Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Simpsons season 4

By the fourth season, The Simpsons had really hit its stride. It was regularly honoured in awards shows, so much so that when the showrunners entered episodes for the Emmys in categories that until that year were only open to live-action shows, yet got no nominations for them, it was considered a snub.

Guest stars were by this point a fixture, for better or worse. Elizabeth Taylor came in to deliver Maggie’s first real word, Leonard Nimoy’s appearance cemented his general comedic persona from then on, and the final episode is a parade of famous faced and Groening-ised voices. There are some great, classic episodes, most of them keeping things simple and not being too ambitious – Mr. Plow, Marge Get a Job, A Streetcar named Marge.

On the other hand, there are some signs of laziness creeping in. There was a clip show, though not the most egregious of its kind, and the plotlines were sometimes not so well-constructed, as when Krusty’s rival ventriloquist in Krusty Gets Cancelled never has his story properly concluded – he’s last seen annoyed by the bigger line Krusty’s show gets.

There are some moments that push a little too far into the surreal, many of them in Marge vs the Monorail, and Homer occasionally goes a bit far into the persona that later ruins many a later season, where he’s less loveable oaf and more outright psychopath – including when he decides to start caring for a little neglected kid called Pepi just to spite Bart.

Marge is probably the star of this season, with her well-meaning ideas on home parenting, frustration with her marriage needing an outlet and even her reaction to being caught accidentally shoplifting being highlights.

The cast is largely established by this point, though the season introduces the one-note Sea Captain and classic authority figure stooge Superintendent (Super Nintendo) Chalmers. Oh, and Jub Jub in yet another episode that surprised me with how much development Patty and Selma get with their relatively limited screen time. I always considered them the butt of ugly women jokes, but in fact there’s a lot of depth to them, and sadness to their stories.

I don’t consider the fourth season as strong as the third or fifth, but it was still a show in very good standing. 

Friday, 29 January 2016

干物妹!うまるちゃん / Himouto! Umaru-chan

There’s a simple way of appealing to late-night anime fans – get a pretty girl to act in ways that are just like a male otaku. “Look – she’s so cute! And she’s doing all the things I do!” Well, it worked for Lucky Star.

Umaru-chan neatly filled my ‘brainless fun with a bit too much fanservice’ void. There’s very little substance here, but there’s not really mean to be.

A young salaryman called Taihei lives in his small Tokyo apartment with his schoolgirl sister. Outwardly, she is the perfect student – model-pretty, academically top of the class, and highly skilled at any sport she turns her hand to. At home, however, she is a terrible slob who loves anime, games and surfing the net – while eating sugary snacks and chugging cola. She seems callous to her brother sometimes, but is actually devoted to him, and of course has a variety of pretty friends with extreme character quirks that always involve blushing, who all also become very interested in Taihei.

The usual boxes get ticked – beach trips, Valentine’s chocolate dilemmas, sweet Christmas eve fuzziness. Umaru-chan also takes part in video game tournaments, goes to nostalgic old stores and pontificates on the best way to snack.

It’s brainless, formulaic and lazy, but that’s not to say it isn’t fun and likeable. I just miss the times when anime comedies could make me actually laugh out loud multiple times an episode, like Azumanga Daioh. I suppose Nichijou was the closest thing recently…

The key is not to follow the formula too closely, or like Umaru-san, you get a show that’s pleasant and enjoyable but leaves very little lasting impression.  

Friday, 1 January 2016

The Simpsons: Season 3

By season 3, The Simpsons had gotten over the wobbles of establishing a new show with a broad cast – which, it should be noted, were remarkably minor wobbles – and settled into the best period of its production history, which it will sustain for long enough to become the critically-lauded definer of a generation’s pop culture that it still is. No matter how far it has fallen.

Season three doesn’t need to establish characters or setting any more, but the ideas it puts forward are still fresh and interesting. It is also still possible for the celebrity cameos to be a surprise. Season opener ‘Stark Raving Dad’, with an inspired bit of meta humour in its casting of Michael Jackson as an asylum internee who only believes he is Michael Jackson, perfectly encapsulates this.

There are plenty more celebrity cameos, including a long list of baseball stars all at once, as well as great little appearances by Aerosmith and Spinal Tap, but it is of course the deepening of the characters’ personalities and relationships that make this season work well. Flanders already begins to really get fleshed out with his venture into left-handed entrepreneurship – also giving Homer some much-needed humanity in the days before he’s simply put forward as some kind of psychopath. Moe has his defining episode in the highlight episode ‘Flaming Moe’s’. Krusty and Sideshow Bob both get episodes that build upon what we’ve already seen of their personalities beyond the surface, and flashback episodes of Homer and Marge show that no matter how dysfunctional they can be and how nightmarish they were at that work party way back at the beginning of season 1, they have a lot in their lives that is in fact enviable and adorable.

There are some episodes that stretch the characters. Bart sometimes goes too far in torturing others, to the extent that he becomes hard to forgive, like when he toys with Mrs. Krabappel. Homer being tempted into another affair in Colonel Homer both seems over-familiar from earlier episodes and shows him being a little too oblivious and insensitive, even if he ends up making the right decisions. 

But this season more than any other makes the Simpson family seem relatable and likeable even to watchers who in all honesty are very little like these people. And that, I guess, is the most impressive thing that The Simpsons manages to pull off. 

Monday, 28 December 2015

進撃!巨人中学校 / Shingeki! Kyojin Chuugakkou / Attack On Titan: Junior High

Enjoying Shingeki no Kyojin doesn’t mean you have to adore its various spin-offs. I watched the live-action movies recently, and can’t say I enjoyed them very much despite impressive visuals. The manga version of this gag spin-off also hasn’t been received too well, though I haven’t actually read it myself. But fully accepting it’s just a silly bit of comedy fanservice, I thoroughly enjoyed Chiugakkou.

I tuned in for the first episode and the new premise amused me quite a bit – exaggerated, silly versions of our main characters are attending a school split between humans and titans. Eren’s grudge comes not from personal loss but because his lunch was stolen and eaten. In fact, that’s what the nefarious titans do here – invade the school grounds of the poor defenceless humans and steal their bento. It’s silly and fun and I really like the characters rendered in such cutesy styles, especially Eren and Armin.

Character traits are amplified in the ways fandoms enjoy. Levi is an authoritarian upperclassman obsessed with cleaning and rules. Mikasa’s skills are superhuman and her devotion to an oblivious Eren boundless. Armin for some reason is extremely susceptible to the cold and needs to go everywhere wrapped in his futon.

The 12-episode season treads the usual ground for school comedies. The kids take part in sports days and go to a matsuri, where romance is in the air. There are mix-ups with love letters and fierce competition to be student president. It’s silly, innocuous stuff and much of the humour comes from seeing these characters who are usually in such a serious and grim setting transposed to one that’s so light and fluffy. I’d say it works better than it ever did for Full Metal Panic!

I’m not saying this is a superb anime or one to recommend highly. It’s cheaply-done, unoriginal and the laughs aren’t on a par with the likes of Azumanga Daioh or Nichijou. It’s very much a by-the-numbers comedy spin-off that plays it safe and follows a formula. But that’s all I wanted from it, and it certainly succeeded. 

Saturday, 19 December 2015


I must say, though I liked Despicable Me a lot, I’ve been very surprised by the enduring popularity of the minions. They were slightly irritating in the films, though occasionally funny or cute or both. But through popular adulation or the power of forced marketing, they’re ubiquitous, especially in East Asia. In both Japan and Taiwan, there’s a profusion of soft toys of the things, even though I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything else relating to Despicable Me.

So perhaps it made sense to give the minions their own vehicle, which box office numbers show certainly did draw more of an international audience than a new Despicable Me film would have. On the other hand, it’s extremely hard to shift focus fully onto comic relief without making a film with a strong smell of direct-to-video sequel. Minions does not manage to avoid this, at all.

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean this isn’t an enjoyable and silly film, and it being set in London with a lot of familiar locations gave it bonus points for me.

After a prologue showing minions attempting to serve evil figures throughout history, we find out that in the 60s, they were left bereft of a master or mistress. Thus, intrepid minions Kevin, Stuart and Bob set off to find the most despicable being on earth to serve.

At a convention, they discover and win the affections of the wonderfully-named Scarlet Overkill, an American femme fatale with designs on the Crown of England.

The plot as it unfolds is very silly and anything-goes, but that works just fine. But this film can’t hold a candle to Despicable Me or its satisfying sequel. The thing is, those films have a lot of heart, and the minions are just cute comic relief on the edge of that. This film, while fun and silly, is almost bereft of anything you could call heart. There’s no real emotional stakes here, and for that reason, everything stays superficial. That makes this a functional kids’ film that will keep the littlest ones entertained but nothing more.

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.