Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Snowpocalypse 2015


Bones: For the love of God Jim, beam us up already!
Kirk: Bones, do something about all this snow!

Bones: Damn it Jim! I'm a Doctor not a Meteorologist.
Scotty: I canna' take the snow any longer Captain. My gyro stabilizing crystals are freezing.

It has been cold, windy and snowing and still is. My daughter and I squeezed in Fargo (1996). You betchya yah! I had forgotten Frances McDormand (Academy Award Best Actress - she so deserved it) doesn't show up as Marge until at least thirty minutes into that Cohen classic. Anyway, a good, cold snowy classic for this Winter day.

I had to break from shoveling and that film was my treat in between. Still have power at this time. Thank you God. And speaking of Scotty, Maisie is still loving it all.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Appeal Of Anime

"Japanese science fiction texts have frequently been double coded, evoking Japanese national concerns and popular myths while resonating strongly with foreign audiences."
-Christopher Bolton, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Takayuki Tatsumi, Introduction, Robot Ghosts And Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction From Origins To Anime (2007)-

It is precisely this foreign aspect to science fiction Anime with which we find so appealing in contrast to our normally American-centric perspectives and diet. The foreign viewpoint is often refreshing, strange and different. It is this prevailing foreignness that is so appetizing to the Anime fan.

In the book Robot Ghosts And Wired Dreams one of the writers alludes to the Pacific Ocean as a body of water that both "connects and separates." This "ambiguous space" as it is referenced is indeed an image that spoke to me regarding this love affair that fans like myself have with Anime. It is that distance that allows us to embrace the foreign art form and yet separates us from fully understanding it thanks to such a wide cultural divide and that great body of water that physically imposes itself on both our understanding and appreciation of the art. That expanse is what makes the Anime world so special to me and to many others.

Referenced another way in author Brian Ruh's The Stray Dog Of Anime: The Films Of Mamoru Oshii, commentator Toshiya Ueno noted of a book by Antonia Levi called Samurai From Outer Space that "anime is more interesting for 'western' people than for the Japanese because of its cultural specificity" (p.134). Again, we indeed connect with Japan's unique cultural celebration and focus and all of its associative wonders.

This love of otherness as I call it was interestingly touched upon another way by author Dani Cavallaro in The Art Of Studio Gainax (2009, p.17). She cautions casual fans who enjoy the assimilation of all things anime to proceed accordingly. "The danger, while this process unfolds, is that Western fans might indulge in a spurious "Othering" of Japan grounded in slapdash misreadings of its traditions and mores." Unquestionably there are countless fans who will indeed take anime strictly on its face in terms of sheer enjoyment. Still, there is an intellectual component to the medium and many fans, like myself, look to dig deeper into its richer meaning and intent beyond sheer entertainment.

Not enough? Even the Japanese government is aware of the appetite for anime in the West. Author Brian Ruh notes the White Paper (2000), written by the Japanese government, called Japanese Government Policies In Education, Science, Sports And Culture. It denotes Japanese animation as a "fine and unique form of expression due to the techniques of Japanese artists, and there are high expectations for it in the future." As Ruh notes, the Japanese government itself sees the art form as "a cultural export of note" (p.135). Even Japan recognizes the economic strength of something as unique as Japanese anime and its appeal to Western consumers.

Clearly the advent of the Internet and the proliferation of various media options has allowed for that space to shrink to a degree and allow formerly isolated places to enjoy and experience these other cultural outlets. Nevertheless, the Pacific Ocean is a symbol of that great expanse and that divide that represents an inability to completely and utterly understand the pop culture and otherness of another country. We welcome it.

Neon Genesis Evangelion: one of the great examples of double-coded otherness. Unit-00, Unit-01 and Unit-02 were clearly in a hurry for me to inform you.

Ghost In The Shell Film: A Major Matoko Kusanagi Controversy

On an Anime-related note, it's disconcerting to hear some circles discard the announcement of a live action Ghost In The Shell (2017), slated to star Scarlett Johansson in the lead, by dubbing it the latest recipient of the infamous "whitewashing" - nothing insulting intended about that reference.

Some groups have been quite vocal about the subject. Must every subject be centered on race? At times it can feel inescapable. Speaking specifically to the point of filmmaking, race is sometimes an issue on a selective case by case basis. The latest film to be made in question is Ghost In The Shell. When was it clear that lead protagonist of that film, Major Motoko Kusanagi (and the name alone should not be the only indicator) of Section 9, was Asian? The visual information makes it unclear.

Some wonder if we will ever be colorblind as a people? Recent events and issues are evidence we are a long way from that.

Marissa Lee, co-founder of Racebending, was quoted by The Los Angeles Times, saying "We’re seeing Hollywood continue the trend of whitewashing roles from source material that features Asian and Asian American leads while failing to provide roles for Asian American actors." (Otaku USA)

As a fan of Anime I personally embrace the work of Japanese directors who create live action versions of Patlabor or Space Battleship Yamato or Gatchaman (though I've yet to see that one). Those efforts in Japan seek to fully employ Japanese or Asian actors to play the respective character roles that in many cases actually looked Caucasian in the first place as drawn by animators. You can think Gatchaman (a.k.a. Battle Of The Planets) or Starblazers. These characters hardly looked the part. Are stylized efforts made to reach a larger audience by animators? The style of Anime is certainly a trademark Japanese export.  When the Japanese make their films it's also their own personal creative vision of a Japanese property. But if a Japanese property is licensed outside of Japan and set to star a non-Japanese actor why is that problematic for certain groups? After all, these Japanese-centric live action productions are hardly reaching the masses. And when Japanese companies license their properties there is an acceptance and desire to reach another audience. So what if a property is set to reach a larger audience with a bigger star? It doesn't always work, but it won't necessarily be the problem if it fails. You can look at Godzilla (1998) and Godzilla (2014) for two unique Toho-licensed property examples. Those films were filled with Caucasians and not just Americans. Mind you, it doesn't make them great films.

M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender (2010) (a film I have not seen) received similar criticism and in that case received very little support upon release. Racebending went after that film and even called for boycotts. Can we expect that again with a Hollywood take on Ghost In The Shell? Racial diversity in film certainly exists but some films, if they don't meet a certain criteria or racial barometer, which also seems to differ in definition person to person, then apparently becomes fair game to criticism. Cries of racism begin to circulate declaring foul play or creating a contentious air surrounding a developing film and so it goes. Shyamalan, certainly not my favorite director, offered a fine reflection when attempting to defuse and quell the controversy regarding Anime. "Anime is based on ambiguous facial features. It's meant to be interpretive. It's meant to be inclusive of all races, and you can see yourself in all these characters" (Washington Post). Good for him too. I often have the same perception of the Anime I view. I, we, always honor the Japanese artists and writers behind these amazing works, giving them great respect, but it's not a foregone conclusion that the characters of the Anime we love our definitively Japanese in every story. It's just not true.

Looking specifically at Ghost In The Shell we can blame artist/ creator of the franchise, Masamune Shirow, for creating this mess with his original Manga. Shirow, by the way, noted his original work can even "transcend national boundaries (Stray Dog Of Anime: The Films Of Mamoru Oshii, Brian Ruh, p.133). So why not national identity? Author Brian Ruh noted himself the material's "international nature" (p.133). To further emphasize those blurred lines, Ghost In The Shell, the film, was the first Japan anime to be partially financed by a company from outside Japan. American-based Manga Entertainment was guilty as charged supporting the enterprise.

Looking to the lead, one can certainly look to the original Ghost In The Shell by Mamoru Oshii and see Kusanagi as a character with an almost androgynous appearance at times. Never mind that she was also mostly a cybernetic body. Later, Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, the series, established a much more feminine, sexy heroine with more Westernized attributes with those big gorgeous Anime eyes. Ghost In The Shell: Rise offers yet another interpretation. So like Star Wars or the writing of Phillip K. Dick, the work of Ghost In The Shell is out there, dynamic and others will interpret it. How ironic that Ghost In The Shell is about gender and more importantly identity.

The negatively-charged term "whitewashing" certainly draws a reaction. But is race a real issue? In film, is it that much of a problem today? Countries have put their own unique spins on the properties of other countries for years in science fiction (Edge Of Tomorrow is based on Japan's All You Need Is Kill (2004) by Hiroshi Sakurazaka), horror (Ringu) and comedy (The Office). There's also several variations on a theme often recorded (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) by different countries. The list goes on. Why does the race topic persist? Was Racebending there for All You Need Is Kill to complain that Keiji Kiriya was altered to William Cage. How about the fact Rita Vrataski was now a British Emily Blunt? Bloody hell more whitewashing. Heck, maybe I'm making a point for Racebending. These seem like trifles in the big picture. There are just too many damn instances to complain about casting one way or another. If the Japanese decide to remake All You Need Is Kill perhaps we will see the creators grab Rinko Kikuchi from the racially diverse Pacific Rim (2013). Fine. And by the way thank you Toho for employing Nick Adams (Frankenstein Conquers The World, Invasion Of Astro-Monster) in the 1960s. That character could have been Asian.

Michael B. Jordan was cast to play Johnny Storm (The Human Torch) in the new Fantastic Four (2015) film. Johnny Storm was always a white boy growing up for me with a Caucasian sister named Susan Storm (The Invisible Girl). Is this blackwashing? Its not how I remember it, but so be it. And by the way you don't have to buy the tickets. But was Racebending there for that one? And if we are to be color blind for that one than why not all of them? Again, the list goes on. The original Nick Fury was Caucasian. Racebending? Battlestar Galactica's Starbuck was originally a male in the classic Battlestar Galactica series but altered to a female in the new one. Genderbending? Boomer was a black man. Damn! Gender-race bending bender bender? By the way, I love both interpretations. What about CGI? Is there such a thing as CGIwashing? Aki Ross was Caucasian in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), but does she get a pass because Ming-Na handled the voice work? Seriously. What about the other voice actors? Is this not a slippery slope? It's unlikely you'll see a white Black Panther and nor would I want one. I prefer source material be adhered to myself. I even wish the X-Men movies stayed truer to the source material as stories go, but what can you do? Why do people get worked up over certain casting decisions in general? Why does one group have the right to demand one race over another? It's silly. Shouldn't we invoke these concerns when they matter? Just deliver a solid film please.

It's all certainly fair game to discuss, but I have difficulty presuming Ghost In The Shell should be a strictly Asian actress given the ambiguity of the visual source material.

Sadly, this small, meaningless little controversy surrounding Ghost In The Shell slated for 2017 release and slated to be directed by the man behind Snow White And The Huntsman (2012) got under my skin (no pun intended to be referenced) simply because, in the big scope of things, it is certainly symptomatic of an overarching divisiveness that seems to have taken root politically and culturally. The reasons for it are vast, but it's truly disheartening to see the divide take root. The conversation should be a healthy one, without double standards.

This subject is getting old like me, but the race issues that are constantly beaten on headline news, by Hollywood and by people who seem to have a deeper agenda is getting tiresome. Film is just another arena. Good grief already. If it's genuine conversation people want to create and Ghost In The Shell is the latest lightning oh well. I'm not sure what good comes of it. Keeping on point, I'm actually rather pleased to see Ghost In The Shell being given a reasonable budget like Gareth Edwards' Godzilla. Were there a lot of Asians in that one?

As far as films made overseas, has anyone seen the live action version of Blood: The Last Vampire (2009)? Patlabor: The Next Generation (2014)? Let's be honest, the effects could be better, but I'm willing to overlook them. Look, I'm not even sure Scarlet Johanssen is a good choice for the role (never mind the director), and an Asian actress would be fine by me, but I'll be pleased to see this thing come to fruition and look forward to seeing the artistic vision of this entirely collaborative effort from all walks coalesce. You could do far worse than Scarlett. She could look very nice in purple-pink! Black Widow is enough proof for me. Scarlett has even spent a bit of time in Japan so I'm kind of optimistic things won't get lost in translation. The negativity by the likes of Racebending, while political, is illogical, inconsistent and not exactly healthy.


If race is always in question how are we suppose to move passed it? In 2015, it's just downright disheartening. Look this is just another consideration on the matter but the race issue is a really troubling cultural issue that never seems assuaged. Some wonder if racism will ever be a thing of the past, but how can that be when race is tied to something as trivial as casting a part for a film. Certainly there are more significant concerns in the world affecting us all and hitting us close to home. It seemed an alternate viewpoint was in order. As Paul Simon once sang, "silence like a cancer grows."

Gosh, if Akira is ever adapted and cast it could very well be an apocalypse.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Ergo Proxy: Ep5: Tasogare & Ep6: Domecoming

It's unfortunate I've made a slow go of it regarding coverage of Ergo Proxy. It deserves better. But who am I kidding? I'm a slow go at just about everything here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic lately. Though I feel those creative energies stir.

Ergo Proxy is indeed an intriguing series by director Shukou Murase. Murase is the genius behind the equally impressive Witch Hunter Robin and character designs on Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within). Writer Dai Sato of Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Eden Of The East, Freedom Project and Cowboy Bebop fame and producer Manglobe round out the team.

Anime is a fascinating medium for me. I find the animation completely alluring and entrancing. Does it fail to deliver sometimes? Yes. But when Anime and its creators get an idea and story right and deliver the character and mechanical designs through the best of the best illustrators Anime can and does truly dazzle. It does for me. Ergo Proxy continues to do just that as evidence in Ergo Proxy, Episode 5, Tasogare (Recall) and Episode 6, Domecoming (Return Home).

Cowboy Bebop was beautifully animated, but I found the journey of its characters to be a little less appealing. In fact, its recent arrival on Blu-Ray has yet to prompt a purchase for me. I can tell you I have come very close to hitting the ADD TO MY CART button. Nevertheless some articulate visitors here have suggested I give that series another shot and maybe this space cowboy will do just that sometime soon.

In the meantime Ergo Proxy has been more my cup of tea despite its imperfections. And it saddens me that it has probably never achieved the kind of notoriety or publicity that many of the classically memorable Anime have.

Much of that can be attributed to the creative freedom allotted to Murase and Sato. Murase laughed expressing in Newtype USA, "There was almost too much freedom." He continued, "A show slated to be on a commercial network carries restrictions according to the time shot. Sponsors often have requests intended to help propel the work to hit status; and merchandising entails another set of requirements altogether. By comparison, all Ergo Proxy had to deal with was a DVD release and a TV broadcast over a pay satellite channel." And believe me that creative expression shows. In fact, collectibles are nowhere to be found. Believe me I know. I've checked. I've tried. And perhaps that laissez-faire approach worked to the creators advantage to create something truly original within the medium.

Thus its lack of commercial appeal will likely doom the series from ever receiving a Blu-Ray transfer and that's unfortunate. It deserves to endure with a new audience. Last Exile (2003) and OVA Yukikaze (2002-2005) are two more titles, by Gonzo, that I would love to see arrive stateside on Blu-RayYukikaze did in fact receive a Blu-Ray transfer in Japan and it was a production that really impressed me. Each installment of that series took ages to make it to release, but that's a story for my Yukikaze review. Last Exile was another ambitious effort in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the company. As a result the Range Murata-infused production received some attention and even a sequel later dubbed Last Exile: The Silver Wing (2011-2012). Again, analysis for another day.

So, yes, I do have a seemingly enduring fascination and love affair with Anime and yet so many adults never give it a second thought. They don't know what they are missing. There are some titles out there that rank among the best television series experiences one could enjoy. You know what they are or at the very least you have your own suggestions if you are visiting here. When Anime gets it right it can be a breathtaking art form. When it's not, it can be an imperfect and strange thing. Robert from Robert's Anime Corner had the best take in one of his expertly written weekly newsletters. "I've heard my fair share of grumbling over the years about uninspired plots and unfinished endings, and I just want to remind everyone that we are Anime fans, and as such, the imperfect is our paradise...." And that's as succinctly put and well said as it gets.

Ergo Proxy, for me, moves the needle closer to the more positive spectrum of quality Anime. These things are wholly subjective of course. Ergo Proxy is complex and dense as Anime goes and can even get a bit confusing or seemingly impenetrable for some tastes, but the series is all the more rewarding for it.

Re-l Mayer ventures out of Romdo to reacquire Vincent Law in Tasogare. Re-l is something of a cool assassin and demonstrates a cold disregard for the residents of a commune outside of Romdo. They will be sterilized - the victims of Romdo. Her mission is to essentially rescue Vincent from certain death. Vincent is concerned for the other outliers and would prefer to return with all of them to Romdo. Re-l matter-of-factly informs Vincent he will "forget about this whole experience - the people, the commune, everything." Re-l is hardly a sympathetic lead to this point, but she is an intriguing protagonist. Tasogare offers yet another dark and disturbing look at the world of Ergo Proxy and how the characters have been shaped by its harshly segregated realities.

Re-l is adorned in a suit that would make the designers behind the space suits of Star Trek: The Original Series, The Naked Time proud. The suit operates via an electrical system and when the commune is attacked upon their exit by drones the suit is shorted out. Re-l makes the decision to extricate herself from the suit despite the propaganda of Romdo that she will not survive if exposed to the atmosphere external to Romdo. The command decision is made.

Additionally a Proxy is spotted in the melee for a brief moment and more questions than answers continue to populate the strange but beautifully crafted world of Ergo Proxy. To look at the proof in the pudding of Tasogare we turn things over to our key protagonist Re-l. She asks the questions pertaining to immigrant Vincent Law we do. "What's going on?" "Why was there a Proxy here?" "Why does the Proxy only appear when you're somewhere nearby?" "Who the hell are you?" And in the dark we remain yet we stumble curiously through. And like any good series intriguing questions tend to draw us in. Eventually those answers must come. They must also satisfy the mind or Ergo Proxy will fail as the ABC TV Series Lost did for some. That series thrilled and dazzled with questions and mysteries too.

Episode 6, Domecoming delivers more of the darkly twisty world of Ergo Proxy while continuing to keep us mostly in the dark and off balance regarding many of the players. Subtitled Return Home, Domecoming sees Re-l return to Romdo and the folks of the commune perform a bit of a deception in delivering Re-l back there which I fairly well-executed.

As for Vincent Law, he continues to lend mystery to this world and his significance continues to leave us with some degree of suspense.

The folks of the commune also reinvigorate an old space glider of sorts dubbed The Rabbit previously submerged in the waters outside the dome. But where is Vincent going and why is he such a high value target? What is it they hope to achieve and why don't the deadly drones/patrol craft of Romdo pursue them into the unknown across the bay? And what lies across the bay exactly? Hell if I know, but Ergo Proxy continues to keep my attention even if its goth, film noir crime thriller seems to pursue a swell of questions more than answers. I certainly hope Ergo Proxy delivers in the end, but again turning back to the wise words of Robert from Anime Corner Store there is indeed a bit of imperfect paradise to it all as we continue to enjoy the journey here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic. Part of appreciating Anime is kind of just rolling with it and embracing the weird world of otherness that is crafted. Ergo Proxy, with its graphic novel-like quality, may yet be the kind of story with its sheer artistry where one benefits from a second viewing.

Tasogare (Recall): B.
Domecoming (Return Home): B-.

They love the eyeballs over at Ergo Proxy.

Quinn appeared to be an interesting character but is quickly killed off here in Ep6.