whole stunt), declaring that Jojo's Bizarre Adventure is the greatest manga ever, that he is also an actor appearing in the movie Neck, and that he has the mysterious supernatural ability to divide himself into two people and write two novels simultaneously in his sleep.
Words fail me.
Edit: Apparently this awful thing is the Dengeki Bunko cover. I remember seeing that and thinking it was unspeakable. I trust Maijo enough to think he could make the wheelchair girl not the pandering moe cliche I assumed it was, but anyone wearing one pant leg pulled up like that is begging to have it chopped off.
Edit 2: Movie website. How could it not have Kuriyama Chiaki in it? Joe said much the same thing about Nicolas Cage when I sent around the trailer for Kick Ass, so I guess I've just proven that Kuriyama Chiaki is the Nicolas Cage of Japan.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dulalala 10

This was definitely Mikado's big episode. A lot can be hinted at with a well drawn expression, like this one when someone else explains why they joined the Dollars:

And his transformation at the end was totally bad ass. I want a mouse that shoots sparks.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Fantagraphics throws their hat in the ring

From ANN.

Aside from the excellent news of Takako Shimura's Hourou Musuko/Wandering Son and more of Moto Hagio's work -- I recall someone (Ed Chavez of Vertical?) mentioning that her titles were difficult to acquire -- the most interesting bit is that Matt Thorn will be overseeing the line of manga which comes straight from Shogakukan.

Maybe seeing Hideki Arai's The World is Mine or Kiichi!! isn't a hopeless dream...

Thursday, March 4, 2010

I'm a sucker for an Evangelion reference

Think I saw a quick Bayonetta one in there too.

After thinking about it, I'm no longer bothered by how much I enjoy BakaTest; what does bother me is that I'm enjoying it more than anything else airing. Katanagatari is sadly inert, Vampire Bund is neither good nor bad enough to enjoy genuinely or bathetically, and almost nothing else even interests me enough to try it. I'm about six episodes behind on Dulalala, mainly because the first two episodes were too busy laying groundwork to hook me. I'll probably end up waiting and marathoning it like I did Baccano. So, time to clear out the DVD backlog a bit.

Guyver TV actually has a pretty decent story, but unfortunately the show as a whole is terribly bland. It's missing any kind of directorial style, distinctive shot composition, or special attention to detail so it comes off as fairly boring overall. "Sedate" is pretty much the last word you want to use to describe a laser-spewing monster fight, but that's just how this show rolls. The monsters are the highlight of the show, particularly the occasional glimpse of EvilCorp office politics; they're like glimpses into some much more entertaining series marrying Power Rangers and the Office, with various rubber monsters undermining each other's authority and criticizing project overruns. In fact, that kind of takes over the last three episodes entirely, sadly underlining the Guyver's own lack of screen presence, and then it has one of those "time to go read the rest of the manga" non-endings. OK at best.

Fortunately, the Skull Man turned out to be a much better (and slightly gothier) version of Guyver than Guyver was. It's actually surprisingly demanding of the viewer; the plot is quite twisty and treats the title character's own identity and motivations as one of the major mysteries, and there's kind of a Man in the High Castle alternate history happening in the background too (with some very retro touches like all the right-to-left script on the signs). I watched this all in one sitting, and that really helped keep everything straight, especially since many of the male characters look pretty similar. Another mild knock against it is that the sequel hook at the end will probably seem abrupt if you don't know the origins of other Ishinomori heroes like Kikaider and Kamen Rider. I enjoyed this quite a bit, and I'd recommend it to anyone who likes moody pulp action and doesn't mind the occasional missile-shooting cyborg clown showing up.

Watched X-Cross the other day too. I think I mainly want to write about it because hardly anyone else has, but I don't have all that much to say about it either... mainly because I don't want to spoil what fun there is in the surprises. Overall it's OK, maybe even a little above average but I was still left wanting something a little more audacious. Perhaps my barometer has been permanently warped by true loonies like Takashi Miike and Nishimura's posse but X-Cross seems neither fish nor fowl-- it's zany but not campy, tense but not scary, and definitely not splattery despite one or two onscreen amputations. It's a popcorn movie, which is OK if you're expecting that, but I was hoping for better. I note that the notorious cat-eating Shokotan is in this, but she's in Tokyo Gore Police too and I know which movie I enjoyed more.

I also finally checked out Michiko & Hatchin, which at least early on seems to be relying entirely on charm and atmosphere-- so it's a good thing it does both of those really well. I've never been to Brazil, but I've spent a fair bit of time in the Caribbean and it's definitely bringing back memories.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Zebra Miniskirt Police manages to look not at all fun

The news that Aikawa Sho personally cast the girls means we now know exactly what his type is, I guess. Sadly, the rest of it looks more dull than gleefully trashy, serious when it should be over the top.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Refugee Detective

Madoi Shoko graduates from college without a job, and two years of fruitless frantic job hunting leave her penniless and evicted, her parents only willing to take her in if she agrees to an arranged marriage. A desperate appeal to her grandmother lands her a short term position as an assistant to her estranged uncle, a famous mystery novelist. When a homeless "net cafe refugee" friend of his discovers a dead body, Shoko gets wrapped up in a mystery. The refugee detective, it seems, is a police detective so valuable to the force they have kept him on the books for five years, despite his resignation and determined rejection of society.
Most of this was in the solicitation materials for Nisio Isin's first new non-sequel novel in two years. It sounded exactly like the sort of thing he did so well.
The opening thirty pages depicting Shoko's harrowing decline from honor student to eviction really hit a nerve with my own unemployment, echoing a lot of the feelings I have to wrestle with; the first time since the Zaregoto series that Nisio really managed to hone in on something emotionally close to home. I probably should have been worried that this was delivered in a thirty page block of exposition; his tendency to tell rather than show has been a distinct flaw in recent works. But I soldiered happily on through the most boring book he has ever written.
I eventually gave up in the epilogue. I simply could not force myself through the last fourteen pages of this dreary waste of time.
1. The main character has no personality, and plays no part in the story at all.
2. The two male characters' rather unique backgrounds have absolutely no bearing on the story whatsoever.
3. The story itself is a listless afterthought, a plot that could have been machine generated for all the interest he shows in making it dramatic.
Which leads to the question -- if the plot, characters, and thematically suggestive character backgrounds are all of no interest to Nisio Isin whatsofuckingever, then why in God's name did he write this fucking book?
4. It's an attempt to go mainstream. There are no light novel/manga inspired fantasy elements, no pop culture references, no obscure gags, no elaborate wordplay, no delving into quirky personal obsessions, no cunning bait and switch on reader's other words, his idea of writing a book for an ordinary audience is to remove all of the things that make him worth reading, all of the things that anybody has ever liked about his novels, and he ends up with a fucking overpriced hardcover volume of utterly lifeless, boring, dead, useless words arranged into a shell of a story that nobody with a fucking pulse would want to read.
It's an apocalyptically bad book, and I can't help but take it as a sign that he has completely lost his path as a writer, and is hopelessly incapable of self-evaluating his own output. It genuinely pains me to write this, but Refugee Detective was so utterly worthless I don't believe I'll be able to buy any future novels by someone who used to be my favorite author without reading reviews first.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go get drunk and cry myself to sleep.