Countercultural Anime

Always+Outnumbered+Never+Outgunned+PNG

I quite enjoyed this critical look at UK electronic act The Prodigy. Their 1992 album Experience was the first CD I owned, and when they came back in 2004 after a seven-year hiatus I played Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned until my ears bled.

My interest in the band has cooled since, but I like how the above-linked essay breaks down the visual component of The Prodigy’s attempts at subversion, particularly in the Always Outnumbered era. I find the “Girls” music video exemplary in that regard, as are the album covers from the same period.

So of course that segues perfectly into anime….

Yuasa-mindgame-sex

“I always want to describe sex as personal. I want to show the feelings of the characters. For this I use my imagination: what does this feel like? This way or this way? It’s just a hunch, sometimes, but instead of doing a regular love scene I want to make it as personal as possible.”

This interview cements it: in a post-Satoshi Kon world, you can’t do much better than to pin your anime hopes on Masaaki Yuasa. Look, no one should waste their time discussing the topic of what is art and whether anime can be art, and I’m not interested in broaching that here either. Instead I want to laud an animator approaching their subject this personally to create something interesting and memorable, without the stylistic predictability of people like Makoto Shinkai.

I’m not going to go as far as Bill Plympton and suggest Yuasa somehow transcends the label of anime. “Anime” is simply a word to refer to animation from Japan, and Yuasa’s work irrefutably originates from within Japan’s borders.

Maybe what Plympton was trying to get at is this: these days, making anime that neither caters to otaku nor children makes your anime more important. Maybe it is automatically countercultural. Yuasa’s work certainly fits that sort of bill. The maturity with which he tackles the subject of sex is proof enough. In fact his thoughts above only appear impressive to me because I’ve seen sex depicted in so many childish, embarrassing, unaesthetic and un-entertaining ways in anime, which I suppose is the inevitable outcome of a medium largely catering to adult virgins.

His work contrasts sharply from commercial norms. It’s adult animation set against an enormous body of well-packaged collectible wish-fulfillment commodities. Even if it doesn’t argue for itself in that way, even if it doesn’t embody that precept as visibly does the work of Satoshi Kon, who more doggedly struggled with the themes of societal inter-connectedness in the face of modernity and otaku-dom.

Maybe Masaaki’s charm is that he doesn’t agonize over it. If anything there’s a persistent theme of playfulness in his anime, both by way of its subject matter and his animation technique. He’s not sticking his middle finger up to anything, he isn’t calling us to question our preconceptions about the medium, he’s subverting our expectations simply by making creative cartoons totally not in line with the (rightly earned) everyday negative conception people have about anime and its fans.

And perhaps in his field that’s most daring of all: to just go and do your own thing.

Let’s get back into the swing of things by talking some shit.

Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad finished and I saw it finish, but last week I also saw Steve McQueen’s first two movies Hunger and Shame, so after sipping that brilliance I’m not at all feeling the whole “golden age of television” idea everyone bandies about. Even if this is a golden age, television is still a mostly developmentally stunted medium that at its very best isn’t aiming for much outside of the allure of the question “what’s the sociopath gonna do next?”

Oh yeah, and AMC has to drop the audio every time someone says fuck because audiences can’t handle that shit. They want an antiseptic story about a suburban drug dealer superhero that doesn’t dramatize or challenge reality in any convincing way. And they don’t want to hear filthy language.

Ray Donovan

That brings me to Ray Donovan, the latest hard-edged drama about a middle aged white guy with sociopathic tendencies going through the motions with his marriage, his family, his job. I haven’t found a single one of these that’s worked since The Sopranos. Ray Donovan has great performances, authentic characters with realistic relationships, yet it fails to feel like it’s going anywhere, the kind of drama that might as well stop pretending it has a million different plot points because in every episode Donovan will gruffly go through life and surmount obstacles with violence and sexy times, more or less unchanged as he grimly marches forward until the show’s cancellation.

People need to start writing these kind of shows with a focus on accomplishing interesting things in each individual episode, and less time on groupthink-addled story arcs. How the hell does a drama starring Jon Voight and Liev Shriber get monotonous? I’m blaming contemporary writers room culture.

But let’s not despair, 2013 saw the debut of two of the best crime films I’ve seen in recent memory, and I watch a fair amount of those.

Drug War

New World

Johnnie To’s Drug War and Park Hoon-jung’s New World compliment each other rather well, despite being entirely different movies from different countries: Johnnie To’s supremely matter-of-fact directing style and the subdued performances it encourages contrasts sharply with the charismatic melodramatics New World demands from its actors.

Drug War is so dry you might think you were tricked into watching some television procedural, if it wasn’t for that tripwire mine of intensity ready to explode at any moment, buried underneath it all. And when the music swoons in time with an actor’s contorted face of dismay in New World, there’s no question you’re watching a different kind of flick, one that’s propping up emotions, using empathy and charisma to sell you on the unfolding action.

Officer Down

I have yet to see a 2013 American crime film that succeeds on anything close to the same level as these two. The closest might be Officer Down, you know, the movie starring Stephen Dorff, and it doesn’t come close at all. Merely typing the words “Stephen Dorff” brings to mind feelings of misused potential and lost opportunity, feelings which apply equally well to Officer Down itself.

I’m going to talk about movies again.

Before-Sunrise-001

I’m looking forward to Before Midnight, Richard Linklater’s latest in a trilogy of films about a man and woman who forge a really contrived intimacy with one another solely on the basis of chance meet-ups that occur every nine years. The first film Before Sunrise is meandering and loose, the characters spilling their guts to each other about life and death and everything in between with the unpracticed tedium of a couple Freshman Seminar students.

The next film, Before Sunset, revisits the original concept with refinement, the characters just as oddly talky but more complicated, an added layer of adult “maturity” disguising the urgency that wills their encounters on. Their lived-in melancholy has aged like wine and the movie ends on an unforgettably ambiguous note.

And now Before Midnight has popped up nine years later still, debuting the same week as motherfucking Fast and Furious 6.

fast6

With Fast Five (2011) the series surrendered to the fact underground street racing isn’t interesting to people who intellectually outgrew their provisional driving license, instead developing into a steroid-infused action flick where people punch each other and things joyously explode without the willed stupidity (read that as charitably or negatively as you’d prefer) of filmmakers like Michael Bay and Neveldine/Taylor.

Fast Five isn’t a throwback to nineties-era action movies, but it has their pure, entertaining simplicity. And I’m sure Fast and Furious 6 isn’t a condemnation of modern bombastic excess, but it wasn’t shot in 3D nor was it post-converted to such, and that alone should indicate something.

nausicaa

For good or bad the advent of high definition Blu-ray technology has become the lens with which I come to an adult appraisal of movies from my past. They become less pieces of video entertainment and more a coordinated menagerie of crisp, clear images to actively process. I don’t use movies as background entertainment or flip through them on the teevee or watch them while I surf Facebook. I make my selections based upon a careful balance of mood and whimsy, bearing witness in a dark room with as much attention as I can afford.

I find myself reading comics and watching anime in much a similar manner. Of course the syntax is different, but this self-appointed duty of being a more thinking and feeling viewer has only increased the enjoyment I get out of these things. It’s steered me in my own eclectic directions. It’s saved me from opinions by way of social cliques.

ohmu

So, when I watch Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind with these eyes it seems equally exemplative of high quality eighties anime moviemaking and the European animation tradition. Most visually interesting are the Ohmu, these giant shelled bugs with carefully painted layers that shamble against each other like they were cutout pieces in René Laloux’ Fantastic Planet.

What really got to me this time around, however, is how damn effective this Nausicaa anime is. If you’re watching an animated movie with environmental themes made by someone who made a lot of those and you already saw it before so you know everything that’s going to happen, it shouldn’t resonate so deeply, but this one did.

Seven Points: Stupid cartoons, excellent drawings, and a comic book anime not endorsed by Marvel.

1.  This cartoon is stuck in my head.

Future Travel

The way its shapes are lined, presumably using some kind of “simplify path” tool in Adobe Flash, is reminiscent of what amateur Flash animation looked like in the late 90s, except back then line simplification was less intended as a style decision and more to reduce the amount of precious bandwidth your cartoons took to stream on a world wide web dominated by 56k modems.

Amateur Flash animation in that period was rarely so fast and effective, though. Even with a scarcity of bandwidth, animators never delivered jokes in such a snappy fashion, or stuffed so many movements into a scene at once. This type of rapid comedic animation, which can almost entirely be attributed to the rise of YouTube and jumpcut-style video editing, is a contemporary phenomenon.

You add in the creative yet familiar depiction of a futuristic, distraction-addled populace and you’ve got a concise cartoon representation of what I imagine using Facebook is like. A YouTube commenter sagely whispered “this isn’t the future. its the present.”

I can’t think of a better way to begin this hodgepodge-ass post.

2.  I wrote about the year 1984 in anime television over at The Golden Ani-Versary of Anime, you should go read it, I didn’t make any George Orwell jokes, I promise. Golden Ani-Versary is an ambitious blog organized by a Mr. Geoff Tebbets which seeks to cover every year of anime beginning with 1963.

3.  I’m not sure I’m supposed to be reading Michael Fiffe’s Copra.

Copra

On the one hand, I love nearly everything about it: Fiffe’s delicate framing of varying line qualities, the high-quality way in which the book is printed, its cream-colored pages. I even enjoy his unique style of hand-lettering which gets a lot of words into a small geographical area without becoming difficult to read.

On the other hand, I’m out of the loop when it comes to all of the superhero comics evocations he’s performing. I wonder at times how closely these characters hem to Marvel/DC analogues, and how much I’m supposed to assume they do. To what degree is Copra superhero dojinshi, to what degree is it its own thing? I don’t properly know, and I didn’t feel stumped like this when I was reading Zegas.

4.  Katsuya Terada has an artbook coming out in Japan next week, based on an exhibition of his work. For my money he’s probably the finest Japanese illustrator no one really talks about over here, so I was going to import the book while snidely inquiring if I was better off waiting for the “inevitable” English-language edition.

But then Dark Horse announced that they were releasing The Art of Katsuya Terada early next year. The title doesn’t seem to correspond directly to any of the Terada art books I’m aware of, so I don’t know if it’s going to be a straight up translation of his latest, or something else. Still very much surprised to hear about it.

Good ol’ Dark Horse, you release things like that and Monkey King and I’m left to just hope there are other people out there enjoying them.

5.  Speaking of which, Deva Zan.

Deva Zan

From what I can piece together from some buried press and YouTube video, Deva Zan appears to be an abandoned film/multimedia project by Yoshitaka Amano, a Japanese illustrator people DO know and appreciate over here, because of his unmistakable work on things like Final Fantasy and Vampire Hunter D.

But Deva Zan is Amano’s own thing. His own concepts, his own characters, his own story. And I think this book Dark Horse put out for it, though it contains artwork and narration on alternate pages, is less a finished product and more a collection of concept art, character designs, and other production with some wispy narration thrown in to hold it all together and give the illusion of being a final product.

Thing is, even a speedy sketch becomes a beautiful vortex of striking colors and whimsical pencil marks when rendered by Amano’s hand. In reading the story the words and pictures do not coalesce into anything particularly striking or original, though the pictures on their own easily succeed at forming a compelling vision of the fantastic, as you would expect.

(I strongly suspect) this is the “making of” book to a thing that was never made, luxuriously presented in a 9×12 hardcover format so you can closely inspect the more astounding pages of art, of which there are many. Dark Horse, it took real balls to release this the week after your big Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia art book/encyclopedia, and even though one of these items currently has 842 Amazon.com reviews and the other has 2 (guess which is which), I’m still happy to have the beautiful thing from the mind of Yoshitaka Amano.

6.  My post about Gundam: The Origin is less a critique of the manga and more a critique of the realities oriented around it, but it made the rounds on Tumblr and, wow, Gundam people on Tumblr are far more sane than the ones I ran into The Year I Surfed 4chan, a dark part of my life I refer to with capital letters because it was really that much of a strange, traumatizing phase of existence.

7.  And finally, a comic book anime of consequence.

That Marvel Anime Rise of the Technovore cartoon is coming out soon, and even though Marvel Anime has sucked like a vacuum cleaner, it has me thinking about an earlier, aborted attempt to produce a comic book anime by Madhouse Studios: Satanika.

NSFW warning because I know some of you are silly.

To a half-focused eye, Satanika might look like some kind of Darkstalkers OVA gone demonically sexual and insane. But knowing this is based on a comic from Verotik, Glenn Danzig’s vanity imprint from the nineties, I can only see it as not-so-original fanfiction for Devilman, and a precursor to Go Nagai’s genderswapping sequel to his magnum opus Devilman Lady.

This preview trailer will probably make your eyes roll, and maybe it should, but man, it’s at least daring/visually stunning on some level. I didn’t forget about it five minutes after I saw it at least.

A Thanksgiving post written while inebriated.

I’m sitting at my computer at 10:30 trying to get my daily post both started and completed before midnight but I’ve imbibed a fair amount of alcohol and it’s starting to show. So here we go dear readers, this post is going to be totally jazz, and I can only hope for the sake of your time and for the sake of my peace of mind tomorrow morning that this improvisation results in something not shit.

(TIP: You’ll be able to tell whether or not I was embarrassed by this post by whether or not I post a link to it on Twitter. If I was sober I never would have admitted that to you. Sober Milo: don’t delete this.)

PRETTY HARDCOVER MANGA: A few minutes ago Fantagraphics posted their YouTube preview video for Moto Hagio’s The Heart of Thomas, due to come out December… or January. I’m not really a fan of shoujo manga (I liked Banana Fish, maybe that counts for something, I dunno), but if you are, Hagio’s kind of a big deal. Here’s an excellent old writeup/interview conducted by Matt Thorn, who’s translated her stuff, including this new release. I’ve typically found that even if I don’t appreciate a genre, I can still appreciate the insight and perspective of the creatives within in.

SIMPLE PLEASURES: I like pumpkin pie a lot. Especially when it’s not too sweet, with a fair amount of spice to it. And the thinner the crust the better. Basically pumpkin pie is an excuse to inhale an unacceptable amount of custard. It may be the best Thanksgiving staple that isn’t turkey.

I KINDA HATE BUYING SHIT BUT I DO IT ANYWAY: I don’t even know what to do with the stuff I have now. I totally saw this coming, I’ve seen it happen to other people and thought less of them for it, and now it’s happening to me. So for now I’m resisting Black Friday/Cyber Monday deals, unless it’s for something I’ve already tagged as a future purchase (I do this through Amazon Wishlists. They’re like a Netflix queue, except for buying things. You can even add links to items from other stores. I just make sure mine are set to private because how lame is it to get a gift that you specifically asked for?)

I’ve been trying to find a way to set up the media I currently own so that it feels less like a collection and more like a carefully-curated library. I have an aversion to collecting, as a hobby it’s intrinsically destination-oriented. I don’t like destination-oriented hobbies. They rile every existential bone in my body, reminding me of the final destination. They reek of death. When I buy a movie or a comic or some other media it’s not done out of boredom or to fill up time or to become an expert; I’m paying for an experience. A good 90% of the media I acquire gets “experienced” under carefully planned conditions, within the week it arrives here, even if I don’t rush to opine about it on the blog or anywhere else. I can’t think of any other way to conduct myself that doesn’t feel like rank, ugly consumerism.

I’M THANKFUL FOR THIS BLOG AND FOR THE PEOPLE WHO READ IT: Seriously, thanks. I originally built this thing, whatever it is, with specific goals in mind, perhaps embarrassing goals. What keeps me doing it now, almost three years later, is a desire to continue improving as a writer. The idea that anyone would ever read this blog and get something positive out of doing so is GRAVY.

I can tell you now I’ll probably never try doing daily review-type posts (after this month ends) ever again, I mean unless I get some kind of windfall of cash and don’t need to work a fulltime job. Still, I’m not going anywhere. I think the secret to having a blog that is neither sparsely updated or utterly abandoned is arranging things so you get a sense of satisfaction out what you do regardless if a single soul ever reads it. So no worries, even if I’ve scaled back my social networking, Blog of the North Star is totally self-sustaining. Thanks for your readership and support.