Friday, 23 October 2015

The Simpsons: Season 2

The second season of The Simpsons moves it into more golden-era territory, though there’s still plenty of experimenting, plenty of odd choices in character design, writing and animation that wouldn’t fit in the show later on. Yet looking back, those elements seem refreshing, fun and inventive. The show has obviously already exploded in popularity as well, with some of the biggest celebrity guests you can get making an appearance – Danny DeVito, Ringo Starr and Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman used a pseudonym, like Michael Jackson in the next season, but for a show only just finding its feet, those are pretty huge names.

There are more episodes in this season, and things have been polished. The bus stop sequence in the opening has already been scrapped, and characters like Barney, Chief Wiggum, Smithers and Ralph have more firmly-established characters. Without any kind of fanfare, the show also introduces the likes of Groundskeeper Willie and Dr. Hibbert and has fun with the first of many ‘Treehouse of Horror’ episodes – James Earl Jones also lends his distinctive voice to the episode, and it’s interesting that as originally conceived, Kang and Kodos weren’t evil at all. One of the show’s funniest gags was the part with blowing dust off the cookbook.

Bart is made a little more likeable in this season, having to grapple with his own shortcomings, apologising when his selfishness genuinely upsets others and even toiling away for some pocket money – even though he very quickly regrets that. Meanwhile, Lisa’s vulnerabilities are also explored, as well as her often absurd stubbornness, and Marge – as well as stealing many scenes with her funny little vocal reactions – provides some of the show’s biggest moments of defiance when she decides to deal with things in her surprisingly dramatic way. Her appearance in Itchy & Scratchy as a squirrel is also something very special.

A whole lot of the season, though, revolves around the pattern of Homer getting the chance to hit it rich – whether as a successful dancing mascot, as the recipient of money for suing Mr. Burns or as the brother of a very rich man – and messing it up, or realising other things are more important. This pattern isn’t actually often very inventive, but sometimes it does lead to some real insight into the family dynamic and how ultimately, their bonds will prevail despite how often they screw up or act selfishly. It’s interesting that the idea of infidelity in the marriage, which informed a lot of the first season, is now mostly replaced by the fear of things simply falling apart without outside influence, through the characters’ innate flaws.

There’s actually a lot of sentimentality in this season, but it never really oversteps the line into schmaltz. When Grandpa loses Bea, when Lisa has to say goodbye to Mr. Bergstrom, the story of Marge’s unlikely decision to date Homer and especially when Homer thinks he doesn’t have long to live all tug at the heartstrings, of course balanced with the bathos that The Simpsons does so well, and overall it makes the viewer far more invested in these characters.

And, I suppose, keep them invested for many, many years yet. 

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Simpsons: Season 1 (1989)

I always meant to rewatch The Simpsons in order, and when the opportunity came up to watch with someone else, it seemed a good plan. I’ve watched the Tracey Ullman Show shorts before, but we wanted to simply watch the first full season, which kicks off with a Christmas special.

The early episodes of The Simpsons are often referred to with a mixture of reverence and affectionate mockery, but what is usually stressed is how different things were from how the show became, not just now but in its glory days. But what surprised me was how well-established a lot of characterisation and plot structures were. Yes, sometimes Smithers has the wrong skin tone or Barney’s hair is the same colour as his face, but there were bigger gaps I expected. For one, I often hear it said that at the beginning, Bart was the major focus of the series, but it shifted to Homer when everyone realised he was both more complex and more entertaining. But while that may be true of the marketing – which was very much Bart-focused in those early years – the same is not really true of the series. If anything, Homer and Marge are the real focal points.

Then there’s the characterisation. The idea that some Simpsons characters begin multi-faceted and were gradually boiled down to flat caricatures defined by a few exaggerated quirks is called ‘Flanderisation’, and while I haven’t really seen the worst seasons of The Simpsons, it feels like these early episodes are painted with very broad brushstrokes, so to speak. But then, there hasn’t really been that much time to flesh out secondary characters, with Mr. Burns being the most nuanced in this season. Some parts seem a bit off – I never quite felt like Lisa should find Bart’s prank phonecalls to Moe as funny as she does, and Marge leaving Maggie to wander after Bart and Homer in the woods doesn’t ring true to her character later at all, but what I was most surprised by were how well-established some traits were very early on.

I didn’t expect Sideshow Bob to be introduced so soon, let alone be so fully-realised way back in season 1. Apu has yet to be well fleshed-out but appears more than I expected him to, and Reverend Lovejoy and his wife are a bit two-dimensional at this early stage. But Barney and Moe despite odd appearances are pretty much as they will always be, as are Otto and Principal Skinner.

A recent Treehouse of Horror had fun harking back to these days – the episode was weak but it was fun to see the animators mocking the very fluid animation back then, especially the way Bart’s face would often twist (bringing back Marvin Monroe was also a clever touch). That fluidity was actually a lot of fun and rather missed. The eccentricities and unconventional risk-taking in the animation is fun and I would prefer to see more of that over the sleek and smooth animation of today.

It will be interesting to see the show develop, but the thing that I’m most surprised by is that the show had a strong and established identity even this early on, and little has really changed over the high points and low points of the show’s long history. 

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

小提琴 / Xiaotiqin / The Violin

For my first animation impressions in a few months – a break I took while I set up a new life in Japan, plus a temporary shift towards watching live-action properties – I thought something simple and artsy would be a nice idea. So this cute little animation project that made some ripples online seemed to fit the bill.

The Violin is the first animation on my blog from Singapore. Indeed, it’s the only animation from Singapore I know of, though I’m not unfamiliar with the country – it’s where my uncle lives and I’ve visited many times. A short animation from a small studio called Robot Playground Media, the film uses simple visuals reminiscent of European comic books to give a brisk overview of Singaporean history over the past 80 years. There is no dialogue – unsurprisingly, the soundtrack is dominated by the instrument of the title – but the past century has been a turbulent one for the little city-country, so there is ample opportunity to mix the schmaltz with big historical moments, and the one scene not in Singapore is of one of the atomic bombs falling on Japan.

Essentially, the concept is a lot like War Horse, only with a musical instrument rather than an animal and a story that stretches over decades rather than years. But it is similar in that the violin passes through the hands of a series of characters on the edge of important historical events. After being given to a boy on the quayside of 1930s Singapore, it is lost when the boy’s family flees the Japanese invasion, before being picked up by a representative of the allies after the war ends and given to a girl who becomes a famous violinist. As she hones her craft, Singapore struggles for independence, and later establishes a strong identity and becomes the city of skyscrapers and shopping malls it is today.

The animation is simply-executed in Flash, and while at times it is clumsy enough to be called lazy, at other times it is delicate and artful and certainly can be praised for the effort that has been put into a small-scale project.

This is a piece of animation very much tied up with its country of origin, and unashamed of it. It’s a Singaporean animation that celebrates the history of Singapore, and can show a wider audience something of Singaporean culture and national identity. It may not redefine storytelling or animation as an art form, but it doesn’t need to. It’s a small-scale animation that touches on major events, and well worth the time it takes to watch it.  

Sunday, 25 January 2015

とある魔術の禁書目録 / To Aru Majutsu no Indekkusu / A Certain Magical Index

The To Aru series has been enduringly popular, but I never felt much desire to pick them up. There was something old-fashioned about the designs – especially Touma, with his early-2000s spiky anime hair. But more and more things made me inclined to check it out. Probably the main one was a huge poster in Akihabara when I was there last year, with lots of much cuter characters than I expected to see. Another was the fact that I got into the mobile game Million Arthur, which had its scenario written by Kamachi Kazuma, the To Aru light novel creator.

I’m glad I gave the show a chance...but I have to say, overall I was disappointed.

One thing I can say clearly: Index is totally adorable. Probably the cutest female character in any anime I’ve picked up since The Idolm@ster. Her stubborn, childlike and impetuous personality is adorable and the fact that she’s a nun is hilarious. I could probably do without the show’s endless fanservice and how much she ends up whoops! naked again, but she manages to stay on the right side of annoying with her clinginess over Touma.

So, other than having a nun involved, what is the story here? Well, the series is set in a near-future world where both magic and advanced science live side-by-side. Magicians make use of magic, while Espers have impressive powers through either scientific experimentation or by impressive natural talent. 

In the university-oriented Academy City lives Touma, the boy with the old-fashioned spiky hair who also has a bit of a tedious power, the same that makes everyone think so highly of the central characters of Gakuen Alice and...well, Twilight

Touma can nullify all other powers, be they magical or scientific. His right hand, for whatever reason dubbed the Imagine Breaker, stops powers from working, reveals magical tricks and apparently also saps kinetic energy from anything magical that’s moving at speed – though I think that might just be for effect.

Into his life comes Index, a cute young girl and a nun who is essentially a tool for the Anglican church. With the power to memorize vast amounts of information – in a strange robotic mode – she has been implanted with over 100,000 mystical grimoires, which she carries in her mind. This makes her a valued commodity to the church as well as a target. Oh, and her clothes are magically enchanted, so if Touma’s Imagine Breaker touches them, they fall off. Oh my! Et al.

I like the concept, especially the elements related to the Church, even if that’s common in anime and manga – from Hellsing to D.Gray-Man. But To Aru does a whole lot wrong, which is partly why I got bored and took a very long time to finish watching. 

For one thing, it seems like the writer gets bored of Index, and for most of the second half of the show she’s stuck at home while Touma interacts with more interesting characters like Misaka, or ‘Railgun’, who has a long line of sacrificial clones designed to power up the extremely powerful Esper named Accelerator – until Touma intervenes. 

Rather than concentrating on even these two main girls, the plot bounces around – now Touma has to deal with a magic spell that swaps people’s appearances; now all the psychic energy in the city has coalesced into a big-boobed girl who Index has befriended; now we’re following Accelerator as he gains a human side through bonding with a cute loli version of Misaka. 

It’s too much, and other than some vague guff about Aleister Crowley floating upside-down in a giant tube orchestrating everything, there’s no sense of an overarching plot here. The result is that the tension is very low, and the usual tired setpieces of Touma having to pose as Misaka’s boyfriend or walking in on Index changing a million times gets old very fast.

There’s charm here and I probably will watch the rest. The first episodes remain very engaging and most of the storylines that involve the Church were enjoyable. Misaka’s story, especially with the moral question of her clones, has some brilliant moments, but I wish it could have been better-integrated into the existing plot or a completely separate anime. The problem here was that the series felt like it was a new spin-off with every new arc, rather than part of one coherent world, and that was why for all I found the eponymous character adorable and liked most of the other major players, I didn’t feel at all engaged by To Aru Majutsu no Index

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Big Hero 6

I’ve been waiting for Big Hero 6 since the early sneak previews of the art. Admittedly, there was little more to my eagerness than thinking the world looked great and that Hiro was an incredibly cute-looking character. This was also the first time a Marvel property went through the Disney filter, so I was curious to see how that turned out.

I was only familiar in passing with Big Hero 6...largely because someone online had asked why Hiro Hamada wasn’t included in Reed Richard’s Future Foundation – which I followed out of love for Alex Power. Not that he came out of his membership of that little team very well. Anyway, I read the comics, including the utterly terrible original run centred on the Silver Samurai and Sunspot, and while there were a few cringe-inducing elements to the depiction of Japanese people, I was glad the property at least existed. The subsequent mini-serials were rather better, but the main problem was that Hiro was simply not at all likeable.

Thus I was quite glad that Disney were clearly going in a completely different direction, essentially retaining only the names of major characters, plus Hiro being a child genius with a robotic manservant of sorts named Baymax. But Disney’s Baymax is a very, very different Baymax – and that is a blessing, and what makes this film.

The Disneyfied version is set in a hybrid world of Japano-American fantasy, with the city of ‘San Fransokyo’. It’s a little bit of a shame that they didn’t feel they could simply set the film in Tokyo, presumably because that would make it less commercially viable in their home territory. But there’s also a charm to the mixed aesthetic. In this technologically advanced city, young Hiro is a bit of a rebel. He has great skill with technology, but uses it to take part in illegal backstreet Robot Wars technological cock-fights. As these are shady affairs, he gets in trouble, and it’s up to his gentle, kind-hearted big brother Tadashi to save him. He gets some very abrupt character development when he sees his brother’s research lab – including the cute inflatable healthcare robot Baymax – and is inspired. He creates what are essentially the cliche of what nanobots can do in sci-fi, only on a macro scale, and impresses the scientific community.

However, at the event at which he is presenting these, there is a catastrophic explosion. His brother went into the burning building to try to rescue his mentor, and doesn’t make it out. After a period of mourning, Hiro’s one remaining mini robot tries to reunite with all the others – leading him to realize that the explosion was no accident. It’s up to Hiro, along with Baymax and Tadashi’s old workmates, to investigate.

There’s a lot in common with How to Train YourDragon here – including the young boy bonding with a large, powerful, rather goofy non-human companion. And the film admirably manages to hit similar emotional notes. Hiro experiences loss, determination, the dark desire for revenge, and also the exhilaration of flight. The plot moves with just the right amount of exposition, character development, action and resolution.

I do have some plot-related problems. The fact is that the last thing Hiro should have learned from his brother is that someone has to help the needy. In fact, Tadashi should have trusted his mentor could look after himself rather than recklessly putting himself in danger. Then there’s the fact that even though his actions likely make his daughter hate him, the big winner is actually the bad guy – who without his dastardly plan would have never been able to get his loved one back. So while he ended up looking sad in the back of a police car, in fact crime paid for this villain – far beyond his wildest hopes, as all he had sought was petty revenge.

I also have to confess I felt a bit manipulated by the film’s emotional moments. Hiro is already a tragic orphan, but ends up losing his brother too, and then a sacrifice must be made at the end, too – even if perhaps not a lasting one. While Hiro is utterly adorable and I did enjoy seeing him go through a wide range of emotions, at times the losses didn’t ring true and it felt like artificial plucking of heart-strings. His transition from rebel who looks down on ‘nerds’ to science buff also seemed a bit hollow. Did he have no friends at all from his robot-fighting days? No links that lasted into his later life at all? Really?

The tech was a bit much – Hiro’s invention in particular should have revolutionised all science at once. It also rankled just a little that Hiro doesn’t even think to mass-produce Baymaxes as, y’know, the healthcare robot Tadashi intended him to be.

Ultimately, though, I loved the film – just not unreservedly. It was utterly beautiful, especially the animation for water and sky and various types of energy. Hiro was an endlessly loveable little guy, and Baymax’s non-threatening personality was hilarious put into the various perilous situations we saw. The twists were obvious but compelling, and the jokes were genuinely funny. Disney is still in a very good place, and this is one of their better films since embracing CG, very much worthy of Wreck-It Ralph (and the little background references to old Disney films, like the Stitch cushions, were a nice touch). Definitely one I’ll enjoy watching again. 

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Avatar: Legend of Korra – Book 4: Balance

Going into the fourth and final season of Korra, I had high hopes. I felt that the seasons got progressively better, and I was left feeling excited about a new mini-generation after Jinora got her tattoos and Kai looked to be a something of a new hero figure. The first episodes felt like they were fulfilling that promise – after a short timeskip, there was an established Airbender Corps of sorts, helping rebuild the Earth Kingdom, a ‘great unifier’ named Kuvira who is uniting the people – but with an iron fist – and Korra herself is missing, still suffering from her fight with Zaheer. It’s a great set-up, and there’s a lot in this season that goes very well. Sadly, it all rather falls apart towards the end, and especially for the ultimate finale of the series, it’s a disappointment. And yes, I’d still rather have the Gurihiru continuations of the original series animated.

I liked Korra’s quest to find herself, especially as she found a certain cranky old-timer from the original series to be her Yoda. I loved the little shopkeeper who had a ‘Wall of Avatars’ as well! I enjoyed the way Mako and Bolin were split up and their loyalties to one another tested, and the general idea behind Kuvira’s philosophy – as well as her personality – was excellent. Of course she had to push things way too far in order to be an unambiguous antagonist, and her being badass enough to take down Korra in Avatar State – even having mental issues – was pretty damn awesome.

But the need for a big bombastic climax rather ruined this season. If Jinora, Kai and co looked to be developed this season, they had to be cast aside to give enough time to the main four characters. The moral dilemma of stopping a strong leader from uniting the Earth Kingdom gets dropped when Kuvira reveals that she not only wants to unite the established territories, but also to reclaim the land that Aang annexed to make his Republic City. This makes her a conqueror ignoring what had been established by diplomacy, and unambiguously in the wrong – which is something of a shame.

There’s already a huge problem with this as the final ending to Korra’s chronicles. After the events in the second series seemed genuinely apocalyptic, this season needed to at least have a threat to the world, or destroy the spirit realm, or someone stealing all the spiritual energy in the entire world, or a war between all spirits and all mankind...something huge and apocalyptic. I thought that’s where things were headed when the spirit vines began to become hostile. Instead...well, what we got was Kuvira deciding to retake Republic City for the Earth Kingdom. So the threat was already just one city, and some pride. And how is the ante upped? Well, with a weapon of mass destruction, naturally.
Mounted on a frickin’ giant mecha.

Sure, certain series can pull of giant robots. Evangelion, Bokurano, Gurren Lagann...but in the Avatar world? The giant drill was the biggest mistake the original series ever made! Sure, there’s been a progression of technology in this season, but really? A giant robot? Controlled by bending levers? It really doesn’t work. And taking it down is far harder than it could feasibly be, the thing staying upright when its feet are bound, Kuvira is blinded and Bolin uses his goddamn newly-acquired lava bending to trap a foot. Kuvira’s plan to sort of stomp into town and smash things up rather than, y’know, imposing trade sanctions and blockading the ports, goes badly and the whole thing ends with a whimper. To my great surprise, Korra never even learns to connect with her past lives properly, because she doesn’t need to.

It’s an ending that sadly lets down everything that went before it. There were certainly interesting places this story arc could have gone, and I don’t think it pulled any of it off with the final direction of the plot.

Then there’s the mild controversy of the implied lesbian relationship between Korra and Asami with the final scenes. I like the idea, but I think it was poorly done. It would make sense that Korra and Asami end up falling for each other and try being together. But the show would need to have built that up, developed it and made it less ambiguous. I mean, the creators had to clarify what they intended – and nobody saw it coming. The result is that it just seems like something tacked on for a fashionable statement on what can be included in a children’s show. It’s a welcome statement...but I’d much rather it were done right, and not at the last minute for its own sake.

In a way, it encapsulates why I was disappointed with this last season. The ideas were good, but the execution just didn’t work for me.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

ソードアート・オンラインII / Sword Art Online II

By the time SAO’s first season ended, I had gone off it in a big way. At the start, pretty-faced Kirito was an underdog I rooted for, sweet-natured and ostracised in an unoriginal but interesting world. By the end, he was the undisputed master swordsman of all the universe, replete with powers that were his alone and not just a beautiful and adorable – if rather dull – girlfriend, but a whole harem of girls to suit any taste. Including those who like the idea of their sister having a crush on them. He was no longer in any way an underdog, the way situations resolved themselves were very contrived, and the cloying way everyone worshipped his every action – including pseudo-government types taking him on as a kind of consultant – became annoying. Kirito became far too like a male Bella Swan, who everyone also loves for no reason.

For all that, though, I was willing to give the second season a chance. There was a lot of talk about the later arcs being much better from fans of the books, and it was after all a cover of Kirito with a mysterious cute boy that drew me into the series in the first place...though the boy, Eugeo, has yet to appear. Guess I’ll have to see in season 3.

Sword Art Online’s big problem is Kirito, and this season doesn’t quite deal with that problem – though the second arc here finds an interim solution. Kirito is just not very likeable, nor identifiable as wish fulfilment. His skills continue to be a cut above, and he seems just a little smug about that, and more crucially the stakes are very low now. He’s in online games, not fighting for his life. Plus he is pretty enough that when his character gets long hair, people think he’s a girl. Perhaps that’s meant to make him the butt of a joke, but its effect is to make him seem yet more perfect and beautiful. And it’s annoying!

The reason he has a new avatar is that he’s sent into a new game to track down a killer. A mysterious figure seems to have the ability to shoot a gun in the game and kill someone in real life. Of course, Kirito is the one to be sent to sort this out. Though this is an American shooting game, Kirito of course not only adapts to it immediately but decides to use a lightsaber and charge down all the campers and duellists. Because he’s super special.

Of course, he finds a new girl whose deep mental issues he manages to solve with a few platitudes, so he can add one more to his harem. Sinon is a sniper and using the game as therapy. By sheer coincidence she has a personal connection with the bad guy in the picture, and super Kirito figures everything out.

After a brief and not very interesting side-quest wherein Kirito and the gang finish a quest that might have destroyed their whole world and of course rewards Kirito with Excalibur, Best Sword in the Game, the final arc begins – and yes, it’s the best arc since the first one. That’s largely because Kirito is taken out of the picture – a little like how the best part of the Suzumiya Haruhi franchise is when she disappears. Instead, Asuna is placed centre-stage when an incredibly good swordswoman takes an interest in her and recruits her into defeating a boss with just a small but elite party. Not only does Asuna figure out why the party had been failing until that point (they are being spied upon) and lead them to final victory, she comes to understand the swordswoman well. Yuuki and her friends have come together because they are all terminal patients with extremely weak bodies, eager to make a lasting impression at least on a virtual world, which will record their names. Some parts of the story I find rather weak and exploitative, with overwrought sexual tension between the two girls screaming fanservice rather than something sweet, and the set-up being blatantly contrived to have an attempted tear-jerker ending. As a result, I found it rang a bit false.

But overall, it was beyond a doubt a breath of fresh air. Asuna may not be a very interesting character, but she was given some new dimensions here. The scenes in the real world were quite delicate and sweet, especially when Asuna fixed it so that she could take Yuuki’s virtual presence with her for an ordinary day at school, and I’d quite like to know more about the other group members...especially the cute boy whose name – a little gratingly for me – was Jun. Perhaps they’ll crop up in future episodes.

The fact is, I’m fairly sure there’ll be more Sword Art Online, and that I’ll watch it. But I can’t say it will be with much enthusiasm. The series outstayed its welcome, and thus far not enough has been done to make it better. It’s one of the success stories of recent years, but really it’s a show that’s still trading on its strong opening episodes and cute designs...

That said, it surprises me that Kirito remains a very popular character. There’s still a very loyal fanbase to this series! I guess there are people who don’t want to root for the underdog – but want their avatar in a story a bit overly perfect. Which I suppose would also explain No Game No Life.