I have to admit, about half the time I’ve picked up a record just because the name of the band wouldn’t leave my head — and who can forget a name like Borbetomagus? Those of you who are historically-inclined will remember that being the archaic name for the German town of Worms, although there’s little (overt) connection between that bit of antiquity and three guys from New York — Don Dietrich, Jim Sauter and Donald Miller — who play sax and guitar and in the words of Byron Coley of Forced Exposure, throw down “balls on the line improvisation with enough energy to flatten buildings.”
Borbetomagus first caught my eye back when their Seven Reasons for Tears LP appeared in the Dutch East India mail-order catalog. Only slightly earlier had I bumped into Coley writing glowingly about the Borbeto boys, so I slipped a check into the envelope and held my breath. That disc impressed me enormously (and as soon as I can get the CD reissue of it I’ll write about that one too), and after that I kept their name on the short list of artists to pick up whenever one of their releases crossed my path at a not-too-murderous price. The pricetag often turned out to be the deal-killer: when I lived in the city and made periodic forays downtown to Tower Records, a lone CD copy of Live at InRoads glowered at me from the racks every time I walked by for the low, low price of $26. I finally caved in and plied the plastic one evening when me and my wife were in the company of another friend, neither of whom think much of my musical tastes.Read more
Like many of you, I've signed up for NaNoWriMo 2007, and I'm already a bit fidgety about what's going to happen. And a lot of that is due to the fact that the story I'm planning, Vajra, is in some ways a successor to Summerworld.
Note that I didn't say "sequel"! I don't do sequels — or, rather, I try not to. Vajra will not have any of the same characters or situations, so don't expect to see Gô, Tomoe, Utsumaru or Terashima (or Yoichi or any of the others). But it does have many of the same themes and concepts, just explored in an entirely different way.
What I'll probably be doing is creating a blog for that book later, and I'll have links back to it from here once it's up and running. (Eventually each of these separate book blogs will be consolidated into something more central, but for now I'm doing everything one book at a time.)
If you've signed up for NaNo as well, drop a line, and we can compare notes!
Scrap Heaven is one of those movies that should be more interesting than it actually is. It contains the kind of antisocial mayhem pioneered (if that’s the right word) in movies like Fight Club — and also, unfortunately, the same kind of chicanery that passes for black comedy or socially-relevant satire. If they had taken the first fifteen or twenty minutes, stripped out the rest of the film and started completely over, they might really have had something here. But the movie as it stands just doesn’t hang together in anything but the most labored way.
The film deals with three people who all end up as hostages on a bus that’s been hijacked by a loon with a gun. There’s Shingo (Ryo Kase, also of Bright Future, Letters from Iwo Jima and the as-yet-unreleased-here I Just Didn’t Do It), a desk cop whose career is at a standstill, and who becomes an object of ridicule among his cohorts when he panicks on the bus and doesn’t do anything to help. Tetsu (Jō Odagiri, of Azumi and Shinobi), a janitor with a prankish side, gets singled out by the gunman and shot in the shoulder. Saki (Chiaki Kuriyama), a pharmacist missing an eye, is the last person to interact with the kidnapper before he puts his gun to his neck and blows his brains out. Read more
The Woods sat around unreleased for three years, and I can see why. It’s one of those movies that earns the term lackluster, a word I generally avoid, but here it’s all too appropriate. There’s a premise just waiting to catch fire here, but someone forgot to bring the matches.
Funny that the movie should open up with, what else, the setting of a fire. Heather (Agnes Bruckner, very good) has rebelled a little too violently against her self-absorbed mother and indifferent father, and has been sent to cool her jets at a private all-girls boarding school. This is some school: there’s so much fog blowing around the place, so many windows rattling and tree branches outlined against the moon that the witches’ coven / dance academy in Suspiria looks like a far more urbane alternative. Read more
Why, I asked myself as The Fountain unfolded, does this movie inspire more irritation and impatience from me than anything else? It should work; all the pieces are there. And yet somehow those pieces have not been deployed in ways that click or take flight. For a movie that paints the screen with bold images and wants to be about one of humanity’s biggest and most persistent questions — the certainty of death and the cycles of life — it’s all so oddly synthetic and cold. We’re looking at filmmaking, not cinema or even storytelling.
And how I wanted desperately to speak well of this film. Darren Aronofsky, the director, was responsible for two back-to-back masterpieces: Pi and Requiem for a Dream, and had suffered terrible creative setbacks during the production of The Fountain. For a time it threatened to slide into the same limbo as the forever-missing final reel of The Magnificent Ambersons or the near-limbo of movies like El Topo, but he got it finished, got it released, and signed off on the final cut. Whatever is wrong with this film is, I’m sorry to say, entirely his fault. It is Aronofsky’s vision, no doubt, but so much so that all possible spontaneity and human warmth has been crushed out of it. Read more
The second volume of Real/Fake Princess continues to deliver admirably on the premise set up in the first volume. What if you were secretly a member of the royal family in hiding, but when it came time to be reinstated on the throne, you didn’t want anything to do with such a legacy?
That’s the dilemma faced by Zhi Li, the fiery heroine of this series who’s fully aware of her status as a royal refugee. It’s the job of the imperial Seeker, Wu, to determine if she’s the real deal or not, and it’s his dismissive attitude of her that compels her to rise to the task of becoming a full-fledged princess again. Unfortunately, all this time in exile has left her without any of the good graces a princess would normally possess, and so Wu compels (shilling for commands) her to take lessons in courtly refinement. Read more
Across both volumes of Gyo I kept asking myself: Where on earth is Junji Ito leading is with all of this? The creator of Uzumaki had spun out one fascinating and hallucinatory (and often depraved) variation after another on his basic theme: a wave of monsters, half-machine and half-animal, that come ashore from the sea and infest civilization. Then I got to the end of the second and final volume and realized, to my dismay, he wasn’t heading much of anywhere.
The end of Gyo is terribly disappointing, so much so that it comes close to trashing the whole series. It doesn’t so much conclude as it simply terminates, on a note of vague and unresolved hope, one that seems ill-suited to the incredible darkness that suffused the book up to that point. The second volume does take the premise that was set up in the first volume and expand on it — but only slightly, and in directions that are more for the sake of atmosphere and general weirdness than coherence. Not that this is a bad thing; at the bottom of it all, every horror story runs because it is an engine of fear, not logic. The bad news is that Gyo keeps edging towards an explanation of what’s going on, but pulls up short and leaves us frustrated. Read more
I find myself facing a bit of a dilemma with volume 2 of Kurohime. It’s essentially the same as the first volume in the series, and I suspect a lot of that is due to outside factors — for one, the comic switched publications while these particular episodes were being created. For those reasons, I’m inclined to go a little easier on it, but I need to be honest: all the same problems that were present in the first book have simply been recapped.
The premise: In a whacked-out world made up of bits and pieces of Asian mythology and the Wild West, young gunslinger Zero has pledged to protect and serve the legendary gunslinger with Kurohime (“Black Princess”) — now stuck in the body of a little girl, Himeko (“Princess Girl”) and minus most of her powers. Kurohime was, and is, a legendarily heartless creature who wants nothing more than to bend the whole of the male sex to her scheming will. Heaven doesn’t suffer such overarching ambition gladly, and so she has been cursed to appear as Himeko … except for those few moments when she feels real love. As you can guess, this isn’t something that happens very often, except when she realizes the depth of Zero’s love for her. The end result is a sort of infinite plot loop: Himeko needs to do something that requires Kurohime’s power; Zero manages to get Kurohime to manifest; problem solved; Kurohime gloats at her prowess over the male libido; gloating breaks the spell of love; back to square one. Read more
Here’s a historical romance that actually gives the genre a good name. I know some people reading this are automatically going to assume “historical romance” and “quality” don’t belong in the same sentence (let alone the same lexicon). Trust me, I’m not normally a fan of this kind of material either — which is why Real/Fake Princess came as such a pleasant surprise.
R/FP is set against the period of the Southern Dynasty in China (1136 C.E., according to the notes), and is — as most romances are — a clash of wills between a man and a woman. The man is Wu, the “Seeker,” yanked off the battlefield and appointed new duties he has no particular interest in. His job is to find members of the royal family who have been displaced by the war, ensure they are the real thing, and re-install them in the imperial palace. Since there are entirely too many people out there trying to impersonate the royal family, he’s forced to sift through them all and apply heavy manners to get the job done. His main compensations include alcohol — lots of it — and a fair amount of time spent with a courtesan, Dai Xuan, who’s also growing rather attached to him. Read more
Fight the monsters at your own peril, lest you become one. It’s an old adage, and a terribly true one, as Shiki Tohno has discovered in volume 2 of Lunar Legend Tsukihime. His power to destroy things and kill living beings by cutting along their “death lines” was put to the test in the first volume when he ended up in the service of one vampire, the pretty Arcueid, trying to destroy another vampire, the aptly-named Nero Chaos. That struggle devastated a hotel floor and left Tohno badly injured, and as he recuperates in hiding with Arcueid looking over him, he learns a bit more about the creature he’s paired himself up with and the monsters they’re both fighting against.
Arcueid may nominally refer to herself as a vampire, but she hasn’t drunk human blood — not once in her over eight hundred years of existance, knock on wood. She’s a “true ancestor,” one of the original vampires who have been around since time immemorial. Nero and his ilk are “dead apostles” — humans that have turned to vampiredom and pose grave danger to everyone, human and vampire alike. Arcueid’s mission — and now Tohno’s as well — is to hunt down these abominations and terminate them. The history lesson’s interrupted when the TV news begins broadcasting word of the massacre at the hotel… and Tohno’s classmate Yumizuka, the object of his unrequired affection, may have been at the hotel that night. Read more
The third volume of Tsukihime brings Arcueid and Tohno back together for another round of wrestling with the supernatural. This time, it’s not vampires but zombies — or rather, zombie minions of sorts created by vampires from unsuspecting innocents. They’re not the pushovers they look like they ought to be, partly because Tohno has that much more trouble turning his “death vision” on those who were once just bystanders.
Actually, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Most of the third volume is lead-in and build-up to this particular battle, and while it’s not the bang-bang pacing of the action scenes that peppered the first two volumes, it’s more than decently absorbing. The last volume ended with what seemed like a conclusion of sorts - Arcueid and Tohno went their separate ways after defeating the vampire Nero Chaos. Tohno would like nothing more than to put on and leave on the glasses that restrain his ability to see the points at which he can strike things (or people) to destroy (or kill) them, but there are too many other unexplained, freaky things going on around him that he's unable to just willfully tune them out. Read more
The fourth volume of Lunar Legend Tsukihime answers a few of the sticky questions that opened up in the previous volume, but it also leaves us with about as many new ones. The more we learn about Shiki Tohno and his strange family, the vampire-girl Arcueid he’s fighting side-by-side with, the clutch of abilities he has at his command, and the bizarre array of underworld denizens he’s pitted against, the more we worry about him. We don’t worry about him being killed, but rather we fear that he will simply switch sides to make life easier for himself. Better to be a predator and discard all fear, than to hunt other predators and never stop living in fear.
Let’s start with his family. From the opening battle that features Tohno’s sister pitted against a strange intruder in the house — it’s actually Ciel, Tohno’s “exchange student” classmate — it’s clear that Tohno’s family will go to any and all lengths to protect their secrets. Tohno’s sister has a gallery of powers of her own, something she has thus far concealed from her brother, but that secret will not remain bottled up for long — especially not after the battle that sprawls across the opening chapters of the volume. Ciel, too, ends up confounding Tohno more than a little: as you may have guessed by now, she’s no mere transfer student, and when she takes her leave of Tohno and his classmates (for now, anyway), she thoughtfully erases all traces of her presence there … except with Tohno. Read more
I had a conversation with a friend earlier today about the way labels keep people from picking up things they might actually enjoy enormously. Historical romance is one of those labels — it’s a deal-killer for some people. And that’s a shame, because while Real/Fake Princess falls squarely into that category, it’s good enough to be savored by people who have never before read a romance, historical or otherwise, and might not have had the inclination to do so either.
The third volume is essentially a three-way clash of wills between three major characters in the series: Zhi Li, the long-missing princess of a Chinese emperor, more comfortable masquerading as a peasant; Wu, the Imperial Seeker charged with the responsibility of finding lost members of the royal family (like Zhi Li herself); and Dai Xuan, a courtesan who also happens to be Wu’s lover and is dismayed that his interests are slowly drifting towards Zhi Li. Wu’s not thrilled about that either — he’s one of those men who’s dismayed his emotions are not like horses that can simply be steered this way and that, but he can’t deny how he feels. He’s drawn to this fiery young woman, the most unlikely candidacy for the title of “princess” he’s ever known. (I should also mention a fourth, Hui, who posed as Zhi Li’s older brother while she was in exile but is now also finally willing to admit he wants Zhi Li for himself.) Read more
It’s not about the answers. It’s about how you ask the questions. That’s the feeling I get from Oldboy, and it becomes all the clearer with each passing volume. It’s not really about why the man who goes by the alias “Dojima” took another man named Shinichi Goto and locked him up in a private prison for ten years, then set him free (also for no apparent reason). Think about it: if someone did that out of some deeply personal hurt, wouldn’t the reason(s) be essentially arbitrary anyway?
I suspect that’s why so much of Oldboy, up to and through Volume 5, has been about the process of finding answers. What will Goto do to get those answers, especially when the man who has all the answers to begin with insists on doling them out one at a time, like expensive truffles? “Dojima” wants to see how far Goto will go on his end, and Goto wants to see how he can make his opponent come to him instead. Read more
Ever since his son’s murder in one of those random bits of violence that make gloomy headlines, Macon Leary (William Hurt) has been slowly dying inside. He won’t admit to it — he’s the sort of man who can bury himself in his work, metaphorically and perhaps literally as well — but his wife Sarah (Kathleen Turner) knows better. She too has been dying inside, and cannot bear to suffocate along with him. “You’re just trying to slip through life without a jolt,” she says when he returns from one of his interminable business trips. “I’m enduring,” Macon retorts, but she can only endure so much of his brand of enduring. She leaves, and Macon finds himself rattling around inside his suddenly-too-large house with his son’s Corgi, Edward, perpetually underfoot.
Macon’s job is an extension of his insularity. He writes travel guides for American tourists stuck in foreign countries, where they are not sure if they can find Kentucky Fried Chicken or a Safeway, so they can feel like they’ve never left home. The opening moments of the film encapsulate the way his work and his personal life have intersected: he loads a suitcase according to his own advice and then ends up encountering a self-professed fan of his guidebooks in the plane seat next to his. Even when Macon has done well by others, he doesn’t really seem to feel it. Maybe he never did, the movie suggests, and his son’s death simply made overt what was hiding all along. He just no longer has the capacity to fake it. Read more
I’ll start with a fact, one which will probably make no one reading this except me bounce up and down with joy: The Yagyū Ninja Scrolls is the newest of Del Rey’s offerings derived from the works of Fūtaro Yamada.
I did indeed jump up and down and squeal with joy when I heard this title was coming out. In fact, I went to AMN Anime's editor and begged him shamelessly to ask Del Rey for a copy, because if he didn’t I was going to march out and throw down the $13.95 myself and review it here anyway.
I did the exact same jump-and-squeal back when Del Rey brought out Basilisk, the previous manga derived from a Fūtaro Yamada novel. Not only that, they went a step further and brought out the novel itself (The Kouga Ninja Scrolls) in English. I wasn’t as impressed with Basilisk as I wanted to be — the TV anime derived from the series kicks about fourteen metric hectares of butt, though — but the simple fact that Del Rey was bringing some of Fūtaro Yamada’s works out in English was reason enough for celebration and possibly worship. Read more
Let me put people’s fears to rest as quickly as possible. Viz’s localization of Uzumaki: The Art of Naruto is at least as good as the Japanese edition of the same work — if not better by dint of being in English (at least for us on this side of the Pacific). It’s an example of how to do this kind of thing right across the board. Viz took the trouble to obtain the original digital prepress files, painstakingly translated the texts (leaving in the original Japanese whenever relevant), and wrapped the whole thing in a fine-looking right-to-left hardcover presentation. Come to think of it, I’m not sure they had a choice: If Viz had done anything less than that, a legion of outraged fans would probably have left a giant flaming Leaf Village insignia on the front lawn of their corporate offices.
The 145 pages of Uzumaki (not to be confused with the manga of the same name I just reviewed) are broken into roughly two segments: 110 color pages of assorted illustrations — cover art, frontispieces, individual character portraits — and another 32 or so pages of black-and-white commentary, analysis and insight on every single picture in the whole book, courtesy of Masashi Kishimoto himself. It’s the artbook equivalent of a running commentary track on a DVD, and it’s a delight — there’s something interesting to be said about almost every single picture in the whole book. Read more
A title like Hayate the Combat Butler just drips with promise, I tell you. I had images in my mind of a mustachioed, veddy British fellow with a tie and tails, fending off four-armed monsters when they have the temerity to come crashing through the walls and disturb tea-time. What we get is not quite that gloriously demented — it’s more the sort of thing you chuckle at continuously without ever really guffawing out loud — and is enjoyable but miles away from anything I’d call a must-read.
Let’s start with Hayate and how he ended up with the charming appellation of “Combat Butler.” This kid, now in his teens, has been running around since the tender age of nine, cleaning up the mess left behind by his compulsive-gambler parents. Fact is, they racked up so much debt, the only way they had left to absolve it was to put their own son in hock to the mob. After a series of events entirely too complicated to relate here, he winds up becoming a butler to a wealthy young lady named Nagi. Nagi has a bad tendency to land into trouble — the kind of trouble that Hayate can only bail her out of by living up to his title of combat butler. Read more
The second volume of Uzumaki spirals outwards — sorry, I had to say it — from its original premise to encompass one truly bizarre extension of the “spiral curse” after another. Some of them have only the most tenuous connection to the basic concept — what do mosquitoes have in common with spirals, for instance? — but Junji Ito continues to find ways to make his oddball premise stick. I had a mental image of him sitting back with a broad smile after inking each month’s segment, confident that he’d found yet another way to turn a simple design pattern into a vortex of all-consuming horror.
Sometimes the connections to the core inspiration of the story aren’t that obvious. The opening tale operates in this vein: it’s about a compulsive prankster whose corpse becomes animated by a stray car suspension spring, and it veers towards being merely silly instead of creepy. But the vast majority of the other chapters more than win back any lost confidence you might have, thanks to Ito’s amazingly perverse imagination for the macabre. Read more
Junji Ito’s Uzumaki is the only horror manga I’ve read so far that had me doing double-takes at my surroundings for days after I was done with it. That reflects nicely on its ability to mess with people’s heads — which is, after all, what a good horror story does. Did it scare you? Good! If not, then it’s hardly much of a horror story.
What makes Uzumaki singularly unnerving is that it’s not about some easy bête noir like a killer with a machete, but about a pattern that compels obsession and madness among all those who fall under its spell. That makes it all the more impersonal, and in turn, all the more frightening: you can probably kill a monster, and you can certainly kill a man, but how do you stop something that has no inherent form, that can manifest in the most innocuous of places, and that causes its victims to be the agents of their own destruction? Read more
The other day I was trying to describe to someone how both prolific and talented Osamu Tezuka was, and for lack of any better way to express it I said, “He left behind masterpieces as freely as a tree gave fruit.”
There would be no manga as we know it without Tezuka. The more of his work I read as it slowly appears in English-language editions, the more I’m convinced of this. It’s not just because of the visual style he developed — which in turn was inspired by Walt Disney’s designs — but because he produced a body of work that dwarfed almost anything else seen before or since, that almost everything he put his name to was at least good and often outstanding, and because he labored tirelessly to expand the envelope for what manga was about, what it could do and what it could encompass. Read more
“You and your bookworm theories,” the killer growls to the forensic psychologist. “I’m telling you a real monster exists.” That monster’s name is Johan, and while he doesn’t appear once in the pages Monster Volume 5, he casts a shadow that stretches through all of the events that unfold throughout the book. That shadow lands most darkly on Dr. Tenma, the surgeon who saved Johan’s life as a boy all those years ago and has now watched him grow into a figure of such diabolical evil that few people would even credit him with existing. But exist he does, and now Tenma has fled into the underground of Germany to find Johan himself and kill him.
I’m starting to sense a pattern with the Monster books, but not a bad one — it’s a pattern that has been devised to complement the storytelling Naoki Urasawa employs for this dark epic. In each volume Tenma encounters someone with a history — a person who has a bit of their own darkness, much as we all do. Sometimes Johan got there first and was able to exploit that darkness for his own sake; sometimes it’s just something that spills out of the closet and onto the floor. Read more
Never underestimate the power of a durable cliché. That goes double for romances, although I’m learning that in a few cases — as with Real/Fake Princess — if the cliché is done well, it’s perfectly enjoyable. Here we have the Girl (Zhi Li), who must choose between the Nice Guy (her brother-figure Hui), with whom she feels safe … and the Dangerous Guy (Wu of the Imperial Court), who despite his antagonism for her makes her heart pound. And it’s never a surprise to discover the Dangerous Guy end up with the Girl, although by that time he’s become that much better a person in the process of winning her heart.
Like I said — a formula, but if it’s done right, it’s a lot of fun, and R/F P has been doing it right from the beginning. In the fourth volume, the action shifts from the goings-on within the walls of the Imperial court to something a little more open-ended. After the intrigue of the last volume, which ended in bloodshed, Zhi Li has grown disgusted with the throne she was meant to inherit. She was happier back in the country village where she and Hui masqueraded as doctors and actually did something for the world around them. Hui knows all this, but he’s also acutely aware that his presence will only make things worse between Zhi Li and Wu, whom Zhi Li is supposed to marry as a way to cement her position as princess. Read more
I’m fond of quoting Jacques Barzun’s statement about “experimental art” — that if one considers a certain work of art to be experimental, one must also concede that there is the possibility that the experiment has failed. I’ve since expanded my thinking on the issue a bit, and responded with a few questions of my own: What are the parameters of success and failure for a given “experiment”, and who dictates them, the artist or the audience? I don’t think these questions have fixed answers, either; you have to ask yourself such questions every time you approach something new, and see what comes of it. Nobody is ever trying to do the same thing the same way, or for the same reasons, or with the same ends in mind.
This Heat were one of many bands from England that had the labels “experimental” and “post-punk” pasted onto them, but I suspect in both cases it was a matter of sheer categorical sloppiness than anything else. The band was “post-punk” only in the sense that they released their first albums at roughly the same time as other “post-punk” acts, and had some of the same energy and brittleness of sound as the rest of those bands, even if they were putting it to entirely different ends. In terms of what they were trying to achieve and where they were getting most of their deeper inspiration, they probably owed more to European progressive-rock outfits like Faust. In fact, if anything, they were one of the few British bands that managed to match Faust’s reputation in terms of the eclecticism of their sound and the sheer level of mystery and oddity they conjured up out of nowhere. I know of few other bands from England that commanded the level of subterranean awe that This Heat did, and they sported two of the same hallmarks of other bands of legend: a small but scrupulously assembled body of work, and an enigmatic aura that stayed with them no matter what they might have done to dispel it. Read more