Thursday, February 5, 2015

Music Review: 2014 Honourable Mentions, Part 2

Previously on the SDP, I shared my thoughts on songs that didn't quite make my top-ten and bottom-ten lists of 2014.  That list continues now.

by Pharell Williams
from G.I.R.L.
Year-end position: #1

Once again, America's number-one song of the year is one I'd consider a good song.  Actually, "Happy" is not just a song, it's a state of mind, because everything in this song comes together to create the titular mood.  However, there's a reason why this song didn't make my top-ten list.  The entire final minute of this 4-minute track is repeated parts from the rest of the song.  And it's bad enough that that the song tries to get too much mileage out of its hook even after repeating it once.  That's what Weird Al Yankovic's parody version, "Tacky" has over the original.  Not only did he end the song at the 3-minute mark, but he also changed the lyrics for each repetition of the chorus.  If "Happy" had ended at the same point, it would have been much stronger for it.  Heck, it could even have contended for #1 on this list, were that the case!  But as it is, "Happy" is still a fun song, just a little too long and repetitive for its own good.

"Hey Brother"
by Avicii
from True
Year-end position: #60

One of the songs I considered for 2013's top-ten list was Avicii's Aloe Blacc's "Wake Me Up".  Another year gone, and another of Avicii's singles has gone through the charts (in addition to "Wake Me Up" again).  Pretty much, everything I had to say about that song, good and bad, I could apply to "Hey Brother".  With two exceptions: I like this song better for its darker melody; it sounds like the sight of storm clouds gathering on the horizon, if that makes any sense.  But two: why pray tell doesn't the actual singer, a mister Dan Tyminski, get a featuring credit?

"La La La"
by Naughty Boy & Sam Smith
from Hotel Cabana
Year-end position: #82

See: "Latch".

by Disclosure & Sam Smith
from Settle
Year-end position: #28

Believe it or not, I wanted to put this on both my top-ten and bottom-ten lists, because this song is so, once again, "Janusian".  What's good about it?  Well, the beat, first of all.  The musical production provided by Disclosure sounds like music of the future, which I surprisingly don't get from a lot of EDM these days.  So where does it go wrong?  The chorus, that's where.  First of all, Sam Smith abruptly shifts his voice up an octave, into screechy territory.  But more than anything, the lyrics go from him simply expressing a crush in the verses, to being a possessive stalker in these parts.  If any other song from the Settle album had been a hit, it would've secured a spot on my top-ten list with no questions asked, but "Latch" was a tougher sell.

"My [noun] / My Hitta"
by YG, Jeezy, and Rich Homie Quan
from My Krazy Life
Year-end position: #58

I probably should have put this song on my bottom-ten, and indeed I almost did. But what is there to say about a song with a DJ Mustard beat, and whose hook (in the explicit version) is almost just a repeated profanity?  Sorry, I've got nothing.

"She Looks So Perfect"
by 5 Seconds of Summer
from 5 Seconds of Summer
Year-end position: #93

I wanted to put this on my list simply for the following line from the chorus: "She looks so perfect standing there / In my American Apparel underwear". The most glaring issue with that couplet is the use of a brand name like American Apparel. Now, I don’t know if that was paid product placement or not, but either way, stunts like that just take you out of the moment, you know? Also, from what I can gather, "she" is currently wearing mens’ underwear. Does this, by any chance include an undershirt? If not... I guess I understand why she looks so perfect to you… Still awkward. But in the face of other teen idols, I can’t stay mad at 5SOS for long. For one, they’ve got more of a rock edge to their music, compared to not only other teen idols but other pop acts in general. Case in point: one of their more recent songs is a cover of "What I Like About You", which actually improves upon its source version in a number of ways. So I suppose I’d be happy to let them into my life, just as long as they keep "She Looks So Perfect" as far away from me as possible.

by Jason Derulo
from Tattoos [EP] / Talk Dirty
Year-end position: #61

I put two Jason Derulo songs pretty "high" on my bottom-ten list, and suffice it to say they were both freaking terrible. But absent from that tied spot was his latest single, "Trumpets". Quite frankly, I find it weird more than anything else. This ode to synesthesia is loaded with all kinds of awkward moments, from the cheesy synth trumpets, to the references to Kanye West, Katy Perry, and Coldplay. And of course, Derulo’s voice is unbearable as always. But in the face of "Talk Dirty", which was offensive in its snobbery, and "Wiggle", which operated on a more so-bad-it’s-good level, "Trumpets"'s version of bad just wasn’t as potent.

"Turn Down For What"
by DJ Snake and Lil' Jon
non-album single
Year-end position: #

I said a few words about this song in my blurb for "Animals", which made my bottom-ten list.  To summarise: Yes, "Turn Down For What" can sound abrasive upon first listen.  But by being exposed to worse EDM, like the aformentioned "Animals" or "Summer", one can appreciate what this song gets right.  Each "verse" brings with it a new musical movement, and each of those is brken up every few measures with a minor variation, such as a change in pitch or an added drum track.  Perhaps most importantly, the beat never feels tooty or repetitive.  But let's not kid ourselves, Lil' Jon is what holds this song together.  It takes a strong presence to truly sell the rebellious ideals of getting "turnt up".  Rock and roll might be dying, but its ideals live on with the King of Crunk.

"Wild Wild Love"
by Pitbull & GRL
from Globalization
Year-end position: #N/A

I may have buried the hatchet with Pitbull over the past year or so, but I am still not willing to stick my proverbial neck out in his defence, either. Songs like "Wild Wild Love" are reasons why "The Artist Formerly Known As Mr. 305" isn’t ready for prime time in my book. "Wild Wild Love" is one of those songs wherein the chorus and the verses have nothing in common with each other, almost as if they were planned for two different songs entirely. The former, performed by the girl-group GRL, seem to tell the tale of a relationship fraught with both risk and reward; one that is both a blessing and a curse, in their words. So what, specifically, does this entail? Well, [verb] me if I know, because in lieu of elaborating on this intriguing development, Pitbull chose to focus on his fame and fortune -- you know, like in every other one of his songs. Even the musical stylings of their two parts are detached from each other -- acoustic pop-rock for GRL’s parts and electro hip-hop for Pit’s -- which in itself serves as a metaphor for how broken this song turned out.

"White Walls"
by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Schoolboy Q and Hollis
from The Heist
Year-end position: #92

I'll keep this brief, because I plan to do a full review of The Heist.  2013 VIP Macklemore wrote a song about a custom car, apparently.  Any boob with a mic could pull that off, right?  Not the way he does it.  In "White Walls", he doesn't just rap about owning the car, he spits off lines (and impressively fast lines, too) about all the work he put into getting the money for it.  You just don't hear about that kind of dedication from most rappers these days.  Including the guest on this very song, a mister Schoolboy Q.  It's not a bad verse; there are some halfway clever lyrics to be had within.  But once again, his part's more about the destination than the journey.  I think life should be the other way around, although I have read more than my share of motivational posters in my day.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Music Review: 2014 Honourable Mentions, Part 1

For the past few years now, I've supplemented my top-ten and bottom-ten hit song lists with separate articles for the runner-up songs.  And while I am carrying on that tradition for 2014, I thought I'd do things a little differently this time.  I was going to do an article for the honourable mentions that missed the top ten, and the (dis)honourable mentions of the bottom ten, but as I put these lists together, I realised that some of these songs blurred the lines of being good and bad.  If you'll remember from one of my past reviews, I've started calling these kinds of things "Janusian", meaning they posess both good and bad qualities.  So, for this year I'm lumping both sets of honourable mentions together in alphabetical order.  Let's begin.

"Ain't It Fun"
by Paramore
from Paramore
Year-end position: #47

America, you don't know what you're missing when you keep shunning true rock music.  Maybe that was a bad way to start this paragraph, because Paramore and their single "Ain't It Fun" actually did pretty well this year.  But Paramore are one of the few mainstream acts who can pull off a song like this.  It's a sarcastic statement to anyone leaving the lap of luxury and expecting more than they actually get.  And while Hayley Williams can make sarcasm sound appealing, I was a little put off by the lyrical dissonance, however.  The music, which reminds me of a major-key version of Banarama's "Cruel Summer", comes across as a bit too happy for what the song is really about.  For that reason, I just know some advert or trailer's gonna take the title phrase ("Ain't it fun / living in the real world") at face value.

by Nicki Minaj
from The Pinkprint
Year-end position: #36

Songs like this are why I chose not to break up my honourable mentions list by whether they were cut from my top-ten or my bottom-ten lists, because its good and bad qualities balance each other out.  I actually reviewed "Anaconda" late last year, and I have to say I've warmed up to it since then.  The lyrics it samples from "Baby Got Back" are wasted in their brevity and repetition, but the musical aspects of that song are enhanced.  Nicki's performance is over-the-top stupid in certain parts and rapid-fire fun in others.  And while there's something to be said about a woman using her sex appeal to do stuff, Nicki in this song does so just in the name of getting some luxury posessions out of it.  But when you consider that most hip-hop over the past couple of years has gone down the dreary route of espousing their lifes' luxuries with zero enthusiasm whatsoever for them, I say we should give songs like "Anaconda" a bit more credit.

"Bang Bang"
by Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj
from Sweet Talker
Year-end position: #27

Some songs you respect because they do something smart or original, and some songs you like just because they're fun.  "Bang Bang" is the latter, but it does have some good concepts as well.  I enjoyed hearing Jessie J and Ariana Grande's playful competition of trying to hook up with the man du jour, sort of like a gender-swapped (and better) version of Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney's "The Girl Is Mine".  The Nicki Minaj verse isn't about anything really, but it's fast, furious, and fun, and somehow is arguably the best thing she's done all year.  And with lazy minimalism apparently being the norm for 2014, it's refreshing to hear a beat with so much going on.  Background harmony vocals are used effectively to build a faux-Motown style of production.  That's all I ask, really, for producers to put a little more work into their pop songs.

"Boom Clap"
by Charli XCX
from Sucker
Year-end position: #34

I relished every time I heard "Boom Clap", for the same general reason I liked that other onomatopeia-based song, "Bang Bang" from the last paragraph.  And to think it should come from Charli XCX, of all people.  I'm one of the few people who hated her on Icona Pop's "I Love It" from last year, on account of her sounding so shrill and in-your-face.  But weirdly, I thought she was one of the best parts of Iggy Azalea's "Fancy", for much the same reason.  And when "Boom Clap" came around, she finally managed to tone herself down just enough to not turn me off, but still keep enough presence to make a memorable performance.  Among the silly love songs of 2014, "Rather Be" had that little bit extra musically to give it the edge, but "Boom Clap" is nonetheless catchy and, like the heartbeat it imitates, feels like being in love.

by Sia
from 1000 Forms of Fear
Year-end position: #25

Maybe it’s just my hair-trigger cynicism talking, but I gather, the universe hates me right now. I thought we had finally ridden ourselves of Rihanna, the mistress of mediocrity in music, only for the Rihanna knockoffs to crawl out of the woodwork in 2014. Specifically I am referring to former indie darling Sia, of all people, for her work on the single "Chandelier". (Indeed, Sia did write the song for Rihanna or Beyonce before deciding to record it hserself.) She -- pretty much literally -- mumbles her way through most of the song, except for the choruses. At least those parts are belted out well, but the morose music -- which I can best describe as a sort of hip-hop version of "Adagio for Strings" -- is at an unfortunate loggerhead against the lyrics about tearin’ the place up and having a good time as if you wouldn’t have tomorrow to do so. I appreciate these wannabe party anthems having an emotion of some kind, but that emotion should not be sadness or desolation.  Heck, "Fancy" was more of a feel-good party song than this -- and its beat was a second-rate DJ Mustard knockoff!

At least, that's what I thought before I discovered what the song was about.  Apparently it's about being high.  An admirable choice of topic, honestly; that would explain the somber tone of the music, creating dissonance with the party-party-party lyrics in order to encompass the entire spectrum of moods associated with substance use.  But it's not good enough to get on my top-ten list for the following reasons.  One, as I mentioned before, Sia's voice on this track is so slurred as to render these concepts unintelligible until I read the lyrics separately.  And two, we already have a song about this sort of thing.  But whereas "Chandelier" focuses more on the moment of the high, "Habits (Stay High)" takes a wider view on the subject, and for that reason I personally gravitate towards the latter song.

"Dark Horse"
by Katy Perry & Juicy J
from PRISM
Year-end position: #2

"Dark Horse" is like one of those "beware the femme fatale"-type songs of old, except from the point of view of the lady herself. An admirable concept, I must admit, but even that long-range pass gets fumbled at the hands of clumsy lyrics. For example, of the many metaphors one could use to describe a woman capable of both great loving and great wrath, "dark horse" should not be one of them. I get that you’re trying to conjure an image of power with those words, but last I checked, "dark horse" is supposed to mean an ignored entity capable of a come-from-behind victory. Also, there’s a guest rap verse by a mister Juicy J, whose only defining feature is that he is a former member of Three 6 Mafia. I’ll give him this: his part at least tries to tie into the central theme of the song, which is more than I expect from most rappers of his ilk. But Juicy J is so generic as a rapper that you could replace his part with, for example, the first verse from Jay-Z's "Holy Grail" and no one would notice.

"Do What U Want"
by Lady Gaga & R. Kelly
from Artpop
Year-end position: #84

These days is seems every artist, independent and mainstream alike, with a drop of electro blood in their body is turning to '80s aesthetics for their grooves, and Lady Gaga's "Do What U Want" has one of the grooviest of them all, if I may say so myself.  And it even has a well-deserved point: one of defiance.  The title phrase is a middle finger to the paparazzi who, try as they might, will never control who she is on the inside.  So, why didn't this get on the list?  Because R. Kelly's verse has nothing to do with the rest of the song.  Worse, he flipped the title to sing about doing what he wants to her body.  And we all know what happened when he did what he wanted to some other girl's body!  (If you need a hint, listen to the first verse of Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" again.)  I still love this song, and if I could find it in myself to put a Pitbull song on my top ten, maybe I should've made room for this as well.  Still, it's a bit too "Janusian" to give it full honours.

"Don’t Tell 'Em"
by Jeremih & YG
from Late Nights
Year-end position: #42

"Don’t Tell 'Em" was on my bottom-ten list for a while because it was the biggest hit out of all of this year’s DJ Mustard productions, but I in the end I had more important things to deal with. But oh boy, did this song get on my nerves by popularity alone. Sung by perennial R&B also-ran Jeremih, this song is supposed to be about keeping one’s romantic activities with a girl on the down-low, but as usual, you wouldn’t get that impression if you were to listen to the verses alone. And there’s a tepid rap verse by a mister YG which does nothing of note, except for the opening line "I got a missed call from your [noun]". If nothing else, I have drawn some amusement from the thought that said two-timing girlfriend is calling about something other than sexy time. But such extraneous ideas do not save the song by any means. It might be too drastic (and racist) to call DJ Mustard’s stylings the musical counterpart to ebola, but it certainly is spreading, and it’s caused me great (mental) pain.

To be continued...

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Film Review: End of Evangelion

End of Evangelion
  • Publisher: Toei (JP), Manga Entertainment (NA)
  • Studios: Kadokawa Shoten, TV Tokyo, Sega Corporation, Production I.G, Movic, Starchild, Gainax
  • Genre: Science-fiction
  • Release: 19 July 1997 (JP)
  • Directors: Katsuya Tsurumaki (Episode 25'), Hideaki Anno (Episode 26')
  • Producer: Matsuhisa Ishikawa
  • Writer: Hideaki Anno
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Neon Genesis Evangelion.  And at the risk of spoiling that review, I thought it was quite good -- up until the final two episodes, that is, which left all its twisted plot threads hanging in favour of a whole mess of amateur philosophising.  Apparently things got so bad in that regard, that the powers concerned had to make not one, but two feature films to follow it up with.  The first, Death and Rebirth, is essentially a recap of the series.  But the second one, 1997's End of Evangelion... hoo boy, let's just say it's the one everybody talks about.

"Oh my gosh... Asuka has... boobs!  WHY DID NO ONE WARN ME!?"
We open on Shinji Ikari (EN: Spike Spencer, JP: Megumi Obata) standing at the hospital bedside of Asuka Langley Soryu (EN: Tiffany Grant, JP: Yuko Miyamura).  She's been comatose since the end of the original series, having... had a little run-in with the plot.  He shakes her in a vain effort to wake her, when he accidentally slips off her gown and...  Well, this franchise's reputation being what it is, you probably know what happens next.  And if you don't know, well, I shan't say it because I take my self-inforced PG rating very seriously, but suffice it to say, Shinji is dead right when he says, "I'm so [verb]ed up."

Meanwhile, the secret organisation SEELE, from whom spawned the less-secret organisation NERV, is having a little discussion.  You see, they've got this grand master plan to trigger something called the Human Instrumentality project.  You'd be forgiven for not knowing what it is at this point, even if you've watched the original series, which was less than explanatory on that front.  But anyway, SEELE has decided that this whole NERV thing isn't working out, so they decided to cut their losses -- the hard way.  First they try to hack NERV's computer network in an abridged, yet otherwise shot-for-shot, remake of one of the episodes.  And when that doesn't work, they send an army in to invade the place.

All the while, we get a running commentary from the officers of NERV's command centre.  You may have noticed that their voice-actors have changed in the English dub, and not for the better.  This does not extend to the entire cast, thankfully; the main characters (Shinji, Misato, Rei, Asuka, etc.) share the same actors for both the original series and EoE, and their performances are just as strong as before, if not better.  But everyone else is just phoning it in.  There may be a reason for this: ADV Films, who licenced and dubbed the original series for North America, balked at the prospect of taking on the films in addition, so instead Manga Entertainment picked them up.  That they were able to bring back as many actors as they did is a blessing, don't get me wrong, but on all other accounts the dub kinda sucks.

During the ordeal, Misato Katsuragi (EN: Allison Keith, JP: Kotono Mitsuishi) has her moment of glory when she rescues Shinji from some SEELE troops who have him at gunpoint.  I didn't have the time to bring it up in my review of the original series, but Misato-chan is one of my favourite characters from the Evangelion franchise.  During the series, she pulls double-duty as a ranking officer at NERV, and as Shinji and Asuka's legal guardian.  In the early episodes, before the show's infamous depression has a chance to set in, she drives some comedic scenes with her hard-drinking, lazy, and lusty personality -- in a cute way, of course.  But that's just at the home.  On the clock, she's the one who concocts all the plans to take down all the Angels who show up to tear humanity a new one.  And considering how close the Angels get to doing so, Misato deserves heaps of credit.

Back to EoE, Asuka has somehow awaken and is dispatched with her Eva unit to distract the enemy forces.  Which she does.  And how is she rewarded?  By SEELE unleashing their newest weapon: a series of mass-produced Eva units.  She does great against them too, in an intense fight scene which unfortunately they have to keep cutting back and forth from.  But then, a wild Lance of Longinus appears and impales Asuka's Eva, giving the others the chance to tear it up like vultures on some carrion.  And thus, Asuka Langley Soryu is killed off.  And there was much rejoicing.  ...Not.  Shinji, meanwhile, is in his own Eva unit as he watches the carnage unfold.  To put it lightly, he is not amused.

The end.

+ Performances of the returning cast members are as strong as ever.
+ Better, and more consistent, animation quality.
+ Say what you want about the ending, at least it's artistically daring.
- The replacement actors are pretty dang bad.
- The incomprehensible ending.

Acting (English): 3 MP Evas out of 5
Acting (Japanese): 5 MP Evas out of 5
Writing: 3 MP Evas out of 5
Aesthetics: 5 MP Evas out of 5
Technical: 4 MP Evas out of 5
The Call: 75% (B-)

Not really.  See, this film is divided into two acts, essentially replacing the final two episodes of the series.  They have their own episode numbers and titles ("25': Love is Destructive" and "26': One More Final: I Need You"), and the credits start at the end of the first act, as if ending the movie half-way (and on quite a tragic note, at that).  Of the two acts, only the second was directed by Hideaki Anno.  And... well, it shows.  To start off, Shinji's father Gendo (EN: Tristan MacAvery, JP: Fumihiko Tachiki) is holding a little ritual to initiate Third Impact -- you know, that thing they've been trying to avoid this whole series -- and with it, Instrumentality.  Which he does by pushing his arm into the body of his naked clone daughter, Rei Ayanami (EN: Amanda Winn-Lee, JP: Megumi Hayashibara).  But when that doesn't work, she instead fuses with Lilith, an Angel captured by NERV before the series started.  In doing so, she grows to gigantic proportions (still nude), Shinji's Eva gets trapped and sorta-crucified by the MP Evas, and then... well... stuff happens.

You may have noticed that this movie, and Neon Genesis Evangelion on the whole,
uses lots of random religious imagery, like the cross and the Tree of Life above.
Whether or not this means anything is your choice, 'cause it's beyond me. OTL
If you're familiar with the original series, then chances are you know about its many scenes wherein Shinji and company contemplate the meaning of their existence, and existence in general to various degrees, all set to barely-animated images.  Well, guess what -- just when you thought you were out of the woods, they did it again.  Anno-sama has totally relapsed in that regard.  I'm not saying these scenes don't have merit.  Like many shots from the original series, they are creatively arranged, and unlike many shots from the original series, they have some actual resources put into them.  But I don't know, the moment Shinji starts whining about how the world would be been better off without him, I just tune out.  And that does a true disservice to the story they were trying to tell, or at least the story we expected from them.

In the interest of constructive criticism, here's a tip I picked up from an episode of Zero Punctuation, of all places: "Is this the most exciting part of the character's life?  If not, why aren't we witnessing it?"  I guess the viewer of EoE is left disappointed because what's going on outside of Shinji's head is far more interesting than inside.  The time spent with his internal monologue could have been better spent setting up what happens outside of Shinji's head.  Like, there's this one scene where a bunch of Rei clones show up and hug everyone left alive in NERV's base until they explode into an orange liquid (which by the way, is what Instrumentality entails).  It would've been nice to see the how Rei clones got there instead of being dropped into that scene in medias res.  But hey, that never stopped Call of Duty from pulling that on us!

But there is a point to all this.  ...Sort of.  With the human race assimilated into pools of Tang, it's up to Shinji to decide whether he likes it this way, or if humanity should be put back the way it was.  He starts out the second act inclined towards the former, but throughout these moments of contemplation, shifts his stance towards the latter.  Shinji's will be done, Instrumentality is undone and humanity is restored back to its former state, more or less.  Yeah, the oceans are red now, there's a giant half of a head laying around, and the only humans we see about are Shinji and Asuka, but you know, close enough.  And that's it.  Not even a credits sequence to go out on, because we already got that out of the way.  You are now free to turn off your TV.

You maniacs!  You blew it up!
I do hope I was instrumental (no pun intended) in helping you understand this movie.  But having written all these past words, I think it was otherwise pointless reviewing End of Evangelion.  Whatever praises and criticisms I wheeled out for it are mostly the same as what I did for the original series.  I liked it most when it was an over-the-top giant-robot show, and I liked it least when it retreated into bouts of navelgazing at the expense of the outside plot.  And it's not like those scenes don't have a right to be there, after all, I applaud the daring more often than not.  But if you're going to pull that junk on us, could you at least have a point to it all?  At the end of it all, my verdict is this: Better to have watched this film and gone, "what the [verb]", than to have not watched it all.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Editorial: Enough Lolis Already!

Japan, we need to talk.

I've been an enthusiast and consumer of your contemporary visual media, by which I mean anime and manga, for a considerable chunk of my lifespan by now.  And as with any other artistic medium, over the years I have become cognisant of the more sultry corners of those industries.  That, taken alone, is not a bad thing.  But within those adult-oriented ghettos, I'm witnessing a disturbing trend.  More and more with each passing year, we get various kinds of products, both from the professional and amateur circles, which employ the fictional depictions of underage characters in sexual situations.  And I'm not alone in noticing this: after several false starts in writing an article on the subject, I caught a documentary on BBC radio which spurred my internal dialogue once again.

An example of "loli" content from Kodomo no Jikan,
which even had to be censored for its TV broadcast (above).
Said documentary investigates and discusses the topic of "lolicon".  The term is short for "Lolita complex", and was named after The Lolita Complex, a psychological hoax of a book written by Russell Trainer, which was in turn named after the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.  In modern practise, "lolicon" is the use of noticeably underage female characters in some degree of sexual situations and an illustrated context, and the sexual attraction of such held by its fans.  There's also a gender-swapped counterpart named "shotacon", (named after Shotaro Kaneda, the main character of the sixties giant-robot anime Gigantor).  Now, I'm not into any of that stuff, what with western ideals of beauty being geared towards a certain... older age.  But apparently plenty of Japanese anime and manga consumers are, even those who have healthy interpersonal relationships in the real world.  So how bad could it be...?

Please bear in mind the following points as I go on.  1) I am against sexual exploitation of real-world minors in the real world, especially if they are used against their will and consent.  That kind of depravity is bad.  It is wrong.  "Badong", even.  But here's the thing: real-life juniors are not employed, much less harmed, in the creation of these lolicon/shotacon products.  At least I hope not...

2) I am a stalward supporter of freedom of speech and creation, so long as it does not infringe directly upon the personal rights of others.  Come to think of it, this debate reminds me of one we've been having here in America for some time now, about whether or not violent content in video games inspires its consumers to engage in similar acts.  I am strongly against that being the case, and if someone does indeed take such inspiration to perpetrate that kind of crime, that's his problem personally.  Back on point, I suppose I could apply that same line of thinking to the lolicon issue, however my personal disdain for the thing softens my edge somewhat.

Yoko from Gurren Lagann.
Surely she's an adult, right?  ...Right?
And 3) I say this as a huge fan of contemporary Japanese visual media.  I'm not saying any of this to condemn the scene and make it go away; I'm bringing up these issues in an effort that these specific problems may be corrected and make life better for the rest of us.  But seriously, folks, Japan's relationship with age is jacked.  Case in point: This lovely vixen you see to the side of this paragraph is Yoko, one of the main characters from the show Gurren Lagann.  As you can see, she's got a face that makes my heart melt, and a body that makes my... "Sex Pistol" hard.  It helps that Yoko-chan is typically portrayed wearing little more than a bikini and hotpants.  Heck, the swimsuit she wears in the show's "beach episode" covers more of her torso than her default costume does!  Also, she's fourteen.


Yeah, the second half of that show takes place a few years in the future, but this was our first impression of Yoko-chan.  I don't know about you, but when I need to envision a fourteen-year-old, I don't think Yoko-chan.  I think Ellie from The Last of Us.  And this isn't limited to the pornographic sphere; teenage heroes are everywhere in manga and anime.  I remember stuff from the '90s like Sailor Moon, Neon Genesis Evangelion, even Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, where the main characters were fourteen, fifteen years old but whose body types were a bit more on the grown-up side than today's loli fare.  Of course, if these girls were to suddenly take on a corporeal form I'd know better than to do them; I've built a pretty strong mental barrier in that regard.  Again, rape is "badong".  And yet, Nadia-chan in particular is still my "waifu" after all these years, but I am fast approaching the age where it would be creepy to admit that.  Ay, me.  Still, I have my limits; if the girl looks any younger than the examples I listed in this paragraph, you can count me out.

Perhaps this fascination with taking on fantastic adventures in one's youth is just a cultural thing, as parodied by this Scandinavia and the World comic.  Or perhaps it's universal: we will always need main characters whom we can relate to, and the sad truth is that a lot of our stories are geared towards those of us in the midst of growing up.  And the Internet being what it is, there's always someone out there ready to re-interpret these stories to fulfill the sexual fantasies of themselves and others.  You know, "Rule 34" and all that.

Going back to the topic of bringing up social problems for the sake of having them fixed, this Lolita Complex... complex brings with it... complex implications for the future of Japan itself.  According to the resources cited on the Wikipedia page about the demographics of Japan, the country has suffered a shrinking population for a few years running, despite an increasing life expectancy.  You may not notice it by visiting the place these days, but Japan's economy suffered a really bad recession in the early 90s, and depending on whom you talk to, has yet to recover fully.  Thus, we have dating-age women who a generation ago would have been content to live out as housewives for the many well-off suitors available, but these days must be more proactive in picking out a suitable husband.  But the stress of this romantic competition instead drives men away from the real dating scene, and towards the more docile girls of the virtual realms.

This is probably not the only factor in Japan's depopulation, and I do not claim to be an expert on the subject, but that doesn't mean I still don't hold within me wishes to improve the future of one of my favourite nations.  And yet I admit that solving the matter myself is an improbability, not to mention the implications of imposing the culture I happen to follow upon another culture entirely.  Remember, you're reading the words of someone from "World Police" America.  So allow me to just put this suggestion out there that maybe, the Japanese should take the effort themselves to embrace older characters, and maybe the medium would be a more respectable place.

Then again, if I really wanted to instill any real change in Japan, I should have done it in their own language.  D'oh.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Film Review: The Wind Rises

Previously on the SDP, I discussed the Studio Ghibli film The Wind Rises on two occasions.  First, I discussed its ramifications in the context of the Japanese political right, and second, I lamented its lack of exposure and acclaim from my own country.  But between the time I first saw it in theatres and when I got to re-watch it on home video, The Wind Rises became, to me, less of an actual product and more of an icon, an ideal, something I chose to stand for.  But now that it finally came out on home video and I've had a chance to re-watch it, how does it stand against my mind's interpretation of it?

The Wind Rises
  • Publisher: Toho (JP), Touchstone Pictures (US)
  • Studio: Studio Ghibli
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release: 20 July 2013 (JP), 21 February 2014 (US)
  • Director: Hayao Miyazaki
  • Producer: Toshio Suzuki
  • Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
The Wind Rises bills itself as a fictionalised biography of a one Jiro Horikoshi (EN: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, JP: Hideaki Anno), a Japanese airplane designer active in the 1920s and '30s.  Sounds like a boring idea for an animated movie, doesn't it?  Well if you thought that, A) you suck, and B) Studio Ghibli has ways to punch it up every once in a while.  At points throughout the movie, the plot is intercut with Jiro's dreams, where he interacts with a mister Giovanni Caproni (EN: Stanley Tucci, JP: Nomura Mansai), a real-life Italian plane designer who inspires him to embark down a similar path in life.  And indeed Jiro does go down that path, studying aviation in high school and eventually landing a job with the Mitsubishi company, all the while accompanied by his friend Kiro Honjo (EN: John Krasinski, JP: Hidetoshi Nishijima).

The character of Honjo stuck out to me, in what few scenes he took part in, because of his commentary on the state of Japan at the time.  This movie takes place, at the latest, half a century after the Meiji Revolution brought Japan back onto the world stage, but even then, the nation's industry and modernisation was a work in progress.  The Japanese of the time might have been able to make airplanes, but they were still using wood-and-canvas frames whereas their peers in Germany, the United States, and what-have-you had advanced to full-metal models.  Perhaps this state of affairs is best encapsulated in an observation Honjo makes, that they still use oxen to transport prototype planes to the takeoff/landing site.  It's as if the whole of Japan is a character in and of itself, having its own character arc and all that.

So as you witness this transition take place over the course of the movie, you'd be forgiven for thinking The Wind Rises is taking a nationalistic standpoint on history.  You may also feel troubled if you know your basic 20th century history, because this development also led to the Japanese Empire thinking it could get away with bringing its neighbours under its fold -- the hard way.  But The Wind Rises is surprisingly apolitical about the whole thing.  If anything, it's against war in general, which for the record is also the point of Miyazaki-sama himself.  There are a few lines in the script when Jiro states disapproval of how his creations were used for such destruction, but at the end of the day he is proud of his contributions to the field of aviation.  As he and Signior Caproni discussed in one of their dreams, he'd still rather live in a world with the dreams of aviation realised.  There's even a moment when Jiro discusses how to cut the weight from one of his models, and he half-jokingly suggests they take out the guns altogether.  But, I ask of Horikoshi-san, if you don't want your planes to be used for war, then what, pray tell, is their purpose?  It's not like these planes can carry a suitable volume of passengers for peaceful air travel!  What did you think would happen when you decided to design fighter planes!?  Oh well, you know what they say -- the road to Heck is paved with frozen door-to-door salesmen -- I mean, good intentions.

The Jiro/Naoko romance scenes are sweet
but have little impact on the plot.
So going through the movie, Jiro's career goes through a few ups and downs, until one particular failure causes him to take a sabbatical at a mountain resort, wherein he meets up with Naoko Satomi (EN: Emily Blunt, JP: Miori Takimoto).  The two spark up a romance in due time, which goes unextinguished even when he learns that she suffers from tuberculosis, thus casting a shadow of impermanance over their relationship.  My problem with this romantic sub-plot is that it doesn't exactly have any say on the main plot of Jiro's career, which especially jarring considering that it doesn't start until about an hour in to the film's runtime.  And, in fact, it never even happened to the real Jiro Horikoshi.  This little diversion comes from a novel also titled "The Wind Rises", written by Tatsuo Hori in 1937.  (Hori-san is, at least, given a dedication slide at the end of the film, along with Horikoshi-san.)  Remember when I said this movie was a "fictionalised biography"?  Yeah, that's why.

It is a perfectly fine romance, don't get me wrong.  I like a good tug at the ol' heartstrings every once in a while, and indeed the Jiro/Naoko sub-plot does this every once in a while, for example when he hears about her lung haemmorhage, or when his boss holds an impromptu wedding for the young couple.  All in all, it still leaves me with a warm and fuzzy feeling, and as my praise for the similarly emotional Kaleido Star indicates, this is a positive quality in my book.  But you could cut out Naoko's scenes and not only would The Wind Rises not suffer for it, but it would bring the film's 127-minute running time down to a more manageable length.

Whilst on the subject of this film's flaws, I thought the English voice cast was a tad hit-or-miss.  Actually, I can think of only one miss, but it's a big one.  Maybe Joseph Gordon-Levitt wasn't the best choice for this role.  Why couldn't this Honjo guy have been the main character?  Or at the very least, why couldn't his actor have portrayed Jiro instead of Mr. JGL?  The same goes for the Japanese track, where the lead character is played by Hideaki Anno, of all people.  (If you don't know, this guy created numerous anime series back in the day, and was even an employee at Studio Ghibli once.)  There are more engaging performances sprinkled among the supporting cast, such as the aforementioned Honjo-san, Jiro's boss Mr. Kurokawa (EN: Martin Short, JP: Masahiko Nishimura), and his sister Kayo (EN: Mae Whitman, JP: Mirai Shida).
Dream sequences and other visualisations demonstrate
the animation prowess of Studio Ghibli.
The Wind Rises a Studio Ghibli production, so I shouldn't have to tell you how good this movie looks.  What few scenes of fast action exist in this movie are animated realistically yet dynamically at the same time.  There are some moments where I wondered if the animators used rotoscoping techniques, and I mean that in a good way.  But the film isn't entirely grounded in reality; some scenes take place in the dreams of Jiro and Caproni, as I previously mentioned, and other scenes apply a layer of similar dreamlike visualizations onto otherwise ordinary moments, illustrating Jiro's thought process and what-not.  For example, in one scene where Jiro is drafting a design for a certain plane component, we see the finished plane flying in a clear sky, and the wind rustling the pages on his desk.  And yet no one seems to notice them...  But anyway. these visualisations serve two purposes: they provide visually creative shots, and they explain technical concepts for the laymen of the audience.  The score is also magnificent, although I'd expect nothing less from composer Joe Hisaishi, who has worked with Ghibli for a long time.  I don't know about you, but I'm a sucker for dramatic scenes where the music is a slow buildup and the sound-effect track is muted entirely.  (See also: the opera shootout in Quantum of Solace.)

So if I'm able to find so many flaws upon re-watching this movie, why am I still willing to stand up for it?  Well, to put it in one word, it's real.  It's not trying to be anything it's not, which is especially notable for an animated feature.  You know how Frozen, for example, had musical numbers, comic relief characters, and a romantic sub-plot entirely separate from the rest of the movie?  Yeah, The Wind Rises ain't having any of that.  Except for that last one... bad example, that.  My point is, this story could have fit very well as a live-action film, but Miyazaki chose to have it animated because A) animation is what he's good at, and B) this movie is the story he wanted to tell.  And to those who say, "Why did it have to be animated?", I say to them, "Why not?"

+ Plenty of emotional moments which left me with a warm and fuzzy feeling.
+ An interesting and well-acted supporting cast.
- The Jiro/Naoko romantic sub-plot could have been left out.
- The lead actor's performance is a tad wooden, both in Japanese and English.

Acting (English): 4 out of 5
Acting (Japanese): 4 out of 5
Writing: 4 out of 5
Design: 5 out of 5
Technical: 5 out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

P.S.: After I started work on writing this review, it has come to my attention that Hayao Miyazaki, among two others, had won an Academy Honorary Award in November of 2014.  For those who don't know, these awards are given at judges' discretion separately from the regular Oscars, but involve the same statuettes given to winners at the regular ceremony.  After having been so unfairly snubbed by the Oscars earlier in the year, I suppose hearing about this development has put my soul at ease a bit.  I mean, you could interpret that as him winning the award for all of his films!  All the same, for the sake of my mental health, I'm probably going to ignore the Oscars from here on out, or at least the Best Animated Feature category.  Wouldn't wan't to have my hopes dashed like that again.  I suppose this younger, more worldy generation will make the kinds of changes once we get into positions of power, but until then, I'll leave you with these words:

This is IchigoRyu.

You are the resistance.

1"Harry Belafonte, Hayao Miyazaki, Maureen O’Hara to get honorary Oscars". Entertainment Weekly. 28 August 2014, retrieved 15 January 2015.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Year In Review 2014

It's been a while since I did one of these year-in-review things.  I passed it up last year (referring to 2013) because I had put off my bottom-ten and top-ten song lists to the last minute and was too busy finishing those.  And I shall continue to put it off because this isn't a year-in-review article in the traditional sense, where I categorise the year's current events in some capacity.  Instead, I will focus on my personal developments over the year, or lack thereof.  Narcissistic you may call me, but by doing so I hope to reveal my plans for the SDP going forward, and for other projects of mine.

You may have noticed a sharp lack of SDP output this year, on both the blog and video fronts.  Yeah, somehow 2014 was, if not a bad year for the SDP, then at least a year of decline.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  Most of my articles and scripts are written during the lunch breaks at my job, but during the first quarter of the year I instead got hung up on planning a holiday in Japan.  (Which was way nice, if you were wondering.)  But even afterwards I just couldn't pick up the momentum again, and I am at a loss as to why.

And that's not to say I was lacking in inspiration, per se.  For example, you may recall a certain incident, or so I would have you believe, that happened at the Academy Awards this past year.  I felt like [noun] after first hearing the news, and even worse when I attempted to write a second article about it, sometime just before Thanksgiving.  Well, doing so got me so depressed that I deleted my work on that article entirely, because of how bad writing it made me felt.  Then, I had a talk with my parents, which I took two things from.  One, these sorts of developments are out of my control and I should just accept them.  Which I was hesitant to accept since, as I thought when dealing with the Mega Man Legends 3 crisis a few years ago, I regarded as tantamount to admitting defeat.

But rather than actually admitting defeat, I used the opportunity to renew my interest in re-writing my novel series Sapphire, which I'm thinking of renaming to the Indigo Children series.  In fact, I've made a New Year's resolution to myself of getting at least a finished first draft done.  The reason I bring this up is because it is my end goal to have these stories adapted into video games and movies, specifically anime, or anime-style, traditionally-animated productions.  After all, there's a certain quote, apocryphally attributed to Mohandas Gandhi, which I found really inspiring: "We need to be the change we wish to see in this world."  So if I want my people to take animation seriously, I need to start making the products that will do so.  And this change will not come instantly, but this is something I'm willing to accept.

But the greatest obstacle to this goal seems to be my own willpower.  I had written and published the earlier Sapphire novels online on my deviantART account, but my interest in that faded right around the time I started writing for this very blog.  Thus, looking forward, 2015 will be the year of Indigo Children, or at least a year of transition from the SDP to Indigo Children.  But that's not to say I'm giving up on the SDP entirely.  There are still a few reviews I wish to make before retiring the brand entirely.

Video Games
Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Genesis, 1991)
James Bond 007: The Duel (Sega Genesis, 1993)
Time Crisis (Arcade et al, 1995)
Power Stone (Arcade et al, 1999)
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PlayStation 2 et al, 2001)
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (PlayStation 3 et al, 2014)
Shantae and the Pirate's Curse (Nintendo 3DS et al, 2014)

Invisible Touch by Genesis (1986)
The Heist by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (2012)
"Latch" by Disclosure & Sam Smith (2013)

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
The Wind Rises (2013)
The Interview (2014)

TV & Anime
Sailor Moon (1992)
Totally Spies (2001)
Sailor Moon Crystal (2014)

Again, change doesn't happen overnight.  But if you still love the SDP, that also means it won't be going away overnight either.  Just allow me to leave you with these words:

This is IchigoRyu.

You are the resistance.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Film Review: Frozen

Previously on the SDP, I commiserated the Oscar defeat of Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises to the Disney venture Frozen.  Might as well be the bigger man and evaluate it on its own merits.

  • Publisher: Disney
  • Studio: Walt Disney Animation Studios
  • Genre: Fantasy, Musical
  • Release: 27 November 2013
  • Directors: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
  • Producer: Peter del Vecho
  • Writers: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Shane Morris
Arendelle.  A world where ice runs everything, if not in the summer.  A world host to not one, but two princesses: Elsa (Idina Menzel), and her younger sister Anna (Kristen Bell).  Elsa, for some reason, is a cryokinetic: she has the power to conjure up ice and snow.  But one time while they were playing together with those powers, one of her ice shots hit Anna in the head.  So, in fear of causing further damage, her family locks her up in the castle, and her powers are hidden from the rest of society.  That is, until her 21st birthday, when she accidentally exposes her abilities during a post-coronation party, and runs away from town.  And things were going so well until then, too.  Anna even found herself a strapping young marriage prospect in the form of Hans (Santino Fontana), a foreign prince.  But good luck with that when you're dealing with an emotionally and magically unstable sister!  Hey, Elsa!  You ever thought of just explaining your powers on your own terms, when you're all cool, calm, and collected (no pun intended on the "cool" part), instead of waiting for some accident to catch you off-guard, thus preventing you from thinking clearly?

Whatever.  So when Elsa's instabilities force Arendelle into a permanent state of winter, Anna takes it upon herself to talk some sense into her.  Along the way she meets up with Kristoff (Johnathan Groff), an down-on-his-luck ice trader, and Olaf (Josh Gad), a short snowman inadvertantly turned animate by Elsa's magic.  Olaf's gimmick is that he has a fondness and/or desire for warm things, blissfully unaware that they would cause him to melt.  I honestly find this a funny schtick, but neither the character nor his gimmick serve any purpose in the plot to speak of.  To me, he just smacks of a comic-relief mascot put into this film for the sake of having a comic-relief mascot.  This is but one manifestation of the film's core problem, but I'll delve into that later on.

Anna and company make their way up to an ice castle Elsa had spontaneously built, now that there's no one around for her to hide her powers from.  Anna tries to inform her sister of the plight their people are in and convince her to do something about it, only to take an ice-bolt to the heart.  Okay, I'm gonna pause the review for a moment to do some nit-picking.  Let's go back to the movie's intro, when the same thing happened to a younger Anna.  Her parents were told that she survived the incident because the shot missed her heart.  If that had been the case, her whole body apparently would have been frozen instantly.  But when it does happen, the fatal freezing doesn't take effect immediately.  You remember Back To The Future, where Marty had that photo of his family which faded away gradually until he set right what had become unstuck?  Don't tell me you saw that and didn't think it strange.  Oh well, I usually accept these sort of things because it lets the protagonists have a fighting chance against the plot, and I do like it when the good guys win.  Who doesn't?  But I do not like it when the movie sets up rules, only to break them later on.

So, anyway.  Out of fear, Elsa chases her company off by conjuring a snow monster.  When you get right down to the matter, it serves no practical purpose in the greater plot, which you may have noticed is becoming a running theme of this review.  Once they reach safety, Anna and Kristoff high-tail it to some rock trolls.  One pointless song later, and she learns that the freezing spell can only be undone by an act of true love.  Meanwhile, Hans (remember him?) has more or less taken over the kingdom in Elsa's absence, has a couple of soldiers come over to Elsa's new digs to capture her, and upon her return, captures Anna as well.  Olaf springs her, and she, Elsa, and Hans confront each other on the frozen sea.  Hans goes to strike down Elsa, but Anna jumps in to block him, just as she freezes solid.  But wait -- that constitutes an act of true love!  So Anna is thawed, Hans is arrested and sent back to whence he came from, and Elsa learns to moderate her powers through the power of love.  You are now free to turn off your TV.

So that was Frozen.  If I had to pick out one specific problem which holds the film back -- and I do, because I have to present you with a decision somehow -- I would say the plot is a little scatterbrained.  If the plot had been solely about the relationship between Anna and Elsa, as was set up in the beginning, then I would have been much more positively pre-disposed towards the film.  Heck, I might even have been more supportive of its Oscar victory!  (Or still not, considering the circumstances.)  But as it stands, Frozen's attention is strained by having too many superfluous elements.  Let me ask you readers a question: Do any of these affect the plot -- and by plot, I am referring specifically to the plot between Anna and Elsa -- in any way?  Not the way I see it.  And it's these distractions which keep Frozen from developing to its full potential.

I will say this in defence of Frozen: its animation, character, and set design are outstanding, and this matters more than you might think.  First of all, the animation works on a technical level, as well, avoiding the spastic style of contemporaries like Dreamworks (especially the Madagascar franchise), and instead treating us with a smooth sense of motion.  But the technical quality of animation is one thing; I can be generally counted on to opine that graphics don't make a good video game, for example, but that aesthetics do.  And that goes doubly for non-interactive animated shows, because it is design which leaves an impression on the viewer.  Think about it -- would Neon Genesis Evangelion, for example, have been as cool if not for the designs of the Angel monsters, the Eva robots, or the NERV base?  I think not.  And Frozen succeeds in this category.  There's some downright beautiful set design to be had, especially in the case of the ice castle Elsa conjures up.  And the characters are pleasing to look at, their faces and what-not stylised enough to steer clear of the Uncanny Valley.  In fact, they even bear resemblance to the hand-drawn characters of Disney's past films.  But that just begs the question: why couldn't Frozen have been a traditionally-animated film to begin with?  I mean, they had to have drawn in that fashion for the concept art, storyboards, and what-not, so why not keep it that way?  And would I have liked it more or less had that been the case?  ...Hard to say.

On the topic of aesthetic elements, the musical numbers didn't really do anything for me.  It could just be me being jaded, but it seems like the types of songs presented therein are all the same styles of songs Disney's used for films past, and they're generally not catchy besides.  The only exception I would make is for "Let It Go", a standout number by Elsa which really accentuates the character arc she goes through at the time.  Then again, the visual aspects of that scene also contributed to the positive feelings it left in me, so you could say it has an unfair advantage.  Oh, and by the way, do you remember when I barred "Let It Go" from the top spot of my 2014 music list, purely as an act of protest?  Well, let me set the record straight: No, "Let It Go" would not have been my number 1 even if I hadn't pulled that stunt.  As I said back then...
However, a good chunk of the lyrics are a little too specific to the song’s scene in the movie, so its utility as a personal anthem for those going through the same struggles as Elsa does in the movie suffers a bit.
At the same time, I wish to assuage your minds at this point and remind you that I still think "Let It Go" is a good song.  It would've ranked in my top five, were the circumstances different.  But even if the circumstances were different, it's still not without its flaws.  ...Which is a fitting metaphor for Frozen itself.

After all I've had to deal with since Frozen's release, all the negativity I've associated with, what do I think of the movie itself?  Eh, could be better, could be worse.  All in all, it's just... rather safe, like a Pierce Brosnan Bond film.  It's about princesses, for one, and we know how many times Disney's dipped into that wishing well.  Granted, it's about two princesses, and they drive the plot themselves, by their own actions, but it's still all-too-familiar territory.  Still, it's not terrible, and it's certainly easy on the eyes, unlike that Shrek garbage.  I still will never forgive the Academy's voters for what they did and why they did it, but I suppose the best course of action would be to love the player, and hate the game.

+ Great potential for a plot.
+ Gorgeous animation and visual design.
- More interesting plot threads from early on are forgotten.
- None of the musical numbers stand out, save possibly for "Let It Go".

Acting: 4 out of 5
Writing: 3 out of 5
Design: 5 out of 5
Technical: 5 out of 5
The Call: 80% (B)