Monday, April 29, 2019

Mysterious Girlfriend X - ummmm what the hell was that? (Anime Review)

Mysterious Girlfriend X - 5.5/10

I'm late to the party watching Mysterious Girlfriend X, released in 2012, but judging from the Crunchyroll reviews, people really liked it, so I figured I'd give it a try. This has to have one of the grossest premises ever and it manages to make the gross premise look even more disgusting in execution. That being said, the show had some interesting moments, but on the whole, it was strange and servicy.

The story starts when Tsubaki notices that his new classmate, Urabe, has drooled on her desk. When she leaves, he decides - for some godforsaken reason - to stick his finger in her puddle of saliva and then put it in his mouth. From there, they are bonded and they end up having a very strange relationship based on communicating their deepest feelings by sampling each others spit. But not in a good way, not by kissing or anything else. No, by sticking their fingers in their mouths, pulling out what looks like ectoplasm (but is supposed to be saliva) and then sticking it in the other person's mouth causing the second person to feel the things the first person was experiencing. Or something.

The spit itself is almost yellow/green, not clear like most people's, and thick, and always stringing out of their mouths. It is the most un-appealing look they could have given it. But yet, the show isn't totally a lost cause.

As I watched it more, I realized that it's more or less a critique on how stupid teenage boys are, how they think with something other than their brains, and the basic effects puberty has on messing with their heads while also understanding just how naive they really are. In that respect, it's actually an occasionally funny, occasionally observant satire on puberty as well as perhaps a commentary on shounen/seinen anime in general. At least, I'd like to think it was trying to make some valid points in that regard.

The first episode starts with a lot of euphemistic sexual imagery and innuendo along with an opening monologue about a young boy learning about sex for the first time. At first, this is sort of jarring and unnecessary, but in the context of the whole show, actually serves to set up the show's purpose, which again, I think, is an exposition on the idiocy of male puberty.

As for characters, Tsubaki is your basic everyday shounen-ish hero. He's average in school, he's average looking, he's more or less nice, he's an everyman that the male audience is supposed to identify with. He's boring, and stupid, and thinks with his crotch, but is also too shy and too naive to actually know how to respectfully deal with his feelings so he rarely acts on anything either.

Urabe on the other hand, is actually a bit interesting. When we first meet her, my impression was she might be some sort of demonic manic-pixie or something, and at first, we really think she's insane (great scene of her laughing in the classroom then destroying the teacher in the way she brushes off his concern). The scissors she keeps in her underwear (which entails plenty of service) along with the way she uses them to nearly kill Tsubaki through her martial-arts-esque paper cutting, are actually fairly well executed gags and keep her interesting. As we get to know her more, there are subtler sides to her, where she may be masking much of her own insecurity and fears with a fierce and demonstrative approach. It's also possible to read into some potentially dark history with her, although in the anime it isn't expanded at all, so I'm wondering if the manga has more?

Each episode is about one more step to their advancing relationship and Tsubaki's inability to articulate himself in a useful way. He has strange dreams where he imagines what he'd like to be doing with Urabe, and Urabe seems to be able to tell what he's been thinking. We get a sense that she's both empowered and embarrassed by her effect on him. Again, she's intriguing, he's just horny but bland. Their dynamic is best exemplified, and serves the best comedic moments, when he can't quite contain/restrain himself anymore and gives her a spontaneous "hug." Each time, she whips the scissors out of her pants, and proceeds to render any object he's holding into the most precisely destroyed little slivers. When done, and he's thoroughly shocked that he wasn't actually killed by her lighting scissor moves, she reminds him gently not to do that without asking. Yay for affirmative consent!

Some of the episodes early on, were fairly interesting and entertaining, but the show gets to some stupid places near the end that really drag down the last third of the series. A particular arc with a past crush of his gets to some places that can only exist to provide fan service, and go beyond the somewhat valid moments of the earlier episodes.

One of the interesting things in the series is watching how Urabe changes over time. It's small and subtle, but important and is highlighted by the way she ultimately opens up (slightly) to another girl in the class. However, they then add a drool sucking relationship between these two as well. And I know I haven't talked about it in a few paragraphs, but it is drawn so disgustingly, and multiple times per episode, that it really hurts the watchability of the show.

In addition to that friendship, we watch as Urabe opens up to Tsubaki more and more, and reveals that although she's been keeping him at arms length, that she does actually desire physical contact with him. It's a new side to her, and it's clear she wants to connect with him and for them to understand each other. Couple this with an increasing amount of random chit-chat between them as the episodes go on, and we really get the sense that they have a true relationship with each other. She seemed cold, clinical, and weird at first, but over time, Urabe becomes a more well-rounded, or at least relatable, character (while still preserving the fantasy aspects of her characterization designed to appeal to the shounen audience).

On the other hand, as the episodes go on, and into that final arc with Tsubaki's middle-school crush, his stature fades. He goes from being someone who is bland, but tolerable, and maybe worthy of Urabe, to being a typical ass. When his crush appears, we find that he is so easily swayed into doing things for her that he knows will hurt Urabe and their relationship, that it becomes hard to want Urabe and Tsubaki to stay together and keep progressing. As mentioned earlier, this arc has some of the worst writing and scenes in it, and way too much service in its resolution.

Thankfully, after a bad set of episodes (10-12), the final episode has some redeeming value and again shows us some new sides to Urabe that feel natural given the progression of her character throughout. It's a good ending for the show and keeps the whole show from ending on a bad taste from the prior arc.

The art has a retro-ish shounen quality to the character designs, especially evident in Tsubaki's older sister's look. Otherwise it's pretty run of the mill animation. The dream sequences have a lot of CGI which sort of works for the dreams, but it always pulls me out when CGI is combined with what looks more like hand-drawn animation, so I didn't really like it.

Basically, there are some interesting observations and lessons about the steps of relationships and puberty in general, some great character development with Urabe, but it's mixed with a gross premise that won't go away (the drool sucking) and a bland/stupid/unlikable (by the end) male character in Tsubaki. It was almost interesting to watch, but you need a strong stomach (for the drool) and a lot of tolerance for service (panty shots, big boobs) to get to the value. I'm giving it a iffy 5.5/10, but I certainly wouldn't suggest this one outright.


Friday, April 26, 2019

Beauty and the Beast Girl's quality doesn't validate being released as a paperback (Manga Review)

Beauty and the Beast Girl - 5/10

I actively curate my manga collection, just like I actively curate my books, my guitars, my transformers, etc... it's part of the fun of collecting - deciding what to get rid of that doesn't rise to some, maybe arbitrary, standard.

With that said, I took a full series, a partial series, and a few random volumes of manga to a local store to trade in because they all were garbage - and not in just a "not very good" way, but they actively had subject matter I didn't want in my collection. My rule of thumb is: "If I die, and my family is boxing this stuff up and reads one, would I want them judging me on the contents of this story?" If the answer is "no" then I don't want it in my collection.

Some of the more recent volumes that went with the day's trade-in included "Mushroom Girls in Love" and "Transparent Light Blue" both of which I gave scathing reviews to. What I bought with the trade-in cash was "Beauty and the Beast Girl" (By Neji, published by Seven Seas). A manga volume, based on a PIXIV webcomic, that was low on my priority list, which meant it was perfect for unexpected cash.

Beauty and the Beast Girl tells the "story" (as minimal as it is) of a feminine monster who meets a blind girl in the forest one day. They fall in love, turns out they have a shared past that could drive them apart, but it works out in the end. Oh, spoiler alert. Wait, you didn't see that plot coming from the story title?

There really isn't much to this volume which is neither bad nor good in and of itself. It does have some value, especially the parts where Lily (the blind girl) talks about overcoming her blindness at a young age, about not wanting to have her personhood connected with her disability. I also liked the overall light weight of the line work in the art, but that's about as much praise for the otherwise bland art that I can muster. The two characters are likable if indistinct and they share some undeniably cute moments together. I'm a sucker for cute girls in love.

On the middling side, it isn't a very complex story at all, but that's not necessarily bad either. Sometimes you just want junk food and that's what this volume is. However, even junk food should be sugary, or salty, or spicy or something. This volume is like under-salted pretzels, they taste okay, but there's just something missing. If you like the idea of two cute girls flirting and setting up house together, and one happens to be a monster, then you'll be fine with this.  But sadly, it doesn't have nearly the depth of character or nuance that the recently reviewed anime Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid surprisingly had - similar-ish story, but much better execution.

There are some problematic aspects to the storytelling, if not the actual story itself. The writing is so wooden as to be nearly unreadable at times. This was most evident in the first chapter. It's hard to know whether the fault lies in the translation or in the original, but either way, it was pretty awful writing and dialogue. Further, the story moves so quickly into them being a couple, that we aren't given ample reason as to why they like each other, or much about their personalities at all. We're almost left to assume that they like each other only because no one has ever talked to either of them before, so they fall for the first nice person they meet. The relationship is treated as a foregone conclusion. That too would be okay if the remainder of the story went into any depth of what being a couple meant, but instead, it's a pretty minimal rescue the princess type situation with some snuggling.

And that rescue plot point leads to the monster's confrontation with Lily's father, which is handled so poorly as to be unbelievable. There is no way a person would act or react the way Lily's father does - which is a combination of not really caring about what the monster did, with not really caring about giving his daughter to a monster, with sorta being a bad-ass, but not really - he just comes off as nearly emotionless. It's just really really bad writing, as if the outcome was decided so it didn't matter how they got there. Nothing about the outcome feels like it comes organically from the interactions of the monster or the father. In fact, there's nothing about that interact that has any tension or emotion at all. More wooden writing.

The overall art is very simple, with minimal backgrounds, some shading, but also not much interest. Simple can be effective if it's evocative. This is just plain. I wonder how it read as a webcomic though? Maybe a printed medium just didn't work for it. In all, between the writing and the art, I wonder why it was picked up to be released in book form at all? Was it super popular on Pixiv?

It's a self-contained yuri story, which is a plus, we need more of those. But of the ones I've read recently, they just aren't very good - going from bland: "Now Loading," to inexcusably servicy and salacious: "Transparent Light Blue." Beauty and the Beast Girl is in the bland side, which is tolerable at least and I'll be keeping it, just like I kept "Now Loading." But I have to believe there are more interesting self-contained yuri stories out there to be told. I hope some get translated soon. Even the one-shots in Eclair were largely more interesting even if some weren't great and others problematic.

I'm giving Beauty and the Beast Girl a perfectly middle-of-the-road score of 5/10. There isn't really anything problematic, but there isn't really much that elevates it either. It's simple and predictable with basic art. Shrug.


Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Shortcake Cake volume 3 is plenty good but isn't grounded in a clear plot (Manga Review)

Shortcake Cake volume 3 - 7/10

Shortcake Cake
After reading volume 2 of Shortcake Cake, I decided to add it to my regular purchasing list. I'm reviewing volume 3 today to get ready for the release of Volume 4 in two weeks.

Volume 3 continues the story of Ten, the highschool girl who moves into a co-ed boarding house to shorten her trek to school at the urging of a close friend. In this house, she has met two very kind, but very different highschool boys. Riku is the former playboy who has confessed, quite seriously, to Ten, but was turned down. Chiaki is the gorgeous, book loving boy who is secretly in love with Ten, but keeping it from her to give Chiaki a chance.

Volume 3 picks up after Chiaki and Ten pretend to be dating to avoid harassment by Rei, a strange, sickly, but presumably very wealthy boy who has some relationship with Riku. At the same time, Riku is doing everything he can to keep things normal with Ten even though it could have been awkward for them after she turned him down. Ten is very appreciative of this sweetness.

The gist of volume 3 involves them all studying for finals together in the living room with the rest of the dorm mates, and spending an evening cooking dinner for themselves when their dorm mother gets sick. Through this, Ten contemplates both boys, Chiaki pines for Ten but supports Riku, and Riku tries to keep things from being weird between everyone.

Rei more or less drops out of the story for this volume (other than two minor scenes), so we don't get any new revelations about who he is or his relationship with Riku. We get a little insight into Ten's past in the guise of a dream where she runs into a boy, maybe from middle school, and maybe someone she used to like. But that's about all.

I continue to like Ten, Chiaki, and Riku. It's really nice to have a love triangle where everyone is likable. It's actually hard to pick which boy she'll end up with, and it's great that they're both nice people. I've read too many shoujo manga where one or more of the boys is the "bad boy" or where the so-called nice guy ends up being a jerk. Even worse are the shoujo series where one or more boys physically and/or emotionally abuses the heroine, and it's treated as normal or excusable behavior (I'm looking at you Happy Marriage, Hot Gimmick, and lots of others). Yuck. So thankfully, Shortcake Cake is about three nice people and maybe shoujo in general is moving on from normalizing terrible men!

There really isn't much plot in this volume and that's my only complaint. It feels like somewhat of a middling set of chapters, they don't advance too much of anything, and I'm not sure they were really needed. But, the ending chapter does start us off in a more aggressive direction for Volume 4, so at least that's something.

The art continues to be relatively simple, but engaging with pretty character designs all around. I do sometimes have trouble telling the two male leads apart if their hair isn't shaded distinctively enough. I have that problem in real life too, so it can be worse in manga when the character designs are similar and I have to rely on things like props or hair color.

I don't have much to say about this volume because not much happens. Basically, if you liked the first two, there's nothing to change your mind here. If you like shoujo romance, this series continues to be a good one. I'm hoping that the story really kicks into gear with volume 4 and the final chapter of volume 3 seems to suggest it will. This volume gets a 7/10.


Monday, April 22, 2019

Contemplating the new Fruits Basket Anime - Episode 1 (Anime Review)

Fruits Basket
The 2019 version
I'm here to talk about episode 1 of the Fruits Basket reboot anime. Let's get my biases out of the way early. Natsuki Takaya is my favorite mangaka. Her series "Twinkle Stars" is my all time favorite manga. I love everything about her art, her writing, her stories, and her characters. Her seminal series, "Fruits Basket," is no exception to that and is one of the greatest shoujo manga series ever as well as a personal favorite.

Her lead heroine, Tohru, is a marvel of fierce determination and force of will in a deceptively-not-actually-naive young lady. She is the epitome of a shoujo heroine, seemingly innocent but with a strong and dark past, determined not to let that past control her future, and putting her heart and her life on the line for the sake of others. I love the original manga and I love the original anime.

So basically, it is impossible for me to be objective in reviewing the new Fruits Basket anime series. However, in an attempt to be of some use to you all, I want to discuss the first episode of both the new and original series as well as the first chapter of the manga. Rather than a review, it will be a sort of discussion of how they intersect and how my historical bond with the older material impacts my ability to connect with the new series.

I think just like some of you who started with Sailor Moon with the original manga or anime may have found it challenging to embrace Sailor Moon Crystal, I had trouble embracing the first episode of the new Fruits Basket anime. However, my introduction to Sailor Moon was through Crystal, so I didn't have any emotional baggage tied to the original incarnations. Therefore, YMMV on this new anime based on your familiarity with the manga and original anime. That being said, I would encourage old fans and new viewers to watch this new series because any Fruits Basket is good Fruits Basket. On to the "review."

For starters, both the two anime series and the manga are nearly identical in plot for the first episode. We meet Tohru Honda, who lost her father at a young age, and her mother just several months ago. She started living with her grandfather, but when her grandfather's house needed renovations, she moved into a tent in the woods while he went to live with another daughter. Leaving her tent one day on the way to school, Tohru sees a small traditional house with 12 painted zodiac figurines left out to dry. There she meets a classmate, Yuki Sohma, and his cousin Shigure.

On her way back late from work one night, Yuki and Shigure find Tohru living in the tent on their property. They take her to their house where she explains the situation. As that unfolds, a landslide covers her tent. As a result of having nowhere to live, Yuki and Shigure take her into their home. Without giving the spoiler parts away to new viewers, we get several hints that things with Yuki, Shigure, and another young Sohma (Kyo), are not what they seem.

It makes sense to me to discuss the manga and two anime series' first episodes in chronological order of publication, starting with the manga.

Takaya-sensei's art has evolved significantly over her career. Fruits Basket is a transitional series with early chapters representing the highest quality of her older style (See Phantom Dream and Tsubasa: Those With Wings) and later chapters representing the height of her mature later style which continued on to series like Twinkle Stars. Both styles are wonderful and her attention to facial expressions (and super huge eyes!) and detailed use of screen tones, shading, and lighting are exceptional. Even in the first chapter, again her older style, we see a strong stylistic vision which is different than most stock manga either of the time, or currently.

The first chapter is relatively fast paced and has a strong comedic element. For those familiar with the series, this comedic tone early on serves to contrast and exemplify the intense melancholy of the later parts of the series. The tonal shift is appropriate for both subject matter and our characters' emotional development and the rising stakes throughout the series. All three versions do the comedy justice, but I think it works best in print.

Also, this is our first introduction to Tohru, her incredible qualities were described above, but I also believe that while all three versions do her justice, I prefer the manga Tohru just a little bit more, with a strong second going to the original anime. One thing about her that is so profound early on, is her ridiculous earnestness. This serves as the perfect platform to juxtapose against her inner trauma and the complex external world she soon finds herself embroiled in with the Sohmas.

Turning to the original anime's first episode, the pacing is slower and softer than what we find in the new series. For instance, the scene where Tohru digs through the dirt from the landslide is handled just a bit slower and with more dialogue here than in the new anime, an important emotional choice by the director. However, with this slower pacing, we also get crisper comedy with better timing than in the new anime. Further, we get more narration from Tohru here than in the new anime, which serves to foster our connection to her directly.

Yuki is voiced by a female voice actress in the original series, but by a male actor in the new series. I prefer the higher female voice as it works on two levels: 1) he is still young at the beginning of the series and needs room for physical development to mirror his emotional growth and 2) with his princely, slightly androgynous look, the female voice feels more intimate and accurate to his psyche. Again, this could be my bias as this was the first voice I heard for him, but I do think it provides an aesthetic support that a deeper male voice, from the new anime, lacks. Further, he is drawn younger here than in the new anime (but consistent with the manga), which makes sense for the arc of the series, something that lacks with the new character designs.

Tohru's character design here is also more similar to the manga and shows a fragility (even though she actually isn't) that is also important to the emotional and character arc of the series. There is more room for her to grow from this depiction than the slightly more mature version in the new series. Takaya-sensei was very clear though that with the new series, she did not want them emulating her art style. That's too bad, but she has a history of being very hard on herself and her art. I for one, would love to see her style more closely copied in the new series, but that is not to be. Should there ever be a Twinkle Stars anime, I hope to god they make it look like her designs.

There are some subtle textual differences between the two anime series. In one scene, where Shigure and Yuki are talking about Tohru's past, I felt like the subtitles (I only watch subs) of the original show had more nuance than the new anime. On the other side, there are some dated aspects of the original anime, such as the inclusion of the Yuki fan club song/dance that isn't in the manga but is in the original show. It didn't age particularly well, but is far from a deal breaker either, but was thankfully not included in the reboot.

Focusing in more on the new anime, I have to ask myself if a reboot could ever meet my expectations? In general I'm not a fan of reboots, particularly if I've loved the original (see the reverse for Sailor Moon Crystal where I hadn't seen the originals first). The term of art for this is "anchoring." It's when the first thing we see or encounter forms the basis for how we evaluate everything else. If we liked the original one, it will be hard to like a reboot better.

For instance, I prefer the original Total Recall strongly to the reboot, same with Robocop. Don't even get me started on how Michael Bay ruined Transformers (Optimus does not have lips!) Even though I actually like the new Star Trek reboots, nothing will compare to the original series for me. Yet, I LOVE My Little Pony Friendship is Magic which is WAY better than the original series. But this is all normal, and means I can't faithfully, objectively review, the Fruits Basket reboot. So here are my thoughts, for what they're worth:

I really am not sold on Tohru's voice actor. She just isn't the Tohru I have in my head. What was interesting, is that going back and watching the original series episode 1 again, I didn't really like that voice actor either. Somehow, I have an internal Tohru voice that is different than both of them. Who knew? At least the energy in Tohru's character is presented well here, even if she doesn't come off quite as naive as she needs to be early on. Distressingly though, Tohru looks nearly unrecognizable here. Her forehead is all wrong, her eyes are too small, and she looks too old. It's all wrong. :(

Not only does Tohru's design in the reboot bother me, but Yuki is totally missing what makes him special. He's not depicted as youthful, or cute, or princely enough in the reboot. He isn't quite as androgynous as he needs to be, his face is too long and chiseled. He isn't supposed to be a hunk, he's supposed to be a transcendent, incomprehensible, ethereal being. The same goes with the use of a male voice actor with a deeper voice, it doesn't fit the Yuki of the manga at all. Not liking this choice at all in the new series. Compare a few graphics from the three versions below:

random page from Fruits Basket chapter 1
Pages from chapter 1 of the original Fruits Basket Manga - compare Tohru and Yuki to the reboot

Fruits Basket
Promotional still from the original Fruits Basket anime - closer to the original, see the youthfulness in Yuki and Kyo

Fruits Basket
Fruits Basket 2019 reboot, promotional still - look how much older Yuki and Kyo look, no innocence, no androgyny. And holy hell, what happened to Tohru. Thankfully she doesn't look quite this bad in the actual show, but it's still not right. Plus the eyes are all way too small for a Takaya-sensei work.

Kyoko, Tohru's mom, seems well presented. I'm okay with Shigure, whose laugh is nailed, but Kyo also looks too much like an adult, with a voice that is too low for his age. The look is okay, but not quite familiar, but not totally wrong. But coupled with the voice, it isn't my Kyo.

The end credits sequence shows some of the other Sohmas we will meet. From that, Momiji (maybe my favorite Sohma) looks right, Haru looks a little old, but Kyo sleeping in the tree is absolutely really really cute (even if his face isn't right)! Tohru's friends Arisa and Hanajima aren't in the episode quite enough for me to get a good bead on them, but they seem okay. Arisa is one of my favorites of the whole series, so I'm eager to see what they do with her. So there's hope.

Kyo Sohma
Kyo asleep in the tree - end credit sequence - so cute, but his face is too old here, sigh...

The pacing of the reboot version also felt faster, even though both anime series and the first manga chapter cover the exact same amount of material, scene for scene. There are just subtle directorial/editing choices that are different than the feel I want from the series. It might also work its kinks out as the series progresses, after all, this was only episode 1.

But what are my thoughts on episode 1 of the new series as a whole? Well, it's well done, there's no denying that. It's faithful to the manga (story, if not visually), and that's good. For people whose first introduction to Fruits Basket will be this series, they'll love it, so that's great too. For us who have the manga and original series to compare it too, it's different, but not necessarily wrong, and certainly not bad.

I'm definitely going to keep watching it, mostly to see how they complete the whole story as promised. The original manga is 136 chapters, which would be 5-6 seasons at this pace. I doubt they'll do that, so seeing how they might condense it into 2 or maybe 3 seasons will be interesting.

The original anime changed a few key elements to sort of wrap it up in 1 season, but only covered a few volumes of the manga and didn't get to the heart of the story (with a crucial change to a main character in the anime that wouldn't work if the series kept going). It makes sense to reboot the series in order to follow the manga closer which would be needed to extend the series to its true ending. However, I kind of wish they would just retcon parts of the first series and have done this new series as a sequel picking up where the original left off rather than going back to the beginning (maybe I'm just impatient), but I will be eager to see the whole story for once. It will be interesting to see how they do it.

So for a first episode of a reboot of a beloved manga and anime, it is well done, true to the source material (storywise), but for those who are die-hard fans of the originals, there might be some slight disconnect with the art style and the voice actors. Those are relatively small complaints and I urge both old and new viewers alike to watch this series. I'm not going to give it a numerical review, because it's just one episode and I can't be objective anyway. But do watch it!


Friday, April 19, 2019

Liz and the Blue Bird is a soft quiet delicate and surprisingly deep movie (Anime Review)

Liz and the Blue Bird - 7.5/10

For no apparent reason this time, I've decided to review the movie Liz and the Blue Bird in the form of an acrostic poem. It's probably because my early notes were more a list of experiences than my normal more narrative notes (which fits the ethereal nature of the film). I've never seen the show that this movie was spun off from, so I went into it totally blind and with no real expectations (other than hearing it had yuri elements). I hope you enjoy:

Lots of character nuance, and even some change, but little plot. That's not a bad thing.
Interesting lack of any exploration of the characters broader lives.
Zoom in on the movie and you'll realize it basically all takes place within the school.

Amazingly quiet for an animated film, there is almost no dialogue at all, and the whole thing moves at such a slow, but lovely and delicate pace.
Notable for how the entire media industry in Japan seems more willing to make a wide range of movies, and isn't limited to just big blockbuster-type storytelling, especially in animation. I really appreciate that.
Don't know whether I really find the main character believable, as she's so quiet and withdrawn, but not in a way like any real person I've met, more in a 'this is what I think internalizing girls are like' sort of way. But that doesn't make her less engaging as a character, and could provide a mirror for some young women's internal feelings rather than needing to be an authentic representation of an actual person. So it works in animation, in a way it wouldn't in a live action film, which is why animation is such a vital medium.

The basic story is of two bandmates in high-school as they work through a piece of music, their relationship, and their future while also reading and thinking through the story in a picture book.
How they bring the children's book into this, when I think back, seems pretty arbitrary. I'm not sure I really buy that a highschooler would carry a children's book around, then loan it to a friend, but the contents of that book form an important metaphor for the leads' story, more on that to come...
Even though I praised the diversity of stories and story-telling approaches in Japanese animation (and I am glad that this was released in the US), I'm still never-the-less reminded how many great manga never got translated into English or turned into anime.  I recognize that an unusually soft and subtle film like this only got a US release (and maybe only got made) largely because of the reception and popularity of Sound! Euphonium (the original show).

Broad sense of time, starting in the middle of their story and ending still in the middle of their story, so we know there was so much before and so much still to come, that nothing is fully resolved, with leaps of time throughout from hours to days to even months that pass between scenes.
Lots of room to add your own yuri vibes, it hints at some of the purest forms of yuri (the intimacy of close relationships) without ever reducing it to sexuality, service, or even necessarily romance.
Understated use of dialogue, it's has some of the least of any film in recent memory, and leaves us without any internal dialogue either, so we are left to scan faces, look at lighting, read timing, and subtle gestures to understand their inner thoughts, there is no exposition at all.
Excellent, even if you don't know or haven't watched the series it's spun off from (and I hadn't).

Blends several styles of animation pretty seamlessly, especially the art on the internal storybook which reminds me of how Chica Umino draws faces (Honey and Clover) and has a lovely crayon-like quality which is so different than the animation and character designs for the main story.
It doesn't completely resolve anything, but hey, that's life, and I like hopefully melancholy endings!
Respectfully kept the feeling small and didn't try to make it a giant epic just because it was a full-length movie rather than a 20 minute episode.
Deceptively rich, the metaphor of the storybook within the story seems to parallel the characters in one way early one, but it's actually not what you might think. The "flip" in our expectations (how the book relates to the main story) as we move to the later parts of the movie makes both so much more rewarding. We're like: "oh, I didn't see that coming, but it makes so much more sense" and adds a real richness and depth to the character's inner lives. I can't tell you what that flip is without giving away the magic of the final parts of the movie.

So there you have it. Basically, I really liked it because it was a delicate story of the relationship between two young women, told mostly without words, at a lovely, slow pace, with no real plot, drama, or much of anything you could easily grab at, with no pandering or service.

However, it didn't make as immediate and indelible an impact on me as some other recent anime films have, and it's not going to go down in the pantheon as a classic, I may not ever rewatch it (I probably will), but it's still important because of just how different it is for a full-length anime. It's perhaps overly sentimental in ways, and with some unrealistic depictions of teen angst (maybe teen angst is always unrealisticly real?), but it is a beautiful watch if you're in the right mood. I'm giving Liz and the Blue Bird a strong 7.5/10 (I really struggled not giving it an 8/10, so YMMV).


Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Shortcake Cake volume 2 (Manga Review)

Shojo Beat
Volume 2 - 7.5/10

I typically only buy one or two manga volumes a week. I've got my favorite series and if they have a new one that week, I buy it first. So Shortcake Cake is a series that I pick up when I don't have a new volume or a missed volume of a favorite series to get. With volume 2 (Shojo Beat), I continue to like it enough to want to keep buying volumes as they come out, but it hasn't yet totally captured me to where I'd elevate it to my "must buy right now" list.

Shortcake Cake tells the story of Ten, who moves into a co-ed dorm at the urging of her friend. In Volume 2, Riku confesses to Ten who turns him down and we start to get the sense that Chiaki might have feelings for her as well. Of course, we're set up to root for Chiaki, the beautiful bookworm, and Ten to ultimately get together.

Rei, the mysterious, somewhat sickly, rich boy appears one day and wants to talk to Ten, he is rude and insulting, and then asks her out (obviously she declines). There is a connection between him and Riku that no one is talking about. Rei fills their dorm with flowers. Riku goes off to look for him in anger and Chiaki and Ten follow, worried about the connection between those two.

The next day, Rei is in their dorm waiting for her. When she tries to leave him, he tries to stop her, and we see that Ten can take care of herself, actually knocking him out to the point they lay him down in a bedroom to recover. Ten and the dorm mom attempt to hide him from the others but both Chiaki and Riku find out leading to confrontations. Ultimately, Rei leaves after Ten again shows her gumption and self-sufficiency in defending Riku. The volume ends with a critical revelation, but I won't spoil that here.

So here's what we have after two volumes: 1) an awesome heroine who doesn't need boys to protect her and isn't all boy crazy (actually seems indifferent to boys), 2) two nice pretty guys and a bad guy who all want her, 3) connections between the characters that will continue to drive the undercurrents of the story while still leaving time for day-to-day happenings and character exploration in the series. That's a pretty good balance and a big reason why I will continue to buy this series.

What's stopping it from bumping up my list is that it isn't told exclusively from Ten's point of view. It's more of a third person series but it does allow some time in each person's private thoughts. It just doesn't have quite enough of Ten for my taste. I tend to prefer a first person narrator with the lead heroine as the narrator (it's my same problem with Hatsu Haru which is otherwise amazing, we just don't get enough of our lead female in that series).

The art is relatively simple with most panels consisting of character heads talking. The backgrounds are simple or sometimes non-existent. The art is well done though, with good character designs. There is relatively simple use of screen tones, mostly black or a single gray tone for basic shading/coloring, but not the heavy-handed sparkly shoujo-style screentone use that I love. Each chapter moves quickly and the volumes feel a bit short as a result.

Two volumes in, it's a good series that has the potential to become great as it grows. There are no real red flags and a lot to like. This appears to be a romance shoujo with some good character development. My guess is that the longer it goes on and the deeper it gets, the more I'm going to like it, even to the point of maybe loving it. Its pace is good through two volumes but also doesn't have anything immediately grabbing about it, so that's why I'm hoping it'll be more a slow burn type series which means it'll keep getting better rather than just staying "good but not great." This volume is a pleasant 7.5/10.


Monday, April 15, 2019

Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid was pleasantly low-fanservice (except the boobs - what's up with those anyway?) (Anime Review)

Season 1 - 7.5/10

From the title alone, I was not going to watch Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid, assuming it to be a stupid shonen or seinen anime. But a good friend on twitter thought I might like it, and so I trusted her. Turns out, it's actually a very simple and sweet show. With gigantically unnecessary boobs. But sweet and worth watching none-the-less.

Based on a seinen manga, Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid is the story of Kobayashi - described as a typical office worker (she seems to be involved in software coding) - and a female dragon, Tohru, who becomes her live-in-maid. One night, Kobayashi had been out drinking and stumbled on Tohru who had escaped from her dimension to the human one after being mortally wounded with a giant sword. Instead of fearing her, Kobayashi drunkenly removes the sword from Tohru and invites her to move in as her maid. Why a maid? Apparently Kobayashi, and her office mate Takiya, have quite the thing for maids of all kinds (one of several commentaries on otaku/fandom).

When Kobayashi wakes the next morning in her apartment, quite hung over, there is Tohru at the door requesting to come in. Reluctantly, Kobayashi allows it to happen (Tohru by this point is now in human form) and the show follows their growing bond and the cast of characters that surround them.

Here's the two coolest things about this show: 1) Kobayashi is presented as a pretty gender-neutral female. She doesn't do much with her hair, is flat chested, and wears a man's suit or a hoodie most of the time. She's as not stereotypical as they get for female leads in anime. 2) There is very slight, mostly implicit, yuri in this series - Tohru seems to be romantically interested in Kobayashi, and slowly, we get glimpses that maybe Kobayashi would be interested in her too.

Each show is just a comedy slice of life type thing, no big major plot, no worry or anxiety, which I like. This is a feel-good type show. Some shows are about office work, others about family, some about various holidays, or cooking dragon tail meat (a funny recurring joke). Just the ways that dragons sometimes uncomfortably fit in the real world but are slowly coming to comfortably fit into Kobayashi's.

The side characters are mostly interesting and fun. Kanna, a child dragon who moves in with them after being kicked out of home, is presented as a slightly chubby-legged loli-goth, and is probably meant to be fetishized by a certain subset of the audience, however, they never put her in adult situations, her youth and vulnerability are never taken for granted, and so other than her appearance, she's treated and respected like a child by the series rather than as fanservice. Sadly, Kanna isn't actually that interesting (it takes work to make a young child interesting in manga/anime - see Bunny Drop [Usagi Drop] for a great example - watch the anime or read the first-half of manga series only, the second half f's it up.)

But while Kanna, herself, isn't very interesting, I LOVED her friend from school, Saikawa. She is the bratty, perfect, do-gooder that everyone is afraid of, but Kanna's complete innocence wins her over and Saikawa spends the entire series mooning out in "romantic love" over every cute thing Kanna does. It's way over the top and way beyond what a child would do in real life, but it's hysterical, and also presented sweetly, not in any perverted way. Outside the main couple of Tohru and Kobayashi, Saikawa is my favorite.

There is another female dragon that is mistaken for a demon and uses that to taunt the young boy who summoned her. We'll come back to big breasts in a moment, but let's just say that this dragon, Lucoa would not actually be able to stand upright with the way she's drawn. Her breasts are used to taunt this poor innocent young boy, but the effects, as initially distasteful as her proportions are, are actually used to highlight the male fear of strong and powerful women through the eyes of this young naive boy. There is some surprising depth given to his reactions and the way Lucoa teases him. This isn't really fan service as much as perhaps commentary on those that fanservice is designed for.

There are two other main dragons as well, but all you need to know, is that the three female adult dragons all have enormous breasts. I get how the writers used Lucoa's as discussed above, but I can see no meaningful reason why Tohru and Elma had to have them and have them constantly bouncing. It's wonderful to depict women of all body types and shapes, it's not okay to make them have big bouncy breasts all the time. This was the part that feels like fanservice, in a show otherwise devoid of it. Too bad, this is really the only blight (other than Kanna's outfit) on the series. Thankfully it's a relatively minor one for me, but in the broader scheme it does perpetuate the skewed female proportions common in male-centric media. That's too bad.

The fourteen episodes are all relatively equal in quality. The animation is fine and appropriate for the series, if nothing special. It really was just a sweet simple show about two people each growing, and each growing towards each other: Kobayashi becoming more sociable and learning what it means to be a family, and Tohru learning what it means to be accepted and kind to others (even if they are lowly humans). I recommend this to anyone who likes silly but sweet shows with no real plot but won't be completely turned away by the unfortunate breast sizes given to the dragons. I'm giving this show a strong and surprising 7.5/10.


Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Delinquent Housewife comes to a very quick and disappointing ending in Volume 4 (Manga Review)

Nemu Yoko
Volume 4 - 5/10

The Delinquent Housewife (Vertical Comics) has been a series that is a bit unique - in its art style, its plot (sorta), and its overall tone (it's light and serious, and funny and sorta romantic, and a bit servicey). It comes to its conclusion in Volume 4 and a quick and unsatisfying conclusion it is. That's too bad, because the series had potential - or more importantly, the story had potential. Potential that ultimately goes unfulfilled.

In the final volume, Dai's mom finds out about Komugi's (his sister-in-law's) past as a delinquent. Ultimately it looks like the mom doesn't really care (so much for that plot line) and Komugi gets slack and stops hiding her delinquent streaks (so much for that tension).

Things are going more or less okay and then they get the call that Komugi's husband, Dai's brother, Tohru is coming home. At the same time, Komugi comes to believe that her mother in law still thinks she's a terrible housewife and she leaves one night to cool her head. Dai comes with her and finally confesses his love for her. Things get awkward, then they resolve them (very quickly).

But I can't really get into what I think of this volume without spoiling the ending. So if you don't want spoilers, look away now and skip to the last still have time...okay, so the volume ends with Dai and Komugi resolving to be siblings and the final panel has Tohru knocking on the door about to come home and everything is fine and resolved. Yup, absolutely nothing meaningful happens to actually spoil.

The whole freaking series, which sets up for Tohru to abandon Komugi, and for Komugi and Dai to fall in love and have to overcome what that means to society/family, or for Komugi to reject Dai and go off to lead her own life without Tohru or Dai, or ANYTHING interesting...well, the series doesn't actually let any of these interesting scenarios happen. Instead, Dai confesses, Komougi turns him down, they work through being awkward in like a chapter (so quick), and then Tohru comes home. Everyone's happy. Nothing and no one is any different than when the series started. The end. Big waste of time!

There are other problems with the series. It had been hinting of PTSD for the mom related to the sound of motorcycle engines the day of her husband's death, but that trigger is only hinted at in this volume and then the mom gets over it and is fine that Komugi was a delinquent. It's totally dropped in a single panel. What? No big reveals about the dad's death? No big having the mom work through her fear and hurt, or for Komugi to have to re-earn her mother-in-law's trust?

And what about the girl who likes Dai? She's all but absent from this volume after some histrionics in the first chapter (unrealistic as they are). It isn't a very funny volume either, it isn't a revealing volume emotionally, it isn't a satisfactory conclusion (no one grows or changes), and it doesn't advance any of the more interesting storylines that could have grown from the setup.

Why did we go through four volumes of Dai pining for Komugi if nothing comes of it? I don't mean they have to get together. In fact, it would be more interesting for him to be rejected and have to work to understand why he fell for his brother's wife and was such a jerk to his brother by confessing. It would be better for him to have to work through what it means to learn to love someone else. It would be better for the jerk Tohru who abandoned his new wife to his family (whom she had never met before) to be made into a real ass who abandons her for real forcing her to strike out on her own. I want character growth, and pathos, and emotional development, and reconciliation of plot points that are left dangling here.

I'm just disappointed because it was sort of cool in the beginning - with its uniquely loose art and sloppy humor and awesome lead heroine - but it never rose anywhere close to its potential. This was just a poor (and fast) ending to a series with promise which makes me sad. This volume gets a 5/10, and at this point, having finished the whole series, I'm not sure you should bother reading it. Sorry to disappoint.


Thursday, April 11, 2019

Ao Haru Ride volume 4 is a breakthrough for Kou (Manga Review)

Kou Mabuchi
Ao Haru Ride Volume 4 - 9/10

I love this series! Ao Haru Ride volume 4 (Viz/Shojo Beat) may be the best so far. I'm so glad this series is being published in English. It is sure to go down as a legendary classic of the genre.

Volume 4 picks up with Futaba and Yuri both trying to get Kou to notice them. They've decided not to let their mutual attraction for him ruin their friendship, but it's getting tough as they each have seen the other getting "close" to him. Volume 3 left us with Yuri and Kou having had some sort of moment that Futaba interrupts. Through her relentless persistence, Futaba manages to get Kou to tell her what happened. That's when she learns about Kou's mother's death; Yuri had seen the shrine and that's why she had left in tears.

The volume gives us more of the backstory on his mother's death, how Kou was left to care for her when his dad and older brother went their various ways after the divorce. We also learn that Kou was putting so much time into his own studies, that once he realized his mother was dying, he felt he had squandered his time with her and he carries that regret to this day.

As the semester progresses, Kou is struggling academically despite his natural ability. So Futaba, Yuri and the rest gang up to keep him studying, but he continues to neglect it, even running out on them once. However, Futaba keeps chasing after him, reminding Kou of what he used to like so much about her. There are some real emotional breakthroughs for Kou in this volume, and we see the cracks in his facade beginning to open.

One of the best parts of this volume is how perfectly it depicts depression. Kou's lack of stamina, drive, caring for others or what they think of him, his general apathy are so perfectly in line with the symptoms of major depression. Ao Haru Ride is proving to be a series that can delicately handle the truth of mental illness without reducing it to cliches or over-dramatic pulp.

And that actually defines all the other parts of the series as well, whether it is the romance, the friendships, their pasts or their presents, the series treats it all as normal day-to-day lives and doesn't stoop to over-sentimentality (beyond what would be normal for teens) or unnecessary dramatic plot points to force the issue. There really is no "plot" per se, it's all about the ways people interact and change over time naturally. I love that about this series.

This is a short review of volume 4 because I really only have praise for it. The art continues to be as amazing as the writing too. If you love shoujo, then this is one of the best series I've ever read.

Having just read some old shoujo series that have some really really icky things in them like lack of consent, physical violence against women, manipulation of women, etc... (I'm looking at you Happy Marriage and Hot Gimmick - I had to stop reading that last one after only a volume - wow is it awful) - it's heartening to read a shoujo series that is true art in both a literary and visual way but also treats its characters respectfully and while none are perfect, it doesn't somehow manage to idolize terrible men (yes, you Happy Marriage and Hot Gimmick).

Instead, we get nice but slightly damaged people who are doing their best to move forward and treat each other well. They're all working to grow and change and support each other. It does this with the perfect balance of reality, kindness, love, humor, and drama. None of the characters are stock archetypes either, they all have uniqueness that lifts them above the genre. Ao Haru Ride volume 4 gets a 9/10!


Wednesday, April 10, 2019

How I imagine my first HRT appointment going

Don't mind the crappy artwork, just me having fun! Here's the full strip if you want it that way:

Feel free to spread it around, just credit if you don't mind!

also, feel free to follow me on twitter @yuristargirl

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

After the Rain volume 3 - Sweet and maybe predictive (Manga Review)

Volume 3 - 8.5/10

First, can I say how much I love the size (as in page count) of After the Rain?! These are hefty volumes and I truly appreciate that. Yes, they're more expensive, but I love the 2 for 1 sizing. It seems to be a thing lately for older series to be re-released that way and I'm starting to see more new releases (like this one) coming in that format as well. Great choice! On to the review of Volume 3.

We pick up with Akira (the injured high-school track star and current waitress) still in love with her middle-aged, divorced, slightly balding restaurant manager (which could be awful, but isn't for those who haven't read this series yet). The volume has a bunch of little episodes that add up together nicely including things like the school festival and knitting a scarf for Christmas. In one important episode, Akira and the manager (and his son) run into each other (really?) at an amusement park only to then run into the chef and his step-sister (the chef's romantic interest?) which means that any time they would have had together is spoiled by the unexpected company. After some needling by the chef, Akira asks the manager out on a friend-date. In this volume, we also get a little bit more insight into the managers past as a young author/husband.

What's really important about this volume is that it starts to place Akira's former running career at the center. At the restaurant, Akira runs into a young runner from another school who used to idolize her. She learns about Akira's injury and it turns out she has the same one. She can't forgive Akira for giving up when she's worked so hard to come back from her own injury just to race Akira and pushes hard against Akira because of it. Akira dreams about running. Akira also bumps into her estranged best-friend Haruka while Haruka is out running. She watches Haruka running from the library window on another day. And Haruka also bumps into the manager and his son and helps him pick out his own running shoes. Again and again throughout this volume, we keep coming back to running, including the manager's own potential growing awareness of that aspect of Akira that she's repressing.

What is critical about the focus on running, is it continually sets the foundation that this series isn't really about Akira and the manager coming together as a couple and instead will focus on how she puts her own youth back together after the serious trauma of her injury. Maybe he too will be healed through their friendship and get back into writing novels. If I could foresee where this is going, then that's what I would want. The relationship should be one that brings them both back to what they love, even though they ultimately won't be together as a couple. It would be the right way to go and this volume certainly bolsters that delicate possibility.

On the relationship front, Yui, a peer from the restaurant, has an interesting opinion when Akira confides in her that there is someone she likes (but doesn't say whom). Akira states that she's told him her feelings, that they went on a date, and that they text each other, but that he referred to her as a friend. Yui believes he's keeping Akira on hold. I'm not so sure about that. If he were a teen boy, this would be my conclusion too, but as an older divorce`, with what we know about his personality (and kindness), I bet he's lonely and likes the friendship, but I really don't see the author giving us any signs that he's romantically interested in Akira (although he does seem flustered by her in a being-uncomfortable-around-her sort of way). His lack of interest in a romantic relationship is a good thing for my long-term enjoyment of this series. The romance needs to remain one-sided for the series to keep its tone and value. Other stories can explore May/December romances, and maybe there are even times to explore the impact of adult/teen relationships (as icky as that is), but with the soft, slightly pensive, melancholy, wistfulness of this series, having the manager actually reciprocate would ruin the mood of the story. It's an interesting moment between Yui and Akira and works well if we assume that the manager isn't keeping her on hold so much as never doing anything to actually lead her on in the first place.

The writing continues to be strong. I love that despite her cold, tall, beautiful looks, Akira keeps being presented as a normal person. For example, taking part in her class's haunted house at the school festival early in this volume. She might look somewhat stuck-up and aloof, but she isn't, she's just a bit quiet and reserved, but apparently nice and friendly and part of the class. That she has no big personality quirk and is normal is one of the appeals of her character and the way she's written. She's an amazing silent observer, but also has these totally honest teen moments.

The art continues to be well done and different from other series. The art has a very long line (and person) quality with some simple sketchiness. There is moderate detail in the backgrounds, and good use of tones, but it isn't an overwhelmingly technical art either. It's got a good flow to it, and it still has the hand-drawn aesthetic rather than looking as if it was illustrated on the computer. There's a great panel of Akira looking out, defending her decision to keep loving someone who doesn't love her back rather than moving on. There's another great shot of Akira, the manager, and his son from behind, making them almost look like a family. Great writing and interesting art that reinforces the mood.

I'm still loving this series. Three volumes in, it doesn't seem quite as ground breaking to me as it did when I read the first volume. But that's to be expected now that I've gotten used to it's brilliance. But boy, was that first volume a revelation to me. But so far, so good with keeping up the quality, mood, pace, and direction from volume to volume. Volume 3 is a solid 8.5/10 as part of a brilliant series. I just hope it keeps up towards an emotionally rewarding (and bittersweet) ending. If it does, it will go down as one of the greatest series ever.


Sunday, April 7, 2019

Alita, Battle Angel - a review and thoughts - lots of them (Movie Review)

Alita: Battle Angel - 5.5/10

I finally went out to see Alita: Battle Angel. I have never read the manga so I had no pre-conceived notions. It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, nor was it as good as it could have been. I'm going to do a summary of the story for people who might not know much about it, and then proceed to list what worked and what didn't. Trying something new with this review.

So the movie's plot is as messed up and overly-dense as could be and only had minimal internal explanation (often through stupid exposition), so I could be very wrong with this summary, but let me give it a try: Centuries (?) before the movie takes place, humans had colonized Mars. As things went on, the mars humans ended up attacking (did they really start it or was it the Earth humans?) the Earth. At the time, there were these big flying cities over Earth. As part of the attacks (including on the moon - which was a pretty cool flashback) the flying cities were targeted. Now, only one remains after the defeat of the Mars humans. The Earth elite live on that flying city while the rest of Earth humanity lives in various slums on the surface.

The major sporting event is a type of roller-ball/roller-derby with cyborg people. There is a big underground market for their parts and gangs of people who go out and attack cyborgs to steal their parts. There are also bounty hunters who get paid cash to catch criminals of all sorts. One of the best cybernetic engineers (Doctor Ido) also happens to be a bounty hunter and on one of his scavenging trips for parts in the local dump, finds the head of a cyborg young-lady that contains a living human brain, but is otherwise completely synthetic.

He connects this head to the body he made for his now dead daughter (plot plot plot plot) and we meet Alita for the first time. She doesn't know who she is, but is presumed to be a teenager and in one scene, proves she's got some special fighting skills. As her memories slowly return, she pursues various means of understanding her past while also pissing lots of bad people off. As part of this, she finds another body, what turned out to be her true body, that of an elite cybernetic martian warrior. After a horrible situation, the doctor has no choice but to plug her in to this new body and suddenly we (and she) come to understand that she's really a young adult elite fighting machine left over from the Martian/Earth war.

Then comes so much more plot, Ido's ex-wife, the guy in the city above, the cyborg sport, etc...I mean more plot than it is possible to describe, and in fact, it's all but incomprehensible really. There's also a romantic sub plot that ties into some of the action (more on that later). There's lots of fighting, etc... I won't give you any more details, other than to suggest that the movie is leading towards a reckoning between Alita and those running things up in the floating city.

So here's what works:
1) We don't actually get the final reckoning. Much like the ending of the first (and only?) Matrix movie, we're left understanding Alita's untouchable power and nearly divine calling, and we know what's coming, but it ends with that promise on the horizon. Leaving the audience knowing she'll be awesome and the salvation but not actually depicting it worked so well for the Matrix (and was ruined in its sequels by actually showing it - but showing it differently than any of us would have imagined). It will be interesting to see if this cliff-hanger or sorts spawns sequels or not and how well they do at fulfilling the vision.

2) For all the weirdness of how Alita's face is depicted (see below), the actress and the motion capture end up creating someone we do genuinely root for. She is an engaging screen presence, somehow despite being completely CGI against live-action actors.

3) This has some of the best fight scene editing in decades. Normally fight scenes are so frenetically edited that you can't tell a single thing that is happening (see Michael Bay). But here, through long shots, careful planning, lots of slo-mo, and other maneuvers, the fights are incredible clear and worthy of our time. Very very well done.

Here's what didn't work:
1) the plot. Oh my god. There was soooooo much plot. And more annoying than the long running time and over-abundance of plot points, was the poor editing where out of nowhere a character would know something they didn't previously know but we have no idea how they could have learned that new information. It suggests that there were lots of scenes cut out. And even though the theatrical release was too long, it might actually be improved with an even longer director's cut that restores the missing scenes. Better, would have been a much more streamlined narrative. I don't know what the narrative in the manga was, but whether this was true to it or not, sometimes things have to be different in a film to make it work. This plot did not. Overly complex but under emotional.

2) The eyes and the CGI in general. Much has been made of the decision to have Alita have large anime-influenced eyes but in a live-action envisioning. Many have commented with concern that she is the only character with the large eyes, but I actually think that all the Martian soldiers had them, so maybe they developed large eyes due to low light on Mars or it is part of their cybernetic designs. Whatever. It neither worked nor didn't work, but was a bit strange. You get used to it after a few minutes, so it's not distracting.

But the problem isn't their size, the problem is that they are CGI which means they're dead. The eyes are so important in a live action film and this hurt here because we never really feel that she is real, we know she is animated. Further, because Alita was all CGI, they didn't get her arm movements right during her non-fighting scenes. There's a weird balletic movement to the arms and hands and fingers in so many CGI characters in films that many in the audience won't notice it (having become used to it), but it simply is not how real people carry their upper bodies or use their arms. One particular moment that stood out was as she is coming down the stairs, squatting and looking through the railing, the way her hands too gracefully glide over the rails, just took me right out of the scene.

I'm also a fan of practical effects because they have a weight that CGI doesn't. Whether it is people, explosions, backgrounds, sets, etc... I like as much practical effects as possible (including good old matte paintings). What really really really kills me is that every background in CGI films has this ethereal, misty, soft-lighted approach. Maybe it worked for Lord of the Rings, but it isn't realistic, it looks animated, and it takes me out of the film. Also, everyone had cybernetic parts, but few (if any) were done practically so again, there is a lack of grounding, a lack of solidity. I almost wish the film had been a complete CGI animation like a Pixar film rather than live-action with CGI everywhere. Most people aren't bothered by this the way I am, but hell, it's my blog.

3) The romance - yuck. One, we don't need every heroine to have a love interest for us to connect with her. But if you're going to do it, do it well. So first, the guy they have her fall for is not a good actor, is not beautiful, but nor is he unique or quirky either. He's like someone who would have been the second choice actor to be on some soap opera, not a leading man or up and coming true actor for a big budget film. I don't know anything about him or his relationship with the director, but of all the men on the planet, why cast him? So then all the scenes with him, all his relationship to the plot, all her scenes of caring about him, being led astray by him, etc... are wasted because we don't care about him and don't want them to actually get together. She's too good for him but that isn't explored. Instead, we're supposed to root for them and be pained with the way things get "resolved." Could have cut this whole thing out entirely, focused more on her and Ido in a father/daughter way, and it would have been a much better film.

4) The whole film was very white. Yes, there were some side characters and background characters of color, and I won't get into the debate about whether the doctor and Alita should have been Japanese as even the manga creator isn't committing one way or another on that.  BUT, by hundreds of years in the future, there should have been a lot more diversity. The one black actor who had a sizable part was of course the villian. Why couldn't the love interest have been black, or Asian, or latinx, or Persian, or anything other than a mediocre, not-quite-good-looking, can't act white dude? I expect more diversity in the 24th century or whenever it was set. I also expect more diversity in the 21st century.

5) Alita's characterization. Wow has she got a screw loose, but not in a good fun way. Some scenes she's a starry-eyed teen, others she's a battle hardened young woman, other's she's super in love, other's she's a badass, other's she's getting manipulated and willing to give up everything for the stupid dude, other's she's running away, other's she deferential. Basically, it feels like what an adult man thinks a teenage girl is like - all hormones and inconsistency. And then I notice the script was co-written by James Cameron and I said to myself: "Oh, it really is what a old man thinks a teenage girl is like." But it's not what they are like, and the constantly labile personality is jarring and has no real motivational or emotional thread running through it. Hire a woman to write the script next time, would ya?!

So sounds like a lot more that didn't work than did. And that's true. And yet, I didn't hate it. It was big and bold and had some amazing moments, and the joy of the fight scenes and Alita's overall engaging performance (motion captured though it was), managed to turn the tides. This is a film I would watch again to see what more I could make of it, but I hope that will be in an extended director's cut that may help even out some of the plot and characterization problems mentioned above. As it stands in its theatrical version, I can only give it a 5.5/10, as being just enough of an enjoyment to overcome it's many problems, but not one I'd recommend to people either.


Friday, April 5, 2019

Transparent Light Blue - a very bad self-contained yuri volume (Manga Review)

Kiyoko Iwami
I'm am always thrilled when a self-contained yuri volume is released. Transparent Light Blue by Kiyoko Iwami and published in the US by Seven Seas is five chapters that cover two stories about high-schoolers in love. Could have been amazing, but it ended up being a pretty awful volume.

The first story is three chapters and is the titular story of the volume. It concerns three friends who grew up together in an apartment complex since they were little children and are now in high-school. At the start of the story, Ichika has started dating Shun (the lone guy in the group) and Ritsu is showing her jealousy.

I'm not going to bother sharing much else because it's only three chapters long. But it starts on a VERY bad note with what seems like a heavy petting session between the girls depicted with sounds, phrases, and depictions that are downright pornographic.

So let's stop right here and make very clear that I have little to no tolerance for fetishizing high-school sex. I get that high-schoolers have sex and it is entirely possible to tell a story about that and do so without turning it into child porn. But the way this story opens is not okay. However, it's also not what it appears to be. That being said, that scene could have been handled much more subtly and achieved the same story effect.

That scene and its relation to the rest of the story is still pretty gross and unbelievable even if it isn't porn. In fact, this whole story reads like a man's fantasy about lesbian high-school girls. I don't know anything about the mangaka, but it appears to be a female name. I won't make any assumptions about their sexuality or gender since I have no background knowledge about the mangaka, but if it is from a woman, it's surprisingly crass. The depictions of sexuality are not realistic nor appropriate, there is manipulation between characters (also not cool), there is lack of consent in various ways (really not cool), and so many other problematic moments that it's hard to imagine it isn't coming from the mind of a perverted man. But who knows, maybe there are creepy women out there too.

The second story does a little better, but not much. It's about a couple of waiters/waitresses in a cafe. One girl is interested in another girl. But when she accidentally takes the girls apron with her, she dresses up her co-worker in it and fantasizes while touching the co-worker (all without consent). I also can't tell you much because there is a twist, and I don't hate the twist itself. I just hate the way it was depicted and written.

In the story we also end up with an adult (manager) kissing a minor child, and we have fetishization of cross-dressing. All that does is harm trans and gender-nonconforming people and it's time to stop accepting it in manga/anime.

The five chapters of this volume (2 stories) have about as many problematic moments as you could reasonably fit in if you were actually trying to see how many you could cram in. The fact that doing so probably wasn't the point is really scary. At least if that was their goal, then it would have been job well done. However, while titilation was clearly part of the deal, in a series labeled "teen," this is so far from okay as to be a blight on Seven Seas record. The fact that this got published at all and then picked up in the US when there are so many not-okay things in the story is really disappointing. This reads like bad male fantasy lesbian fan-fiction or something. Yuck.

I actually liked the art. It has a detailed but slightly sketchy quality. People are easily distinguishable. There are some nice backgrounds, and clothing, and shading. Too bad it was wasted on some pretty sickening content.

Basically, these two stories in Transparent Light Blue, are not what I consider yuri. Sure they have girls in sexual situations with other girls, but this is all about fetishization, not about people. People can have complex emotions, people can do bad things, people can be a mess, people can be mean, people can be all sorts of things and make for important literature out of it. But what's here is nothing but fan service in the worst ways - dressed as something benign. This is a very trashy volume. It gets an "unacceptable content" 3/10 rating. Too bad. This continues a string of single volume misses over the past year. There must be better stuff out there to bring to the U.S.


Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Kiss & White Lily for my Dearest Girl Volume 8 was fine (Manga Review)

Nagisa Tatsumi and Hikari Torayama
I so like the idea behind Kiss & White Lily for my Dearest Girl (Yen Press) as a series, but have been up and down on each volume. Volume 8 arrived last week (and I devoured it) but I'm only now getting to my review. Like previous volumes, half the time is spent on Ayaka and Yurine, whom I love, while the other half focuses on another "couple."

Our newest couple is Hikari and Nagisa, both of whom have worked for the student council and are now going to run against each other in the upcoming election for president. What the rest of the student body doesn't know is that Hikari can't stand Nagisa, Nagisa can't understand Hikari's popularity, and they both live together. Hikari's parents are away with work (I do wonder what work manga parents do that take them overseas for such long stretches) and so she has been living with her "rival."

While living together, Hikari gets to see the messy but real sides to Nagisa. As they prepare for the election, they finally get to a point where they both must face their feelings about each other, as well as their intimate knowledge of each other, and decide what sort of race they want to run. This is a story that is devoid of obvious romantic interest and is focused more on an odd-couple friendship that seems to be blooming. While not super exciting, it is well done, and the resolution rewarding and extended beyond just the student council election (which I'm happy about).

Yurine and Ayaka on the other hand perplex me. Not them so much as the way they and their stories are written. The writing of their characterizations, particularly Ayaka's is inconsistent volume to volume. Just like so many other volumes in this series, Volume 8 presents Ayaka as seeing Yurine as only a rival she must conquer. But this confused me as there were so many times where they were getting closer in past volumes and Ayaka had been acknowledging her growing feelings. But here, there was a regression to a more initial state.

BUT then they end up progressing forward once more and giving us hope that they may finally become the couple we've been waiting for. I don't mind a nice long slow journey, it's the back and forth without meaningful emotional explanation and disjointed writing that is bothering me. I think of the scene on the beach in a prior volume where it was clear where they were heading, or the growing way that Ayaka was confronting her mom's criticism of her, only for her characterization in this volume to feel many volumes regressed. Thankfully, the end result of this volume was a glimmer of forward progress. As always, I won't spoil the good details for you.

In all, this volume was fine, but not great. The art continues to have some nice moments, but the lines can get heavy handed (and not always in an intentional way) and the basic anatomy isn't real strong (arms and perspectives especially can get weird). Couple that with our secondary couple being a somewhat perfunctory (if enjoyable) non-romantic story (at least I liked the characters) and a strange blandness to Ayaka's initial characterization, especially in the first chapter, and it's just not one of the best of the series. I'm giving it a reluctant 7/10. But with only two volumes to go, I'm still rooting for Ayaka and Yurine to become a true couple.