Monday, 28 November 2011

Hatsune Miku Live Party 2011: Sapporo (screening)

Screened tonight on a high-quality projector in one of London’s West End Odeon cinemas, with horribly inflated ticket prices, was the Sapporo part of the 2011 Mikupa, which was the rather shorter of the two concerts on the Blu-ray, with a much quirkier set-list. I would have rather watched the Tokyo set, being longer and having more of my favourite songs (‘Trick and Treat’, ‘Kokoro’ and ‘Meltdown’, for starters – and one companion’s beloved ‘Double Lariat’), but hey – it’s bizarre enough as it is that one of the big chains put on a night for such a niche audience, and it’s not as though I can’t have a private screening of the Tokyo one for friends with one of my projectors (probably during a con) so I’m certainly not complaining. It was quite the novelty to be able to watch something like this in a cinema.

And the novelty had made people make an effort – the cinema was full of girls in cosplay, guys trying to imitate that awful Japanese habit of doing nothing for the whole concert but pulsing their glowsticks into the air, and anime fans.

Kicking off with ‘Kocchi Miute Baby’ put us in a giggly mood, because we always associate it with the infamous Project Diva videos of Kaito swapped in for Miku and doing some very disturbing moves. We then sobered up for a series of rather less well-known songs like ‘Albino’ (always fun to watch the changes between 3/4 and 4/4 confuse people with glowsticks – but Miku got some pretty wings for a few seconds!) and a great rendition of Hachi-P’s ‘Musunde, Hiraite, Rasetsu to Mukuro’, which I never thought I’d see in one of these concerts. The twins became the focus for a while, with a Rin song I didn’t know (‘Iroha song’ – I’d have preferred ‘Gekokujou’) and then the Daughter/Servant of Evil pair, which I’ve always disliked – shrill, annoying songs with horrible stop-start dynamics. Luckily, there was the treat of the night to follow, in my eyes, at least – Len singing ‘Fire Flower’, one of my very favourites of his. Miku returned for a few songs, most notably the crowning evil of Project Diva ‘The Singing Passion of Hatsune Miku’, and then it was Ruka’s turn. Thankfully, the choices were good – ‘RIP=RELEASE’, my favourite of her songs, and ‘Ruka Ruka Night Fever’, which I like despite preferring ‘Rin Len Romantic Night’. Then it was Miku again until the end – a nice segue from ‘PoPiPo’ into ‘Hello Planet’, two fun tunes, and fan favourites like ‘Melt’ and ‘Yellow’. The highlight for her was a beautiful version of ‘Though the Song has No Form’. Rin returned for a duet with ‘Colorful X Melody’ and it all ended surprisingly on a (lovely) song I didn’t know, ‘Starduster’.

This was not a set of crowdpleasers, which was a bit of a surprise. I expected more Ryo, and certainly more Livetune. At least a bit of Travolta-P and some OSTER. ‘Melt’, ‘PoPiPo’ and the Evil songs were really the only ones I expected everyone there to know, with most knowing ‘Kocchi Miute Baby’ and ‘Yellow’. But no ‘World Is Mine’, ‘Butterfly on my Right Shoulder’ or ‘Love is War’, no ‘Kokoro’ or ‘Packaged’. I was quite happy, and very pleased to discover some great new tracks – but I could tell a lot of the audience weren’t getting what they hoped for, a fair few of them probably hoping to more or less hear the Project Diva soundtrack or even the Supercell album. I was pleased they tried different things and went for pleasing the more hardcore fan, but I can’t help but think the atmosphere would have been better had they put in a few more obvious choices. I’d even have loved to have seen a ‘Matryoska’, though ‘Musunde, Hiraite’ was damn good.

Beyond the choices for the concert itself, though, it was fairly weird just seeing the concert footage. Essentially, the cameras treated the big screens as though a real Miku were there, with shots and direction to match. A better idea would have been to actually get the original footage and interpolate it where the director wanted close-ups, because as anyone who’s tried to film a TV knows results aren’t always good. Up close, there were obvious problems with angled edges (though more anti-aliasing would only be a bad idea), the image wasn’t very clear and there was even some tear at the start.

It was good having live band, and these clearly were interpretations by musicians playing live, which was great. Shame the drummer didn’t make the most of the little swing part in ‘Kocchi Miute Baby’ and of course the beat from ‘Rolling Girl’ was never going to survive intact, but it was a shame there was as much overdubbing as there was, and more than once a cymbal was hit with no sound, which made me wonder just how live things really were. That said, it’s much better having musicians to look at than just the screen, and they were a fun, cheery bunch.

To sum up, this was an odd experience – watching a distant concert up on a big screen in a cinema – and I wouldn’t repeat it (though I’d definitely go to a live, something I very much doubt we’ll get in the UK despite a petition). The song choices were strange, which was good for me, but probably could have been better for a lot of others. And the Tokyo version was clearly superior. But this was a novel way to spend an evening, and I very much enjoyed it.

Cheer up, Len! It was pretty good overall!

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

コゼットの肖像 / Kozetto no Shouzou / Le Portrait de Petit Cossette

Corrected to ‘Petite Cossette’ for release outside Japan, Petit Cossette was an interesting, odd little OVA from 2004, probably the prettiest – and strangest – iteration of the Gothic Lolita craze in anime that also spawned the superb Rozen Maiden and the lamentable rip-off Saint October. While the visuals of Cossette are striking and impressive, the plot is rather loose and obscure, and while perhaps that gives it a sense of being more high-minded than Rozen Maiden, it certainly doesn’t have the charm, humour or memorable characters. But then, in three OVA episodes with horror as the dominant tone, that was never really going to happen, and after all, there are plenty of examples of sweet, beautiful young girls without much in the way of personality in horror stories becoming very well-loved characters – just look at Enma Ai.

The inspiration for the story is gothic horror, in all its cliché, with the primary source most likely being The Picture of Dorian Gray. A young Japanese man finds a portrait of a beautiful little white girl in the sort of frilly pseudo-Rococo dress beloved of the Lolita street fashion movement in Japan. She speaks to him from within the portrait, and becoming obsessed, he goes to the painting at midnight, and eventually learns that little Cossette’s spirit was trapped in the portrait when she was murdered byt the artist. She must haunt it until a man comes who can bear the punishment the artist should have received – and who better than what turns out to be his 21st-century Japanese reincarnation?

There’s a lot of silliness here. The amount of psychoanalysis that could go into a film about a young single Japanese man happy to bear almost unlimited physical pain – fetishised into something pure and devotional – for a picture of a barely adolescent, idealised white girl must be immense, as well as the exploration into who finds the concept moving. The minor characters who surround Eiri are all completely two-dimensional, something that stands out sorely in an animation that aims for depth, and all the girls in his life seem to want to save him from himself and from his obsessions.

I feel almost certain this is a property slyly written to appeal to obsessive Japanese collectors and hikkikomori, and indeed it would seem to have found an audience with them. Daume also deal almost exclusively in lolicon (in ‘loli’s other sense), branching out slightly to include traps in recent years. There’s a high-minded and elegant approach to Cossette, but beneath it lurks all the hallmarks of very lowbrow anime. Personally, I liked the imagery and striking themes enough to keep a copy of the OVA for the 7 years since its release – but I can’t say I have even once felt a strong desire to rewatch it.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Drawn Together – season 3 / movie

Since I wrote my impressions of the first two seasons of Drawn Together, there has been a third, news of cancellation and then a direct-to-DVD movie. And there, barring a revival, ends the Drawn Together story, to the regret of few. There were great ideas in Drawn Together and some funny jokes, but mostly it became tired and strained and extremely repetitive.

Season 3 was more of the same, 14 new episodes in much the same mould as the previous series – we had episodes in which Ling-Ling had to take part in cockfighting in Mexico, in which Foxxxy is finally reunited with her father and in which Wooldor gets a TV show that turns children gay. So yes, more of the same – overdone jokes about minorities, inconsequential character-based plotlines and lots of gross-out humour. About the only bit of variety went back to what made the show interesting in the first place – its basis in animation tropes – and gave us ‘Drawn Together Babies’, which of course involved killing a babysitter and hiding the body and lots of tiny children in sexual situations. It would seem, judging by the last episode, that the cancellation of the series came as a surprise, but frankly, it was for the best – Drawn Together ran out of ideas early in season two. It was still worth watching because there were occasional funny moments and highly quotable lines, but generally the stories didn’t provide many laughs. Only incidental moments that were funny, from discovering what Captain Hero’s nemesis’ modus operandi really is, or Totoro showing up to play piano for Ling-Ling. But the complaint I had about the first seasons stands – it’s not enough to just portray a bunch of characters with the stereotypes of minorities and/or the mentally ill. You have to make the audience empathise with them, and you have to have some decent jokes beyond hoping that outrage at political incorrectness makes people laugh.

At the end of it all, the most interesting thing to say about Drawn Together is that according to Imaishi Hiroyuki, of Gurren Lagann fame, without the Gainax staff watching Drawn Together while in the US and seeing how far Rough Draft could push what could be shown on TV, they would never have been inspired to create Panty & Stocking.

The Drawn Together Movie: The Movie! brought with it a new visual style thanks to being animated in flash by Six Point Harness studio (responsible for crap like the The Ricky Gervais Show) and a storyline based entirely on bitterness about being cancelled. The movie makes big mistakes – not least of which is pretending none of their political incorrectness was meant to be smart South Park-style satire and setting up an opposition between themselves and that show (which took their time slot) suggesting Parker and Stone just tack on meaningless, trite political messages and being funny for the sake of being funny is somehow purer and superior. Though there’s something to be said for the Drawn Together writers being able to recognise their flaws, including those of this film (one gag points out they were lucky to get three seasons and should be grateful), and some of the obvious jokes about Israel, territory and violence (delivered by fan Seth MacFarlane), as well as a series of crude superhero cameos, actually managed to be funny, but trying to get a feature-length plot from shallow, vague ideas about not deserving cancellation just ends up dull. Red Dwarf couldn’t even make it work, so…

Plus using flash doesn’t work for animated pastiche. Despite spirited attempts to imitate cut-out animation and Disney smoothness, from Waltz with Bashir through My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Wakfu to Happy Tree Friends, flash looks like flash. And this never escaped the limitations of the media – a glaring flaw when attempting pastiches.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

テガミバチ REVERSE / Tegami Bachi REVERSE (+Gakuen)

Tegami Bachi REVERSE picked up right where the first series left off – adorable little ‘Letter Bee’ Lag Seeing finally found Gauche, the man he had a huge hero-worship boycrush on since first meeting him, only for Gauche to be nothing at all like anyone remembered him being, calling himself Noir and working for a sinister underground organisation.

The original series had a very silly premise which I loved because it was done very seriously. Here, everything is far sillier, yet still works for the same reasons – sincere delivery and world-building that suits exaggeration. In the original series, the postmen went on exciting quests, destroyed giant insectoid monsters and changed lives. Here, Lag meets what is essentially a god, gets involved in plots to essentially destroy mankind and faces the philosophical conundrums of whether a person who has forgotten their past is still the same person. And because the world is crazy and because Lag is such an adorable little wimp – and yet so very powerful – it all works. I don’t mind if the ideas about an artificial sun wiping minds, Lag not being quite human and vague ideas of research to discover lost ‘hearts’ are left vague – what does it matter in a world where what passes for superheroes are postal workers and giant beetles with tentacles burst from the ground?

Lag and Niche remain at the centre of everything, even if they don’t always understand what they’re in for. I’m surprised these two characters work as well as they do – Lag is a total wet blanket and Niche, despite some angsty episodes, never really grows or gets smarter. Personally, I’m a sucker for the cute young boys who are totally hapless and cry a lot but have deep inner strength, but I also appreciate there are a whole lot of people who find that character type very annoying. Yet Lag not only carries the whole story, but is a large part of why I care about this silly plot, full of nonsensical magic and the plans of an evil organisation that at first seems so huge and formidable but ultimately boils down to three or four blokes and some vague ideas about cleansing the world.

Tegami Bachi REVERSE
is no cleverer than its predecessor, but has the same strengths. The visuals improved very slightly, the ‘gaichuu’ a bit less jarring, though still very obvious CG, and less lazy animation of action scenes, but that might just have been the particular Pierrot team working on certain episodes. The music is nice, and it was interesting to hear an ending song by Nico Douga singer Piko (in female mode) – who is now a Vocaloid and whose version of ‘Magnet’ with Sekihan I found quite stunning when I heard it a few months ago (both guys doing both male and female voices).

Tegami Bachi was always something fun, silly but also emotionally dynamic to watch without having to concentrate very hard. I was watching it as each episode was released until one episode was broadcast with huge (totally understandable) tsunami warnings all over it when those sad events unfolded, and waited a few months for a clean version. But I’ve now polished off the lot – and would recommend the show to any fans of shounen on the slightly sillier, cuter side.

Tegami Bachi Gakuen / Letter Bee Academy

My first thought when I put on the Gakuen shorts was ‘why on Earth is this narrated by Majo Rika?’ The obvious answer is that her voice actor is also on the Tegami Bachi cast, but I had no recollection of hearing her – until I looked up her seiyuu and found she played the silly joke creature Steak. That makes perfect sense!

Anyway, these little omake are just silly little 3-minute SD gag animations based around the idea that Lag, Zazie, Connor and Gauche are students in a Letter Bee school, with the enigmatic Doctor Thunderland as their teacher and usually the butt of their antics. It’s all cute, silly and frivolous and I mention it mostly because of the Ojamajo Doremi link!

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Lilo & Stitch

Lilo & Stitch has always been the oddball in the Disney family. By design, too – the memorable advertising campaign for the film had Stitch interrupting and ruining key scenes of various Disney Renaissance films, accompanied by posters with the slogan ‘There’s one in every family’. Stitch’s oddness in the Disney canon goes beyond just the intended weirdness of the character, though – there’s not really another Disney film like it, in terms of tone, humour or setting.

Lilo & Stitch is the only one of the post-renaissance films to have really endured, save perhaps Treasure Planet – which was far less critically acclaimed. Atlantis was fairly popular, but certainly not the franchise opportunity Stitch represented. It was quite the brave experiment, but in the right direction, unlike the likes of Home on the Range, the death knell of Disney’s traditional animation department until the recent CPR operation of The Princess and the Frog. Lilo & Stitch belong in the general post-renaissance mood of trying to modernise and offering something different from the rest of the canon, but unlike the other films, really does it right.

Lilo & Stitch
is small-budget and small scale. It is not a fair story, or based on one. It is not a fantasy of medieval Europe, nor that fantasy displaced to the far future. It is sci-fi, but based on silly aliens entering the everyday world of modern-day characters. And not just the typical all-American family of live-action Disney: a struggling, ‘broken’ family of just two sisters struggling to make ends meet in Hawaii and avoid social services taking away little Lilo. Artistically, it ignores the Disney house style in favour of big, cute, stylised faces with large round noses and spontaneous watercolour backgrounds. There are no songs in the traditional sense, the music almost entirely diegetic and much of it favourite Elvis hits. And the humour is the glib, snappy, economical humour of films like The Iron Giant or Pixar’s best, which Disney has more whole-heartedly adopted in recent films like Tangled.

And it just works. Stitch is an alien bred purely for destruction by the silly ‘evil genius’ Doctor Jumba, made likeable in part by an eccentric Russian accent provided by David Ogden Stiers, making far more of an impact than he did in Pocahontas. Stitch escapes from captivity and heads to Earth, where he meets cute little Lilo and begins to learn what a family is. Will his destructive impulses get in the way of the understanding between species, will the trouble he causes mean Lilo gets taken away from her sister, and what will happen when the Galactic Federation comes to intervene?

The film keeps things light, apart from the family drama, allowing it to hit much harder than it might have otherwise. The aliens are always silly and largely incompetent, and Stitch never seems overly dangerous – especially because he’s very cute. The humour shines through and though you never get the impression the world has been saved, life in a little family has been made better and some powerful people were made to think twice. It’s neat, paced well, and satisfies.

It’s interesting to note, too, that while Stitch has been a modest success in the English-speaking world, the Far East have Stitch-mania to an extreme. So while you may find one or two items in a high street Disney store in a Western city, the Chinatown will probably have numerous bootleg goods with his face on it. The craze seems to be tied in with Japan’s gyaru movement and their love of Hawaii, but has swept over every part of East Asia I’ve been to, even rural Taiwan. Madhouse even made their own spin-off where instead of Hawaii Stitch goes to Okinawa. And then of course Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep has a full world with Stitch characters and sets lovingly recreated from the film. On the other hand, the Far East seems to love Mickey Mouse in a way kids in the West don’t seem to have for a good seventy years…

Stitch’s legacy is quite unusual in Disney’s canon and will undermine many generalisations about the studio’s output. That can only be a good thing in my eyes, and there’s no doubt the studio’s 2000-2010 output, especially considered without Pixar, would be far weaker without it.

Saturday, 12 November 2011


It may seem surprising, given that it was the immediate follow-up to my favourite Disney film, The Lion King, but until last night Pocahontas was the only one of the Disney Renaissance films I had never seen from beginning to end. The others I saw in cinemas or later on video, but not Pocahontas. It’s also probably the most uneven of their films from the era, and with The Little Mermaid about the most divisive, which is reflected in the extremely mixed reviews it’s had since release.

Pocahontas was supposed to be Disney’s big hit of the 90s, a fact often mentioned rather smugly by Lion King fans, as according to accounts from those who worked in the studio at the time, it was made plain that Pocahontas was the more prestigious project. And then, of course, The Lion King went on to break records and gross more than double what Pocahontas managed, and has endured as a far more celebrated film in terms of story, characters and even music.

The fact is that Pocahontas just isn’t very epic, in terms of story progression or character experiences. The Lion King follows its protagonist from birth to fatherhood, while Pocahontas is a few days’ worth of events. When characters die in The Lion King, it really means something – the character death in Pocahontas is a plot device and even those close to the character don’t seem bothered at all. And Simba learns a great deal over the course of his film – John Smith is such a sensitive soul that there’s no tension to be found there, and Pocahontas is such a perfect noble savage archetype that there’s no need for her to learn. Even when she’s set up to learn she shouldn’t be so reckless, it’s soon recklessness that makes her a heroine again. And nobody cares that someone ended up dead.

I don’t mind that the story is based only very loosely on reality – that’s fine for a Disney story, and honestly, the historical record is highly dubious anyway. Besides, an ending with Pocahontas marrying two other blokes, having a baby, going to London and dying wouldn’t be great for a kids’ movie, any more than Mulan should have killed herself, as she does in so many retellings of her story. It doesn’t even bother me that this is a movie so centred on white liberal guilt, with all the clichés of Native Americans being able to communicate with nature and the blundering idiotic Europeans happy to slaughter the savages for imagined gold. This version of Pocahontas is unlikely to end up happily working on a white man’s plantation and having his children, but that’s okay, because it’s only a story.

But the trouble is she’s hard to like and everything in the film is so shallow. We are introduced to Pocahontas as a tearaway rebel, enjoying putting herself and her animal sidekicks at risk by taking her canoe down rapids at every opportunity. She doesn’t end up dead, though, but meets dashing captain John Smith, likes how he interacts with her animals and so initiates a romance with him and teaches him to talk to a bad CG tree. Of course this is forbidden and ends in violence – which only she can put a stop to. And that’s about it for plot.

Visually, Disney did well here, though it falls short of most of the other Renaissance films. There are some beautiful shots of monumental trees and the sequence with the elder’s smoke is beautiful old-school Disney, forms shifting and changing like pink elephants. Pocahontas herself has a striking look that works very well, and the background characters are a mixture of modern and older Disney design, drawn with those grey lines they liked to use instead of black ones at the time. The music is a mixed bag, Alan Menken offering up an Oscar-winning song but little else of note, with the rest of the songs very lacking in structure and certainly not up there with his music for Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast, or reaching the same heights as the Zimmer/John themes in The Lion King. The voice acting is mixed too – Mel Gibson does surprisingly well with a wooden accent for a wooden character, but the bad guy has no presence. It’s odd to hear Christian Bale sounding so winsome in the wake of his Batman croaking, but works, and it’s nice to hear Billy Connolly, but partly because the main comic relief characters are mute animals, everything is rather one-note. Adequate, but nothing special.

That probably sums up the film as a whole. Adequate, with some standout parts, but overall mediocre. The fondest memory I’ll take it away from it will probably be a companion saying when he was very little, he thought that the song ‘savages’ was actually all about sandwiches.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

I’ve always found Tintin a little creepy, even when I was small. He’s always somewhere in the middle of two things, and neither of them. He’s not a child, nor a man. He’s not handsome, nor ugly. He’s not cute, nor cool. And he lives in a weird sexless world of funny men that’s neither comic nor serious. The Hergé comics, despite their great characters, never sat well with me, and though I’d smile to see Tintin décor in Belgian cafés, I’ve not touched a Tintin comic since the early 90s.

On the other hand, this project had me quite excited. For one thing, it’s part of what seems like Spielberg’s resurgence into relevance: after everyone hated Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (most blaming Lucas) and nobody saw Munich, it seemed he was more a producer figure than a director. But then Super 8 reminded an audience who had become used to postmodern glibness how much we miss his earnest style of filmmaking, War Horse created a lot of buzz – and Tintin came out. It’s not only directed by Spielberg, but has a number of exciting names attached. Peter Jackson was producing, and will direct the sequel. Steven Moffat, one of the slew of writers Doctor Who has slung into prominence, adapted two of the Tintin comics (with a little aside into a third) for a film, and while I may not like everything he writes for the show, he certainly made the Russell T. Davis era slightly more bearable when in my view the writing was the worst it’s ever been. Working with him were Edgar Wright, who writes material for Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (their roles as Thomson and Thompson probably the thing they’ve done I've liked the most), plus Joe Cornish, of Adam and Joe – another Pegg/Frost cohort.

The cast was also fine. I would perhaps have preferred the originally-cast Thomas Sangster as Tintin, but Jamie Bell – of Billy Elliot fame – did a great job in a purposefully slightly wooden performance that fit just right with the slightly hapless Tintin. Andy Serkis was perfectly hammy yet loveable as Haddock, and Daniel Craig’s sinister posh accent was a lovely against-type bit of exaggeration I’d have loved to see delivered. Toby Jones continued his rise to prominence with a nice little cameo role, and I smiled at the Hergé-like figure at the very beginning of the film.

Stylistically, it’s a fairly startling piece of CG. The motion capture techniques mean the CG figures’ every little head movement, every narrowing of the eyes and every flinch, is startlingly real. While the look of CG films has moved on a lot since, say, The Polar Express, and there’s no fear of the characters looking too doll-like, the realism of their movements does on occasion put them into the uncanny valley. That said, I loved the clash of realistic presentation and comic book designs – the outsized noses and silly head shapes fit in perfectly to create a great aesthetic. On the other hand, I think I would have rather the animators relied on the language of animation and created all their movements from scratch – Snowy was probably the one whose movements were most appealing, after all, and as rotoscoping taught us, the most realistic motions are not always the most appealing ones in animation. Plus of course, the best visual elements of the film were those possible only in animation – desert dunes becoming huge waves, action caught perfectly in a drop of water, superbly silly setpieces like the grand chase down a steep hill pursued by a tank dragging along a hotel building.

And for once, the 3D genuinely enhanced the experience. It was extremely well done.

The story was not perfect. It felt like it needed a few more draughts to slice away a little of the flab. They obviously wanted some of the detective story feel at the beginning, but it ended up not getting there, so seemed to drag and felt unnecessary. Too much of the character interaction was given over to getting Haddock to remember a rather silly detail that allowed him to link someone his grandfather had seen (and told him about once) to a present-day relation. The ending was also a bit clumsy, and it would have been nice to have the climax of the action and the solution of the mystery together rather than consecutively.

Once its action got into its stride, though, the film was immense fun. It had some of the best visual comedy and slapstick of any CG film, and that’s saying a lot when it’s Pixar’s speciality. For the laughs, the fun characters, the performances and especially the bravura action scenes, well worth seeing – but not a perfect film, or one to move you.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Manga notes

Just so you guys know, as well as this blog about full series/movies, I also write down my thoughts about various manga as I read them. Mostly shounen, but with some variety here and there. I've started to put these online, and you can see them here.