Time for some book news!Summerworld and The Four-Day Weekend are on the way. They are in the 5.5 × 8.5 trim size, with publisher-quality paper, and with some minor textual and format corrections here and there. They also sport the spanking new Genji Press logo. (Justin: You'll be getting 4DW as soon as my copies arrive in-house. I haven't forgotten about you!)
I'm looking to have them fully-baked by this time next week or so, since I'll be off at Comic-Con by then and will be trying to get people interested in them whenever possible.
Similar editions of the older books will follow, but right now my efforts are going to be directed towards getting Tokyo Inferno done. I have more research to do than I originally realized, but that'll make for all the better a finished product.
My tentative project for 2010 is to finish Vajra, my incomplete 2007 NaNoWriMo effort — which I suspect will get a name-change first, although I'm still mushing around trying to figure out what a good name for the story would be.
The other 2010 possibility is Dreaming Out Loud, the tentative (very tentative) sequel to 4DW. The rough plan is to have it be for RPGs what 4DW was for convention-going, but I don't have a lot nailed down other than that general concept yet. There also may be a third installment — wherein the gang goes to Japan — but that ain't happening until I go to Japan and can write about it firsthand.
The POD People blog has the first in what promises to be a series of posts by Cheryl Anne Gardner on the craft of writing. What’s the craft all about? Judging from the two quotes listed, it’s about tearing away the veil — getting the reader or audience to experience something directly and completely.
To wit, Bacon: “We nearly always live through screens — a screened existence. And sometimes I think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of those veils or screens.” And Shlovsky: “Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things.”
There’s a few possible ways to regard all this. The first is something akin to what Robert Rauschenberg said: “I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I’m doing.” Wiping away the patina of habit means you get to see something in ways not previously anticipated, and then thus charged with the joy of discovery, you run off to share that with others. That for me is the best one: you’re taking down one wall so that you might put up a bay window.
The other way to think about it is not through any one description of it but through a discussion of its symptoms: the escalating need to shock because that’s the only way you think you can “get through to people these days” or some variation of that silly formula. Lester Bangs put it this way in this discussion of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music: “Why do people go to see movies like Jaws … ? So they can get beaten over the head with baseball bats, have their nerves wrenched while electrodes are being stapled to their spines, be generally brutalized at least once every fifteen minutes or so … This is what’s understood today as entertainment, as fun, as art even!” This is the death of Rauschenberg’s kind of questing: it’s what Jacques Barzun was talking about when he said that if the real reason any work of art existed was to give us a frisson, a thrill, then we should just dump art and substitute it for a charge of dynamite under the nearest bush. (Or in our mouths.)
Most people who know me know I am a champion of some pretty uncompromising things: Salò, Irreversible, Last Exit to Brooklyn / Requiem for a Dream, Journey to the End of the Night, Berserk, etc. Not because these things are in themselves over-the-top, but because they put back up at least as much as they tear down. Just like it says on the back of Einstürzende Neubauten’s Drawings of Patient O.T.: “Destruction is not negative, you must destroy to build” — sure, but you have to also remember to do both of those things. Otherwise you end up in the same position as Alfred Jarry, who wanted to not only reduce all that was to ruins, but reduce the ruins themselves to ruins — Sisyphus with a sledgehammer. The truth hurts, but that doesn’t mean telling the truth has to amount to sadism of a sort.
Final note. Cheryl says “My own work primarily deals with love, romance, and societal dogma, on the surface, but ultimately my stories are that of redemption.” I don’t know what my own writing is “about” or what it “deals with” because stuff like that is usually applied after the fact by critics who have a totally inapposite idea of what you had in mind when you sat down to write the thing anyway. I try to keep such thoughts practical: I have what I think is a cracking good story in mind and I’d like to share it with you. And if I have something above and beyond that to share with you, it’ll come through the story on its own accord. I don’t think I can force it out, like someone stomping on a tube of toothpaste to get out that last little bit. You’re going to embody the world-view you have in your work no matter what you do, so the best thing is to write the best damn story you can and let everything else take care of itself.
[Note: I've posted eulogies for the LD before, but I can't find them; it seemed fitting to just rewrite from scratch.]
Home Theater Mag reports that Pioneer has discontinued the manufacturer of their last few models of LaserDisc player, effectively putting even more of an end to that era. The last LD pressing plants closed down a while back, too. But for me the final nail in the coffin was the fact that with vanishingly few exceptions, everything that I had previously owned on LaserDisc was now out again on DVD ... and I hadn't even bothered to bring my LD player down from the closet in a good four years.
For a long time, the better part of 20 years, LaserDisc was the way to be a videophile. People who wanted to build a home theater of any scale got a LD player as the centerpiece for the whole system. Roger Ebert gave the format props whenever he could. Genre movie fans salivated for the possibility of their favorite flicks getting the LD treatment. Video stores had displays touting the superiority of letterboxing (and later, "squeeze" format discs, the precusor to today's anamorphic transfers).
Then there was Japan. Japanese pressings of many titles were legendary for the quality of both the transfers and the packaging; one of the measures of the seriousness of a person's collection was how many import or specialty titles they had. A couple of Criterions was the sign of a decently educated collector. An import pressing or two? — they were serious about quality. The Syd Mead Japanese box set, which changed hands for hundreds of dollars? — Serious Business.
The size and breadth and completeness of the Japanese LD market was downright intimidating. From 1991 through 1994 I collected the trade-paperback-sized LD catalogs that Pioneer published, each with a full rundown of every title ever printed in Japan — including synopses, director/writer, date, catalog information, and cover art. After volume #27 in 1991, they no longer had cover art for all the discs, just the new ones. I spent I don't know how many hours crawling across those pages, deciphering that ant-sized type and highlighting all the discs with tantalizing titles or imagery. Not that I ever expected to actually find any of them, but You Never Knew.
I loved the way the LD brought to mind the LP — the form factor, for one, which lent itself to splashy cover art and luxuriously long back-panel essays. I felt the same way about giving up the LP for the CD: having something that was a veritable poster replaced with something that was a veritable postage stamp. LD box sets had a heft and an authority that dwarfed even LP box sets. When you picked one up and opened it, you felt like you were dealing with a Movie — something that innately resisted being boiled down to something the size of a box of postcards.
And yet somehow the LD never quite caught on all the way, the way the CD eclipsed the LP and the cassette tape. The cost was problematic enough — discs could run as high as $100 or more — and most people were content to rent rather than own, especially when the limits of the NTSC format meant you could only improve the quality of the image by so much. Things like Hi-Vision / MUSE were the only working HD system that existed anywhere, and the idea of having anything remotely like Blu-ray Disc wasn't even approachable.
My first exposures to DVD made me wonder what the heck we were getting ourselves into. This was back in the single-layer, one-pass-compression, non-anamorphic days, and what I saw — unimpressive transfers of Batman and Amadeus — reminded me of what the audiophiles were saying about the CD way back when. I wasn't a vinyl defender, but a little formula clicked in my head: Digital for audio (as the LaserDisc used digital audio); analog for video. After all, didn't film look consistently superior to all the digital video systems out there?
So I hung onto my LaserDisc player, even as I was assembling a DVD library that dwarfed the number of LDs I ever had at any time. I hung onto it not only because there were, for a long time, no DVD editions of certain movies in my collection — Johnny Got His Gun, or The Hidden Fortress, or any of the more fringeworthy Hong Kong flicks that ended up in my shelves.
And then there came a day when I realized I'd had my LD player up on a shelf for years on end without ever having so much as dusted it off. My collection of LDs dwindled, even as the prices they commanded also vanished: sets that used to go for $50 or $100 now sat on the curb and couldn't even be given away. The nostalgia for the format had given way to a bigger understanding about the real issues: the format was only a means to an end, the end being the movies themselves.
DVD was winning — not just because it was better marketed, but because it was turning into a better way to watch the movies, period. It wasn't just that DVDs were on the whole cheaper to make, stock and obtain (although that sure helped). It was also that the technology for restoring original film elements — not just film scanners but commodity computing hardware for storing the resulting scans, software for performing denoising and touch-up, and so on — and you could only see the full results of that work on DVD.
It didn't seem that way at first, simply because the back end hadn't caught up to the possibilities. The first wave of DVDs used the same multiple-stage-analog D2 tapes that their LaserDisc ancestors had been mastered from. Then came 16x9 remasters, 2K and 4K (and 8K) film recorders, the MTI restoration suite, and all the rest of those things that we now take for granted (and not just from Criterion titles, either).
Gradually, people saw LaserDisc was always going to be behind the curve. The one-hour side or half-hour side breaks; the fact that the analog nature of the medium meant you could only squeeze so much quality out of it before you hit a wall; the way the format had been jerry-rigged to accept digital audio; and on and on. Eventually, the only reason to hang on to LD was the fact that some things still couldn't be had in that format — and soon, that vanished.
VHS may have kicked off home video, but it was LaserDisc that made people see it could be more than just a one-size-fits-all affair. Director's cuts, frame-by-frame analysis, parallel commentary, additional multimedia content — LD gave us all that stuff first. Now the torch has been passed to another generation of formats, one that makes it that much more possible to appreciate the movies for what they are, and with that much less between us and them.
The Child is father of the Man.
— William Wordsworth
We are, all of us and inevitably, the heroes of our life stories. The camera is in our own head; the plot was always written specifically to accommodate us. Time and again come those moments when it all seems true — those perfect few seconds here and there you had as a kid, when you climbed to the top of that tree or pitched that no-hitter or snuck into the P.A. room at school and piped T. Rex’s chart-topping new single into the ears of all those unsuspecting other kids.
You never did notice when those moments had grown so few and far between that you can’t even remember the last one by itself. Just that there was a span of time, Childhood with a capital C, where even the bad days seemed wonderful. Where even the skinned knees and the boredom and the near-drowning in the pool at the bottom of the gravel pit all had the haze of transcendence about them.
And now you’re in your thirties and you’re still working at your parents’ liquor store — well, it’s a convenience store now; that was something you managed to pull off — and you’re spending your days with your derelict sister’s baby strapped to your back. The movie’s not about you anymore. There are no heroes except in the comics you threw out decades ago. You’re just another one of the faces that spend most of its time turned to the gutter and, only very occasionally, up at the stars.
This is the opening of Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, the newest manga from the creator of Monster. After Monster concluded its run in English, it was like watching a friend die: that series stands to remain in my library long after many others have been given away or sold off. I suspect the same thing will happen with 20th Century Boys, which like Monster wastes no time in announcing its ambitions and its epic scope — even if the two stories couldn’t be more dissimilar in tone and outlook. Monster was about the fact that evil is quite real and is done by mortal men; Boys is about how we can be heroes, even if just for one day. Sometimes more. Read more
Closing the cover on the last volume of Monster was like burying a friend. Like Vagabond, Berserk, Vertical / Viz’s Tezuka reprints and Blade of the Immortal, Monster is one of the few manga I know I will own long after many others have been given away or sold off. Assuming you can get the whole thing for an average of $7 a volume, it’ll be among the best $126 you’ll ever spend on any manga series.
The hardest part of talking about this final volume is the fact that there is little way to do it without ruining everything. So much of what makes Monster special and worth reading in the first place is the way things are revealed — how one character’s salvation is another’s curse, or how people who seem to be polar opposites in fact share both common origins and destinies. A plot summary also does not do justice to Naoki Urasawa’s dialogue and storytelling: it’s not just what happens, but the way he has his characters confront it and dramatize it. As fantastic as the circumstances may have been through this whole series, they have been happening to people we care about. Read more
Get past the lurid title, and Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan offers a fair amount beyond the cheap frisson promised there. Part true-crime anthology and part social history, it uses the crimes in question as jumping-off points for insights into Japanese society, both conventional and criminal. The author, Mark Schreiber, has approached the subject as an insider. As a resident of Japan with a long journalism pedigree for many English-language publications there, Mark writes with the confidence and authority needed to make this more than just a rehash of what’s in the newspaper archives.
The opening and closing chapters are devoted to what is arguably Japan’s most infamous crime of late: the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo subway gassings, the details of which were still unfolding as the book was being written. For this reason the book doesn’t focus in much detail on that incident — a book like The Cult at the End of the World may serve the curious reader better — but it works as a useful way of bookending all the other material covered here. Japan’s just as capable as any other country of having its equilibrium punctured, no matter what the internal or external perceptions. Read more
When I was maybe ten years old I read an article named “What Man Has Done To Dogs”, about the genetic damage inflicted on man’s best friend by centuries of inbreeding. It was probably my first exposure to the concept of unrequited animal suffering, and it broke my heart. Not just because no animal deserves to be, in effect, born crippled, but because such an animal has no idea that it is missing out on a birthright of good health. I fought hard against the idea of putting my dog to sleep when it developed brain cancer, but in the end there was simply nothing else to do. His life and death had been in my hands since the beginning, and to put it to sleep was the ultimate expression of that.
I do not, however, remember my first full-on taste of racism, save for a hackneyed classroom experiment in third grade. The class was divided arbitrarily into “racists” and “victims”, and all that happened was everyone who already had a grudge of some kind had the perfect excuse to act it out. I didn’t need that little piece of sociology to understand on a gut level that there were some people who just plain hated each other on principle; I’d already been hit with it. Or so I thought. Read more
The Times has details about how an Aspen movie theater seems to have ended up with the distribution rights to the entire Ingmar Bergman film catalog — although I imagine Svensk Filmindustri and Criterion and the BFI will have something to say about that.
I'd bet a closer look at those documents would reveal that the rights in question only cover theatrical exhibition in the continental U.S. or something equally limited, and that Isis is doing its best to dance around that issue.
I've mentioned before how my Japanese is "just good enough to get me into trouble" — meaning that about half the time I can read right off the page without even looking at a dictionary, and the other half the time I struggle and weep over every single kanji. There's also another level of comprehension that I'm trying to build, the kind you can't always form with a dictionary but is rooted exclusively in current trends.
Consider the term wanpatan (ワンパタン), which I came across almost by accident and only knew the meaning of from a footnote. Given that it's written in katakana, that should be a heavy tipoff that it's an imported word: "one pattern". Meaning boring, or monotonous. (I immediately flashed back to another import, haikara (ハイカラ), "high-collar", meaning someone Westernized but which apparently can also mean "classy in a Western way".)
When I was translating Batten, the term tsukeuma (付け馬) was explained right in the book itself, but I still consulted what third-party material I could find about the meaning. Kodansha's Basic Japanese Idioms had an expanded definition, and it was thanks to Google that I was able to read an excerpt directly from the book itself. (That's encouraged me all the more to buy the thing, so anyone who says this is causing the death of book sales can kindly go stuff it.)
These are things you can't always rely on a guidebook, even an up-to-date or exhaustive one, to keep on top of. They require people on the ground, as it were — folks living in the country in question who stay on top of trends and keep their ears clear as to what words are entering or leaving the vocabulary. It's something I need to find another regular source for, especially now that Mangajin is long gone and the best guidebooks tend to only be revised every decade or so.
So many other people have commented on the fact that the inauguration and MLK's birthday coincide that I'm not sure what I can add, except maybe something in the realm of personal experience.
I was in, I think, third grade when I first learned about Dr. King. The first image I remember seeing of him was, I think, this one — a picture of him being booked by the cops in Montgomery. The contrast was shocking: here was this man who stuck his neck way the heck out for his countrymen, being arrested. Good guys don't get busted was, I think, the unspoken assumption being questioned by all that.
That made his line about "to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together" all the more poignant when I heard it. Not that one has to get thrown in jail to prove the courage of one's convictions, but that one should accept it as gracefully as possible if it is necessary — and that one should always take every other legitimate step first.
I feared for a long time that there was a general sense in this country that legitimate political action — writing letters, knocking on doors, making voices heard — was losing favor against "direct action" — everything from sit-ins to violence and sabotage. With the latter, you at least got the frisson of feeling like you got something done, even if all you did was alienate people who might once have been sympathetic to your cause. I hope that feeling has started to change, that intelligent political participation is possible once again.
It's hard not to be excited today, not just because a black man is taking office — but because a man with more than a little brains and insight is stepping up to the podium. And, in the end, that's all that should matter.
Kinda figured that would happen. That’s what I kept muttering to myself throughout Sukiyaki Western Django, Takashi Miike’s too-hip-for-the-room remix of West and East. It’s the kind of movie where someone fires a crossbow bolt at someone and they blast it back at you with a gun, and you sit there and go: Yeah, kinda figured that would happen. It’s not because I’ve lost the capacity to be surprised, I hope, but only because the movie’s so fundamentally dumb that they could have held the camera upside down and it wouldn’t have mattered. In fact, I think at one point they do.
The movie is, I guess, a retelling of the Genji and Heike struggles in the form of a stylized western, or maybe a reworking of Yojimbo in the context of same, but in reality it’s none of those things, neither history nor allegory nor even entertainment. It’s essentially an excuse for Miike to use all the stuff you see in westerns — the showdowns, the sets, the costumes, the clichés upon clichés — as raw material. The ingredients were pretty banal to begin with, but the end result is a horrible mess. It’s strawberry jam on pasta instead of fusion cuisine, and it is quite possibly Miike’s worst and most thoroughly unwatchable movie yet. Yes, even worse than Izo, for those of you who thought Izo was a mess. At least Izo had the courage of its experimental convictions; Django is wholly pointless and insufferable. Read more
"Japan’s Outcasts Still Wait for Acceptance": The buraku, the lower-caste citizens of Japan who still find themselves bound to the past by their ancestry, look towards Obama's inauguration as an example of what they might be able to achieve one day without regret.
Dorris Dörrie's new movie Cherry Blossoms "is both a tender tale of cultural crossings and a double portrait of grief." I'm always leery of most any movie about Japan made by someone who sees it through cherry-blossom-colored glasses (har har), but this sounds intriguing.
This was originally meant to be a wish list, but it's also turned at least partly into a "guess what?" list. I'd started to write down a wish list for BD titles that have little or no chance of ever coming out in that format in a domestic, English-language edition, but then a funny thing happened on the way to the keyboard ...
Digression.. Pre-orders are now being taken for Funimation's Blu-ray edition of Shigurui (aka Death Frenzy). The original manga seems like something the folks at Dark Horse would pick up — and put in shrinkwrap with "ABSOLUTELY NOT FOR CHILDREN" stickers plastered all over it. Their edition of Samurai 7 has been solicited for some time now, though, but it's a distant second for me. (Why not the original movie on BD? Well, I guess it's due before long, esp. since Japanese Region A editions of Rashomon and Ran [no English, don't bother] are coming...)
One of my greatest pleasures is to walk into something cold, knowing nothing about it, and come out the other side pleasantly surprised. I knew zip about Jyu-oh-sei when I cracked the shrinkwrap and fired it up, but that only made the surprise all the more compelling. For lack of a more relevant way to put it, Jyu-oh-sei seems a bit like an anime incarnation of the kinds of SF that Larry Niven or Frederik Pohl might have written back in the Seventies. It starts with a few hard-science (or at least not-soft-science) premises, sticks some strong characters into the middle of it, stirs well, and lets things happen.
Centuries into the future, mankind has colonized other worlds. Among them is Chimaera, a planet where human beings live only by dint of their stubbornness as a species. Temperatures vary from brutal cold to vicious heat, and the only other life forms are carnivorous plants. No one goes there unless they absolutely have to — and, in fact, most people don’t. It’s a prison world, a dumping ground for the human garbage of the universe. It’s also not officially supposed to exist, for reasons above and beyond it being a galactic Riker’s Island. Read more
An installment of Black Lagoon where scarcely anything blows up would seem to be, on first glance, not much of an installment of Black Lagoon at all. Like glycerin without nitro (har, har). But one of the pleasures of this story is how there’s, well, a story in between and above the sound of gunfire and empty shells hitting the ground. A story is about people. Lagoon listens to its characters and gives them freedom of speech and thought, and so the story’s about them and not just a pile of spent ammo.
The last book closed off on a cliffhanger, which is quickly concluded in the first chapter here — it’s notable mostly for the way Revy tears Rock a new one (verbally and darn near physically, too) for nearly messing up the whole mission. She doesn’t respect anyone she has to go and bail out, and what’s more she figured she was beyond all that with Rock: he can go to the bathroom all by himself and everything, right? Of course, the real insight here is not that either of them is going to abandon their position completely — Revy’s no more going to become a marshmallow than Rock is going to become a stone cold killer — but that over time they’ll find a place somewhere in the middle of both extremes. Read more
Back when I reviewed Machine Girl, I wrote: “[This film] not only goes over the top, it tears the top off, sets it on fire, and throws it back at you.” Now from the same gang of loons comes Tokyo Gore Police, which I’d normally describe as “over the top” — except that this time there’s really no top left to go over. The lid has blown clean off and gone sailing beyond the blue horizon.
The title alone should have told you what was up, and if nothing else it is complete truth in advertising. The movie is set in Tokyo; it deals with a privatized police army (possibly a parody of Mamoru Oshii’s Kerberos Panzer Corps, but who knows); and it is gory as all get-out. We are not even talking about the sort of thing that Dario Argento used to do back in his glory days — e.g., a severed arm spraying enough blood to paint a wall red. No, that’s not enough for Yoshihiro Nishimura & Co. His limb stumps and bisected torsos gush like fire hoses, spewing enough of the red stuff to fill a couple of municipal swimming pools. Every single time. Read more
No other country inspires the same morbid fascination as North Korea. Here is an utter basket case of a nation, a totalitarian state with absolutely zero personal, political and economic freedom. Its only hope for future growth lies in what few economic ties it can build with China and its southern cousin. Few people enter the country at all, and those who do are presented with a façade as elaborately choreographed and stage-managed as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Its general populace dares not speak to outsiders of its true sufferings for fear of reprisal. Some within its walls are not deluded by the official stories of the “imperialist warmongers” and bribe their way out to a better life. A very few enter the country of their own accord and are never seen again.
Even fewer still are brought there by force, and meet a similar fate. Decades ago North Korean agents kidnapped a thirteen-year-old girl out of her hometown in Japan, hid her from the world (and her parents) for decades on end, and only admitted to having done so after great pressure was brought to bear by both international leaders and other aggrieved relatives daring enough to be outspoken about their missing loved ones. The whole thing had the aura of a beach-read paperback thriller, not the true workings of international espionage. But it was true, and the fact it took as long as it did for the truth to come out bespoke of terrible cowardice on both sides. Bad enough that the “Democratic People’s Republic” kidnapped people for its intelligence efforts, but even worse that those who had children and siblings go missing were not helped by their own society. Read more
Here is a film that I know objectively is not very good but which I confess to having a voyeuristic fascination with anyway. Carnival of the Night is part documentary, part glorified home movie and part improvised come-as-you-are / do-it-yourself independent drama. It’s amateurish, disjointed, sloppy and crudely made, but it’s got flashes of on-the-spot electricity that would be harder to find in a more polished piece of work. It also gives us a glimpse, however fragmented, into the Tokyo underground of the early 1980s — one of those “if you weren’t there, it might have felt something like this” experiences that often works despite being anarchic and not because of it.
Carnival revolves loosely around Kumi Ota (apparently playing herself), the leader of a punk-rock outfit. They perform in tiny little Shinjuku clubs where there’s barely room for the lead singer to stand up in front of the audience, and in the opening scenes they’re shown twanging restlessly away in front of a couple of stone-bored slackers who’re more interested in the bench they’re sitting on than the band. Nobody here is looking for a record contract, and I suspect no one who had one would give it to them. Right after the show, a fight breaks out and someone runs off with the till, even though there’s barely enough in there to buy a pack of smokes. Read more
The Times takes a peek at the next big frontier for filmmaking: 3-D. Or, rather, the next thing they can think of to get us back into theaters instead of cooped up in front of screens that are easily as good if not better than anything you'd find in the local omniplex.
It's a redux of the whole push to digital in theaters as well: who pays? And in the short run, everyone's trying to find some way to shove the costs off onto a third party.
But the main stopper for me is 3-D as a storytelling device. There's yet to be a major movie in 3-D that couldn't just as easily been told in 2-D — or that used 3-D in a way that no "flat" movie could emulate.
James Cameron's upcoming Avatar is turning into the receptacle for expectations about such things. Many people don't even care if it's in 3-D or not; they just want something that wasn't as treacly at heart as Titanic. (Me included.)
I haven't posted for a bit about what's happening with the new novel, Tokyo Inferno. I ought to, since I now have more good news than I can shake a fistful of sticks at. The story's back on track — and better yet, it's reached a milestone for its internal structure.
For a long time the exact questions at the heart of the story eluded me. Now, this past morning, it all snapped together.
For the sake of those who know nothing about the project yet, I've put the discussion behind a jump and placed it behind a "spoiler" block (you have to hover the mouse over it to see it).Read more
Sometimes it’s hard to remain a skeptic when all the evidence is splayed out right in front of you. The fanboy in me screams to accept the Guin Saga manga as nothing short of The Real Deal — a name-taking and ass-kicking comic adaptation of what has quickly become my favorite fantasy series. The art’s detailed and powerful, the action hits fast and furious, and the whole thing is over way too soon (always a good sign for me). So how come I still feel a little, I dunno … hesitant?
Chalk it up, I guess, to something you could call Geek Nerves. Within every fanboy lies a germ of terror that the things they most look forward to will be mangled horribly. The second-stage version of this paranoia is even worse: they’ll be mangled horribly but only in a way they find egregious, so they won’t even get to share the pain with their fellow fans (or anyone else). Or the work in question gets within 98% of its goal, only to take the remaining 2% and augur headfirst into a wall with it.Read more
"Despicable" and "underhanded" are two of the words that came to mind when I heard about Fox's power play to steal Watchmen out from under Warner Brothers and market it as their own property. Now, one of the producers has stepped up with an open letter that lays bare not only how poorly Fox has behaved, but how difficult it was to ever make this happen in the first place.
... the flashpoint of this dispute came in late spring of 2005. Both Fox and Warner Brothers were offered the chance to make Watchmen. They were submitted the same package at the same time. ... The response we got from Fox was a flat "pass." That's it. An internal Fox email documents that executives there felt the script was one of the most unintelligible pieces of shit they had read in years. Conversely, Warner Brothers called us after having read the script and said they were interested in the movie ...
Did anyone at Fox ask to meet on the movie? No. Did anyone at Fox express any interest in the movie? No. Express even the slightest interest in the movie? Or the graphic novel? No.
Warner Brothers [supported], both financially and creatively, the development of the movie. And eventually, after over a year of work, they agreed to make the film, based on a script that, for what it's worth, was by and large very similar to the one Fox initially read and deemed an unintelligible piece of shit.
If the project had been sequestered at Fox, if Fox had any say in the matter, Watchmen simply wouldn't exist today, and there would be no film for Fox to lay claim on. It seems beyond cynical for the studio to claim ownership at this point.
If I ever get the chance to submit a creative project to a major studio, I plan on leaving Fox somewhere near the bottom of the list. If it's even on there at all.
The "Best Of 2008" article, to which I and other editors at AMN contributed, is now online. We also talk a bit about what we're looking forward to in the new year.
Friends of mine got to arguing the other day about what the hell happened to fantasy fiction, about how it had all turned into boring multi-volume epics and Tolkien-derived trash. I gave my opinion like so: Yes, a lot of this is due to Tolkien becoming canonized, meaning that people see him as being the model for this sort of thing. But how we got there is a little tricky.
Before J.R.R. Tolkien became canonized, and even to some degree after, the term "fantasy" covered a broad range of writers and styles. Mervyn Peake and C.S. Lewis (and of course Peter S. Beagle) come to mind — the former a drastically underrated writer, the latter probably overrated but at the very least demonstrating a style and POV as distinct from Tolkien's as Tolkien's was from other authors. Tolkien was only one voice among many. And Beagle is about as essential a writer as you get in any realm, but that's another essay. The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland were and still are other examples of where else this sort of thing can go, but they get routinely labeled as children's stories: nice if you're a kid, but not "serious" fantasy (whatever that means).
Then came the fantasy explosion of the Seventies and Eighties. I credit a lot of this not to fantasy writing as such but to the rise of tabletop RPGs — Dungeons and Dragons being the big one, obviously. If you were into RPGs, you were almost certainly into fantasy fiction and vice versa. The two functioned as revolving doors into each other's showrooms.
Then the makers of D&D started publishing fantasy fiction that used the prepackaged settings in the game as backdrops for various adventures. People who cut their teeth on fantasy by playing D&D or by reading the D&D setting novels soon had a working definition of fantasy that was D&D, period. And since the model for a lot of what happened in D&D was the Tolkien Quest, Tolkien and all of his fourth-rate imitators came way into the foreground. Peake and Lewis and Beagle and all the rest faded back quite a lot, and before you knew it along came The Wheel of Time and the rest of that dismal scrapyard of thrice-recycled ideas and settings. The whole idea of what constituted fantasy fiction has become damaged, its scope narrowed and its branches pruned.
I am not arguing that the Tolkien model is bad or that it should be junked. I am simply saying it is only one possibility among many, and that when we ignore the others we make ourselves all the poorer.
I'm reminded of Michael Tolkin (no relation, ha ha) and his spiel about how one of the worst things to happen to filmmaking — Hollywood or otherwise, really — was the introduction of the Syd Field school of template-driven screenwriting. Not only were screenwriters falling all over themselves to master this cookie-cutter three-act / twelve-beat structure, but producers and executives were taking the exact same screenwriting classes so they would know what scripts to look for. The problem I have with distilling storytelling down to a formula or a template is not that I don't believe in the old canard of "all successful stories have something in common"; it's that I don't believe such things can be extruded by the yard and shrinkwrapped to order. When you think in terms of a formula, that's all you end up seeing; when you have Tolkien as your only model, everything looks like the One Ring.
Despite all of this, there have been signs of life outside the usual channels; authors like China Mieville come to mind, and Beagle himself is enjoying a bit of a revival thanks to the brouhaha over The Last Unicorn. But I worry that the damage has been done for keeps.
I just finished sitting through, or maybe better to say suffering from, a viewing of Guy Ritchie's Revolver. It's been said that every bad movie is an object lesson about what not to do. I could probably get three or four such lessons out of this film.
I'm probably not going to bother with a full review of the film right now except to say it is excruciatingly awful — it is a classic example of someone trying to make a movie they think is Deep and Meaningful when they haven't the faintest idea how such things actually work in a film. The whole Meaning of the movie (yes, the capital M is sarcasm) has been deconstructed elsewhere, and Roger Ebert as usual nailed it the first time out. He saw right through it and out the other side.
The basic idea is audacious, I'll admit it: it's a gangster/crime/heist/thriller movie used as a wrapper for a meditation about the nature of the ego, about coming to enlightenment about one's sense of self, or something. The movie's "message" or "insight" or whatever you want to call it is so muddled by the Ouroborosian delivery that it's next to impossible to learn anything from it anyway except maybe that Madonna turned Guy Ritchie into a numerology-obsessed loon.
Here is the problem. The movie contains big ideas but it is not about them; it wastes its time lecturing us about its ideas instead of finding more elegant ways to embody them. To say that a movie is deep just because it contains deep ideas is like saying a joke is funny just because it has a punchline.
The most profound movies, I think, are the ones that contain their profundity in the most direct way. Ikiru is profound. 2001 is profound. Blade Runner, GoodFellas, Naked, The Harder They Come, all of them are profound in some way because they get to basic human truths in ways that don't require a lot of sleight of hand. Revolver is all sleight of hand.
So maybe there's your review after all. To talk more than I have to about this heaping pile of nonsense disguised as entertainment, let alone wisdom, gives me a galloping headache.
The Times has a nice little piece in their travel section about the anniversary of the authorship of the Tale of Genji. Memo to self: check out one of the museums in question if I ever get over there.
The Times has a spectacular opinion piece — courtesy of Michael (Liar's Poker) Lewis, that explains how the whole financial implosion of the past year or so was in the works for far longer, and was in many cases aided and abetted by the very people whose jobs it was to (in theory) prevent such things from happening.
There is a great deal to read here, including a set of common-sense measures to prevent things like this from happening in the future — none of which seem to be on anyone's agenda, amazingly enough.
Gegege no Kitaro is a poor man’s Great Yokai War, which is my way of saying go see that movie first and only come back to this one if you absolutely have to. Kids will probably like it — young kids. Really young kids who haven’t yet learned about the Studio Ghibli films, which is my way of saying … okay, you get the idea.
Kitaro’s been adapted from the manga by Shigeru Mizuki, he who more or less did for yokai (Japanese spooks ‘n goblins) what Futaro Yamada did for ninja: turn them into a staple of Japanese popular culture. Once that happens, the original work is ripe for being cross-adapted to other media, as was the case with Yamada’s novel Kouga Ninja Scrolls. That book was turned both into an outstanding manga and anime series (Basilisk), and a pitifully bad live-action movie (Shinobi). It wasn’t just that some things worked better as animation than they did as live action. The manga / TV show had strong writing and both stuck close to and diverged from the source material when it was beneficial. The movie mated cheesy-looking CGI with a pointless trashing of the original story, and came up empty. Read more
Nobody, certainly not the reader, gets off easy in the end with Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack. This is a fantasy medical drama used as the disguise for one troubling meditation after another about life and death and our place in the universe and all the other things Tezuka was determined to use to keep his readers awake at night along with his wild visual imagination. What’s worse: to be powerless, or to have the power of a god but not be able to use it when it most matters? Should the two even be compared like that? Or is it best to just put your head down and do what you can with what you have, and not fret about the larger implications even when they make a mockery of you? Is your head hurting yet?
This third collection of Black Jack stories delivers everything we’ve come to expect from manga’s most infamous unlicensed practitioner: maladies that would make Dr. House’s head spin (House vs. Black Jack — who’d win that showdown?!); human nature in all of its grand and grotesque extremes; and Pinoco’s elastic face and physical pratfalls. You laugh, you wince, you watch in wonder, and when it’s all over, you find yourself reflecting on what you’ve seen for a lot longer than you might originally suspect.
Now that I have three volumes under my belt, my favorite stories from the series consistently tend to be the ones about Black Jack himself. Come to think of it, the comparisons to House aren’t wholly off-base: he has few, if any friends; his work garners the ire of colleagues and superiors; and his curmudgeonly skin conceals a more fragile and loving soul than he lets on. (Heck, he was House before House was House, but don’t tell Hugh Laurie.) And like all the best anti-heroes — like, say, TV’s Dexter, to draw another parallel — he’s compulsively watchable. We keep turning the pages just to see what the heck he’s going to do next. Read more
Time to kick off the new year right with a quick roundup of what's coming out in the next couple of months!
Welcome to the NHK, parts 1 and 2 — this is another anime series that might click with people who normally don't watch it at all. I haven't yet watched it, but my co-conspirator Eric has seen it and from his descriptions, it doesn't just cut: it bites.
I was expecting a Blu-ray edition of Stephen Soderbergh's Traffic at some point, but I wasn't sure if it was going to be offered via Criterion or through the USA Films banner. Either way, as long as we get the transfer it deserves, I'll be happy. (My review is not back out of the archive yet, so look for it sometime soon.
A new outfit named Pink Eiga Inc. has picked up a slew of Japanese productions, most of them from the lower end of the budget spectrum: New Tokyo Decadence - The Slave and S&M Hunter are the opening offerings, and they look like about what you'd expect. That said, some of this stuff (like its Seventies Nikkatsu-created elders) is sometimes surprisingly good, so anything's possible.
The truly masochistic, however, can elect to go with Funimation's reissue of the Geneon Ninja Vixens: Complete Box Set, which features some of the most agonizing direct-to-video trash ever foisted on English-speaking audiences. This isn't "so bad it's good"; this is just bad, period, end of sentence, end of page, end of file.
I still haven't figured out much about ADV's new live-action Razor imprint, but it seems to be along the same lines as what Tokyo Shock does on a regular basis. Maid's Secret and Maid's Secret: Welcome Home look amusing although if they don't have the maids break out machine guns at some point they're missing a bet. They're also reissuing a previous ADV live-action title, Tokyo Majin: The Last Megalopolis, which gets points here for being based on a novel by VHD creator Hideyuki Kikuchi, and while it wasn't great it was still a nifty bit of Taishō-sploitation (is that a word?).
(Also from the same label is Kagaya, about which I know less than nothing thanks to ADV still doing a lousy job of promoting this material in detail. Maybe that's a hint.)
Did you know Sonny Chiba directed a horror-in-the-wild flick? Meet Yellow Fangs, which for all the world looks like the Japanese version of Grizzly (or maybe Trog, if you're really being uncharitable). But hey, it has Chiba and Hiroyuki Sanada, so how bad can it be?
Those who have been getting their boy's-love fix through animation are going to be heartened to know a good deal of live-action material in the same vein is out right now or soon to be released. Schoolboy Crush fits into that category; if you like it, go dig up Takashi Miike's Juvenile A and make a double feature out of it.
Speaking of double features ... (ha! segue!) Never Give Up/Resurrection of Golden Wolf are now getting packaged in a two-for-one set. If you haven't yet encountered Yusaku Matsuda's 'fro or Ken Takakura's umbrella, what better way to do it?
I don't know which version of Monkey Magic [Blu-ray] is being offered here, but if it's the Stephen Chow version I'll be happy.
The searing Late Bloomer (check out Ebert's review) caught my attention from the git-go. "You have to meet the film's visual style halfway. It's shot in contrasty black and white, slo-mo, fast-mo, sometimes jagged cutting, sometimes an erratic hand-held camera that suggests the jerky way Sumida must view the world. You watch for a while and the movie is tough going. Then it takes hold and you begin identifying with Sumida. He is a bad, bad man. You can sort of understand that."
Takeshi meets Takeshi in Takeshis' (my review will be back soon), where the Beat meats the Kitano and the two cavort on the beach in slow motion while spent bullet casings drop into the sand. Or something. For a man whose approach to filmmaking is one of the least intellectual of anyone I know, this is a remarkably brainy movie in its own twisted way.
Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947-1986 and Ontological-Hysteric Theatre 1 / Sophia: Cliffs (the latter offered through John Zorn's Tzadik label)
With all the screaming I do about Criterion, I need to also throw some props towards the folks at Kino Video. They don't have quite the same reputation as Criterion, but they still manage to pick up and issue some truly remarkable titles. The Haunted Castle and Faust are both coming out a little later, and after the yeoman work they did with Metropolis these are all the more appealing.
Guy (Brand Upon the Brain!) Debord's Careful is also set for a U.S. release. This is another director I mean to sit down and catch up with at some point; he seems like a much more accessible David Lynch — probably not the comparison I should make, but there you are.
Oh, and we're also due for a domestic edition of ... Tokyo Zombie. (Check out the graphic novel.) I'd pair this up with Tokyo Gore Police, and maybe Onéchanbara when that finally comes out here later this year (that is, if Meredith from Media Blasters was on the money about it). My only question about that latter film: will they call it that, or Chanbara Beauty, or Bikini Samurai Squad, or ... ?
In the commentary track that Roger Ebert recorded for Casablanca (now on the Blu-ray reissue), he mentions at about the 13-minute mark that we currently have a generation of moviegoers whose sense of the history of cinema begins — and ends, probably — in the mid-Seventies, with Star Wars (and maybe The Godfather).
When I heard that, I took an even more cynical perspective: for me, the current generation of moviegoers has no sense of cinema history. Not even in the sense that they haven't studied it, but in the sense that they don't feel like one is possible or worthwhile. Everything released before they started watching movies is just "old", which is a code word for worthless. Anything in black and white; most anything in a language that isn't English (I'd take a dime for every time I've heard the canard "I hate reading my movies"); anything that in short is outside the comfort zone ... it's all gone missing from their radar.
I squirm when I think about this, if only because there are so many good movies that go completely missed because of these attitudes. This part you probably know by now. What compounds that frustration is how many good movies are essentially ruined — made impossible to see with an open mind — because people can't see anything but the imitations, the mimicry, the parody, the after-the-fact, even when the original is right there up on the screen. I wonder, if in another fifty years, we'll look at the movies from the 1940s and 1950s and see territory and customs and behavior and thinking so far removed from anything we can understand or connect to that it'll be like reading some of the more cryptic parts of the Bible.
It's a microcosmic reminder of something I've thought about constantly: Man is a process, not just a static entity. If a hundred years from now we regard as barbarisms things we took unthinkingly for granted, that's at best progress and at worst a sign that we're evolving. It's just unnerving to see it happen up close and personal with something you love.
From the Times: Donald Westlake is dead.
100 books and then some? Did his own tech support? A man after my own heart.
If you’ve ever wanted to hear something akin to a György Ligeti choral piece being performed on the rim on an active volcano, look no further than this collaboration between two of the most … um, explosive artists of the Japanese underground. Keiji Haino, the guitar god and self-described “bluesman” who sounds like he hails from somewhere around beyond the orbit of Pluto; and Masami Akita, a/k/a Merzbow, whose rumblings and seismic disturbances turn feedback and speaker blowout into art forms unto themselves. Haino’s the master of the monochromatic and mournful; Merzbow covers the ears with a Pollock-splatter of sounds in all spectra. A collaboration between them was bound to be epic in some way.
Pulverized Purple does not disappoint, at least in the sense that it shows both parties doing what they do best and at the fullest possible volume. Come to think of it, “Pulverized” is the right word: it’s the best adjective for what they do to the sounds they create between them, and also what happens to the listener. Akita-the-irresistable-force and Haino-the-immovable-object smash together again and again, grinding the audience into atoms between them. But beyond the obvious my-noise-album-can-beat-up-your-noise-album one-upsmanship, Purple also shows off the more careful and considered sides of both parties: Haino’s eternal straining for some emotion that words and music alone don’t encapsulate, and Akita’s amazing sense of spontaneity and intuitive composition. Read more
Years ago in Omni, of all places, they ran a cartoon that showed a husband and wife at the dinner table. The husband was about to shovel a spoonful of something into his mouth, but was fixing the wife with a baleful look. The wife's response: "Oh, go on and eat it. Does everything you eat have to have a name?"
I sometimes think that way when people talk about such-and-such a genre of writing, especially now that we're seeing these secondary and tertiary hybrids of genre, like romantic horror (which apparently sells like hotcakes, much to the chagrin of many people who write either horror or romance). Truth is, people need the labels to figure out what they're about to get themselves into when they plonk down their $13.95 and crack the spine.
It's frustrating, especially when you've trained yourself to think about approach each story on its own merits. As a friend of mine put it about Hajime no Ippo, "It's not a 'boxing story'; it's about a guy who happens to be a boxer." Or, more recently: The Wrestler isn't about wrestling per se, but about this guy who happens to be a wrestler. And so on. The character is what's meant to come front and center, but most people are used to being sold on a story through its bigger, more obvious trappings.
It's the rare genre story that people pick up on because of its own merits. Star Wars made fantasy (not SF) into blockbuster box-office. Unforgiven broke through to an audience that might otherwise never have gone to see a "Western". What's rare for the movies is even rarer for books: with the possible exception of Watchmen there really hasn't been a graphic novel that's enjoyed broad crossover success; and for SF and fantasy there's maybe Lord of the Rings and little else.
The easy interpretation is what amounts to an elitist one, I think: we, the Elect who Get It, the Fans, are of a higher order of imagination and perceptivity than all those Great Unwashed who fall asleep in front of their TVs to The O'Reilly Factor. The truth of it is a bit more complicated: the reason so few such things break through or cross over is because the vast majority of anything in any genre never goes much further than its target audience. The whole argument about genres being ghettoes is misleading, because anything mediocre is its own ghetto, first and foremost.
That still leaves me with a question: What's the best way to get people to go outside their comfort zone and experience something they would never normally opt for? I don't think there's any systematic way to do that, any more than you could get retirees to go bungee-jumping. It takes as much a maverick approach to propagandizing in favor of such as thing as it does a maverick approach to creating it. The whole way that these things are brought to the attention of people, the whole way they're discussed, needs to undergo some kind of grand mutation of form — although what it'll look like, I haven't the faintest. Yet.
Over the weekend I spent time with my inlaws, who are not exactly cultural gourmands, and my father-in-law responded to a TV commercial for a current movie: "The more the critics like something, the less I want to see it, and vice versa." Somehow I don't think using reverse psychology will work in his case.
“Epic” is such an overused word. Everything from Harry Potter to Lawrence of Arabia to (gag, retch) Twilight gets the “epic” label. Keep this up and before long, everything will be epic — which means that by that token nothing is epic, and the whole idea of epic has been ruined to boot.
With this in mind, I hope I don't get yelled at too much if I apply the “epic” label to Vampire Hunter D: Pale Fallen Angel. The book is 324 pages and it's not even the whole story — it's just the first half of what was published in Japan as four separate books, each one only slightly shorter than any of the previous VHD novels. To not use the word “epic” for something of that scope seems like a mistake. The only thing remotely close to PFA among VHD's previous episodes was the two-part Mysterious Journey to the North Sea, long rumored to be the source material for a VHD animated series. (Hey, we're getting an animated Guin; if we get a new animated VHD on top of that I might have to retire early.)
I should note that “epic” is not automatically a synonym for “quality”. With North Sea, the extra effort to show us that much more of the D-verse was worth it. With Angel, I feel like Kikuchi is getting a bit overdrawn at the fantasy bank. The book teeters between being epic and merely long — $14.95 worth of long — with enough adventure and calamity and mishap and comings and goings to grant it fail-safe redundancy. By the time I got to the three-quarter mark for the volume (which isn’t even the halfway mark for the whole story) I started doing that thing where you thumb through the rest of the book to see how much further you really do have to go. Turns out the excerpt in the back and the note from the author shaved off a good twenty-seven pages. Lucky me. Read more
The title should tell it. Happy 2009, to all of you who have 2009 on your calendars.
To everyone else: have a good day anyway.