just a pin prick

this won't hurt a bit

Saturday, November 26, 2005


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Thursday, November 24, 2005

WordPress and Ecto?

May just be the perfect storm. Now I just need to get my domian up in my new host. Install word press. Migrate my articles. And yah, start blogging with pictures!

Rozen Maiden: Traumend

Traumend seems to be fated to follow the template of most anime that find themselves with unexpected success and an obligatory second season. There's a kind of halfway reset button that retains the chronology but reverts most of the character relations unexplicably to some point before the ultimate climax and resolution of the previous series. If you missed Rozen Maiden, it's about a dysfunctionally introverted boy who accidentaly aquires a magical victorian doll, Shinku. She comes to life and forces him to become her servant, promptly involving him in an ancient contest where these dolls are fighting to aquire human form. Aside from the unexpected tribulations and humiliations of being ordered around by a two foot tall porcelin simulcra, our hero undergoes a fairly predictable path of self realization through his struggles. Traumend starts right where the last series left off so you'll have no hope without watching the first season. The opening and closing (though losing the bondage overtones for our hero) are gorgeous and Shinku remains one of the few anime character designs that read as honestly beautiful rather than simply sexy or cute, despite her Elegant Gothic Lolita getup. Her character remains proud and powerful without degenerating into the spoiled brat or evil lady sterotypes that strong females in anime tend to and as a result I find her fascinating. Will the second season have only 4 worthwhile episodes like the first? The content still has weird harem cum soap opera cum magical girl conventions with 'wacky' humor that take the whole thing far from its creepy romantic goth roots. It looks like they're trying to shore up the whole thing with a new White Rabbit figure and more atmosphere, but at best it'll be a good save. Yet Shinku is the only heroine in anime I can recall who's having nightmares about having defeated her antagonist last season, and questions her motivations for proceeding on her quest.Time will tell. There's nothing really like Rozen Maiden, but for an equally dubious helping of cute and funny crossed with goth themes Moon Phase should be considered. This season I hear Blood+ may also serve as a good dark gothic alternative.

Omega Kawaii Of The Year!

With it's Austin Powers garish opening sequence and catchy theme songs Pani Poni Dash is from the very first a frantic, upbeat, surreal comedy for Otaku by Otaku and pity the average viewer who stumbles upon the insanity. Plot and scenario have been dispensed with as much as they can to focus on humor, fan service and visual puns only graduate level Otaku can appreciate. The show is ostensibly about a Rebecca Miyamoto, a thirteen year old prodigy who comes to teach in a Japanese high school. However there is no story arc at all, and each episode is paper thin, such as "what is the new teacher's nickname going to be?" or "Becky lost at rock paper scissors in the teacher lounge and now her class must clean the pool." The school itself is merely an excuse to feature as many cute and well endowed girls as possible. Wth twenty some character introduced in the first three episodes, each is helpfully accompanied by an eyecatch pose and a listing of critical stats. The school is often shown to be merely a stage set, and "camera" crew is often on screen with reflectors and boom mikes. Even most of the generic filler students one expects in the halls and in the classroom are intentionally crudely rendered CG clones. The story and setting are undermined intentionally and humoursly so that everyone can focus on the real point: Girls and geeking out.

Rebecca (or Becky as her students finally decide on) is lazy, selfish, vindictive, brilliant, and fairly adorable at times - she cannot pronounce Massachustes Institute of Technology when asked where she went to school. The rest of the student body works hard at hitting every cute girl sterotype. The beautiful and haughty long haired megane, the study bug, the genki ahoge airhead, the post Osaka odd girl, and the sweet but ditzy girl. The other clasrooms provide girl who collects dangerous pets, cosplay girl, ninja girl, twins, under developed girl, Asuka girl, magical girl and more I've doubtless forgotten. The cast is rounded out with Mr Rabbit, Becky's useless Charlie Brown like pet who is perpetually abused and defeated, God who manifests as a creepy giant cat inside vending machines, and a spaceship full of vouyeristic alien robots who look like a cross between a zaku and that robot from the Yamoto and are incompetently studying Becky as a representative of human life.

With every scene stuffed with one or more visual gags refferencing anime, manga, console games, eroge, and American scifi and fantasy, and plenty of slapstick humor Pani Poni Dash is not quite the Japanese answer to South Park, but it may be the closest thing to Aqua Teen Hunger Force. For ensamble school humor Azumanga Daioh is far more accessible. For cute girls doing cute things, Ichigo Mashimaro beats Becky hands down. But Pani Poni Dash is not just a show, it's a challenege! Only fans are worthy of a subscription to Elfics.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha

Summary Review:

Nanoha is your typical cheerful third grader until she stumbles across a cute magical ware-ferret who unleashes her latent magical power with the help of Raging Heart, a sentient jewel that transforms from magical staff to plasma rilfe. With interdimensional battleships, overly endowed cat girls, maids and a villian who's another magical girl, Nahona is clearly targeted more at the older male fan, yet remains age and sex appropriate for an average Magical Girl viewer. While the story is predictable and Nanoha lacks any significant character arc, her antagonist is tragic and unexpected. The production quality's average, but the geek factor is high. If you're an otaku with roricon sympathies this shows' definately for you, otherwise try Full Metal Panic for geek satisfaction with cute girls, or Kamichu, and Tweeny Witches for really innovative and broadly appealing reimaginings of the magical girl template.

The Whole Story:

Once upon a time in a land across the seas, Magical Girl shows were targeted at preteen girls. Mahou Shojo Lyrical Nanoha and Nanoha A's is only one of several shows over the last couple of years which instead are targeted at crossover audiences such as Kamichu or exclusively male otaku such as Uta Kata. It's an apparently odd phenomenon, but actually seems nearly inevitable when dissected. The otaku were always fans of cute girls in any setting. Sailor Moon had its fans simply due to the skimpy outfits and significant airtime for pretty girls of all styles rivaled only by the incredibly vapid shonen harem anime. In fact the quintissential harem anime Tenchi Muyo, actually spawned a magical girl show. As the heroines got younger over the course of the 90's the fan's tastes followed. Clamp's Card Captor Sakura was a notable milestone for the unusally high production quality in this genre, and the fan targetted convention flouting. Overall the genre focused on coming of age and friendship themes tending to the saccerine, but were broadly accessible and more narratively satisfying than the harem alternatives. Most importantly they provided an alternative at a time the main fanbase was rejecting science fiction, apocalyptic and messianic story telling in the wake of the Ayum cult massacres. Instead, its personal, emotional, yet just as fantastic and heroic.

So what about Nanoha? What makes her so fascinating as to actually have me endure the whole series? Nanoha is in many ways the perfect melding of genre conventions with geek boy sensibilities to create an alternative form of a traditional girl's narrative that becomes a uniquely boy's fiction. Genre defining quality? Definately not. However I'm enough of a geek to understand the appeal, and enough of a dork to be fascinated by the genre's evolution.

Nanoha has a particularly interesting pedigree - spinning off a minor character from a series of computer games (probably hentai I fear) and turning her into a full blown magical heronie.

Her main antagonist, Fate Testarossa (no relation), is another cute magical girl, doubling the visuals and almost completely dispensing with the unappealing villan. Fate's mother fits that role in the first season, but the second season finally hits the right solution with a whole evil magical girl team.

Fate's story is heartbreaking, yet she exhibits tremendous personal fortitude, which makes her really appealing. In a nutshell she's driven to oppose Nanoha out of a desire to please her cruel and manipulative mother. The irony is that Fate is only a simulcra of a dead daughter, who the mother grows to hate as her memories of the real girl become idealized. The more Fate is abused by her mother, the more she becomes desparate to please her and recover the realationship she 'remembers'. Then even when faced with the truth, Fate still tries to save her mother to the end. Her characters is far more interesting and inspiritng than Nanoha's genki girl template.

Fate and Nanoha also have an interesting dynamic which is quasi romantic (ala Card Captors) but definately verges more into the male fan service area. Practicaly the only character interest left to Nanoha is her development of "friendship" with Fate, including separation anxiety, tearful embraces, etc.

There's a ying and yang to Nanoha and Fate in capturing all the possible attributes which might appeal to the audience. Fate's completly age inappropriate fetish wear, with black spandex, capes and red leather straps bracket's Nanoha's unexpectedly demure knee length school uniforms.

But beyond the latent roricon, the catgirls, the live in maids of Nanoha's rich friend, the interdimensional battleship and it's well endowed captain, there's one core element that cements Nanoha as uniquely otaku appealing - she's the only magical girl with a boomstick. Raging Heart is a typical magical jem, granting Nahona her magical powers, however it's CG transformation sequence into a magical staff with voltron like assembly gives you a hint of what's to come. Raging Heart actually has multiple staff forms, and while Nanoha calls her attacks, Raging heart announces her power ups and mode changes in best sidescrolling shooter fashion complete with sexy english computer voice. And there's no sappy sprinkling of happy magical hearts here, Divine Buster and it's kin unleash a blast of destructive energy large enough to make the Yamoto jealous. Once a mission is acomplished, various bits extend and reveal exhaust ports which satisfyingly vent steam as testament to the technomagical powers involved.

The very first episode of the first series has an amazing sequence right after the comercial break of some lovely animation at the dinner table, but that was a true abberation, some kind of guest keyframer.

Overall the first series is not so watchable, but I was tempted into it by seeing the first episode of the second series, which has much higher production quality. The first series is only worthwhile for the tragedy of Fate since she was the only character toreally grow and change. Though it probally won't be all that relavent to enjoy the second.

Will there be something worthwhile eventually in this new genre? I rather doubt it, but honsetly if I'm going idly watch eye paublum I find I can stomach this far more easilly than any harem anime. Now which is more of a geek fest, Nanoha or Pani Poni Dash, that you'll have to decide for yourself. In the meantime...

Shooting Mode. Get Ready. Setup.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Mo' Betta Moe

This article in the Asahi Times paints a frightening picture of the new self aware Otaku. Is it such a stretch to imagine a dystopic future where the sexes are segregated? A bit much I agree, but the first step towards healing is admitting you have a problem, not glorifying and justifying your social retardation and sexual additions.

Of course much the same could be said for Furry. Ugh, complicating this line of thought the Gay Pride parade last weekend lived up to expectations and didn't rise far above the sophistication of a FurCon. At least there was a good 40% of the participants who weren't patheticly out of shape!

Equivalence? Certainly not! Yet there are patterns here worth pondering...

I am gonna get my act together and put up all my thoughts on "Modern Visual Culture" up, which is yet more motivation for a better blog program that can categorize. Gonna hafta migrate though... Ouch!

Blogger sux

Wordpress looks better... and I need a host anyways.

Batman Begins

Well that was definitely the best Batman movie ever, and also quite possibly the best Batman movie that I have any right to expect could get made.

Does that sound like I'm hedging a bit? Well yeah, I enjoyed it, but it was a pretty empty and shallow enjoyment. Stylistically I liked this much better than Tim Burton's version, but in the end I think that was probably the more solid story even though it survives only as a hazy memory for me. I still deeply dislike the weird Goth fantasy of the original, and quite liked the treatment and period of this one, I just didn't like the story.

My real beef was with the Illuminati - they just made things too pat, tied up too many loose ends, and ultimately diminished any future achievements of Batman - once you've saved all human civilization from the shadowy parasitic forces that keep it from flourishing what's a psychotic killer or two? Why couldn't they have just been crazed zealots who believed in violence as a way to lay waste to Western civilization and restore 'balance'? Would've been a heck of a lot more plausible, and dare I say, relevant.

Actually I would have been just as satisfied if the forces of evil were much more mundane and criminal. Superman and Spiderman should be fighting superpowered terrorists - leave to Batman the more sorid criminal element.

I did learn one important creative lesson though - never cheat the audience of honest loss. If you're going to burn your ancestral home, really burn it. Lose it. Replace it with a chrome and glass edifice and a poignant display of your father's burnt possessions. If loss is not real, it's meaningless and loses all dramatic power. Sure it's only a small storytelling flaw in this story, but it sticks with me because I've been tempted to do the same myself. Now I know better, so for that I am very well pleased with my ten bucks and two hours.

I think I probably need a new structure for talking about movies. One that separates the different layers I react to them at. Certainly the synthesized overall impression is the most interesting to most people - should I go see it or not? For fans of the comic book genre and young action movie buffs, buy all means yes! Don't expect genre transcendence, and enjoy the ride. Your girlfriends will really enjoy Cinderella Man more tho'.

But for you my narrow audience I want to dwell on the storytelling minutiae. Criticism not for the sake of judgment, but dissection for the sake of learning. Indulge me and don't think these long deconstructionist seguaes mean I disliked the experience. I enjoyed it, but I thought the antagonist weakened it unnecessarily. I also thought we dwelled too much on Bruce's past, and not enough on the building of the Batman legend. Alfred should have been hurt more, alienated more, and don't get me started on the girl. Bruce should have gotten no further than confused secret and resentful yearning in this movie.

And finally there's the real nits, the personal geek fest. Like how the fast tank really shouldn't lead with two big fat tires, and what's up with the bucking bronco seat action anyhow?!

So like I said, for comic buffs, must see with reasonable expectations. Otherwise, don't even rent with your sweetie, save it for the sick day.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Flag Burning and Property

Now for something completely different!

I know, if you're like me you want to pay as little attention to politics as humanly possible. Nontheless there does come a time when in the course of human affairs you just have to stand up straight and shout at the top of your lungs, "KAAAAAAAAAAAHN!!!" Sometimes you have to talk about politics too.

Flag burning. Yes, it does make you an unpatriotic jerk. However there's a large comfortable space between unpatriotic and treasonous. And being a jerk is hardly illegal, it can even make you rich on television. Why is anyone wasting time on laws trimming rights for the sake of weasly pandering?!

How about instead we get around to enshrineing the one right so obvious to the framers of the Constitution that they didn't bother putting it in the first ten? No, not life, thankfully that's still relatively obvious. Not liberty, they got around to that with good ol' XIII. That's right, property. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of property - or as the latter versions put it, "happiness."

Property, personal possensions and specifically land ownership are the foundation for enfranchisement and investment in a community. A man's house is not just his castle, it's also his stake in society. Eminent domain is always tricky and negotiated as part of the social contract between the governed and the government. When some of the goverened get to usurp that contract simply because they're rich and powerful the entire social contract is at risk...

The latest Supreme Court ruling makes it obvious that we need to spell this out in the Constitution.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Howl's Moving Castle

I really enjoyed it. It was a great movie, but perhaps only a good Miyazaki movie - more inline with his cannon that Mononoke Hime but not as stunning as Spirited Away or Porco Rosso. It's definitely for older kids with several scary violent scenes depicting the wars between the kingdoms. Also uncharacteristically, the story was almost uniformly frenetic, with few of the tranquil still moments of beauty I have grown to expect.

In many ways it felt like more traditional fairytale fare than his other work, which is perhaps not surprising considering the source. Miyazaki's Occidentalisim has obvious crossed a new boundary, directly adapting a western work, whereas before he had at most adapted work by Japanese authors who were Occidentalists themselves. The more western flavor is hard to pin down. Certainly the designs are typical Miyazaki and reflect his fascination with turn of the century technology and insect forms. Something about the little details, roles, relationships, something in the sense of world... Western. I blame the source material, which is nonetheless delightfully fantastic!

The characters were excellent and deeply engaging, particularly Sophie. They formed the real core of this movie in contrast to some of his other work where the world itself is so engaging that it supports the characters and plot. The end of the movie felt rushed and was unsatisfying pat which hurt the complete experience, but the greatest weakness was one of plot and character which I will expand on in a minute.

It also continued his trend of having tour de force set pieces that are grotesque and frightening where in his earlier work that attention was reserved for flying, although there was a brief flying scene in Howl. Nothing compared to the nearly fetishistic scatalogical scenes of Spirited Away but there is a real fascination with the repugnant, perhaps a reflection of Miyazaki's age or his much advertised pessimism.

The equally ballyhooed anti-war sentiments were strangely subdued in my opinion. Porco Rosso felt much more poignant and focused on the personal tragedy of war, and Nausicaa was far preachier. Here the horrors of war were more of an abstract backdrop to a very personal story of conflict. Was Miyazaki unsuccessful? Was more read into his statements by his interviewers? Was he simply hampered by the source material? I dunno, but of all the themes of the movie, the anti war message which I had been keenly expecting seemed rather superficial and perfunctory.

The interesting thing about Miyazaki's latter career focus on the grotesque is how it reflects on his villains and his change in treatment of them. Miyazaki has long been interested in horror, and the contradiction between true nature and external appearance. The insects of Nausicaa, the giant robots of Laupta, Porco himself, all speak to the hidden nature of what is perceived as grotesque by society. Notably the attributes of monstrousness he touches on are universal human predjudices, not at all confined to western or eastern cultures. Nonetheless as his latter films begin to focus more and more on the grotesque, and simultaneously less and less on flight, there's a simultaneous movement to tar both the villain and innocent with a layer of slime, fat and wrinkles. At the same time the nature of the villainy becomes much more personal. Instead of succumbing to the somewhat abstract forces of greed and power hunger, the villains seem increasingly corrupted by cruelty. The evil witches from Spirited Away and Howl have an almost predatory sexual component to them, which puts a whole new spin on the typical wise and wizened old woman character we expect from Miyazaki. This more personal focus on evil itself seems to be a new facet of Occidentalisim as well.

Speaking of wizened old women, Miyazaki seems quite preoccupied with them as well, and the transformation of our young heroine into one provides the impetus for the plot of Howl's Moving Castle. In a way Sophie is a completely atypical Miyazaki heroine. She is anything but noble, pure, energetic or confident. She's trapped and insecure, cut off and lonely. Even a chance encounter with a powerful wizard doesn't really knock her out of her comfortable mental and emotional captivity. However being cursed into an old woman does - one of the greatest joy's of Howl is watching Sophie blossom as a person even as her place in society and her body itself wither. Howl's Moving Castle can be seen as a pair of Beauty and the Beast stories, where Sophie and Howl discover a character inside each other's monstrous bodies worth knowing and ultimately saving.

However that's also where the story falls short. Sophie's transformation energizes the first part of the movie, but Howl is instantly seductive. Though initially daunting and soon revealed as a monstrous brat, Sophie and the audience soon see the core of Howl's character as kind and noble. The middle lags because Howl seems to instinctively see through Sophie's curse. Unlike the traditional Beast he doesn't suffer from anxiety about his form, so the curse would lead one to expect that his challenge would be seeing through Sophie's, especially given how immature he is. Instead he seems to know her from the first, and there's little satisfying progression to his interest in her. In the end, the story regains some energy when Sophie's must make some hard choices but Howl's side of the story stays unsatisfying blank. Both characters are vivid and memorable, but their relationship remains a sketch, which was a real shame.

So now I've ordered the book to see if I can puzzle out a little better which piece fits where in the great enigma of Miyazaki's career!

Monday, May 30, 2005

Harry Potter Eat Your Heart Out!

Mauho Shoujo Tai aka Tweeny Witches officially kicks ass!

It's a Tim Burton take on the Final Fantasy world, where a tweenage girl (hence the English name) gets spirited into a world of fantasy and mayhem that doesn't confrom in the least to her expectations of a happy magical wonderland of good witches and cute fairies. It is however extremely well suited to her sassy and rebellious nature so she seems to have a shot at surviving!

It's an odd format, 40 episodes of 8 minutes each. Yet each episode is completely packed with story, instead of static panning shots or slow paced dialouge - the show is frenetic! There's plenty of artsy shot compositions desigend to cut down to the costs of lipsynching, and plenty of implied instead of animated action, but because the shots are quite stylishly composed, you really wont mind. More events of more significance have been crammed into the first 16 minutes of this gem than you usally get in a normal 30 minute episode.

Finally I have to give a nod to the character design which really breaks out of the typical Japanese anime look for an flat illustrative look that seems born of small press American comics. This site has plenty of screen grabs - and is all in French so it's casual spoiler proof!

If the story keeps pace with the richnes of the first two episodes this will definately be one of the best shows of the year!