Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Pet Shop of Horrors

Pet Shop of Horrors, as a collective 4-episode anime and preceding manga, is a work I’m torn on. The bind it puts me in is not unlike what the animated version of The Maxx does:  in both cases, I know the original comic version has both a longer and more detailed storyline on its side, as well as the simple fact of being The Original. However, there’s just something a tiny bit more elegant and more compelling about the shortened animated version.

Pet Shop was originally a manga by Matsuri Akino. A pet shop operates in an American Chinatown, selling magical and fantastical creatures. It is run by the androgynous and soft-spoken Count D, who provides each customer with a contract; break its terms, and lessons will be learned, sometimes harsh ones, though external threats can also arise. It began as a series of standalone “episodes”, but as the manga goes on, continuity and recurring characters appear, and the plot formula appears in a greater variety. The OVA adapts four chapters.

In a general sense, I like both versions for their elegance, atmosphere, and emotion, with the occasional appealing message. Yet the manga version, there is comic slapstick inserted between the darker moments, sudden flashes of sweatdrops and wingding backgrounds that knock the viewer right out of the darker parts. Matsuri Akino never quite manages to balance these tone switches, but the OVA dilutes those comedic moments to ones that don’t feel as jarring when they appear.

Another aspect that draws me more to the OVA, against my better artistic instincts, is simplicity that its shortness preserves. The manga, because it is much longer, must, introduce more elements if it wants to remain active. The presence of detective Leon Orcot also ensures that more story needs to be told: if there is a recurring character who is not the master of everything, the anthology format is harder to sustain. Something demands that this recurring second cast member must be explored. However, this all feels like a distraction rather than an expansion of the show’s world. Leon is present in the OVA, but because it is so short, there is no need to go into further detail with him. I don’t truly blame Akino for adding more to the story than just letting it remain The Twilight Zone with animals, but there’s something alluring about the simplicity of the OVA.

Furthermore, as it continued the manga introduced more and more of D’s moralist preaching, which soured my enjoyment. Granted, the OVA adapted stories which did not have explicit speechifying, but the view it offers, a view of a smaller Pet Shop of Horrors without D speaking with disdain about mechanical devices, fad diets, American food, the sentimentalization of prey animals, or humanity’s treatment of the planet, is pleasing, and thus keeps my affection for D’s character intact. The OVA avoids the chapters where the pets’ human forms are represented as people with animal ears, horns, and what looks like cutesy Halloween costumes. Some of the pets here are chimerical, yes, but not in the same cornball fashion that a few later manga characters were.

I feel a little guilty making these complaints: most of the time, I do prefer a story’s original version, and I am a fan of the manga. However, here’s a once-in-a-blue-moon occasion where a highly reduced adaptation has something to offer that the source material does not. I still enjoy many of the other manga-only PSOH episodes, but the OVA’construction undeniably has its specific attractions.

There’s nothing else to say but that Pet Shop of Horrors is one of my favourite little pieces of Japanese animation. On top of everything else I’ve just mentioned, the music and the artwork are top-notch. I might not be able to reconcile my feelings about the OVA vs. the manga, but neither is easily forgotten. That the animated version remains so, even after reading the original comic, is proof positive of its quality.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Greatest Generation

If fandom is something involving interaction with like-minded people, the seeking out of additional information, and the construction of meta, fanart, and fanfiction, then my first fandom was Transformers. Beast Wars: Transformers was my entry into that, but the Transformers work with which I most expressed the most overt geekiness was the third season of the original Transformers cartoon. In doing so, I cemented a lot of personal tropes and desires that I would express in later fandoms.

I actually like Beast Wars better on both a critical and affectionate level, but one of my peculiar tendencies is to lavish more attention on works I consider engaging but critically inferior. Perhaps it is because a less well-constructed work leaves more room for imaginative analysis, or that I revere the better works so much it would feel almost blasphemous to try to create my own inferior homages to them.

I left Transformers fandom around 2002, but recently re-watched Transformers season 3, partly in tribute to the year 2010, with the Japanese dub of the season once billed as a sequel series, Transformers: 2010.  My feelings had changed and yet had not changed, and I felt a comforting boost of joy and nostalgia. For my pleasure (and maybe yours), I’ll share my new thoughts on an old favourite.

I was born in 1984, and thus was too young to catch the original Transformers boom. I never saw season 3 when it originally aired in 1986, but only in 1999, due to the fandom’s tape-trading circuit. While the early Transformers cartoon is somewhat remembered by the general public, the third season is considerably less so. It had an all-new cast of Transformers, and lost a lot of the iconic staples and imagery that fans remember from their childhoods—gone were the deserts and canyons and transforming Earth vehicles, though these were already beginning to be phased out.

This was because of The Transformers: The Movie, which jumped the timeline forward from 1985 to the then-future 2005, killed off a lot of the original characters, and introduced new sci-fi settings into the mix. The third season followed from it, and some Transformers fans insist that the third season was a huge shark-jump, an enormous drop in quality with unlikeable characters and suddenly cracked-out storylines.
This opinion has become somewhat less popular throughout the years, with there being a notable number of fans who prefer the third season outright, or who are neutral towards it, or who see the entire original cartoon as a single body to be embraced or discarded as it will. The attitude that Transformers suffered in season 3 seems to be more the province of casual fans rather than fandom veterans, though as with everything else, there are exceptions.

When it is observed through adult eyes, however, it is hard to imagine the Transformers cartoon suffering any precipitous drop in quality. The series always suffers from poor animation, nonsensical plots, bad science, and tenuous continuity. And too, it always had some small spark of warmth and wit that makes it easier to understand why it is still so beloved.

I will admit that it was, on multiple levels, foolish of a series to shove an old cast out of the way for a new one, instead of gradually introducing them into the ensemble. However, any criticisms I make feel like lip service. I have utterly no interest in the original Transformers cast, and thus to have them bumped from primary character status is the best thing for me. It is only with this new cast of Transformers that the cartoon becomes engaging to me at all.

The third season of the Transformers cartoon left a deep mark on me and my relationship with fiction. I realized my taste for flawed characters who walked a little off the beaten path, who were snarky or standoffish or insecure. This was also the first time I began to more deeply consider why I chose to favour certain characters, and I still indulge in those thoughts for later characters. This was all in spite of the fact that many Transformers fans considered the newer characters more flawed and less competent than the characters who came before them.

Of course, when I speak in the generic, I’m really referring to the two new leaders, Galvatron and Rodimus Prime. Rodimus’ flaw was that he was insecure. A handful of episodes dealt with his insecurities over suddenly assuming leadership, either as one-off lines or major plot points. Galvatron’s flaw was that he was the TV version of insane: screaming, capricious, and violent.

However, since I now have a more cynical view of the cartoon’s quality, and realize that all of its faults were intrinsic to the whole, I don’t take too seriously any of the ethical issues raised by the characters or the storyline of season 3.As part of this new mindset, I am now uninterested in fretting over whether Rodimus Prime and Galvatron were “good” leaders or not. By adult standards, none of the Transformers leaders could command their way out of a wet paper bag, no matter how confident they were. The best thing you can hope for is that they entertain; no need to sweat if they might be leading their faction into a dark age, because Transformers didn’t really go into that.

My unconcern was also helped by realizing the series developed no real arc with either Rodimus or Galvatron. Their fans and haters alike will focus on certain episodes to define the characters’ infamous traits, but proportionally more of the episodes forgot these and treated them as normal cartoon leaders. In addition, with Galvatron the lines between “insanity” and just being a cheesy cartoon villain are sometimes pretty blurry.

As I’ve tried to grow and develop as a writer, I’ve realized that characters’ prominent traits usually need to serve a larger purpose, some relevance to the plot. Character flaws, for example, are things to purposely overcome or never overcome, depending on the tone of the story; they build towards a change, good or bad. Nothing of this sort happens in The Transformers. The flaws of Rodimus and Galvatron appear and disappear again and again, building towards nothing that isn’t resolved by the episode’s end. Much as the two characters fascinate me, I still see how poorly their story was told. Again, this is not an artifact of the series’ drop in quality in the third season, but part of the series’ general difficulties. The earlier seasons had no character arcs, either.

Yet because I love it, I am generous. I can see season 3 as a season that was trying to grasp at things that North American TV cartoons didn’t have a lot of at the time, especially through Rodimus’ existential angst. Sometimes it seems like it was trying to become something a little bigger than seasons prior. There are fleeting signs of a series that might care more about telling its own stories instead of appeasing the audience, which is a major step in writing a quality work.

I would have killed to be a fly on the wall when Hasbro and Marvel and whoever else decided to write Rodimus Prime and Galvatron in that way. Wanting to sell new leader toys is understandable enough, but why take this route wither their characterization?

Regardless of why they appeared, I liked them. I do have a stronger awareness that Rodimus should not have allowed his insecurity to get the better of him at all, but it’s still an interesting aspect on many levels. I also love how sarcastic and snippy Rodimus is at times, which his detractors fail to mention and is an amusing selling point. Galvatron is also amusing when he is angry, his rage is fun too, and there’s an additional dimension to his relationship with his much put-upon lieutenant, Cyclonus.

Cyclonus is another favourite of mine. He’s basically an evil robot Klingon who’s loyal to the bad guy despite living in a culture of backstabbers. At times, this loyalty looks doubly foolish, since he’s prone to getting a punch in the face from his leader when the writers remember Galvatron is supposed to be crazy.

I used to find an ethical dilemma here, constantly trying to prove that Galvatron did care for Cyclonus, but I just don’t worry anymore. Now my stance is that these characters are absolute villains in a children’s series, so it doesn’t really matter if one character I like will strike the other on the same side. In more serious or nuanced characters I might look twice, but for now I just let their relationship be. I still appreciate Cyclonus because he is imposing and arrogant rather than weak and sycophantic, giving some grandeur to his convictions, as foolish as they might look to an adult complexities. His genuine concern for Galvatron is also still strangely touching.

There is also Ultra Magnus, Rodimus Prime’s right-hand-man. With Rodimus, Galvatron, and Cyclonus, Magnus completes the quartet of beloved characters from season 3. While I like or tolerate the rest of the movie’s new Transformers, these are the ones that I truly declare myself a fan of. It makes for a neat package.

In Ultra Magnus’s case, he gets a bad rap from the fandom because of his “I can’t deal with that now!” line from the Transformers film, delivered when they’re under fire in space and it’s noted that their friends’ ship had gone down. Because of this, and the character’s humbleness, Magnus is seen as insecure and wimpish, though not met with such bile as Rodimus Prime is.

There have been many other versions of Ultra Magnus, met with more appreciation because they are more “badass” characters. Still, the 80s cartoon Ultra Magnus is my favourite. There’s something kindly and loveable about him, and he’s not really insecure outside of that meme--just modest and altruistic, always willing to step up to the plate when he’s needed. Magnus may come off as stolid, but I like stick-in-the-mud characters, sometimes.

My interest in the characters is what fuels my affection for the Transformers cartoon, creating an iron-clad shield against the series’ cheapness and ludicrousness. The earlier seasons don’t have that shield, which is why I cringe when I manage to catch a piece of them, and of most other 80s cartoons. Still, there are minor things that appeal to me outside of the four main characters.

First, while Rodimus, Magnus, Cyclonus, and Galvatron are the only characters I would declare myself a specific fan of, I have some affection for nearly every character associated with them--the original ones from the movie. Kup, Arcee, Blurr, and Springer on the Autobots’ side, and Scourge on the Decepticons’; I don’t include kid-robot Wheelie since he appeared later in the film, but I don't hate Wheelie as much as other people do. Arcee still bugs me somewhat, because she’s often just “the girl robot”, but I can’t totally hate her.

The idea that these six Autobots and three Decepticons should be “together” is indelible in my mind, and will taint any attempts to engage with other incarnations of them outside of the cartoon. Logically, I know that they (except for Arcee) were just toys that happened to be produced in the same year, and they could be mixed and matched however a Transformers writer pleases, which is what happened.

These characters had many other incarnations in the 1980s Marvel comics of the US and UK, in modern comics produced by Dreamwave and IDW, and even stories exclusive to the Transformers conventions. However, other portrayals of these characters never feel quite right, even if their stories were written better than the cartoon’s. Also, because better writing requires a less capricious status quo, “my” characters also ended up as secondary or tertiary cast members rather than the leads.

Further appeal can be found in some of the plots of season 3. While criticizing season 3 for being too outlandish is ridiculous in light of the many “wacky” episodes that aired before it, there were plenty of insane episodes in this season. In keeping with taking a less serious view of the cartoon now, I can laugh along with many of these insane plotlines, and find a cheerful joy in them due to my taste for the bizarre.

This bizarreness is also reflected in the art style of the series. Many episodes are populated with offbeat aliens and creatures, including the new antagonist Quintessons, and these monsters make the series even more engaging. The designs of the new Transformers are also more appealing, with a brighter range of colours, strange “futuristic” vehicle modes, and sleeker, more organic body designs.

And, even though it was established in a hasty and clumsy way, I still appreciate on principle the idea of the previously static Transformers universe undergoing some kind of change. Maybe not if I didn’t enjoy the result, but even so, for all its haphazardness, season 3 did try to establish a backstory and mythology for the Transformers, and did things like having the kid sidekick grow up and have a son of his own.

One of the ideas was that the Quintessons, random aliens from the Transformers movie, would turn out to be the creators of the Transformers, banished when their slaves rebelled. This is a very obvious retcon to an adult viewer, since nothing suggested this was the case when the Quintessons first appeared, and you can see painful attempts to shoehorn this in. Nonetheless, it was something. The comics, and many other continuities, instead proposed that Transformers were create by the robotic god Primus, for a grander purpose, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the Quintesson origin because the Transformers had to fight for their freedom.

As the Transformers brand has gone on to become a multimedia, multi-continuity franchise, nothing like season 3 was ever attempted again. While longer series had changes to the cast rosters, the leadership positions remained intact, with the main leaders always named Optimus and Megatron. Furthermore, while these series made several tweaks to it, nearly all incarnations of the Transformers replicated the premise from the original cartoon and comic.

My bias finds no problem when Beast Wars started this trend, especially since that series acknowledged the re-using of names in terms of historical gravitas, but after several more times it began to feel redundant. Since the franchise’s primary goal is to sell toys to the generations of toy-buyers that cycle ever more quickly, it’s no surprise that they would raid their own stores for the same thing over and over…very few would remember the previous iteration.

Still, I would like to see a greater variety of Transformers premises, which is another reason season 3 appeals to me. It was one of the rare times an “Optimus” and a “Megatron” were not in charge, and it was not just about fighting the enemy robots on Earth. I still enjoyed the newer material (I loved Transformers: Animated), but I craved difference, even when I was not the target audience.

Even though I have a slight preference for Rodimus Prime over Galvatron, I’d have to say the best episode of Transformers season 3 is “Webworld”, written by Len Wein and Diane Duane (yes, really), which focuses on Galvatron and Cyclonus instead. Threatened by the other Decepticons, Cyclonus tricks Galvatron to going to the planet Torkulon to be “cured” of his madness. It’s a world of webs, staffed by creepy simian aliens who put Galvatron through parodies of real-life psychological therapies. Galvatron ends up destroying the planet after he prevents the Torkulons from essentially trying to lobotomize him with giant insects (yes, really). It’s a strange episode full of purple and blue and orange with aliens everywhere, and nicely encapsulates both the stupidity and the small moments of earnest emotion that Transformers could have.

Not all the episodes of season 3 were great, however. Like most people, I disliked there being several episodes which focused on the new kid sidekick Daniel (offspring of the previous kid sidekick, though Daniel was much younger), and some were just a little too boring or absurd. However, my mellowed attitude means that even such episodes were easier to get through. There is also the alternate anime continuation “The Headmasters”, but as it’s a different continuity and has its own issues with characterization, I will ignore it for the purposes of this essay.

Still, the other shoe must drop, as they say, and by the end of season 3, I would have to contend with the same kind of hurried alterations that fans of the original seasons did. The two-part episode “The Return of Optimus Prime” aired after so many people complained about Optimus being gone. It depended primarily on continuity errors and contrivances, everything designed only to get Prime back on the table as quickly as possible. I can’t blame them, not when I embraced the same kind of immediate gratification for TF:TM, but obviously I didn’t like it, especially when later episodes acted like Rodimus Prime hadn’t existed at all.

Despite this revival of Optimus, the Transformers cartoon ended shortly afterwards. I’m glad that it did; there was something wrong about Optimus Prime living in the same world as Galvatron and Ultra Magnus and the rest--he was intrusive, a creature from an earlier aeon. Furthermore, if the show had continued, the 1986 characters would largely suffer the same fate as their predecessors: shuffled aside to make room for newer toys.

There were hints of that in the three-part “The Rebirth”which closed off the series. In this “season 4”, the new 1987 characters had the spotlight, and a whole bunch of them were introduced rapidly. There were even hints that Galvatron would be challenged in the future by one of the new villains, though the series ended on a cliffhanger.

In all this, it’s surprisingly easy for me to forget about the actual Transformers: The Movie. I had rewatched that more recently, and waited until the end of my rewatch to discuss it. As with season 3, I love this film dearly, though there is far less meat to it. Most of the character traits that I talked about weren’t present in the movie. Ultra Magnus is probably the character that gets the most play on those terms: Galvatron is there, but he is more of a standard “cool” character there, his insanity coming later, and Rodimus Prime mostly exists in his previous incarnation as the “teenage” robot Hot Rod. Just as with the television series, very little about the film makes any logical sense, but it’s still a treat, a blinding nostalgic rush of bright colours and laser blasts.

What more can I say? It’s one of those things that means a lot to you, but that you don’t feel comfortable recommending to anyone else, even other nerds. After getting older I can see the flaws more clearly, but the attachments to the characters are just as vivid. Here was where it all began for me, and it’s nice to go back once in a while.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Thundering Badasses

Yes, I’m going to revisit the world of the Zentraedi/Zentradi again from time to time. I’ve said most of what I wanted to say, but there are always these little things that demand addressing….

When I hear the term “badass”, I think of a character that is more than simply competent and strong. I think of a character that is absolutely impervious, unshakeable, and does everything with a smile or a roar. Such characters can be fun, but dullness can also come from being so perfect. I prefer characters with some kind of twist, some kind of twinge, a chink in their armour, a flaw on their surface, though that does not mean these characters are weak.

This is partly why I disagree that the ideal state of the Zentradi of the Robotech and Macross universes is for them to be more uniformly “badass” than they might be in the official materails. Granted, I’m also not comfortable with Zentradi being comic relief as the later Macross series sometimes have them, but total “badassery” isn’t the answer.

(Most of this applies to the male Zentradi characters, by the way, due to the portrayals of female Zentradi characters being far more uniform)

I liked the original Zentradi characters from SDFM because they are actual characters rather than symbols to show how great humanity is, having a fair range of characterization even when only providing exposition and chasing down humans. The thought of a homogenized Zentradi characterization undermines the power of Super Dimension Fortress Macross, risks turning into another show about beating up the cold, scary enemy aliens. If a major plot point is that the Zentradi and humans can find common ground, let the Zentradi have goofy, ugly, nerdy, and comical members, as well as strong, powerful, and refined ones.

Yet during my experience in Macross and Robotech fandoms, I get the persistent impression that others felt their respective universes could do with harsher, darker Zentradi. For one thing, there has been expressed preference for the redesigned male Zentradi from the Macross film Do You Remember Love?, whose darker, more alien appearance better suits this need. These incarnations also participate in a reduced storyline, so there is less room for that pesky humanistic portrayal to get in their way, are stripped down to their very essence of threat and their most basic transformation.

Some might say that the integration of these Zentradi redesigns into the main continuity demonstrates that the staff of Macross also believed that their initial male Zentradi were not intimidating enough; however, none of us can know that for sure. (Nor would this mean the original designs are full-stop inadequate.)

Yet I do wonder if it’s true, and what role this desire might have played in the radical retconning of Exsedol Folmo. He has never been a badass character, but this version of the character, which I call “Neo-Exsedol”, might be more in line with viewers’ wishes for the Zentradi. By being a more detached, stoic character, Neo-Exsedol might suit a more aloof Zentradi mien, of which the desire for more “badassery” is also a part. Perhaps someone, god forbid, even found Classic Exsedol to be goofy.

This all could be why some of my favourite Zentradi are disliked by the Macross and Robotech fandoms. Take Warera, Rori, and Konda, characters who, while they have a significant role in the story, are the absolute antithesis of what viewers expect members of a warrior alien race to be. They are immature, hedonistic, and ultimately good-hearted, never seen in combat, are comic relief, and their most resolute actions are done in the name of retiring from war. Some viewers might feel cheated, that characters like this rise to prominence and dilute the menacing nature of the Zentradi.

On the Robotech front, I’ll admit that the Powers that Were are far more obvious about what they would like the Zentradi to be. While some of the novels offer emotional growth for the original Zentraedi characters, some of the comics, particularly the work of writer Bill Spangler, are interested in making the general Zentraedi into a more stereotypical “proud warrior race”, and imposing this interpretation upon the new Zentraedi created for these stories. This fed back into the Robotech novels when the “Lost Generation” series of mid-quels were published and used several Zentraedi details from the comics.

These works do so in several ways. One is in providing Zentraedi with a harsh and grating native language (different from Macross attempts at the same, whose cadence I prefer over the Robotech one, disregarding its ridiculous phrase “Yack Deculture”). Zentraedi in this part of the comics even possess the concepts of honourable death and trial by combat, rather than simply winning any way they could and eliminating trouble without ceremony, as seemed to be the case in the original Macross. When new Zentraedi characters appear in the Robotech expanded universe, they are nearly always fighters, whether as rebels, mercenaries, or soldiers, rather than taking any kind of other path.

Never underestimate the stupidity of Robotech, you might say, but I would have thought the idea that the Zentradi weren’t a “proud warrior race” was a self-evident one. In fact, an important part of the story is that Zentradi have no culture at all, not even to apply ritual, honour, or ceremony to their fighting.  They simply do it because they are told to. Some individual Zentradi take personal pride in their accomplishments, but they are not a race of economy-sized Klingons.

The later Macross material has an advantage here, given that it shows the non-warrior Zentradi that the original series promised, and never adding the kind of “warrior culture” bunk that the Robotech adaptations did.

There can be “badass” Zentradi. By a certain margin, I think Britai, Milia, and Kamujin qualify, though Britai is more restrained, Milia is eventually “tamed”, and Kamujin is too clumsy for them to quite fit that mould. Comical Zentradi characters, too, shouldn’t define the whole of the Zentradi race, and there can even be comical Zentradi without substance. The point is that these characters, or any other character type, shouldn’t be used to define what Zentradi “should” be.

There is no character about whom I can say they are not a “true” Zentradi because they don’t live up to an imagined ideal. Even when I consider a character like Klan Klang to be almost mind-meltingly ridiculous, I can’t say that she isn’t a “real” Zentradi. Yes, her being Zentradi might intensify my negative response towards her, but if she were a human character, I would also dislike her.

Overall, both universes seem guilty of trying to “badass-ify” the Zentradi by creating a more stereotypical image of what a “warrior” race should look and/or act like. Macross is better about this sort of thing, since it’s harder to tell if their alterations to the Zentradi were done because the writers also felt the Zentradi should be more distant and “badass”, and there are counteractions to it. But the Macross fandom itself is not devoid of a desire to see more menacing Zentradi. The older Roboetch novels and comics also make an effort to present Zentradi as more of a stereotypical “proud warrior race”, which feels extremely off but might be related to a desire to make them more “badass”. I would simply have preferred a well-rounded characterization.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Exosquad Series in Review

Though I’m a big anime fan, there’s something about a well-produced American action cartoon that gets my motor running, and Exosquad has been one that I’ve been searching for a while. I can never remember seeing it on TV up in Canada, and it was only through Internet word-of-mouth that I figured out that this show existed. I really looked forward to the DVD, and a viewing of (most of) the rest of the series on Youtube followed, Hulu still being inaccessible to a Canadian.

Now that I’ve seen it, I realize what everyone was going on about. There are some flaws, but this is overall a really good show, even if it was one that I didn’t entirely connect with.

If you haven’t seen it, the premise goes like this: humans in the far-future engineered a race of labourers, called the Neosapiens (who look like big blue humanoid aliens, but are quite local). The Neosapiens rebelled and the rebellion was quelled, leading to a state of ostensive peace between the two races, which is still going on as the series opens.

But Phaeton, a Neosapien leader, wants his people to be completely free, and makes his move for freedom through conquest. On the opposing side, the focus is on the Abel Squadron, a group of humans and one Neosapien, lead by J.T. Marsh. Weapons take the form of the standard sci-fi equipment, but also the ubiquitous E-frames, mecha of various kinds, usually resembling walker mechs or that Power Loader from Aliens.

Visually, this series has bright neon colours, crazy hairstyles, and blatantly action-figure-like character designs. The tone of Exosquad belies this content, however, so I got to just accept the show’s appearance, but I can see how this might be difficult for some to look past.

Exosquad feels very rough and strong, almost as if the modern Battlestar Galactica or some other live-action sci-fi series were converted into a Saturday-morning cartoon but not totally defanged. And once we get into the substance of the story, we’ve got something good here.

Phaeton begins with intelligence and understandAbel motivation, which makes him more effective, as it usually does. He wants to free his people from the oppression of fake peace and make a better world for them, but is never hesitant to crush anyone and everything to get it. Any parallels to real-world situations are purely intentional.

As the series goes on, however, Phaeton degenerates physically and mentally, partially due to a disease, and his self-destructive and egotistical tendencies come to the surface, as he slips into what in lesser hands might be standard cartoon-villain fare: a single-minded personal vendetta against the main hero, and, eventually, a desire to destroy his future rather than make it. But in Exosquad this instead becomes a chilling downward spiral, though one that’s a bit spoiled by the second season’s tendency to drag.

For season 2 is much longer, and while just about any episode within it would come off as a decent piece of work to a new viewer, seeing a big chunk of competent but not plot-advancing episodes can get tedious. It’s better when an episode has something individual to recommend it, even if it doesn’t advance the plot, but sometimes it still gets tedious, you know?

As to the heroes, uncompromising harshness, some shifting allegiances, and glimpses into the world they live outside of the military (usually presented in an archetypal way) make their story fairly stirring, though some characters get more personality than others.

A lot of the main squad characters are standard military archetypes and also seen often in cartoons, too, but some become slowly more fleshed out. F’r instance, even if Bronski’s constant belching in the early episodes can get really irritating, I give the writers points for making him an actually competent character despite being “the fat guy”.

Others remain not so much. I couldn’t ever get an angle on Alec DeLeon’s personality, so he seemed to be there just to provide an extra set of guns, and his death scene near the end of the second season didn’t move me, especially with his quick resurrection to cheapen it.

Marcela was interesting because he’s a Neosapien on the human side, but there’s more than a few problems with the character. He’s the only Neosapien of this allegiance given a long-term showing (though another episode makes mention of there being several Neosapiens in the human fleet, no others are directly seen except for a female Neosapien nurse, who appears only in the first few episodes), and, perhaps because he has to carry the burden of being the only “good” Neosapien in the cast, Marcela often comes off as a rather flat character, and not necessarily because he’s stuck in any kind of “drone” mentality. It’s more like the writers are afraid to touch him.

In a lot of the early episodes, Marsala behaves like a stereotypical fish-out-of-water cartoon alien, taking everything literally and acting extremely formally no matter the situation. Thankfully this fades a bit, but Marsala seems always to be the cool and detached one, that the audience never really gets to be known as a “character” instead of an unfortunately often bland image of hope.

There are a few exceptions to Marsala’s dull characterization, but they mostly only come when he’s directly playing off other Neosapiens. In particular, his self-doubt and then faked betrayal near the end of the first season had me going for a while, even as I wanted to think the series was too smart to pull that crap, especially after the truly ugly displays of prejudice Marsala faced. It also helps that that Marsala acts when he has what looks like a genuine prompt to rebel, too.

There’s also Marsala’s various conflicts with his “brother”, Phaeton, and his eloquent speech at the end of the series, agitating for Neosapiens to be allowed the chance to procreate naturally, and thus become a truly liberated species. More stuff like this, and I would have found him to be a “full” character, but truly rich moments, where Marsala comes off as a “real” character, warts and all, are rare with him. In fact, the “bad” Neosapiens often appear to have more personality than he does.

The hints of a beauty-and-the-beast style relationship with female soldier Nara Burns are thankfully low-key, since that concept is a banal cliché in itself, and the two of them end up more or less breaking it off.

I also hoped that more would be done with the story of how Marsala got from a Neosapien rebel leader to a member of the Abel Squad. The revelation about it happened all too briefly, and demanded to be further explored before it could be taken seriously as anything but a shock to the audience.

Unfortunately the narrative went into scarcely any further details, and this is a general problem with the Neosapien backstory: it relies a lot more on telling, rather than showing, when it comes to detailing the past oppression of Neosapiens. The audience knows that things like this happen in real life, so it’s easy enough to imagine everything without receiving direct input from this specific series, but a closer look into the ill treatment of the Neosapiens would only be welcome.

In addition, while the creation of more and more bizarre and specialized types of Neosapiens (mostly based on animal forms and of much lower intelligence) seems like a ploy to sell more action figures, there’s often a sense that they are just as much displays of Phaeton’s perversity and hypocrisy, in creating “slaves” for the freedom-fighter Neosapiens themselves, and something else about the Warrior Brood is unsettling.

One thing that was a little too hard to swallow was the constant creation of exact clones which can fulfill their predecessor’s role without a hitch. It’s unnerving for a viewer to think of characters being easily and completely replaced/restored, and it shows how callous Phaeton is that he would allow it, but it seems like the storyline itself is employing the same callousness, without any self-awareness. In particular, the death of Alec DeLeon is cheapened by his being Abel to be restored in the same manner as Phaeton’s generals.

A slight undercurrent of anti-intellectualism also bothered me. The scientist Doctor Algernon being initially portrayed as a whiny pissbag was one thing I couldn’t stand, though fortunately he got better in the second season, still leaving one wondering why a series about cybernetically-modified heroes would have the main scientist character as a jerkass. In the same fashion, the Neo Megas also continue the trend of large-brained characters in fiction being smarmy jerks, though eventually they give a counterexample in Galba.

I haven’t talked much about the Pirate Clans in this series, because, well, I didn’t find them as interesting as the Neosapien and Terran powers. Their conflict with the Terran humans is well set-up, and so is the rocky beginning to their alliance in the second season. But...nothing beyond that really stands out. The Pirate Clans are a good addition to the series, but nothing to write home about.

And yes, the series does end on a cliffhanger. Or more properly, the main arc is finished and just as everyone is getting settled down, a new alien threat appears, apparently connected to some mysterious artefacts that were found in the second season.

Unfortunately, no more episodes were made. Without the appearance of the new threat, the series ending stands as well as it is, but hearing of plans for the third season makes me wish that more was never produced.

I roll my eyes whenever anyone calls a good Western action cartoon “American anime”, and Exosquad has been specifically billed as such. But speaking as someone who’s actually seen mecha anime, Exosquad feels different. It’s rougher somehow, both in terms of its ruggedness and its slightly unpolished nature. It doesn’t have that softer tone that even a lot of very intense anime ends up having. Exosquad’s more gaudy designs (which might only be termed “anime” in the dumbest definition of the word) and the fact that its mecha look nothing like most anime giant robots, also helps it to be something different.

If there’s anything at all that seems Japanese about this show, it’s that the heroic characters have cybernetic implants and no judgement is made on them. Though the idea that Japanese works are more positive re: cybernetic modification is hardly an unbreakAbel rule. (See Grace from the recent series Macross Frontier for an example of an evil cybernetic character in anime)

One reason I’m surprised that I have no memory of seeing this series is that most of the voice actors are Canadian, which should have made it a shoe-in to air up here, given Cancon regulations. Richard Newman, Gary Chalk, Michael Donovan, Michael Benyaer, Janyce Jaud, David Kaye, Scott McNeil, Paul Dobson...they’re all here. The voice acting isn’t as rich as it could be, but it’s serviceable, even when it’s very obviously just a handful of people doing most of the voices.

The animation might be problematic. Besides the actual artwork and designs, which, as mentioned above, are garish and very “toyetic”, on a TV budget such complicated character designs are difficult to animate well, so it might come off as looking very stiff most of the time.

The first season was recently released on DVD by Universal, and it was pretty bare-bones, with no extras at all. The video quality is decent, except that it seems to take a sharp dip in the episode recaps before climbing back up again in the episodes proper. According to websites, they’re using the second season opening for some of these episodes, which is really unfortunate.

Hopefully this release sells enough that the much longer second season sees a DVD set. But with the lack of promotion, some consumers have expressing difficulty finding it at retail, and the “cartoonish” surface of this show, doesn’t get my hopes up.

While this show didn’t “click” with me as intensely as I wanted, Exosquad is a good thing to have and a good thing to see, and deserves to be remembered.

Yes, for those of you keeping track, I am aware that Robotech toys were sold under the Exosquad banner, and I have been mentally comparing the Neosapiens to the Zentraedi ever since I saw the first episode. But the overlap between those of you who read my journal and have seen both Macross and Exosquad is so small that I might not bother.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Wishes and Fishes: A Belated Review of Ponyo

Miyazaki, you mad genius, you’ve done it again! I saw Ponyo recently and was utterly charmed by it, so much so that I feel more “in tune” with Ghibli than normal. I enjoy their movies, of course, but few have really stayed with me once I’ve finished viewing them.

In the case of Ponyo, I appreciated the novelty of making a story about a world-threatening natural disaster into a very low-key and character-driven tale, making weighty matters sweetly light. Take for example Ponyo’s various quests and desires. Although hers is a tale of breaking free of a restrained life to find a new one, there is no malevolent force or antagonist at work. Her father Fujimoto is, despite his issues with humans, merely overprotective rather than wicked. Yet Ponyo’s story is no less powerful for all of that. This sort of theme really speaks to me, which is why I found a particular joy in Ponyo.

Likewise, the dreadful floods and tsunamis that come to the island take a backseat to the character interaction, so much so that your attention is more focused on the issue of love, than whether or not the world will be saved. This captures your attention for the entirety of the film, proving that a tale does not have to be about crashing bombast in order to be compelling, nor tales of disaster to be so gloomy.

However, this makes any departure that the film makes from this mood to be especially jarring. We are told at the beginning of the film that Fujimoto plans to eventually use his Water of Life and other elixirs to rid the planet of humans, reverting it to the Devonian age. The accidental release of the Water of Life is a main plot catalyst, but the entire affair has two main problems. It casts a blemish on Fujimoto’s character, painting him as the malicious creature that he is otherwise not (he is competent, but with a slightly bumbling, hysterical air), and it is not hugely relevant to the plot, either.

Or more truthfully, such an apocalyptic plan sounds very out of place in Ponyo’s milieu and the kind of character Fujimoto otherwise is, which might be why it is quickly dropped. It would be better for it not to be there at all, with Fujimoto only working to help the Earth without darker plans in mind. The obvious intention was that Ponyo’s adventures teach Fujimoto to give up on the quest he initially put on hold, but even so, it does not jive with the rest of the film.

Most other nitpicks can merely be attributed to the fundamental nature of the film, which is that it is a fairy tale, or at least the popular modern definition of one: something soft, simple, and with illogical, but forgivable, internal mechanics. We are not meant to question why everyone except Yoki sees Ponyo as just a “goldfish” instead of the funny little human-fish creature that her natural body is, nor how and in what way the gigantic sea goddess and the human wizard are “parents” of Ponyo and a school of similar fish-girls which are only half Ponyo’s size.

Fitting for a Ghibli film, Ponyo is gorgeous, with bright, sweet, colours and blue and golden glows. The underwater scenes are breathtaking, with the additional treat of prehistoric fish, and you must watch these scenes many times over to catch them all. The more mundane world is also captured perfectly.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Teh Scott

Picture from Entertainment Earth

I finally finished reading the Scott Pilgrim series. It was pretty damn entertaining and addictive, though after the dust clears, it’s hard to find much to say about it except that it was fun to read.

You know the story: 23-year-old and nerdy Scott Pilgrim is slacking his way through life in Toronto, in a band, when he meets and falls for roller-skating, goggle-wearing “subspace delivery girl” Ramona Flowers. However, to have a clear field to date her, Scott must battle and defeat each member of Ramona’s League of Evil Exes, seven ex-boyfriends (well, one is a girl) who have joined together.

Scott bumbles his way into it, getting the job done in a world of magical realism, fourth-wall breaking, pop-up captions, and video game imagery. All this, and trying to deal with his own screwed-up past and present, and the people who live in it.

The “slacker guy gets the love of awesome girl just because” plot is pretty low on my totem pole of story ideas that I despite on sight, but it was still only seeing the opinions of trusted others which convinced me that Scott Pilgrim would be one of those series that transcended the icky nature of its premise.

It pretty much does—Scott isn’t particularly lionized, there is a reason why Ramona can’t defeat her Evil Exes by herself, and basically you forget about the cliché and just work with the characters. What is left is a very funny representation of slacker twentysomethings, the pitfalls of love, and “references to stuff the author obviously likes” that aren’t too grating.

I’m not a gamer, but I understood enough of the video game references to get by (so I hoped), accepted the odd nature of the comic’s world, and was at a lot of points on the edge of my seat. The over-the-top self-referential dialogue so liked by people my age is also out in full force, but that’s a good thing.

The series also gets points for allowing the world to see that explicitly Canadian works can be hilarious and eccentric too, and giving Canada some representation among the nerdy demographic, and not as the usual punching bag. (which I know is tongue-in-cheek, but come on, you guys!)

The books had some manga influence, but not in the aggravating, copycat way that you get when artists are trying only to copy some imagined “genre style”. Rather, the manga influence seems to be just an influence of many on the comic, whose art really looks more like American thick-line animation than anything else. However, while O’Malley tries to give distinctive features to his heavily stylized character designs, sometimes it is still hard to tell characters apart.

I’ll be sure to watch the movie version in the near future.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Their Ways Are Not Our Ways

I have such a deep reverence for the animated series Gargoyles that I will secretly bristle at any fan-made alteration to the canon series and its titular race. For that reason, I don't read a lot of Gargoyles fanfiction anymore, though I used to, back before this obsession with detail truly kicked in.

For what I did read, I’m not bitch enough to actually attack fanfic writers off, or even feel that they shouldn’t write anything I disagree with…it’s just that I do disagree with a lot of what happens in Gargoyles fanfiction, and there are trends which stand out to me in particular.

Many of these issues boil down to writing Disney gargoyles as, in my friend Greg Bishansky’s words, “humans with wings”. This means removing or ignoring a lot of the gargoyles’ distinct culture or inventing other aspects to it, in order to make them more like modern humans. I can understand the desire to do this, since humans are generally more to what is more like us, and fans could take it as a given that gargoyles would adapt certain things over time as they become more comfortable with the modern world.

However, when precious few American animated series try to develop any kind of culture for their fictional races, it’s annoying to see gargoyles, one of the rare exceptions, so often stripped of their distinguishing characteristics.

For your consideration:

Gargoyles learn to raise their offspring singularly rather than communally because humans taught them it enabled them to truly love their children

This is the biggest issue, though one whose resolution I partially blame the series for awkwardly communicating to the audience. Clans of Disney gargoyles lay their eggs at the same time, and raise their offspring collectively, with little regard for biological parenting. However, the last eggs of Goliath’s clan were raised by humans on Avalon, and there Goliath meets his biological daughter Angela.

Angela, under the influence of her adoptive human parents, starts asking for special emphasis on being his biological daughter, which Goliath is reluctant to give because of unseemly favouritism it shows, and because Angela’s biological mother is the now-villainous Demona. He is made to remember, however, that Angela is the only rookery child traveling with him, and all children demand special treatment from time to time--it’s really no big deal if Angela fusses over the biological connection.

The intent was that Goliath and Angela’s initial conflict is but an idiosyncratic hitch, not a revelation to the gargoyle species that collective raising is cold and de“human”izing. It’s an intent I agree with, because a positive portrayal of collective parenting shows initiative and imagination on co-creator Greg Weisman’s part.

However, a lot of fans seemed to interpret these events to be that sort of revelation I described above, and anticipate future generations of gargoyles to be subsequently raised in nuclear families. I party blame the series for communicating the matter awkwardly, and perhaps not pushing hard enough against the deeply-ingrained belief of the (mostly middle-class American audience) audience that nuclear families were the most loving option.

I’m not too inclined to be generous, though. Besides my preference for the canon, I dislike seeing one of the few attempts at a nonhuman fantasy culture in American animation undermined. It also seems ridiculous that an entire race, the race that viewers are supposed to consider mostly heroic, would then be written as having a culture devoid of parental love.

In addition, it looks completely wrong for a series that condemns bigotry between species and races to have a plot where one species’ parenting methods (humans) are Just Better, and they have to teach the poor, blighted gargoyles how to love their children.

Finally, if I could be Junior Biologist for a second, collective raising makes sense in a species like gargoyles, who live violent lives and can only lay three eggs maximum in their lifetime. It might thus have developed as a species instinct, rather than a preference, and so be difficult to “undo”.

Goliath and Elisa have a biological baby

While normally I dislike the pairing between a male non-human and a female human because of all it suggests about double standards, Gargoyles won my heart with the Goliath/Elisa relationship because, though it was obvious from the start, it took time to grow and be declared, and the story delved into the complexities such a relationship would have. Officially, Goliath and Elisa would always remain different species, and never be able to have children, yet it would be no barrier to their bond.

However, fandom likes to undo this by declaring several possible scenarios that either have one character or the other temporarily or fully become each other’s species, or science/sorcery allowing them to reproduce biologically without shapeshifting.

This agitates me on a different level, since good stories work best with a minimum of free lunches. This gives the characters something to strive against, obstacles to overcome. In this case, we get to see how the couple copes with the fact that they cannot have children by their own blood, and the happy ending is their understanding that it does not matter. To provide Goliath and Elisa with biological offspring would undermine this miniature character arc.

Furthermore, both characters are said to have a strong sense of self, one that prevents either of them from adopting the form of each other’s race. The idea of either character changing species is played with in the episode “The Mirror”, but ultimately the word is that both Goliath and Elisa value their selves, and their other commitments, far too strongly to ever change their species.

Others have also been intelligent enough to point out that any method that would bypass the biological barriers between Goliath and Elisa conceiving would involve parties who could not be trusted, namely fickle magical beings and mad scientists. It only makes sense that the couple would not try these people and decide just to deal with the matter.

By a similar token, gargoyles and humans easily fall in love

A lot of fantasy stories rely on this conceit, but the background of Gargoyles establishes that human/gargoyle pairings are in fact very rare, with one other known besides the Goliath/Elisa pairing.

Gargoyles subversion lends gravitas to the relationship of Goliath and Elisa, if it is so rare; it makes the power of love even stronger. This discrepancy also seems like a more sensible thing when you look past the expectations of fantasy. While the real world has many fans that gladly profess attraction to humanoid supernatural creatures, none of these beings exist in real life, no matter how great the special effects, and so we cannot gauge our true reaction to them. The Gargoyles tradition seems to align more closely with reality.

In the future, either far or near, gargoyles interact freely and openly with humans, including going to night school

This one is a little trickier, since Greg Weisman actually did intend for gargoyles to enter into human education at some point in their future. What I have left to complain about, though, is that fanfic often presents such ventures in a way that is far, far too easy.

Any issues that gargoyles would face when revealed to the human world be much more intense than what other oppressed groups have already faced. And yet most stories that I’ve read make little reference to this, treating it as a matter of course that gargoyles would become part of the world without fuss or muss.

As I said above, stories need a minimum of free lunches to work. The gargoyles should eventually get a chance to venture farther outward into the modern world that eventually knew they existed, but it won’t be easy and it won’t be the same for them as it is for humans. I see a missed story opportunity there, and an attempt to sanitize the story.

Gargoyles wear modern/human clothes

A sub-trope of the modern-world integration is the idea that gargoyles will begin wearing skirts, pants, t-shirts, jackets, and blouses, with a sub-sub trope being East Asian gargoyles wearing the traditional garb of their human culture. There’s not much to say about this except that it further removes gargoyles’ distinctiveness and is unimaginative, and therefore is the enemy. It also seems highly impractical when certain types of clothing would inhibit a gargoyles’ movement.

And yes, I know Brooklyn liked wearing sunglasses and once dressed as a biker, and the young gargoyles love their Halloween costumes…gargoyles wearing modern outfits on occasion is canon. But that doesn’t meant that all of them will adopt that as a permanent style, and I would hate to see it happen.

Gargoyles have human standards of beauty

Disney gargoyles come in all shapes, sizes, and colours. However, some fans like to think that gargoyles of a less humanlike visage are shunned, teased, and bullied by their own kin. Generally, this takes the form of beaked gargoyles being considered hideous and having brutal angst about that. A sub-trope is implying that this is only true for female gargoyles, which makes even less sense than applying it to both genders.

While gargoyles probably have their beauty standards, to say that they would react to the less humanoid gargoyles as humans would react to similar features shows a lack of imagination. The “inhuman” features of gargoyles have been part of their race from the start, and are not abnormalities or deformities. Therefore, the only equivalent to gargoyles considering certain appearances among their own kind to be universally monstrous, would be a universal human prejudice against those with a certain hair or eye colour. It’s just very hard to imagine, and further blurs the line between gargoyle and human.


It’s easy to spot a common thread among all these posts: I like to gargoyles’ distinctiveness, preserved, and to have the series continue to subvert several fantasy tropes that I object to. Without these things, Gargoyles would not be what it is to me.