Saturday, 26 January 2013

ドラゴンボール 最強への道 / Dragonball: Path to Greatest Strength / Dragonball Movie 4: The Path to Power

This is something a little different from the other Dragonball movies I’ve seen: it was made in 1996 and was actually the seventeenth theatrical film in the Dragonball series as a whole – so strictly speaking comes after thirteen other films I haven’t seen yet. I thought it would be good to watch it now, because after all there won’t be any spoilers any more, and with it I can move on to DBZ. But I kinda wish I’d waited until after I’d finished and seen some of GT, because…yup, once again this was a retelling of the start of Dragonball. Probably at the time it was a great rush of nostalgia, but y’know, for me, it’s not that long since I saw those first episodes, and then they were all rehashed for the first Dragonball movie, though here the plot speeds along to the Red Ribbon Army arc, condensing it all into the Muscle Tower.

The most notable thing, really, is that the art is in the style Dragonball evolved to, with its distinctive eyes and more rounded faces. I have to say, I prefer the original aesthetic, which had more variety. Yamucha and General Blue in particular look very odd with Trunks’ face and proportions, and though it’s nice having Bulma with hair colour closer to Toriyama’s intentions, and the animation is obviously much more ambitious – in the climactic fight scenes in particular – generally I just feel it’s better to watch the original and this is a nostalgia trip that no longer boasts cutting-edge visuals. It makes me wonder if I’ll consider the first of the Eva remake like this when its visuals, too, are dated.

There’s also the fact that Muten Roshi’s voice actor, so instantly recognisable, had recently passed away when this was produced, and the replacement just doesn’t compare, especially when the scenes here are from when he was about the most powerful character yet introduced.

The story essentially covers once again the introduction of Goku, Bulma, Oolong, Yamucha, Pu-erh, Muten Roshi and his Umigame, and the Dragonballs. Skipping Pilaf, we more or less go to the Muscle Tower, where Metallic is given a makeover and Android 8 is given an inflated role. General Blue is given an ignominious end, no longer the formidable fighter of the original, and General Red is no threat at all, with only Staff Officer Black managing to be formidable. The ending is something a bit different, but let’s face it, no wish to Shen Long is ever going to match up to Oolong’s.

The long and short of it is that there was a time and place for this, and it’s probably more in line with what Dragonball Kai represents now. This doesn’t have the advantages of nostalgia nor up-to-the-minute visuals, so it serves only as a slightly-updated curio.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Fans of My Little Pony

While watching the first and second seasons of My Little Pony, I made a point of staying out of the fandom. All of it. I knew the story of the show gaining traction on /co/ before exploding in popularity, and I knew of Derpy Hooves and the reasons for her strange popularity, but that was it. I didn’t know one background pony from the next, I didn’t care for fan theories or headcanons, and I certainly didn’t want to look at clop pics – pornography featuring the cast of small horses.

Well, somewhere in the middle of the third season, that changed. Except for the clop part. I went looking for discussion about some teaser images, and for speculation about Scootaloo’s home life. And somewhere along the line, I fell into it. I went to Ponychan and learned which ponies were Lyra and BonBon, and how their constantly being placed together both fuelled and later was informed by the fandom liking them as a couple. I learned how Lyra sitting a certain way led to her being characterised as idolizing human beings. I found out the fandom took Derpy’s delivery job and made her a mailpony, how her being one pony who may have said ‘Muffins!’ led to her being obsessed with them, how she is often made a companion of ‘Doctor Whooves’, officially named Time Turner, and how a small filly who looks a little like her became her daughter, Dinky Hooves. I went to 4chan’s /mlp/ and found out about their fixation with tulpae, hypnosis, hatred for those who label themselves bronies and act like ‘autists’, and of course a whole lot of masturbatory imagery, with their hatred for Rainbow Dash balanced only by their desire to, ahem, cum inside her. I found out that the pony whose argument is stopped by Cadence is the OC of storyboard artist Sibsy, who has always made herself prominent, and heard the gossip about her and MandoPony, a mandolin-playing musician who has managed to get close to cast members and supports them in their music. I’ve found out about other Pony musicians – Alex S, The Living Tombstone, Eurobeat Brony, Mic the Microphone – and became familiar with their styles. I read the prominent Tumblrs – Jappleack, Molestia, Ask-TheCrusaders, Dan vs FiM, even Sweetiepoo. I found out about news site Equestria Daily and its founder Seth’s love for the minor antagonist Trixie, and how he should go to bed. I read the comics and their acknowledgement of many of these fandom elements, and laughed at how every little thing was called ‘fan pandering’ – people were even complaining that some rainbow waterfalls at the end of ‘Sleepless in Ponyville’ must have been a reference to the creepy song and later melodramatic fanfic ‘Rainbow Factory’.

I took a particular interest in the very early fandom, mostly annoyed by the fact that Know Your Meme tried to suggest that without some Cartoon Brew posts, 4chan would never have taken an interest in the new show, when there are numerous threads archived/screencapped that show conversation was already blooming markedly before that. I read older generations’ thoughts on Lauren Faust’s very first mention of the project, and laughed heartily at how one of the very first to have a very enthusiastic reaction was called ‘GoldenClopper’, a name that now means something entirely different.

In short, I become well-informed. Very well-informed. I still consider myself only as much of a fan as I am of various other series, and wouldn’t go to a convention specifically for ponies, and certainly wouldn’t call myself a brony (nor, dear anons, a Ponyfag or indeed a ‘clopnigger’, do excuse the slur), but I must admit I’ve spent a lot of time on this, now.

And so I came across ‘BronyCon: The Documentary’, later retitled as you see above. The project was initially a small-scale kickstarter, but somewhat predictably blew up with the money of notoriously enthusiastic and profligate Bronies and became a feature-length project very much in the vein of Trekkies. While that covered a phenomenon that has lasted a generation, now, though, this attempted the same with a fandom based on developments of just over two years, and a few dozen episodes. Nonetheless, thousands of people attend these conventions, and there are certainly stories to tell.

Again, much like Trekkies, the Bronies documentary follows a few individuals to three different conventions in different countries, interspersing their narratives with interviews with fans and creators alike (as well as some psychologists), with cast members giving something of a commentary throughout. There’s also the advantage of music created by the fandom for the fandom and some work from gifted animators, Ask-TheCrusaders in particular supplying show-style visuals to accompany an amusing half-spoken song written by Faust, new head writer Amy Keating-Rogers and Mic the Microphone that categorizes fans and even mentions clopping. 4chan unsurprisingly gets short shrift, but with all their wailing about spaghetti (it spilling from pockets is surreal shorthand for embarrassing behaviour), I’m sure they would have wanted it no other way, and much of the time what is left unsaid is more interesting – especially regarding Faust leaving the show. She is highly honoured here, with a rather lovely animation based on an anecdote about her childhood (I think made by the people attempting an impressive hand-drawn pony animation, though that’s largely a guess) and one of the climaxes of the piece being her being presented with a huge poster of her OC, based on the fanart of Celestia in the style of the Andre the Giant ‘OBEY’ image.

Otherwise, the stories are mostly predictable and easily understood. One teenager who looks young for his 16 years has a dad who doesn’t understand his offspring, but they end up going to BronyCon together and the father's eyes are opened. One British person with Asperger’s and an unfortunate hat (bizarrely preluded by an upside-down Union Jack) overcomes his social anxiety to blossom amongst his fellow bronies in one of the more cultish moments. The Living Tombstone, isolated in Israel, travels all the way to the States to meet his friends and has a triumphant first-ever live performance with his Skrillex soundbank thumping away. I may think it’s unfortunate the rather generic and plodding remix he did of ‘Discord’ (albeit with some fantastic drum sounds) eclipsed the rather more original and honest (but far more niche) original Eurobeat version, to the extent that Eurobeat Brony was just providing vocals for Tombstone’s mid-tempo rock, but there is something touching about these people who would otherwise go entirely unnoticed having a room full of adoring fans. Similarly, it is nice seeing Faust moved by the admiration she gets, and De Lancie clearly lapping up the attention with his gorgeous Discord figurine made by Russian bronies by his side.

The whole thing is clearly self-congratulatory. The major backers and contributors of this documentary are its subject, which isn’t exactly going to lead to a critical assessment. But to take it as anything but a celebration of a strange movement is to misunderstand: this is not supposed to help outsiders understand (it only tells them they should), and if used to inform will give only a shallow view. Rather, it is giving an audience what it wants – oh dear, have I reached the conclusion it is fan pandering? – because that’s what will make them feel good. I stand apart somewhat, and wouldn’t want it any other way, but I have to say I regard these people with affection. They may be awkward, annoying and even rather smug about their place in a mass movement, but so earnest is their enjoyment and revelry that it’s really very sweet. 

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Wreck-It Ralph (plus Paperman)

The gripes about Wreck-It Ralph have been few and far between – a few gamers begrudge them suggesting Zangief was a ‘bad guy’ when that was really only in the movie and he was no more a bad guy than most of the Street Fighter II cast; some overbearing mothers think no kids’ film should have characters from a bloody game like Mortal Kombat in them; and here and there animation fans think that Disney’s CGI films ought to blaze their own path to regain an original voice rather than doing something very easily mistaken for a Pixar film – which sadly I’ve heard far too often, though some amusing jokes have been made about Disney having made Brave and Pixar having made this, and then the two studios deciding to swap credits. But the number one gripe I’ve heard about Wreck-It Ralph has been more or less exclusive to this fair land: how come America got it in October and we don’t even get it til February of the next year? I’ve only managed to see it because I got a preview thanks to the special offer of a cinema chain – general release is still over three weeks away! Isn’t that just encouraging piracy?

Despite this quibble that has nothing to do with the film itself, I can announce myself an instant fan. It was aimed squarely at me and my generation, but it still managed to be far better than I had hoped for, and much more emotionally engaging. This is how it was most like Pixar – not in the perspective, or the visuals, or the pace, but in how it got me to care.

Before the film came a short – very Pixar, that – showing a romance almost lost but then saved by inanimate objects. Done in rather lovely cell-shading, with a smart decision to make it monochrome but for red lipstick, it was lovely to behold and sweet, but rather trite and threw away its believability rather too much when paper aeroplanes came to life.
Then the main event, and from the start it was right on the money with what appeals to the tail-end of Generation X and the early years of Generation Y – and those of us born in the transitional period. Iconic Disney logos are presented with 8-bit graphics, and there’s chiptune in the music. We’re introduced to Ralph, who is somewhat like Donkey Kong with a touch of the monsters from Rampage – in his game, he tries to demolish a building that displaced him from his home, while the hero, Fix-it Felix Jr, repairs the damage with his magic hammer. When the damage is all repaired, the occupants hurl Ralph from the roof and Felex is rewarded with a medal. The film opens in the support group for bad guys seen in the trailer, which so delighted 20- and 30-somethings with its iconic group of antagonists from Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario Bros, Mortal Kombat, Pac-Man, Altered Beast and more. After announcing he’s sick of his life, Ralph returns to his home, notices a party is happening in the penthouse (my one cringe in the film was when I saw Skrillex was the DJ, but this is a reference that will soon be swallowed by time – whereas surprisingly all the 80s and 90s references will likely last a very long while). He goes up and uses Felix’s crippling need to be an awkward nice guy to get himself invited in, but this only leads to disaster. He leaves vowing he’ll transcend his nature and earn his own medal. In the bar from Tappers, where many famous faces are up on the wall and Ryu is having a quiet drink, he meets a space marine from Hero’s Duty, and winds up climbing a tower after the arcade is shut for the night and getting himself a medal. Unfortunately, he also ends up in an escape pod with a hostile, adaptable alien, and shoots into cutesy Mario Kart clone Sugar Rush. He meets the apparently annoying Vanellope there, but soon finds out that more than he expected is going on under the surface in Sugar Rush. Meanwhile, Felix sets out to find his one-time antagonist, with only the ass-kicking female commando Calhoun from Hero’s Duty – whose backstory is perfect - to help him.

One of the joys of the film is the background details. See Sonic fall and lose his rings, or Chun-li spending some time with the Nintendo princesses. I had been told to look for graffiti, especially ‘Aerith lives!’ and though I missed that one, it was only because I was admiring the Internet-pleasing ‘All Your Base are Belong To Us’. I also got a kick out of (LEROY) ‘JENKINS’, the Konami code and little Pong and Dig Dug cameos. There are plenty of foregrounded references thrown in, from a casual mention of Lara Croft and a nod to DDR to the brilliant scene where all the bad guys leave the Pac-Man world and are represented as small 8-bit sprites, but it’s the fine details that will make me and doubtless many more want a repeat viewing.

Not only is the style at the peak of being in fashion with a crowd big on nostalgia and keen for its own variation on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, with its easy melding of styles and screen space shared by unlikely costars, there also needed to be a little time gap to prevent any accusations of this being a rip-off of ReBoot, which is after all fairly similar in basic outline. It was interesting to me that the whole thing is set in a single arcade, and thus presumably these are but a few of many, many versions of the same characters, bringing the scale closer to that of Toy Story. The clash between a twee older world and a frenetic, violent, modern game is hilarious, and that the game ends on a Pac-Man-ish kill screen is priceless. The references are also not limited to games, with Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz having sound-based jokes, and even a little poster of Bolt can be seen.
But a million funny references in a bad film would still make a bad film. And this is far from it. There are really three plot arcs – Ralph’s attempts to get a medal and rehabilitate himself, the truth of Sugar Rush and why Vanellope is ostracised, and the escaped alien from Hero’s Duty. All become action-packed because of Ralph, all come together nicely, and all are tied up well. Being the type to aim to spot twists, I put together this one’s but was blindsided until only minutes before the reveal because the one in question was shown to secretly be acting for the benefit of another even though it was hard, and teaching that to Ralph – which led to one of the most touching scenes as well as feel-good reparations. Emotions are actually struck very well, from hopes and dreams being dashed to the thought of having to abandon someone to die – and I never thought I’d be so uplifted by the thought of someone punching mentos into diet coke. The fact is that the characters all became likeable, even the ones who seemed annoying, including the silly king with his old-fashioned Disney performance. Fantastic.

I loved it. I only want to know two things – why Vanellope is on the side of the cabinet yet still glitchy at the end if it wasn’t the antagonist’s doing, and…well, just what happens when the arcade closes down…

Paperman post-Oscars note: well, I can’t say I was greatly moved by Paperman, but it was a weak year. It’s a shame – put it against any of the 2007 nominations I’ve seen and it totally pales. 

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

少年メイドクーロ君 ~天使の歌~ / Shounen Maid Kuro-kun: Tenshi no Uta/ Boy Maid Kuro: Angel’s Song

Warning: Not only is this anime hentai, but it is shotacon yaoi.Read on only if you accept that rather disturbing premise.

It’s a little sad to admit, but even though my blog gets good traffic these days, the entries that consistently get the most hits are for hentai. Yes, in just about every case I complain about how terrible they are, and no comments get left – but that’s what people are searching for, sometimes to stumble their way into here. And…well, even though I usually only criticise them, I still keep getting curious and watching more. I have a few lolicon OVAs from the 80s to watch, and some of the ‘classics’ of the genre like Bible Black, but one that made me pay attention was this – the spiritual successor to the infamous Boku no PicoKuro-Kun was made by 37°C Binetsu, who at least according to EncyclopediaDramatica are the renamed Natural High. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case, but stylistically at least this shares a lot with the Pico animations. Only with a whole lot less attempts to project innocence and cuteness, and much more bondage and fetishism.

The plot, which is very much like the execrable Okane ga Nai and I’m fairly sure was lifted wholesale from a C.J. Mikalski manga down to the disjointed childhood flashback scene, is a cliché of yaoi: a young boy takes on extreme family debts he can never pay off, but is rescued by a fabulously wealthy older male. But of course there are strings attached to the deal, and little Kuro-kun is not free, but rather becomes a sex-slave. The plot thus dealt with, the rest is sex based around various fetishes – first voyeurism as Kuro changes into a maid outfit and humiliating lingerie, then food as Kuro has to serve as a dish for his master’s meal, then finally some outright BDSM, in terms of mental roles as well as whips and chains. There is a distinct post-2010 flavour here that Pico managed to avoid, that further cheapens the already very, very cheap, not just in the fetish trends of having ‘traps’, as the English-speaking fandom has it, but in Kuro being a tsundere type, complete with the violent outbursts and shouts of ‘baka!’ Thus ends the OVA, and though I really felt like I’ve seen too much of that particular cliché, I must say I’ve never seen a flying roundhouse kick delivered by a naked underage boy, thoroughly enjoyed by its recipient. Nor did I think that was a sentence I’d ever be typing.

Yes, not only is Kuro-kun pornographic, it is paedophilic, just like the Pico series. Though there’s a rather alarming opening shot in a bizarre introduction that not only made me think that Kuro was going to die at some point during the episode, but that made it appear for a moment he is going to look about 8, he in fact looks about 13. I can’t say that's much more acceptable, but at least he’s reached puberty. I’m quite glad for the censorship, though everything that is unpleasant about anime porn is here in abundance – horrible squeezed sponge sound effects, thick gunk flying everywhere, and what look like very ugly genitals behind the censors. If anime on TV got toned down after particular laws were passed, it hasn’t reached the specialist DVD markets. Oh, and the animators were nice enough to keep some horrific, inflamed, alien-looking anuses uncensored for you until they are violated. How kind. And I thought the scarily oversized boy-nipples were too much.

For all it’s a new addition to a growing niche genre made by what are seemingly old hands, this wasn’t exactly as nice-looking as Pico to Chico, say. Animation is more limited, colouring is far simpler, and the designs are really not very nice – Kuro is a generic pretty-boy who really might as well be a girl, and his seme, personality-free Miisu, has a very dated face that reminds me of Keith from Psychic Force (from the early 90s), though that may mostly be the way his eyes are on top of his hair in that awkward way some character designers draw big fringes.

The bottom line here is that it’s stupid. But it doesn’t care. It’s meant to be shotacon anime based on fetishes, and that’s what it is, with stupid stock tsundere temper tantrums to transition between scenes. But if you’re looking for anything else here – other than trolling material – I’d have to question why. It’s not really what I’d call erotic, nor cute, and even with its whips and chains doesn’t come close to the dark fetishy mood of Enzai, but if you find it hilarious to send these sorts of things to friends and make them go ‘yoooooooooooo’ (or similar), certain scenes might push this even further. And that scene with the food, incidentally also the part that Kuro looks the most gender-ambiguous, actually manages to be cute. 

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

ドラゴンボール 魔訶不思議大冒険 / Doragon Bōru: Makafushigi Dai-Bōken / Dragonball movie 3: Mystical Adventure

The third Dragonball movie is the last made during the lifespan of the original series (the extent of what I’ve seen so far), though there is one more to watch yet set during the run of the original series produced much later that had a proper nationwide theatrical release rather than screening at the Toei Manga Matsuri. Compared with the last two similar films, it is a whole lot more enjoyable, for while it has a similar unimaginative original plot, it is not a riff on a set-up from the original series but rather a whole new story with familiar characters in unfamiliar roles, which makes for a much more entertaining set-up and some strange scenes that bring together unlikely characters in a very entertaining way.

There are many familiar elements here – Goku and Krillin are training with Muten Roshi and enter a big martial arts tournament, while characters familiar from the Red Ribbon Army are after Dragonballs. Poor little Oopa loses his father to Tao Pai Pai, giving the heroes a noble motive to bring the Dragonballs together, and Tien Shin Han must question his loyalties. But nothing here is quite the same, and there is no Red Ribbon Army in sight.

Instead, Chaozu is now a little emperor in the country of Mifan. It seems his country is initially protected by this alternate universe’s Red Ribbon Army, with General Blue making an appearance early on, but the inner circle around Chaozu is the Crane Hermit and associates – Tien Shin Han, who the Emperor considers his friend, and the formidable Tao Pai Pai. After using and dispatching the unfortunate Pilaf Gang, these three locate six of the seven Dragonballs, but unfortunately for them, it is Oopa’s father Bora who has found the last of them. Travelling to Mifan to attempt to use it as leverage to stop the destruction of their land, they are almost captured, protected only by Muten Roshi and his disciples, who are in town for a martial arts tournament which in one of the film’s two big coincidences is the next day. As contestants are protected by law as guests of the emperor, Bora is safe as long as he says he is a competitor, and he enters intending to win – though gives the Dragonball to Goku for safe-keeping.

In the tournament, after poor Yamucha is knocked out when Muten Roshi uses some dirty tactics from the sidelines, Bora meets his fate at Tao’s hands and Goku, trying to defend him, is knocked away into the distance by a dodonpa. In the second great coincidence, he ends up landing in Karin’s tower, which in this universe apparently doesn’t have whatever enchantment is needed to stop people reaching it by means other than climbing. At this point, things get interesting as a number of things that you can’t see in the real Dragonball unfold: Chaozu is victim of a coup, and his heartbreak seeing his only friend deceive and overthrow him is adorable. Pu-erh and Oolong transform into Chaozu and the Crane Hermit to sneak into the palace with Bulma and Lunch, stealing the dragonballs. And who should help Goku in his fight against Tao but Arale from Dr. Slump? And though she is hit by a dodonpa, she is just as unphased as she was by anything General Blue could throw at her in the main series, and still thinking she’s playing, she helps Goku take care of Tao without all the powering-up he needed to do in the original. And, y’know, throws a huge boulder at him for a bit of fun.

Goku is then able to go to the rescue at the palace, where Sgt. Metallic holding Oopa shows the fun of characters on opposite ends of the teeny and large scales of Toriyama’s world without being particularly notable for their size being juxtaposed. By that I mean that Oopa is not remarked upon as being a tiny little spirit and Metallic is the size of a very huge man but not a giant monster like Goku under the full moon, which somehow brings them into the same general sphere of existence yet still has such variance in scale that Oopa is about the size of Metallic’s hand. It all adds to the fun of the early Dragonball, I think, that casual approach to very silly size differences.

Everything works out, of course, and Chaozu is left delighted by being rescued. Again, this seems overall rather inconsequential, but then, it only takes 45 minutes of the viewer’s time and has enough feel-good moments to be well worth it for any fan. This is what I want from a shounen movie adaptation – a chance to see characters doing things I can’t anywhere else. And if that means an alternate universe, so be it – after all, that’s tended to be how One Piece does its best movie adaptations.