Swollen Members – Dagger Mouth

DAGGER

This can’t help but feel like an apology for their previous, atrocious album. For an album that’s so apologetic it also sounds like a roaring comeback that threatens to be their defining work. It’s an odd contrast that doesn’t really make sense and makes you wonder what Armed to the Teeth was all about anyway if they’re doing the complete opposite here.

Swollen Members are about classic Boom Bap only with more charisma. Instead of mumbling about New York and other such cliches, they flirt with horrorcore while never becoming as obnoxious as Necro. This versatility let them either slide completely into the genre, take it into more personal places (“Bad Dreams”) or to just expand beyond the typical boundaries of Hip-Hop. That’s why Black Magic is so good and why it received such a lukewarm reception. Before Kanye West’s new found fame, the only way to make an acclaimed album was to imitate crappy New York rappers I won’t bother to name.

So when they dropped Armed to the Teeth, it made no sense except that the people at Subnoize used it as a device to spread their misogyny. While the addition of guitars were cool, tracks like “Porn Star” were not. It’s exactly what I feared and what we got. For some reason they think that if they hate women, then every artist on Subnoize must sing about hating women. Even beyond the occasional misogyny the album lacked spirit. The only time it did, it’s because it had song titles like “Reclaim the Throne”. Clearly, they weren’t over the whole D&D thing.

From the beginning there is a suicidal fatal darkness to this album that never lets go. The opening track goes off about emotions and fear. “The Shining” talks about a spinning world that makes you feel lost. Just look at the song titles from that track on – “Devil”, “The Predator”, “Chemical Imbalance”. Swollen aim for a balance between the murder raps of Necro and the depressive introspection of Sadistik – self-harm as a sign of strength.

The result is absolutely badass and fun. It’s over-the-top, yes, but its darkness doesn’t mean a lack of fun. Swollen just trade in being warriors to being creepy dudes. “Night Vision” and “Chemical Imbalance” are the pumping heart of the album, where Mad Child swings from self-hating to bragging, often in the same line. You can hear his passion, too. He repeats the same rhymes a few times, but its his fury, his anger, how it’s directed at everyone (including himself) and no one at the same that makes the verse of “Night Vision” one of the best verses in Hip-Hop ever. Some rappers may have written more clever rhymes, but such passion is rare, especially in Boom Bap.

You can also look at this album as not just Swollen taking their style to the extreme, but also pushing the Boom Bap genre to actual darkness. Rob the Viking also shines here, knowing that the lyrics would be nothing without creepy sounds. While they don’t really go the danceable route – “Fire”, “Sound of the Drum” and “Devil” are the only times they raise the tempo and let the drums kick hard – he creates great soundscapes. Odd, unclear sounds surround these songs. A generator-like hum makes “Night Vision” way creepier. Rob knows that if the drums don’t take a central place, something else must. His atmospheric is actually atmospheric and enveloping. Calling it ‘camp’ is just silly. There was no other way of achieving this besides piling the odd noises.

Mad Child is the star here, which can sometimes be sad. All of the struggles he talked about in Armed to the Teeth are here out in the open. It might as well be an exorcism of his demons. Some songs are solo, like “Chemical Imbalance”. That leaves Prevail a bit in the dust, since his lyrics don’t have that personal nature but just cool imagery of satanic rituals, killing people, the undead and general darkness. He can never capture Mad Child’s fury who raps like a man possessed. It’s most apparent in “Night Vision” where his verse is almost useless. That said, he’s still an integral part. Without him this would become an incoherent and self-centered work. Prevail’s slightly more lighthearted approach is necessary.

The best thing about this album is how it manages to be unique, a whole piece without straying too far. Traditional Hip-Hop is an extremely minimalist genre so you get a lot of rappers saying nothing over white noise. It’s almost frightening how similar most of the canon is. Swollen Members don’t pull any tricks here, it’s just they got a more interesting concept and more passion. In the end Hip-Hop is sound art, and no matter how clever your lyrics are you need passion and to rap with conviction. Dagger Mouth is a strong contender for the best Boom Bap rap album ever. It actually takes advantage of the genre’s style and limits. It uses the minimalist beats to let the rappers go crazy, so the rappers actually go crazy. At the same time the beats remain important, providing odd sounds that change the tone of the songs – whether it’s the aggressive “Night Vision”, the moody “Chemical Imbalance” or the self-congratulating “Mr. Impossible”. I want to blame Subnoize for this album’s lack of success, but then again if they didn’t shat out Armed to the Teeth they wouldn’t feel the need to apologize and make a glorious comeback.

4 daggers out of 5

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Akatsuki no Yona (Yona of the Dawn)

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Describe the structure of this anime, and you’ll get a shounen. Add the genders of the characters, and it’ll read as if this anime tries to deconstruct both Shoujo and Shounen for some grand statement about anime, sexuality and the target audience. Watch it, and it’s just a simple story about collecting plot coupons in the shapes of handsome guys which all happen to be engaging characters. It’s odd how Yona opted for doing a simple adventure story when it could do so much more.

It’s not bad, just bizarre. Most anime – or stories in general – that aim for a simple, exciting adventures  have low aspirations. They aim for a bit of fun, some wacky designs and battles, a few dramatic mission statements and a big explosion to signal the climax. Yona has all the ingredients to uplift this formula to something serious, yet it’s content in basic storytelling. At least it has a good reason. As an example of adventure stories, Yona is fantastic.

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The first thing a storyteller must decide is what’s the meaning of his adventure. This meaning doesn’t have to be explored with all its philosophical layers and references to dead white European males. Rather, this meaning will serve as an emotional core, to make us care about what’s going on. We always care about things because they mean something, anything.

Yona starts with emotional hooks and never lets them go. A common mistake is turning your adventure into a set of obstacles to overcome using skills and badassery. Yona, instead, has a running theme connecting all these stages. What’s dominating is a specific type of coming of age. It’s not just about learning about the world outside, but realizing how different the bubble you were in is to the world.

What makes characters interesting and meaningful is what they do with their circumstances. Yona’s bubble doesn’t just burst. Rather, she doesn’t give up on her bubble but tries to reform it. In every place she goes to, she uses the lessons she grew up on – love, comfort, and softness – and bestows it upon the people. Her battle against the trafficking of women isn’t plain morality. Yona aims for a specific type of world, some kind of replica of what she used to live. Notice her treatment of the dragons. She never demands that they’ll join her moral crusade. She reacts in the same way her father did, she hopes they’ll join them of her own will. Her gang is designed like her father’s world, where everyone is nice to each other.

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As a female character, Yona is fascinating. On the surface, she’s a weak female character who needs her guys, weapons, and a shorter hair for validation. That’s because we’re so used to aggressive personalities. Even if our women aren’t warriors, we expect strong characters to shout and care nothing at all about others.

Yona may be feminine, but it is hardly a weakness. She has a worldview that guides her, that is uniquely hers. The actions are never convenient and her moral system isn’t a simple case of doing good. Beyond that, everyone actually relies on her. The source of meaning isn’t just a way of moving the plot. The dragons don’t join smoothly, and each views their situation differently. Nevertheless, Yona is the ultimate guide of the gang. The meaning of the journey, of remaking the world as a softer, more comfortable place to live comes from her.

Although she rarely takes active, aggressive action she always remains dominant. That’s because every conflict is an examination of her personality, and she changes. Everyone else just helps her with the technical details of getting food and scouting.

The anime also treats its antagonist well. Soo-won is a character of contrasts. His presentation is always a flip of what we before. It goes beyond the beginning, where he’s a smiling angel who turns out to be murderous. In two episodes, he’s the main character. We see how he runs the kingdom, what his views are of how it should be. It’s a shame the series is so short and doesn’t give him enough screen time. He’s a cold, calculated person who’s a fantastic actor. He also, when choosing a purpose, pursues it aggressively.

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An aggressive personality doesn’t necessarily translate to a cruel reign, but an efficient one. In a few instances, the anime is an excellent exploration of a benevolent monarchy. Although Soo-Won is cold, his aggressive pursuit brings him to a lot of victories. He manages to lift up a situation that King Il couldn’t, and without aggression he couldn’t do that. It’s a shame he has little screen time. The creators use the screen time to display both sides, but they never clarify the connection between them.

Each arc stands on its own, carry its own meanings, main characters and tones. The anime borders on experimental, with one arc flirting heavily with horror. The result is that despite having a structure of plot coupons, it never feels this way. Yona needs to collect all dragons to cash them in for End of Plot, but each tale of getting the coupon stands for itself. The stories are so different. One is about a comically religious village. Another is about an underground village living in constant fear. Another is about overthrowing the asshole ruler. Separate these stories from the big picture, and they stand on their own. A formulaic structure doesn’t matter so long as the parts are good, and this anime is a clear proof of this.

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That’s why although its ending is one of the worst in the style of ‘no ending’, it’s still great. Many complain about anime that don’t really end, but often they do conclude their small arc. Yona is one of the few that builds up to a big conflict and never gets to it. It doesn’t even use its final arc to conclude all the ideas that happened before. The anime doesn’t set itself up as an episode in a gigantic story – like, say, Attack on Titan – but a straightforward adventure where we expect the hero and the villain to meet at the end for some milk, cookies, philosophical discussions and an exchange of blows. It ends by collecting all the coupons and never cashing them in. Since everything that happened before is good enough, it doesn’t ruin the anime but it’s still disappointing.

The art style is delightlyfully shoujo. The eyes are quite big. Yona is feminine, with a red hair that’s not just red, but sore red. It’s the kind of red that you don’t wear to your workplace because it’s too attention-grabbing. The guys are also all handsome. While the designs are appealing, few are distinct. Yona is beautiful, but that’s expected from a shoujo anime that doesn’t think feminine is an insult. As for the other characters, only Soo-Won has an interesting design. His soft side is expressed in his long, bright hair and warm expression that has a long, rather than wide smile. Everyone else fits their characters, but Hak’s rugged look is typical dark short hair. Yun is another honorable mention. As an attempt to make a pretty boy, it’s excellent. We never see much of this handsome male look. We see male characters who are handsome, but not those whose looks is a major selling point.

Yona is a straightforward adventure anime. What it aims to do isn’t special, but what makes it special is how well it understands the adventure story. It manages to overcome a non-existent ending, and you can only do that by having separate arcs which still gel together, by having characters that breathe life to these arcs. Occasionally, it shuffles the pieces around but it’s more for entertainment effect rather than subversion. Still, if you want to experience pure storytelling, this is it.

3.5 dragons out of 5

Genei wo Kakeru Taiyou (Daybreak Illusion)

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Horror comes from inside and is directed inside. People who want to kill us are quite scary, but they’re a very specific problem. True horror is in realizing that we can be the killers, that we can be what we hate. It throws a big wrench in our grand narrative and shatters it to pieces. That’s why we limit our consciousness, assume the patriarchy or the media or the government is to blame for it all. Negative feelings are bad, but the true problem must be outside us.

Obvious comparisons to Madoka spring up, but these are superficial comparisons. The latter is more existential and philosophical, less concerned with the emotions of its characters and relying more on structure and mechanics to deliver its philosophical idea. Daybreak Illusion is far more emotional, fantastical and wild. Each character has distinct demeanor, it has many arcs which peek into other people’s lives and the main subject matter is emotion, not the grand meaning of life.

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With that aside, let’s focus on what’s actually going on here, something deeper than how ‘logical’ the story is. Cliched stories that flood your cinema have an external evil. These are comfortable fantasies. The bad is always outside of us. We need to kill it. Some of them improve and we can converse with these evil, but it’s still outside. The third stage is recognizing something inside of us is evil, but an external thing brings it out. The fourth, and most horrifying stage, is realizing that each of us partakes in the conspiracy against the human race.

Daybreak Illusion belongs in the third category, which is a weird one. Stories that reach there are aware of theme exploration, that their story shouldn’t just give us a good time with pretty visuals. You can’t reach that stage without trying to be deep. The anime really wants to be more, not just a copy of Madoka but to compete against it and expand on the genre. It does that fine enough, but not good enough.

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Daemonia are the big evil, but they’re amplifiers of already-present negative emotions. Yet by pushing the source of the bad outside, the series isolates it and doesn’t explore their issues too deeply. Many of the characters become ‘not themselves’ when the Daemonia take over, but that’s just avoiding the horror. The horror is realizing that the bad side is just as a part of ourselves as the good side.

The series is always close to truly delving into the depths of emotion, but never getting there. A climatic conflict does it the best, showing how we’re responsible to each other. Main character finds herself needing to actually face another person’s emotions, and digging inside of her to find out what she really feels. It’s an interesting position to put the main character in, but it doesn’t solve the big conflict. All ends with a big Final Boss Fight full of flashing lights and explosions.

In the most of the arcs though, the victims are just innocent people who are tempted by the devil. By the time they start their rampage, they’re supposedly ‘not themselves’. The escape from horror isn’t deliberate. Our heroes talk to the Daemonia and are frigthened by the fact that these are people. In a way, by showing us that these distorted monsters are still actually human beings, we’re supposed to be all the more horrified by our negative feelings. Yet this doesn’t work, since these Daemonia too end up too alien from us, their cause being external. People transform into monsters because something infected them, not because they made decisions (or were born in environments) that turned them into monsters.

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For the characters in the story these people are real enough, even when they come looking like man-eating plants. What it does better than Madoka is showing the journey and emotional development of heroes caught in the midst of a cosmic battle. Characters actually have a will and their reactions to the events. If in the first episodes the anime seems aimless, it’s only because it really tells the story of these girls and nothing else. Any time the story loses its direction is when it sways from it.

Although these characters aren’t particularly deep, they’re given distinct views about the battle, the world and what they get from it. In the first few episodes the anime actually threatens to improve on Madoka, since it’s far more in touch with what kind of dilemmas and conflicts would arise in this situation. Of course it uses Monster of the Week format, because anything else is a distraction. At its most exciting, we see them clashing and arguing and talking about what they’re going through. How it feels like to be the hero is where the excitement lies.

The drop in quality comes later. Suddenly we get a more rigid structure and a main villain. Already in the beginning we had some meaningless technobabble, but it avoided getting technical. Battle ended when there was no emotions left to explore in that conflict. The final conflict also ends thanks to the heroes reaching a conclusion, deciding to rebel against their own fate. Yet we don’t actually see them reaching this conclusion.

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A trait of messy anime, especially those with huge epic stories and wacky art styles is that they have a slew of themes and they don’t know which one to focus on, or even which one fit their structure. First the anime start with exploring how negative emotions get the best of us, how the evil is supposed to be inside of us. Then this is thrown away, not completely resolved and instead out of nowhere the girls are fighting against fate.

Now, if the series had something to say about emotional determinism it would be fine. Exploring the conflict of will and choice is the next big thing, since so far we all agree we can’t control our emotions. The whole idea of fate comes from the Tarot, though, not because the series wanted to explore it in the first place. Messy structures tend to arise naturally from theme-focused anime, but here it’s because the show couldn’t focus on its ideas.

At least on the surface it works well enough. As a simple heroic story, I’d take this over many others. Even if its exploration is shallow, it gains from it enough emotional weight. These battles matter. We see the characters going through something during these moments of violence and how their psyche is affected. It’s not just ‘beat up those deamons and get some shwarma’. It hasn’t reached the heights it’s aiming for, but it’s still an exciting story with great visuals. For some, that’s enough.

3 daemonia out of 5

 

 

Kaiba

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Great works of art are not easy to review. They are not common like the cesspool of bad art. Bad art is easy to deconstruct, to show how pathetically horrible they are. “So bad it’s good” exists because these works are so bizarre, so extraordinary that they become unique. Bad art is never unique its badness. In contrast, great works of art always end up redefining what ‘good’ is, so any review of a masterpiece will never be analytical and conclusive. It always end up chasing something that we can only grasp a piece of, like a poet looking at a beautiful line he wrote and knowing he can never write a worthy poem of it.

Kaiba is one of those artworks. I say it deliberately. Judgment of it is not confined to anime. It transcends media, reaches something so deeply human and awe-inspiring that it becomes a part of you. Do not expect a rational explanation of why this anime is better than pretty much anything. If we understood completely why it’s so good, we’d have masterpiece dropping from the skies. I can try, though.

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The key to understanding Kaiba is understanding how it tells a story, specifically how it takes advantage of the personal nature of fiction. All art, including fiction, is personal. It is a product of human thought, a translation of your entire Being – your experiences, philosophy, unconscious, passions – into some kind of experience that another being can take on. Kaiba is a ridiculously expressive work. Every scene is imbued with emotion. Every object says something about what it represents. It’s so emotionally draining because of that.

Memory is the big topic, but Kaiba isn’t just about memory. In a cliched way, it’s existentialist, asking what we are. Its answer is memories, but memories are also information. The anime explores this intersection of information that defines us. Notice the symbols. When memory isn’t converted to information, it is organic and free – it is lifelike memory eggs. These are also tiny, fragile and fleeting. The memories float away and are easily lost.

The roe is us, so they use to show how tiny we are when death strikes. When a character dies, their bodies become liquid and vanish completely. The ‘self’ becomes just a bunch of yellow pieces floating way. It expresses the loss of death, how death completely erase us and we become nothing. The memory chip – a drill-like thing – can also die so easily, if it’s lost it’s gone forever. Sure, we can try to capture those roe or to protect the chip, but it’s so difficult. It’s an expression of how fragile we are.

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Yet converting ourselves into information makes us so much easier to control, and easier for us to control others. Altering other people’s memories is a sci-fi trope, but this anime is concerned with how it affects everyone, how it affects our personal lives. We see the small results of this – how erasing someone’s childhood erases who they are and they end up becoming nothing but a memory. How this power to change personal reality blurs into thinking we can change reality itself – a direct link to megalomania and tyranny.

Our memories are our personality. Once we control them, edit them, change them all lines break down. The world of Kaiba looks funny by design, but that’s because how the people experience it. People can also put their memories into a whole new body. In one episode this results in a world where bodies are manufactured like clothes. Its reality is grotesque, a mass of weird shapes that’s disorientating. Somehow we ended up creating a more chaotic reality than nature.

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Leaning towards a socioeconomic critique of society, the anime shows a world in which memories – selves – become products. So a character sells her own body with hopes that her memory will be kept. Selves are no longer precious. This society isn’t painted with strokes of black to show you how evil rich people are. Rather, to illustrate the chaos of it, we see selling your own body and putting yourself in a chip is no guarantee. You’re relinquishing control of yourself, your grip on the world.

Yet this ‘information’ is never just ‘information’. Consciousness was the result of accumalating all these pieces of data and connecting them. So we’re never really dead, and using memories this way is using people as objects. The anime is deeply concerned with living things. In a gallery of memories, the people who own these memories cry out to be released.

Everyone’s concerns are always personal. Although the characters are simple, they have motivation and a humanity. A sheriff who really wants a girl at first seems like a greedy bastard, but he’s a person. That’s his wants, and when we see this want doesn’t make him just an asshole but a good person we’re encouraged to sympathize with him. In the end, he’s a ‘human’ being – with people he loves, things he wants, and dreams lost when death comes.

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Although there are antagonists, the series always reminds us that they’re people in the most simple way. People want power, but not because they’re evil. They want it because they’re human beings, so we see the ringleader of the resistance crumbling to tears when he realizes what he’s done. He had to erase memories that painted him in a bad light, but the result was losing a friend.

This anime is in the end about treasuring people. The idea of memory is just a tool to show us how we can lose people, no matter how hard we work to keep them. We put their identity, their whole being in a chip but then that chip is lost. We sell a loved one’s body, hoping the salesman will keep the information in a chip. A friend blocks our ambition, so we erase some memories only to realize the whole person is gone. Eventually this anime reaches an important conclusion about being – we need each other, we’re social animals, power doens’t make up for it.

The castle of Warp is a lonely place. The only person he has is an all-seeing robot. He’s not happy and the only thing he can talk about are who to execute. He may be the king of memories, but these are his own memories. What good are they? In a beautiful scene Popo and the resistance at the palace, and it has a huge opening to a black void. That’s the height of power to you, a lonely high place looking out into nothing. The only thing that’s there are themselves, yet they’re craving control.

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The romance between Neiro and Kaiba isn’t a symbol for romance, but what’s really important – connection. Even during oppression, they found something of their own, a precious shared memory that’s enough. Separate yourself from the struggle for power. The privileges of the rich to put themselves in memory chips and live forever aren’t that worthwhile in the end. Every world touched by this is grotesque, people are lost yet they are still people.

You cannot talk about the art without mentioning the Neverhood, which seems like a direct inspiration for the anime. Both endings and beginning borrow from it. It opens with a man seeing an unknown, bizarre world. The ending includes a darker version of the hero and a gigantic, self-sacrificing robot. Like the Neverhood, the design is cartoonish, nonsensical and imbued with meaning and emotions. Look at the planet where the only thing that matters is the story of two old people. The planet itself is nothing but their tower. The underworld is almost colorless – but almost, since it still has some life in it. The club is colorful and weird but has a dominating shade of purple – a disorientating effect. Vanilla looks like what we expect from an asshole with the fat belly and aggressive face (Only his character later proves to be more). There is even a creature who flies by a propeller and doesn’t speak – like the sidekick from old video games. It’s as unrealistic as you get, but no scene is without emotional overtones just like life – and that makes it far closer to reality than anything else.

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Likewise the soundtrack couldn’t be better, a collection of gentle electronic sounds. It fits with the slightly childish designs, but it has the same fragility of the world. A lot of it sounds like Boards of Canada, only it takes it to less nostalgic tones. The soundtrack mostly expresses a reflective, introspective atmosphere, one of both awe and terror. Some tracks are colder and harsher that reminds us that this world is still harsh, a world where selves can be sold. Some tracks have beautiful, intimate melodies to go along with the theme of connection.

There is no other anime like Kaiba, an anime so expressive, where every shot is charged with emotion, wonder, terror and humanity. ‘Depth’ isn’t the right word. It’s not an intellectual, symbolic exercise like Paranoia Agent or a psychological exploration like Digimon Tamers yet it’s somehow better than these two. Perhaps because it takes anime to the origin of art – the expression, not explanation, of human experience. Nothing I could write would do this anime justice.

Brandon Sanderson – Mistborn: The Hero of Ages

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Sanderson’s books are puzzling. Take their surface, their visual ideas and the overall story and you’re left with a rollicking adventure that occasionally goes deep. Add his stilted, unoriginal prose and method of solving conflicts and you’re left with a generic Fantasy book that doesn’t insult the reader. After reading his essays and his view on the genre I’ve come to the conclusion he’s an awful writer who stumbled upon some great ideas.

The problem with Sanderson isn’t the story itself, but his approach to storytelling. He views his stories as a mechanical process, with the purpose of everything is get to the end. Characters, magic and objects have meaning which is determined only by how much they can solve conflict.

If we’re talking reality, this view can make sense. Life is full of conflicts and we need tools to solve it. Literature and Philosophy can be such tools. The difference is in the nature of conflicts in real life, and conflicts in fictional world. The conflict in real life is imposed on us. By that, I mean we don’t fully control it. We can instigate, but never design it from scratch. I can go out and start a fight with someone I don’t like, but I don’t control all the elements – our personal histories, which influence the conflict, are out of our control. The other person’s reactions and choices are also out of my control.

Fictional conflicts are the opposites. You build them from scratch. This is something many people forget when they talk about stories. Authors fully control their work. Authors can – and should – impose laws on their work, but even those laws are something the authors can control. Creating a problem just so you could solve it is like the brilliant Useless Machine. It’s a contraption that you turn on so it would turns itself off. If the purpose of everything in your story is that you’d solve the conflict, why create the conflict in the first place?

Sanderson’s parts fit nicely, but I see nothing admirable about that. Complexity doesn’t equal depth, and depth is what matters in fiction. Compexity can be engaging in activities that are thinking for thinking’s sake, but Chess also involves human interaction and a real conflict whose elements you don’t fully control. Reading the Mistborn novels is like playing Chess against yourself, only with a fancier dressing.

It was so disappointing when Sanderson took an important symbol and turned it into the final plot coupon. Sazed’s story is absorbing. It is the existensial crisis made physical, questioning what the hyper-intellectual who only researches, instead of providing answers and doing things, will do when the world is ending. The idea is sometimes explored, but Sazed mostly stares off into space and ruminates. By the time he takes the center stage, he realizes all his knowledge is the last screw to seal the Bad Ending’s coffin.

Too many scenes are about doing Allomantic stunts. Sanderson writes them like they’re a blow-by-blow account of a role-playing game. Even in those role-playing games, they are the most boring parts. No one cares about Fallout‘s battle systems. Planescape: Torment is a towering achievement because of the writing. These games can employ a battle system, because the person experiencing the art actually gets to use them.

Fantasy authors often forget that the position of the reader isn’t like the writer’s. The author may feel like he’s discovering a new land when writing. For the reader, it’s all laid out, no exploration of thought needed but just an info dump. The author may feel like he’s using a complex system of game rules to solve conflicts, but the reader only gets to observe it. The reader doesn’t actually use these rules. Imagine if a sports caster told you exactly how the basketball player’s legs work.

All these details in those big fights don’t matter. They don’t affect anything. Remove them, and the battle will be slightly shorter. In general, battles don’t work in literature. Violence is visual and immediate, something that’s hard to replicate in the relatively calm activitiy of reading. It’s also swift, so exact descriptions of it come off as silly. People don’t experience violence like Sanderson writes about it. It’s always over before we know what happened. He never once tries to capture the thrill of violence.

The story is more focused this time around. Stalling, the defining feature of the second book, is gone. Sanderson also deserves credit for his ability to structure stories. He never gets lost, never rambles too much or digress. He understands epicness doesn’t have to come from how many miles your characters walk, but the scope of the conflict. So making his story about stopping the end of the world is a good idea, and there is an energy in the final scenes, the emotionally appealing concept of the world torn between creation and destruction.

I want to hear Sanderson tells such a story. He can tell it without losing track, but when it’s covered in dull prose I lose hope. Many a pointless sentence fill the book. Inner thoughts drown the books in obvious or unnecessary details. I truly don’t understand why authors do this so much. I sometimes edit out of kindness prose of young writers, and they do it all the time. Are they afraid that nobody will understand? So long as you don’t write like Hegel, we can understand you just fine.

I do give him credit for not digressing too much. Scenes do gel together for a coherent story. One arc does feel like it’s separated from the main story, but Sanderson tells it like it’s self-contained, with its own conflict and resolutions. It doesn’t exist just to add details, but as an actual story. His descriptions are often to the point.

His exploration of themes is particularly bad. He wants to say something, and his fairly sparse story means ideas emerge clearly. For all the talk of worldbuilding, there aren’t too many details to keep up with. When the ideas emerge though, they’re just there. Sanderson does nothing with them. The secondary arc is about the evils of revolution, but all it has is a bunch of extremists using the government for their own selfish needs. There is no understanding or insight or sympathy towards them. It doesn’t reveal anything about this archetype, but perpetuates an empty pattern. The final antagonist also stands for nothing but death’n’destruction. It’s fun enough in a simple story, but Sanderson aims higher – a complex machine which has no reason to exist but to turn itself off.

Occasionally, it’s fun and it concludes. Mostly, it’s a Useless Machine, but not as amusing and not as offensive as George R. R. Martin. I understand some people dig epic fantasy, but this is 700 pages. Dunsany wrote a brilliant novel with only 230 pages, and reading it three times will keep revealing new things and is a better usage of my time.

2 heroes out of 5 ages

No Game No Life

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12 episodes of praising Instrumental Reason doesn’t make for good fiction, but it makes it clear why the anime blew up so much. Popularity is never a result of quality, but of fitting in with the zeitgeist, the common biases and worldviews of an age. That’s why Game of Thrones is so popular since it shows a masculinity that’s dark, therefore intelligent instead of the happy-go-lucky nonsense of 80’s action films. As for this anime, its popularity comes from how blatant it is in showing Instrumental Reason to be the supreme reason. Imagine those vegans or marijuana advocates who think that their pet issues would solve all the world’s problems.

Before we discuss why this anime is so bad, let’s clarify what I mean by ‘Instrumental Reason’. I capitalize it because it’s a useful term. To use Charles Taylor’s definition, it is reason which is about efficiancy and problem-solving. It asks how fast we can solve a problem, what is the best way to solve a problem.

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Take the case of a busted wheel. When your wheel’s gone bust, you don’t ask what it means, what ramifications it will have on pop culture or on our perception of gender and reality. All that matters is that we change tires as quickly as possible, and that the tire will be good enough to last as long as possible. While there are theories dissecting the meaning behind games, when we play chess we don’t think what the game means. Rather, we asks how we beat the game.

In contrast, there is what I’d call ‘reason of meaning’. By that, you ask what is the nature of things. We don’t just ask how to end racism and poverty, but what exactly is racism and poverty. We’re interested in understanding these issues, defining them, understanding what is bad. Instrumental Reason leads to a lot of money for hi-tech buffons, but it cannot solve all problems since it doesn’t tell you what the problem, or the meaning of things is.

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Sora and Shiro are one pair whose world is in Instrumental Reason. While games have meaning, the meaning is related to the mere act of playing. We don’t question whether or not we should win a game and what is the nature of winning chess – the rules decide that. The world of Disboard is a world where every problem isn’t just solved by games, but by Instrumental Reason.

That means it’s a world that doesn’t have any meaning at all. The nature of any problem doesn’t matter, since there will be an arbitrary equation that must solved. Once we solve this equation, the problem ends. The anime tells the story of a megalomaniacal brother-and-sister who beat people in games, gain power and minions and occasionally pay lip-service to morality.

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Now, if the series was an examination of such Instrumental Reason, it would’ve been fine. If Instrumental Reason was merely a dominant storytelling tool, then it could still have a decent story. By that, I mean that the show works similar to Death Note and Code Geass. The story moves mainly by challenges facing the characters, and the characters need to solve them. The viewer gains pleasure from trying to solve the riddle along with the characters. However, the meaning of these challenges isn’t important.

Instrumental Reason is so dominant in this anime that these challenges don’t even pretend to have meaning. Death Note may have been a series of riddles, but underneath it there was supposed to be a story about the morality of executing criminals. It failed because it didn’t create situations where we examined the issue, but rather only asked ‘who will win?’. In similar fashion, the only question this anime asks is ‘how will Sora and Shiro win?’.

As a storytelling tool, it’s incredibly boring. It’s essentially watching a staged game. The whole thrill of watching sports is that you don’t know who will win and nothing is decided until the last moment. Stories which use Instrumental Reason make you watch a man playing chess against himself, only with more narrative fluff and (in the case of anime) pretty visuals.

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So as a story, this is a complete failure. Really, it’s about nothing. Only near the end it says something about the nature of games, but the whole thing happens in an alternative reality. Once the characters are thrown into it, no mention of the real world. Without admitting there is a real world where not everything is a game, it cannot explore the nature of games. Many throw the word ‘escapist’ around and it’s always debatable how escapist a show is, but can anyone debate this? The characters literally escape the real world so they could play forever.

If the story is an absolute failure, at least it could do well in other aspects. Sadly, it’s all bad except for the art. The art is easily some of anime’s best. It’s such a shame that a highlight in anime art is glued to a horrible story. Look at those vibrant colors, how every scene doesn’t have so much a depth of detail but a depth of color. It creates the feeling of a truly fantastical world. It applies to character design, too. While the series is shameless in fanservice, each character gets its unique touch, unique eye shapes and hairstyles. Shiro isn’t the best design, but her design is a good case in point. Her hair isn’t just long but has a distinct flow to it. Jibril is another excellent case. For a character who floats around half-naked, they sure thought about a lot of unique touches – the asymmetrical gloves, the gardient in the hair.

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Sadly, this is where the positives end. Some of the characters are good, but they need a different setting and a different storytelling method. Stephanie Dola could’ve been a light in the dark, a contrast to the world. Her emotional reaction actually could’ve added some ‘reason of meaning’, show us a character who thinks about other things besides winning. Too bad her role is to be slapped around, sexually humiliated and generally used as a tool. If so far you were convinced my rantings about ‘Instrumental Reason’ was just cranking about, here’s the final nail. The anime takes its one character who has a different view than constantly puts it down.

Sora is tied to this problem, and to the misogyny problem. He’s a 20th century masculine stereotype. Writing about transformation of masculinity in fiction is incomplete without him. We see how once the manly hero packed guns, now he’s shagging women and is being a conniving, selfish asshole. What defines Sora isn’t heroism like those in the 80’s movies, but his pure ‘Instrumental Reason’. All that matters to him is winning, all he can think about is winning.

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Occasionally he displays some moral code about being nice to those he lose. We never see the general ethics that guide him, though. Since he’s comfortable using everyone as pieces, he’s more like a Wolf of Wall Street, doing everything to win and using people as means to an end. It fits with the zeitgeist. Go to school, and they will teach you how the only important thing is making loads of money. Whatever technology you invent, whatever content you produce, it doesn’t matter so long as you get money. No surprise our politicians are so corrupt.

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Using people as means, besides pissing off Kant also gives the whole anime a strong misogynistic bent. You don’t just see women in sexy situations, but often humiliating situations. Stephanie gets the most of it. An episode is dedicated to treating her like an animal only to teach her a lesson. He also takes pictures of her nude without consent and there’s the whole ‘laughing at flat women’ thing. I don’t see anything funny about humiliating a girl, taking nude pictures of her and generally framing her as inferior and dumb. Worst of all, we’re meant to cheer for Sora and the characters eventually come to like him. I don’t see how his rise to power demanded treating Dola so awfully.

Contrary to the creator’s idea, I would rather have a beer with Stephanie Dola and not just because she’s a woman. No Game No Life is pure escapist fantasy for the hi-tech age. In an age where we want to just solve problems instead of thinking about their nature, it’s the ideal anime. I’m reminded of a story where some government officials asked how to lower the amount of poor people. Onc offered to change the definition to the American definitions, and then there will be less poor people on the count. Notice how the numbers change but no one asks what exactly poverty is and what’s the actual problem. It’s a comfortable mindset, but we don’t live in Disboard. Our world isn’t clean and ordered where each problems have clear laws. In this world, you have to ask what is the problem, what it means and the whole shebang. Also, you can’t go around treating women like Sora treats Stephanie. Somebody might come and get all 80’s Action Movie on your ass.

1.5 misogynists out of 5

Sundays Without God (Kamisama no Inai Nichiyoubi)

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This is such a bizarre anime. I’ve seen anime and movies with trippy imagery. I’ve read stories with pages of gibberish, yet few works of fiction left me with a sense of culture shock like this. Such anime are so original it’s hard to make them truly terrible, since the novelty value is there. Creators also tend to be as confused as the viewer, so they rarely reach their full potential.

When you have a unique premise on your hands that doesn’t owe anything to any tradition, there are two ways to go about it. You can either go full retard, mine the premise for anything it has and throw the kitchen sink along with everything. Since you have no idea how your anime is supposed to work, all you can do is try everything and hope something sticks. There’s a famous anime who did this and it’s called Future Diary.

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The other route is the safer one. You let your story flow, but you never try too hard to understand it. You let characters interact and explore your world, but you refrain from anything too attention-grabbing. The anime will narrow its focus. Its structure will become almost RPG-like, giving the protagonist a basic objective to complete and finish it off.

Sundays Without God takes the latter route, but the result isn’t a complete failure. Despite not playing with the structure, its setting and premise are so weird that the feeling of culture shock is persistent. The stories that make up the anime are also good enough on their own and take advantage of the setting. You cannot tell them in any other context. Still, something feels off. It’s not completely weird, not completely normal and leans towards the weird without mining it too much. The result is anime that’s enjoyable like an ordinary anime while feeling weird.

The best thing about the anime is it unique setting and tone. It’s a perfect example of how you don’t need a lot of details to create a unique world. The world here is simple. God is gone, no one can get born and dead people don’t really die. It’s apocalypse in slow motion. We’ve had a lot of stories about what happens after the apocalypse and we tend to imagine it as something swift and fast. Here, the world is in the process of ending.

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Human beings are resilient things, though. Even if the sun will explode, we’ll most likely try to save something. Survival instinct is so strong that it defies rationality and free will. In this case, the world isn’t ending so much as life reaches its epilogue. Life isn’t bad, but it keeps moving in an ordinary pace towards its ending.

What do you do when you’re the last generation? The anime is essentially about this, but it seems so weirded out by its premise it doesn’t really explore it. The first stories deal directly with these themes – one character is about to be the last of the last generation, which is the worst isolation you can have. The city of the dead is an interesting expressions of the Metaphysical Rebellion – how we can rebel against our circumstances and reject them.

The structure doesn’t prevent exploration of these topics, since many shows used shorter length with depth. The method of storytelling gets in the way. There’s an objective to solve, and the characters spend more time trying to solve it. While the pacing isn’t thriller-like, it’s too fast for such a premise. It doesn’t slow down enough to show how characters exist outside the story.

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Characters’ existence outside the story is one of the best ways to convince us they’re real, to make us care about them and see their humanity. Stories are something humans create and we don’t live in just one. A focused storyteller shows snippets of other stories the characters can have, but then goes back to the main one. A master storyteller can imply these side-stories and connect them to the main plotline. The anime doesn’t do this. Its focus is too narrow.

It’s a shame, because the storytelling is quite excellent. The format is familiar – we have a good, well-meaning character visiting people and helping them. Ai isn’t just a vehicle to tell the stories of these people. Her personality and position is directly tied to her role. In a world where everyone’s ready to die or desperately fighting death, she’s a piece of light. She’s the youngest person alive, a possibility that there might be a future.

She’s not a lantern, though. When things go bad, Ai doesn’t say some nice things and the story ends. Often, she gives those pep talks but stumbles. The world is, after all, ending. Problems still exist and are hard to solve. Ai may be an optimist, but she’s a struggling optimist. We see her doubts, how much she tries to cling to her optimism despite everything.

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This is where the anime’s faults lay. Although this is an excellent usage of such a character, they don’t take it far enough. Ai struggles, but the creators put her so much in the role of problem-solver she doesn’t have time to ingest the struggling. There’s no time to see how the possible failures affect Ai’s psych. Stories don’t always end just like she wants them to, and that should influence her worldview. How do you stay optimistic when things don’t go as expected? Do you blind your own eyes? Do you become pessimistic, or do you accept things as they are? The anime never addresses these questions.

The themes of wishing does make its appearance, but the creators aren’t sure what to do with it. People wish for things. Sometimes they come true, sometimes they don’t and sometimes they come true but the result is painful. It speaks volumes when a messy anime like Big Order addresses these themes better. They’re present, but wishing is not a plot device here and there aren’t enough angles to explore this topic from. It’s just there.

The art style continues the weird nature of the quality. The character’s looks are distinct and memorable enough, but the art style itself isn’t. You can put these characters in a school anime and they wouldn’t feel out of place (except for the outfits). There’s variety in how everyone looks and the school arc lets them show off their designs, but nothing connects it. Characters shouldn’t just look distinct but there should be a style that connects them, quirks that make the design memorable and make you wonder what else you can do with it.

On the other hand, the color schemes and backgrounds are beautiful. The anime finally fulfills potential. The colors are balanced. Light and dark tones are mixed. A burning red or a cold blue is are the dominating colors, and they have just enough brightness to make the world seem normal. There’s also a little darkness in them that reminds you that the world is dying. It’s a balance that’s hard to get. You can easily find yourself in bland colors, but here they’re the perfect mix of darkness and lights that fit the weird tone of the series.

Sundays Without God is a flawed anime, but nevertheless an anime like no other. Its failures hold it back from greatness, and but their nature prevents them from being offensive. When it falls, it’s not because it does stupid things. Rather, it’s too afraid to play with its ideas. They stand on their own, and even as basic storytelling it’s good enough. Someone might one day run away with these and render this irrelevant, but until then it’s worth your time.

3.5 sundays out of 5