2007, was that you? All I felt was a distant suck of wind! Dizzying, to say the least.
A lot of good things happened, actually. I'm now working full-time for one of my former freelance outlets and very happy about that — it means that much more stability in what can be a very uncertain world.
I'm contributing tons of what I hope are good reviews to AMN, although at the expense of stuff written directly for my own site, but I'm really not too worried about that. I may be writing about the occasional title I can't stomach (like Space Pinchy — sorry, Dark Horse), but for the most part I get so much good stuff — Tanpenshu, Berserk, Oldboy, Blade of the Immortal (all of which are, yes, Dark Horse titles; they do far more good than bad by me), and so on — that there's no point in complaining.
And as someone else once said, "I'm still here."
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I've been thinking about what to do with the review copies I get that I don't actually keep, and apart from giving them to friends I know who are on limited budgets, I have a few other ideas. The best one so far is to donate them to the manga libraries of one or more local cons, where I know they'll be warmly received — or maybe donate them to the library itself, although I'd have to check into the policies they have regarding donated materials. (Not all libraries can just take stuff willy-nilly; sometimes they are forced to turn the material around and sell it at a book sale to generate revenue for the library system.)
For those not in the know, the manga libraries at your local anime con work like so. You go into a room, turn in your con badge, and in exchange are allowed to browse a big looseleaf binder of all the titles they have. You can only look at one book at a time, but you can swap it out as many times as you like until they close the library for the day. When you're done, you collect your badge and hustle on over next door to the karaoke booth to wreck your vocal chords (or whatever else you've got in mind). If you're a fast reader and you've got an hour here or there, you can get caught up on a lot of comics this way — especially stuff that might be out of print.
I actually did that with Jiro Taniguchi's Benkei in New York, which I'd been curious about but had never spent the money on. (I feel it's a good-but-not-great book, with some interesting ideas that are not developed well, but if you're a Taniguchi fan his artwork is topnotch as always.) I did the same thing with as many volumes of Cromartie High as I could pack into an hour, although that almost backfired on me because I spent a good deal of that time with my fist shoved into my mouth (or my face smothered in my knapsack) trying not to crack up out loud. </digression>
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See you all next year!
I have a character I play intermittently in my Japan-themed RPG environment — a Buddhist nun, tiny and blind and lame since birth, who memorized the Buddhist canon by hearing it read aloud to her. She lives in self-imposed austerity, although her father (who does have money) insists on providing her with servants — who live as she does, austerely — so that she doesn't starve to death. (She's willing to make a few such concessions — after all, it's hard to spread the dharma when you're dead.)
At one point I had her say one of the usual Buddhist vows: "Though sentient beings are numberless I vow to save them all." Another player who was new to the game — and probably didn't know about Buddhism in detail — said something like "Whoa, is she nuts?!" I laughed, but at the same time I was actually kind of touched by that outburst — there was just something charmingly naive about it, something that cried out to be spoken to. So I explained as best I could.
A person who takes that vow [I said] doesn't expect to fulfill it literally. It's a mind-expanding gesture, a way to take the limitations of your life and explode them from the inside. You've probably seen the Adidas "Impossible Is Nothing" ad campaign at one point or another. I took a shine to it the first time I saw it: it was a clever pop-culture packaging of hope and aspiration. (One of the early iterations of the ad, since turned into a poster, showed Muhammad Ali in his famous "Get up and fight!" moment.)
If you do away with rational limits of what's possible or impossible, even if only in a provisional way, you aim that much higher by default. The hardest thing in the world is to do away with those kinds of self-imposed boundaries, to look beyond them and see something else, both for yourself and the benefit of the world around you.
One of the things that arrived shortly after I got back home from Christmas festivities was a book called Rice Bowl Women: Writings By And About The Women of China and Japan. I confess that I cut right to the Japan part of the book first, and found that some of it essentially duplicated material I already had in other parts of my library, but the non-duplicate stuff there was more than worth it. The Japanese side of the book also could have afforded to be longer, but maybe that was because of the material culled for it (and there's a reference to seven stories in the Modern Era section of the book, when only five show up — I wonder if two were cut).
Lady Sarashina's "As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams" is my favorite so far, and is so immediate, direct and precise in its language that it could have been written yesterday. This is something I've noticed about a great many Heian-era writings, actually — they do not seem to date at all, except in the most topical sense, and are in some ways a model for what I might be trying to accomplish with the hero story. (Musashi, despite being written in the Thirties, doesn't have the flavor of something dated about it either, although that may not be the fairest comparison since the quality of the translation may also have something to do with it.)
One of the more interesting inclusions is Mishima's "Patriotism", which takes on an odd new light in the context of the book that I had not credited it with having before: it seems more like the story of the wife, rather than the soldier — especially given that she's the one left to follow her husband's example. The editor's comments pointed out that Mishima had a great many strong and independent female characters in his stories, although in a story like this it's left open for debate what direction that strength was pointed in.
Maureen Dowd's Op-Ed column in today's Times is about Christmas.
Like many other people I'm dismayed at the way Christmas is always such a commercial enterprise in every respect — if for no other reason than the way it is pushed (and pushed, and pushed) on us as an excuse to spend money. Nobody over the age of twelve is going to find this a revelation. But what's most dismaying to me is how it's confined all to the end of the year, confined to a very specific ritual, etc. It's something we can find an excuse to compartmentalize.
That said, I can think of at least one counter-argument to why any particular sentiment, like Christmas or Thanksgiving, gets packaged up in this fashion — it's sort of an adjunct to why, for instance, we shake hands or use certain utensils at the dinner table. It's a broadly-acceptable way to take these feelings, which can be expressed in a way that makes people uncomfortable ("I love you, man!!"), and give them a sanctioned space to be expressed, even if there's a little overkill involved. It's a way to take these things and give them a built-in context for their expression, which I guess isn't a bad thing.
So maybe Christmas is worth keeping for a bunch of reasons. It's a sanctioned space to give something back to life. I just feel that it's okay to give back the other 364 days of the year, too.
Here's a library in Queens that has an idea that will either have you applauding or recoiling: They refer library late fees to a collection agency.
For bigger library systems that lend out things like musical scores and CDs, being more stringent about this sort of thing does make sense. The hard part, as the article explains, is getting people to use the system without abusing the system — and also punishing those abuses without scaring them clean off.
I've had more than my fair share of library late fees — including (most embarrassingly) a book that slipped between the pages of another, larger book and went missing for months on end. I was prepared to pay up to replace it entirely when one day I pulled the bigger book off the shelf, wondering why it had this funny bulge. The missing book landed on my feet and I spent minutes on end laughing at myself.
I spent Christmas up at my in-laws' place, surrounded by some terrific people - most interesting of all being mom-in-law's deacon, one of those people who really does talk the talk and walk the walk. We got to chatting and I admitted that while I wasn't religious I was still determined to do the right thing whenever I could, whatever the circumstances. The Dalai Lama once said "Kindness is my religion," and I think he was speaking for a great many people when he said that.
I didn't get a lot of goodies, but that's again one of those things that I don't really focus on. I'm happy just to still be here; everything else is gravy.
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On a less heavy-duty note, I got Castlevania and Locoroco for the PSP — first two new games I've had for the console in a long time. I'd had my eye on both for a while, but ended up wishlisting them in time for the holidays.
A couple of friends had some bad news for me — one disheartening, and the other catastrophic. I won't go into either of them here, for the sake of privacy, but let's say they cast a serious pall over not just the season but next year as well.
Sobering, to say the least, and a reminder that whatever problems I deal with on my own are middling compared to what other people go through.
You don't have to look very hard to find something to remind you that every day you are still here is a good day, and that "an inch of time is worth a foot of jade," as Zen master Takuan once put it in his koan.
I turned 36 today. The festivities were myself and the missus in NYC, meeting my parents for a really lavish lunch, and relaxing at home afterwards. Most of the actual gift-giving will probably happen around Christmastime (that's usually the case anyway), but I did get one gift so far that was a real joy: the Art of Vampire Hunter D book. Leafing through it reminded me all the more that there needs to be a live-action D movie.
I also checked out Hellboy on BR-D and was deeply impressed - actually, being impressed with the movie was kind of a foregone conclusion since I'm already a Guillerimo del Toro fan, twice as much so now after Pan's Labyrinth. He might be a fine choice to bring D to the screen; his directorial flourishes make this kind of material feel fully-rounded and human, and not just a way to mount a bunch of special effects.
The only reason there are no reviews of BR-D titles yet on the site is because the software bundled with the BR player has no screen capture function, which is incredibly dismaying. Then again, that software in general is so crippled as to be almost useless, and copy-protection has absolutely nothing to do with it — how smart is it to create a media player that can't even seek to an arbitrary point on a disc when you know darn well the title in question is authored to have that ability? Dumb, guys, just dumb.
I had a rather glum conversation earlier with a friend who was, with some reluctance but also no small sense of frustration, withdrawing from the anime club that he had given a good deal of time and attention to over the past several years. His reasons for doing this were twofold: 1) he needed more time to devote to some other projects, and 2) he really didn't feel like a good many of the other people in the club were taking his suggestions seriously.
The second issue was something that had been bubbling for quite a while, and it finally boiled over when he was flat-out told that a series he had lobbied hard to get shown (Hajime no Ippo, a series I've also tried to promote when possible) was being pulled from the schedule at quite literally the last minute. This was bad enough, but what was even more irksome was that it was apparently losing out to another show that didn't have one-tenth the wit or spine.
This wasn't something that had happened once, either; it was a pattern. Time and again he would push hard to get genuinely interesting and daring material included in the lineup, only to have it greeted with indifference or hostility, and to have everyone fall back to watching shows that didn't particularly need the context of an anime club to appreciate. I'm reminded of the folks who drive hundreds of miles to a convention and then spend most of their time camped out in a hallway somewhere playing her exact same video games they have at home.
I guess it all goes back into the same subject I've touched on repeatedly these last few weeks and months. Most people are not looking for an adventure when it comes to this stuff, and that's not criminal or ignoble. It just is, and the only way to work around it is to trend as gently as you can towards showing them something new. If that doesn't work, then go look for another context to do that in.
It's heartbreaking to realize that you're not connecting, that something you care deeply about is simply being brushed aside. But it's also not something to be trapped in; you have to go to the people whose tastes you know can be enriched by yours.
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The next Eclipse set has been announced from Criterion, and it's a doozy. Three films by William Klein, including Who Are You Polly Magoo? and the mind-blowing Mister Freedom, which is so far out there that if I don't review it here, you are free to stand over me with a baseball bat until I get it written.
I've also got a copy of Superbad in the queue, which I've heard enough good things about that I might make it my first Blu-ray review (gasp).
It’s over. The English-language translation of Old Boy, the manga that served as the inspiration for one of the best movies of recent years, has run its course at last. That said, the book and movie diverged broadly enough that to talk about one in the context of the other seems almost unfair: they’re not the same thing, and aren’t intended to be. They’re different animals, and in many respects they accomplish different things. The manga is not the movie, and over its length it doesn’t quite have the same impact (what could?), but taken as a whole Old Boy the manga is still extremely impressive. It’s a series that I hold back on giving higher marks to if only because I suspect many people will find it frustrating, not enthralling.
At the end of Goto’s quest, he has found that his tormentor of ten years, “Dojima” — real name Kakinuma, fellow classmate in elementary school — has been running the whole shooting match behind the scenes in many different ways. He used hypnotism to suppress Goto’s memory of a crucial emotional event in their childhoods; he used hypnotism to get him and his newly-found girlfriend Eri to meet and fall in love; and now he’s banked his entire sense of self on the outcome of his game. If Kakinuma loses — if Goto can figure out what happened so long ago, despite the blocks erected in his path — then Kakinuma will take his own life. Read more
There was a time when a record label — like Motown, Stax, or Atlantic — represented a certain taste and aesthetic that you couldn’t confuse with anyone else. Records were one major way this sort of thing surfaced, but books, too: an imprint like New Directions or City Lights Books carried with it a far better idea of what they published than more generically corporate monikers like Random House or Basic Books.
The only publisher I’ve come across lately that has some of that same guiding, idiosyncratic taste is Vertical: everything they’ve put their name to has been at the very least interesting, and often downright amazing. They pick titles that hit big at home in Japan, that open doors here in the States by dint of being readable, eye-opening and absorbing, and that are a step beyond the usual genteel “literary” offerings. Vertical’s previous forays into hard-boiled crime fiction from Japan have included works by Kenzo Kitakata (his Winter Sleep made me lose about three hours in a day without blinking), but now they have a new name to add to that roster: Arimasa Osawa and his Shinjuku Shark series. Read more
I’m a pretty tough anime customer. I like it best when a show gets me to think a bit (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex), or shows me something I’ve never seen before (Mushi-shi). But every now and then, like anyone else, I just wanna see stuff get shredded and blowed up really good. Tokyo Majin does such a great job of delivering in that department, right in the first episode, that I was terrified the rest of the disc wouldn’t be anywhere nearly as good. How could they possibly keep up this level of manic energy?
Sometimes it’s just so nice to be proven wrong.Read more
I’ll start with the easy praise first: Venus Versus Virus is one of the best titles I’ve ever heard for an anime. VVV (see? it even abbreviates nicely!) is of course the animated adaptation of the manga series currently being offered in English courtesy of Seven Seas, which my colleague Adam Beck recently peeked at. I haven’t read the manga itself, but from what I can tell the show follows it fairly closely. It’s a catchy, frothy, Goth-y action confection with a lot more action and a few more twists than I thought it would have. The cuteness of the surface material conceals a much darker story, which I hope we get to see more of as time goes by.
VVV kicks off with a premise most people reading this should be able to recite with their eyes closed: A young person has their humdrum ordinary life turned upside down when they discover they’re in possession of a terrible power. Here the person in question is Sumire, a girl attending a private academy; she’s got the usual collection of female friends and at least one terminally shy male admirer. After class, she hustles on over to the “Venus Vanguard” antique shop nestled under the elevated railway tracks, where she helps out the Gothic-Lolita-wearing, eyepatch-laden (and emotionally clamped-down) Lucia.Read more
Shocked I was, to discover that the anime adaptation of Top Cow’s Witchblade was not junk at all (I was fearing the worst, honestly) — in fact, it was quite good. And I was pleased to see the second DVD of the series following up nicely in all the veins set up by the first one. It’s not just a bunch of super-powered chick-fights — it’s, at core, a compelling story about a woman who’ll do most anything to ensure that her daughter has a better life. The super-powered chick-fights are just a nice bonus on top of the character and drama. Usually it’s the other way around.Read more
The Wallflower is the Satanic speed metal of shojo anime. It’s an exercise in gleefully wretched audience-assaulting excess on every possible front, just like one of director Shinichiro Watanabe’s most infamous earlier productions,Excel Saga. Then again, Excel Saga was adapted from one of the three or four most deranged manga ever created (which is now a personal favorite of mine), so he was simply paying proper homage to the source material. Here, I haven’t read the source manga, so I’m not sure if our beloved Nabeshin is paying homage or simply taking the basic premise and going bananas with it like a college kid breaking in his first credit card. Maybe it doesn’t matter. It’s hilarious either way. Read more
The second volume of Hell Girl has started to correct, however tentatively, my biggest complaint about the series: they spent entirely too much time just running through the core premise of the show without expanding on it. Now that they’ve started to do something with the idea, I feel thatHell Girl is shaping up to be pretty worthwhile — just really slow in its payoffs. If you’re impatient, you’re liable to be squirming in your chair and growling “Get on with it!” before disc 1 is even over — never mind whether or not you make it to disc 2. Read more
I’m faced with a bit of a dilemma when it comes to The Seven Magi. Do I urge people to dive into this book now, or do I recommend they pick up at least the first book in the outstanding fantasy series it’s derived from? You’ll have a fine time either way, but you might enjoy The Seven Magi all the more if you have some idea of where it’s coming from.
You know what? Don’t hold back. Go pick up Magi, as it’ll be worth diving into now and re-savoring later when — not if — you read the novels. A good manga is worth your money no matter what its backstory, especially when it’s from an outfit of real taste and daring (like, say, Vertical, Inc.)Read more
Sometimes you just can’t explain what makes you laugh. I’ve gone in circles trying to explain to people what it is about Gin Tama that kicks my funnybone harder than most anything else I’ve read lately, and in the end I’ve had to fall back on explanations that don’t really explain anything. Gin Tama makes me laugh because it’s like a piece of Japanese history (and a few of its modern-day dilemmas) as seen through a funhouse mirror, but I know I’m going to get a size-six blank stare if I tell that to most people. So I cop out and tell them that Gin Tama just makes me laugh, period, and who needs to explain this stuff when they can just be persuaded to experience it for themselves?
The third volume kicks off right where #2 had stopped, in the middle of an ongoing plotline about a bunch of aliens who’ve been hustling drugs to the natives. Shinpachi and Kagura ended up being kidnapped, but then Gin and Katsura show up — dressed in the least convincing pirate disguises ever created; even Luffy would laugh himself sick if he saw these two — and endeavor to save them. No prizes for guessing what happens, but the plot is never the main thing in this book — it’s the asides, the double-takes, the dippy deadpan shots that Hideaki Sorachi does so well. Read more
Across both volumes of Gyo I kept asking myself: Where on earth is Junji Ito leading us 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
And now we come to the concluding volume of Uzumaki, which closes the series off with a boom and also gives us something remarkable for a horror story. It not only includes the usual generous amounts of terror and aghast incomprehension of the unknown (a staple item in horror from Poe to Lovecraft to Stephen King), but a certain amount of awe and fearsome wonder, too. That makes it at least one to two cuts above the usual horror story — including Junji Ito’s later work, Gyo, which started promisingly but petered out when it became clear Ito didn’t really have an ending in mind. (That didn’t make it any the less amazing to read, though.)
Uzumaki, though, comes to a very definite (if extremely grim) conclusion. In fact, the whole of the third volume almost works as a self-contained story, since much of what happens in it is set up directly in the first few pages. The “spiral curse” of the whole series is still pivotally important, but here it’s given an arena to play out in, one where the real significance of the curse doesn’t become clear — by design — until the last few pages. Read more
The seventh volume of Old Boy pushes us incredibly close to the secret of why the rich and powerful “Dojima” locked up the ordinary salaryman Goto for ten years. But you won’t get the answer just yet — the story’s been constructed to hold off revealing that particular piece of information for as long as possible. And, on top of everything else, it’s been put behind a door labeled “hypnotism,” but more on that later.
It all comes down to how patient you are, I guess. If you’re the type to squirm angrily while critical details are held over your head in a story — not just once but again and again, as part of the story structure — if you don’t savor the journey as opposed to the destination, Oldboy will drive you monumentally nuts. But if you like that sort of thing, if you are as fascinated with the steps towards the solution as the solution itself, this has proven itself to be a series worth following through to the end. It’s not where we get in life, but how we got there and what it all means. Read more
How’s this for a shock? Witchblade may well be one of the better anime I’ve seen this year. It’s not just a cash-in on a name property, but a story that works entirely on its own terms, and works very well indeed. No prior experience with theWitchblade franchise in any form is needed: you can walk in and enjoy the whole thing pretty much cold, and I did. Read more