Aku no Hana (The Flowers of Evil)

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There is no reason for anyone to love the way they’ve been raised in suburbia. It may not be dangerous, but that is not enough to make living there worthwhile. Suburbia is a world without values, where nothing is allowed to be good and worth devoting to. Some things are considered bad and off-limits – like drugs. Anything else though is ‘just a hobby’. No wonder this safe lifestyle doesn’t stop people from killing themselves – why live such a life, anyway?

No wonder, then, that suburbia has its share of ‘rebels’ who take symbols that seem to contradict suburbia. Then again, any person who finds something valueable is rebelling against suburbia – that’s why both the happy-go-lucky raver and the skull-laden metalhead are considered rebels of this landscape. Even the truly religious and the intellectual can be rebels in this world. Such passionate people will challenge the status quo since they will value something other than the suburban lifestyle.

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Notice the problem, though. Notice what’s the requirements for a true rebellion against suburbia – having values. Aku no Hana is the pseudo-rebel, the person who hates suburbia so much with all its emptiness yet cannot find anything of value to replace it with. It wrecks destruction, says naughty words and perhaps will pay lip-service to sexuality but in the end it has nothing to say. In the end, it is too weak to admit it’s exactly like the suburbia it hates and this lack of self-awareness is its destruction.

The anime fails in the same way the main character, Nakamura, fails. Nakamura hates the boring life she leads. I hate that way of life, too. Yet just because she claims she’s going ‘beyond the hill’, that she will tear down Kasuga’s walls to find something there doesn’t mean she actually will. It doesn’t mean her actions are directed at this venture. Actually, her actions are more like that of a sexual abuser rather than a tough life couch.

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Imagine if a man stripped a female of clothing, forced her to wear something and said this will somehow psychologically heal her and make her stronger, bring out the ‘real her’ or something equally fancy. Few of us would take it seriously. The moment the man will use force is the moment we will find him villainous, no matter how many rebellious slogans come out of his mouth. So why is it okay when a female does it?

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It’s an anime so engrossed in being different, so immersed in wanting to be unique that it doesn’t even try. It goes beyond the art style, which is ugly but not too hard to get used to. The backgrounds are fantastic. They go beyond the emptiness of suburbia, giving everything a rusty look of falling down and crumbling. We see something else besides boredom, that suburbia equals malaise and its lack of values is actually that depressing. As for the character design, it’s merely failed realism. None of them actually look like real people but more like distorted photographs. For a while it’s amusing, but not too much.

At first it starts off interesting with a view into the darkness and weirdness of random people. Quickly, though, it is obvious we’re supposed to side with Nakamura, view her as a tragic person lost in a world of dull people who just cannot realize how special she is. Too bad the creators missed that if anyone actually paid attention to her, they’d realize she should be in jail. No one cares how special you are when you abuse people. Look what happened to Watkins.

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True horror is realizing that something that’s horrible is also real, and perhaps more common than we think. Don’t be a pig and act like your mud is special. Show the viewers that what they consider deviant is actually normal. Horrify them with that. Instead, we see a small act of stupidity and teenage horniness being shoved in our faces like the creators just discovered the true darkness that lays at humanity’s heart.

If only they had enough empathy to realize that the true horror is realizing that all our rebelliousness is worth nothing if we’re cruel, that we’re excellent at swallowing our own Kool-Aid as we hide from how we hurt others. From the middle onwards, the series becomes nothing but a carnival of vomit. We see people being mean to each other, some preaching about the nastiness of suburbia and pushing someone to do things they don’t want because you and your rebellious self know what’s best for them. Hating suburbia is a good thing, but it’s the first step. This anime barely takes in, and merely wallows in the pre-packaged cliches of rebellion – like anti-capitalism music that you need to pay to hear.

1.5/5

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Ernest Hemingway – Men Without Women

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Hemingway is a fascinating character. Many tell stories, but Hemingway lived in an epic poem. He traveled the worlds, participated in wars, hunted, fished, went through four marriages only to commit suicide. If I needed source material for an epic tragedy, I wouldn’t need to look further. I wouldn’t even need to add themes – masculinity, romance and war are constant themes in Hemingway’s life. This fascinating Hemingway is the only good thing about Men Without Women.

Nowadays, Hemingway’s prose reads more like a parody of realism. He didn’t understand the purpose of it. When he talks about his Iceberg Theory, he talks about hiding things from the reader. Yet holding back information isn’t good storytelling. It’s how cheap thrillers keep us hooked by hinting that if we invest more time, a revelation will come. The purpose of minimalism is to reveal using few words.

Carver came years later and saw it through. When you read Carver, you don’t need to dig deep to find buried ideas. Rather, Carver’s bare prose makes everything float up to the surface. If something is hidden or implied, it means that the mere fact of it being hidden is important. At the end of “One More Thing”, Carver tells us the man doesn’t know what to say. That’s enough to show us how confused, how broken that man is. If Hemingway wrote that story, it would end with “The Man said.”, as if not telling the reader what he said is somehow more profound than showing the man is at loss for words.

These aren’t stories of beginnings, middles and conclusions. They’re snapshots of life, which is fine. “In Another Country” is a story that goes nowhere, but it’s so lifelike. That story must be close to him since it deals with war wounds. He’s not worried about being obvious there, but just let the images stand on their own. In it, there are machines that are supposed to cure body problems. Despite being the first of their kind, there are images of before-and-after. It’s not a complex image and perhaps not a very subtle one, but it’s more powerful than anything here.

“Hills Like White Elephants”, perhaps the most famous story here both shows where the style works and where it generally fails. It’s routinely praised for only implying it’s about abortion instead of saying it, but what’s the point? If you insert the word ‘abortion’ there, would it change the story drastically? Often that word dies to appear on the page, especially if you read an analysis of it. Hemingway writes it while struggling not to mention it for fear of being obvious. It’s like a band who stumbles upon a great melody, but repeats it only once in fear of being ‘poppy’ or ‘mainstream’.

This isn’t being concerned with literary quality, but with literary image. A story that aims for critically-approved traits like subtlety and depth misses the whole point. Even if you do switch the word ‘operation’ with ‘abortion’, the story would remain excellent. It’s really about a couple who reached a stumbling block in their relationship and don’t know where to go. There’s a reason they spend the whole story in a train station.

If you found his dialogue stiff and repetitive before, it’s even more so here. Some stories have sections like a broken record. “The Killers”, an otherwise excellent expression of fear of organized crime, has at least a page worth of unnecessary dialogue. Whenever Hemingway slips into this, you can feel him dying to say something but too afraid of ruining his image. He’s not completely awful in his style of omission. He said he left out the whole Chicago thing from the story and that’s a wise decision since namedropping the city wouldn’t add anything. Organized crime is scary regardless of where you’re at, but killers who repeat the same words ad nausam just don’t make sense.

Across his books, Hemingway’s flaws are as repetitive as the dialogue. Yet I keep reading because there’s something beating here. Discovering Hemingway lead an epic life isn’t surprising once you read a few pieces of prose by him. There’s distress, a desire for more, an obsession with concepts that fuels great people. It’s also not surprising Hemingway killed himself. Literature was an outlet for his troubles, but he couldn’t let it out.

Again, his Iceberg Theory stabs him in the back. Being a stereotypical man means bottling up your emotions and going fishing. Men are supposed to be tough and invulnerable. A vulnerable man can’t protect your children, after all. The stories try to dig into these masculine troubles, but end up conforming to stereotypes instead of breaking them.

The troubles are distinctly masculine. Violence and heartbreak often plague our characters. The violence is either for glory or for survival. As for women, their role is to provide a respite from this life. Perhaps that’s why the man in “Hills Like White Elephants” is so vague, anxious both to make the abortion and telling her she should choose. He’s afraid of losing her because if she’s gone, all he will have left is bullfighting and war. There’s glory in bullfighting and connection when you’re at war with your buddies, but these things can also be your downfall. Then again, in Hemingway’s stories women can also be the downfall.

Downfall is always around the corner, but the sense of dread which the characters feel never surfaces. Hemingway wants to imply so much that the stories feel like a person opening up about his break-up, only to shut up once he talks about the real reason. You, as a listener, is being teased and your curiosity isn’t satisfied. The person who needs a good talk is too afraid to speak, so he doesn’t get any help. The best stories here are “In Another Country” and “Now I Lay Me”. Hemingway lets himself go in these. There’s a bit more telling, but the emotional punch of them is powerful. Both can slot nicely into a Carver collection without a change in quality. The worst story is “The Undefeated”, where Hemingway flexes his jargon and ruins what could’ve been a beautiful story.

Don’t read Hemingway to say you’re reading the canon. Read Hemingway because you’re interested in his personality. None of his books that I’ve read are truly great (I’m yet to reach Bell though) but they each expand on his unique personality. If you find Hemingway an interesting enough person, read this. It’s not good, but like anything else he wrote it’s an essential piece of the puzzle.

2.5 men out of 5 women

Margaret Atwood – Wilderness Tips

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At its worst, Wilderness Tips suffers from Atwood’s most common flaw. Although she’s blessed with intelligence that never gets in the way of her stories, there is always a little too much distance between the reader and the characters. That’s an odd complaint, considering the book’s genre. Compare it to Raymond Carver, and Atwood has better characters yet doesn’t create as much sympathy.

It’s odd. It should be the opposite. The close look at people in all their glorious flaws should make us feel closer to them. Atwood isn’t shy of the first person narrative. Yet it’s the same case with every Atwood book – its emotional impact is always a little low compared to the intellectual side of things. Then again, there are some brilliant stories here and it’s a prime example of how realist fiction should be done. So Atwood couldn’t get around her tiny flaw here, but it doesn’t matter when everything else is so brilliant.

Short story collections can be hard to review. They’re not music albums. They’re often written over a long span of times. They tend to contain experiments and snippets. For many authors, short story collections are B-Sides & Rarities – odd pieces of prose that are interesting for the die-hard fan, but don’t go anywhere and don’t really ‘conclude’.

The latter part is important. Even if you’re a great short story writer, why are all of these stories packed together? In music albums, you often have an overarching sound connecting it all. Great albums also have good sequencing, with songs sounding better in their place in the tracklist. Wilderness Tips isn’t so good that it starts with a bangs and concludes, but it’s a masterwork of a genre. That alone is enough to make it feel like a complete work, instead of just assorted prose for the diehards.

‘Realism’ is an annoying word to use when discussing fiction. It’s also necessary, which makes it more annoying. No one actually has any access to what reality is. It’s the Map and Territory situation. You perceive parts of reality, but never all of it. So how can humans write something ‘realistic’ when they only perceive a very tiny part of reality? Keep in mind that fiction deals with the most unstable aspect with reality – humans, their relationship and how they experience the world.

Some opt for a dry, ‘nothing ever happens’ style to inform the reader it’s realistic. That’s basically a cop-out for people who aren’t imaginative enough or too insecure. The ideal technique for realistic fiction is to steal stories directly from reality itself, and always be aware every story has as many sides as it has characters. I don’t know how many of these stories are based on true cases, but Atwood’s portrayal of relationships has always been brilliant. Here, she’s in top form.

I wish I had Atwood to help with me with relationships. She never slides into strawmen or caricatures. Her men and women aren’t heroes and villains, but flawed people. Sometimes their flaws make them easy to manipulate or abuse. Sometimes their flaws lead them to abuse or be terrible to others. With great understanding comes great pessimism, though. All over these stories is disenchantment and cynicism towards the idea of romance and sexuality.

It’s not so much that Atwood is a rowdy feminist out to castrate men. Women can a lot of flak too. Many of them are attracted to married men and work on starting an affair. The crucial thing Atwood focuses on is that every relationship has two participants. It’s never one person doing things to the other. Affairs aren’t just sluts seducing innocent men, or men being pigs. Both sides choose to do it.

Some relationships are abusive, though. Some people are assholes and only them are to blame for what they do to others. In these stories we see what pessimism is truly like. The assholes are never evil caricatures, rapists in the dark or hot young gaslighters. It’s easy to understand why they do it and that includes the backstabber in “Uncles”. What’s more horrifying than the act itself is their humanity. Atwood knows evil people don’t come from outerspace, kill people for the fuck of it and get blasted by dudes with sixpacks. What drove them to that behavior can also drive her or me or you or anyone of us.

The best story here is perhaps the aforementioned “Uncles”. While Atwood’s feminism and exploration of women’s position in society isn’t huge here – women are the main characters mainly because Atwood is a woman – that story explores it brilliantly. Again, it’s about showing the two sides of things. This time it’s about the relationship with a beautiful, perfect person who’s used to approval. I’ve met those. Women who are pretty can have it very easy in life, especially if they develop a few skills. Their good looks already means people are nicer to them.

People are jealous of you when you’re successful. The jealousy is even harsher when your luck is obvious. Everyone is successful mostly because of luck, but the Beautiful People’s type of luck is so obvious it’s excruciating. We also all know that our love for the Beautiful People is what gives them their success. We’re to blame. One way to deal with jealousy is to demonize the successful, disregard their successes or assume their feelings aren’t worthwhile. They’re so successful, so who cares if we humiliate them? It mirrors things I’ve seen in real life.

There’s also enough variety in tone and prose style to prevent this from becoming variations on a style. The hard realism and theme of relationships allow Atwood to experiment with story structures and styles without causing any disconnection between the stories. It’s the most versatile I’ve seen Atwood yet. Some stories have a more poetic, somber tone to them. Others like “Hairball” have jumpy prose that’s unlike anything she’s written. Sometimes she apes Carver completely with hard, dry prose. The tone is always appropriate for the stories, too. This variety helps to reinforce the realism. People experience reality differently. If all your stories are written in the same way, you’re too narrow for reality.

Wilderness Tips is an excellent short story collection. The only flaw is the slightly disappointing closer (“Hack Wednesday”) and the distance Atwood can’t rid of. Still, at its best this is how realist fiction should be. The events are exciting. There’s always a feeling of uneasiness and unstability which define reality. People are flawed human beings, sometimes weak or evil or talented but they’re always human. The stories also conclude more than they just end hanging in the middle of things. No one writes prose like Carver, but this is where I’ll direct people if they want to understand realist fiction.

3.5 tips out of 5

Margaret Atwood – Moral Disorder

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I’m not sure how to react this. This shouldn’t happen. Moral Disorder is part of a literary movement that’s close to me. Stories about the daily lives of people grab me like no other. I can forgive many flaws – lack of characters, lack of narrative structure – if the events are vivid enough.

Something about this literature is so lifelike. The grandmaster, Raymond Carver, didn’t have in-depth psychology and his stories rarely concludd. Yet his prose felt so intimate. He made you feel like you’re attached at the hip to these characters. I always held that the best authors have good prose by default. They can write anything and it will be a pleasure to read.

Atwood belongs to that line of authors, but that’s pure skill. This is why Moral Disorder isn’t as good as a random Raymond Carver story, although it’s close. Her prose is easy to read, focused and hardly rambles. She lacks a sense of style, though. Give her a good story – Alias Grace – and she tells it masterfully. When the prose needs to do more than just relay the events she’s in trouble.

It’s no surprise, then, that the best stories are the most eventful. The stories at the farm, especially the one involving butchering animals are the most fun. The events are interesting by themselves. Atwood is creative enough to imagine weird happenings with farm animals. All she has to do is relay them with her precise prose and you get the title story – a strong candidate for one of Atwood’s best pieces of writing.

Other great stories include The Headless Horseman and My Last Duchess. In these stories Atwood trumps Carver. Carver was a master of prose, but he was less good at imagining events. His prose breathed life into the mundane, but whenever he stretched himself he felt clumsy (That story about a headache always felt off). Atwood has a brimming imagination. Her events are never mundane. Rather, she mines the oddness of life – the last Halloween, a school project involving analyzing a poem. There’s something so lifelike in the teenagers’ conversation about the poem. The teenager’s complaint about the uselessness of it is the sort of thing I heard from my friends, too. Atwood recognizes the literary retarded without shaming them.

These stories also showcase Atwood’s main flaw, and that is characters. A common problem in realistic fiction is the removal of weirdness, but reality is weird. Atwood understands reality is full of weird events, but she forgets people are weird, too. The young sister is one of the few characters that are actually characters. Most of the time, what drives the characters is so basic it’s not important.

The stories are meant to be inter-connected. In order to connect these stories, though, we need to recognize that th characters appear again and again. It’s only seeing the name of Tig a few times that made me notice this. Until then, it felt like all characters were archetypical Everymen.

Atwood’s conflicts are believable, but not insightful. She has enough imagination to create a marriage that’s on a slow, peaceful divorce that gets uglier as it goes on. She doesn’t have the psychological insight to bring this relationship to life. The effort is there – Oona is almost a living, breathing character but not really. Instead of being something unique, she’s just a successful woman that hides a lot of secrets and can’t make it on her own.

Her character sketches are too generalized and not specific. The closest she comes to making a unique character is in Nell’s mom. The last story gives us some cues to who she is – her refusal to hear stories without happy endings, for example. Too bad that story also tries to expand on sideline characters with a sort of self-awareness that’s clever, but in the end doesn’t lead to much.

The worst offender is the main character. I’m a writer myself and I can somehow forgive that. Why is writing main characters so difficult? Why can we imagine odd sideline characters with quirks, yet our main characters always end up as observers? On the Headless Horseman, she brings the main character to life with her attitude towards youth, Halloween and all that stuff. In that story our protagonist reacts and makes decisions. In all the rest, she mostly observes.

Since her role in these story is mostly active – she’s the character that connects these stories – this observant behavior takes the life out of the stories. Nell is given a role that’s not suited her. The stories are about her, her experience with Tig and at the farm. If these stories were an assortment of tales about weird people Nell meets, then that flaw wouldn’t be so offensive. Even then, though, we’d need something about Nell. She’d need to connect all these tales. Moral Disorder is, however, about her but sadly she’s not very interesting. Atwood can imagine odd happenings, but not main characters.

Overall though, this is still worth picking up. Atwood is still excellent at relaying events in plain language. If she can’t mine life out of hr characters, at least the set-pieces are memorable enough. Atwood’s prose is also good enough on its own. It doesn’t have wide appeal, but if you enjoyed Atwood before or you like dirty, hard realism there’s plenty to enjoy here. At worst, read the title story or The Headless Horseman.

3 butchered farm animals out of 5

BTOOOM!

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It’s like Future Diary, only with all the good stuff ripped out.

Using characters as plot device is hard. Do it once or twice and it’s okay. When everyone becomes a plot device, your story becomes hard to believe. A world where everyone is a plot device is less believable than a notebook that kills people.

It doesn’t seem so bad at first. It’s dark and cruel, but this is a game where people are forced to kill each other. The first to die is boring as hell, but Future Diary‘s Third didn’t have a personality. He at least had an idea behind him. He was supposed to be a simple Unknown Danger. He has given a design that looks scary to make that convincing. His role was small and was the only plot device character.

No such things happen in BTOOOM!. Everyone exists for two reasons. Their purpose is first to be terrible human beings, and the second is to die. It’s hilarious how everyone is terrible, but no one has a personality flaw. One guy is a rapist. Another is a cold-hearted killer. Another one is a con artist. They’re unpleasant, but not interesting.vlcsnap-2015-11-27-17h25m51s139

Such a dull edge

The cruelty is so monochrome. These are not the crazies of Future Diary. No one in that anime was sadistic for sadism’s sake. When they had a cruel streak, they had reasons for it. It was also specific. Third just wanted to kill everyone. Reisuke cared about having a mother figure. Yomotsu had a retarded sense of justice.

There was almost something comic about it. None of that exists in BTOOOM!. No one has an alternative moral system. No one’s sadism is understandable. A fat guy attempts rape and we get to see it graphically, yet we don’t know what’s behind him. The creators try to shock us with Himiko’s pain, but it’s only unpleasant to watch. More shocking would be if they made understand the rapist and his point of view. This way the viewer might find he shares some thoughts with him, which is both horrifying and meaningful.

Some get a half-assed explanation, like abusive parents or a military past. These are just placeholders. The characters aren’t very different besides one being more sadistic. Both Tsubaki and Reisuke have a sad past, but it’s a different kind that transformed them differently.

The creators miss the best part of the Death Game scenarios. The Death Game throws a bunch of characters in a situation that forces them to confront each other. It needs different personalities. The clash between them is what creates tension. Some explosions will never be as exciting as a blind crazy, a yandere and a misanthrope meeting in the same place.

These personalities make us view these characters as human. We’ll care about them, understand them and have empathy for them. The deaths will be sadder because we’ll see a human who is like us fail, perhaps of his own undoing. That’s how tragedy works. Tragedy isn’t just making characters suffer but have them (and us) understand it. Characters just explode here.

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Random unimportant asshole

If BTOOOM! chose the way of Saw it would’ve been better. It’s not a show of aestheticized violence. Such violence is overblown and disconnected from reality. It can be fun to see limbs being torn and people explode, but there’s no sense of fun here. The action scenes are tedious, consisting mainly of pointless inner monologues. The fact characters suffer is emphasized more than how fun it is to throw a bomb.

Any momentum that a scene generates is immidiately smashed. There are a lot of inner monologues. It’s a wonder the series didn’t pull an Evangelion. They had enough for 3 episodes. Action scenes are about movement and set-pieces. Some dialogue can also help if the interaction is meaningful enough. Thoughts are static. No one has room for introspection during such scenes. You don’t have them running in your head in a video game, so in real life?

It’s the stereotypical edgy anime that thinks violence, gore and suffering makes for something profound. It tries to something about how humans are cruel, but when everyone is cruel for no reason we it’s hard to believe that message. How can be believe humans are as cruel as the players when the strings behind them are so obvious?

The symbol for caring and companionship is your typical harem protagonist, without the harem. Sakamoto has no personality whatsoever. He kind of cares about others, but why? He’s the main character because it’s easier to sympathize with him, rather than the rest of the meanies. More correctly, it’s safer to make him the main character. Following one of the bad guys would mean they’d have to to do more than be cruel for a while than die.

Himiko isn’t much better. She’s an insutling portrait of the Clinging Woman. Everything Yuno satirized is in her. The parallels are so obvious, you have to wonder whether it’s a response. Both girls rely on their men, but differently. Yuno relies for psychological stability. She acts less to please the guy than to fulfill her own desire for love. Himiko exists for Sakamoto and no other reason. Her love isn’t related to personality. She’s a reward Sakamoto wins twice, first for being a great player and second because he’s saving her.vlcsnap-2015-11-27-17h28m47s108

For the glory of Satan

She’s also an object of sexual gartification, both for characters and the viewer. She gets near-raped a few times, and these scenes are filled with nice shots that give you a clear picture of Himiko’s body. These are not the expressive flashbacks of Tsubaki. You might be able to catch a nice shot there, but they’re too expressive and short. The don’t emphasize just the sexual part of it but the pain.

It made Tsubaki hateful of the world and everyone in it. It was her undoing, but she was portrayed as a tragic character. Himiko is turned into a silly tsundere who slowly learns to ‘trust men’, as if she should just get over it.

The ending is also insutling. It’s the definition of ‘inconclusive’. This criticism has been brought up a lot, but many short shows have some arc that concludes. The grand story of Freezing isn’t over, but there is an arc that concludes which defines the two seasons. BTOOOM! just ends. It makes it all feel like an advertisement for the source material.

There are tiny worldbuilding things that come off as moronic. There’s no sensible explanation why the game exists. Hints point toward the good old cliche of human experiments or evil corporations. The bombs also somehow can tell whether their owner is dead or not. Then again, I keep praising a show about diaries that predict the future. If the world doesn’t make too much sense but serves the purpose, it’s okay. If your story is full of holes, it’s a magnifying glass to how stupid your world is.

At least the art style is nice. Since this is supposed to be deep, we get a realistic art style with no crazy ideas. The designers still managed to give everyone a distinct look. At least in that department, BTOOOM! has something to teach others. Even characters that appear for a few minutes get their own unique look. It’s too bad these designs weren’t used in a different, better anime.

The OP ends with all the characters standing and looking towards the horizon. It reminded me of the first shot of Future Diary‘s ED. It summed up what made that one so good – a cast of crazies, which with flawed personalities that make them understandable even at their worst. BTOOOM! has no such empathy. It treats its characters like they’re from a video game. They exist to kill and die. The protagonist has as much character as a silent protagnsit. It’s amazing how bad it is.  has almost everything I want in an anime, and wrecks it.

1.5 bombs out of 5

Siri Hustvedt – The Sorrows of an American

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What a terrible title. I’m not with the Anti-Americanism thing. Among products that sell like hot cakes, Anti-Americanism is one of the most insulting ones. Still, the title feels like it came straight out of the American Exceptionalism everyone hates so much. America is an interesting country, sure, but the sorrows of an American aren’t more profound than others.

The novel avoids this exceptionalism, thankfully. In fact, it’s the opposite of what its title suggests. The novel is concerned with the emotional turmoil of many people. It seeks to understand them, even when they’re creeps. I doubt the disconnection between the self-centered album title and the thoughtful story is deliberate, though.

Siri rambles again. There is a center for these ramblings, something resembling plot. The ramblings are also less elegant than that novel about a summer without men. In that Siri could just ramble on and even if it felt like a digression, it was pleasant to read.

Sorrows has an oddly clunky prose. Imagine if someone stuck a lot of gears inside Auster’s writing. This style is supposed to flow easily and be easy to read. If it isn’t, then the abundance of words is frustrating. Why Hustvedt fails here when he succeeded later is hard to pinpoint. Maybe it’s because Sorrows is more descriptive.

Maze of thoughts tend to ramble, but their content always remains subjective. We get a lot of thoughts but few details. Sorrows tries to combine both. Sometimes it works. There are some objects in the story with great importance who needed detailed descriptions. Even there Hustvedt disappoints. She tries, but she doesn’t manage to come up with powerful imagery like McEwan.

There is also a family tree which is hard to keep track of. Here’s a tip for writers. Don’t just give a list of names of who was in the family and what’s their relation to the main character. Simply have them appear when their role in the story is relevant. Unless you’re into the study of naming, a name without something attached to it is a random collection of letters.

She’s better at keeping track of her present-day characters. They drive the story with their personalities and desires. A mystery kicks the novel off but it’s pushed to the side. Even when it’s solved, the resolution only exists to put all the characters in one place and have them clash. This is more exciting than just solving a murder mystery. Hustvedt has the tools to produce a nice psychological thriller.

The best parts is how she treats characters who otherwise would’ve been antagonists. The characters who create conflict, bother the protagonists and otherwise ruin everything for everyone aren’t defeated. The end of the conflict is understanding how the others think and why they do what they do, even if we still disapprove. In fact, we can’t really disapprove of someone’s behavior if we don’t understand it at first.

This is where Hustved deviates from Auster. Auster’s novels are a self-centered psychodrama. He traps you inside a character’s head and only shows his point of view. We’re not meant to necessarily side with the protagonist, but examine his flaws and strengths. Hustvedt wants to examine a large cast. It’s more admirable, but she’s not as successful as Auster is at his game. It’s the clunky prose again. The smooth prose is also what brought the characters in Summer Without Men to life. If only that one was as long as this novel.

Some have complained Hustvedt’s male protagonist sounds like a female. I found it so surprisingly male I wanted to take off points for it. Hustvedt’s prose is so similar to other male writers, but there’s not a touch of femininity in it. She writes it with a straight way and doesn’t show the female’s spin on it.

When Hustvedt describes how the protagonist lusts after a female, I almost felt like I’m reading another male author who needs to let out his fantasies. Hustvedt never crosses the border. She only describes the female the protagonist notices, and at points where he’ll notice something specific. One thing that Hustvedt describes well is those little moments where you notice a woman’s leg or hair or arm and aroused by it.

It’s not ‘wimpy’ or other such macho bullshit descriptions. Guys need girls. I’ve seen a lot of macho dudes who work so hard trying to achieve positive feedback from females. Without it, they’re nothing. Sexuality makes fools out of us all. Most people who are cool about it just happen to have it at the moment.

Hustvedt still sounds like Paul Auster in Sorrows, but that’s okay. Her attempts at understanding others and her wider scope means a different spin on that style. Without Auster’s smooth prose, though, it goes nowhere. The irony is that Sorrows has more purpose and a better story than Summer, but its prose keeps all the events distant. I’m still interested in what else Hustvedt has to offer, but this isn’t her masterpiece.

2.5 secrets out of 5

Ping Pong the Animation

pingpong

By the sixth time the characters talked about how talented and brilliant Tsukimoto is, I had to make sure I wasn’t watching a battle shounen series. At least the observers in Medabots looked anxious and worried. Ikki fought against tough enemies and had to find chinks in their armor. Here, Tsukimoto hits the ball a few times, push up his glasses and walks away. Not smiling did not add depth to the character.

There’s a brilliant story here somewhere. The story follows a cast that each has a different approach to the sport. This is an archetype that gives you so much do it never gets old. Often, the series understands how to use it. There are about five different viewpoints here. Each is unique in its way, and each is presented as reasonable. The creators never rely on caricatures. They rely more on super-talented protagonists and an unorthodox art style that adds nothing.

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No comment

Tsukimoto and Peco are both talented people who we are supposed to cheer for because they’re talented. While Peco’s lively energy is fun, it’s not enough to drive a main character. It’s barely a quirk for a supporting one. Tsukimoto is supposed to be unique with how he refuse to smile, but his character never settles on pretentious moron or angsty teenager. Both would’ve been fine, but at best the series makes him the former. It also takes his pretense seriously.

There is nothing exciting or valueable in being unenthusiastic about life. Tsukimoto walks around with an apathetic expression and doesn’t seem to like anything. His attitude towards life is the same thing that made Joy Division successful, but Joy Division didn’t just sell indifference. They explored that attitude.

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Color me unimpressed

People who reach such a state probably have something in the past that made them this way. They would also lead terribly dull and sad life. The idea that such a person can be so talented is far-fetched. Wouldn’t winning games require some sort of drive? People sometimes hate what they’re good at, but that’s at least an emotion. Ping Pong wants us to believe that a walking embodiment of Joy Division’s classic album is somehow a champion in table tennis.

A bullying story is tacked on at the end. It’s a predictible story that shows us that the kid was disliked, but never the horrible reality of it. Tsukimoto even gets a cheerful person to stick with him. Both of them turn out to be extremely talented in ping pong. Where’s the struggle?

Peco faces losing for the first time and gets bummed, but this is where their troubles end. They’re celebrities and heroes in the eyes of everyone, but not heroes that are uncomfortable in their position. They’re not like Kazama, who was driven to succeed to cover up his emotional troubles. Kazama is a champion who uses victories as a way to find happiness that he can’t achieve. His talent is part of his struggle.

Ping Pong also has a strange view of talent. Talent is something you either have or don’t, and no amount of practice can make up for it. It’s a fatalist view, and not a good one. It could be talent is something you’re born with, but how will you know if you’ll never try to prove it? Indifference like Tsukimoto’s rarely produces noteable people.

What’s thrilling in such stories is not to see the characters win. All the creators have to do is just write that the characters won. What’s interesting is their struggle, their view on victory and why they’re doing it. Their reaction to losing or winning is what makes things exciting. China, Sakuma and the long-haired dude all have such an arc. One uses the sport to return back home. One uses it to lift up his own low self-confidence. Another one is on an eternal search for meaning.

Their stories are far more exciting and humane than Tsukimoto’s/Peco’s. They are stories of people like us, rather than two people who found out they’re talented. It’s amazing how similar it is to cookie-cutter heroic stories. Substitute ‘talent in ping pong’ with ‘magic sword’, ‘victory’ for ‘saving the world’ and it turns out the anime isn’t so unique as it looks.

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Bruce Willis?

How it looks is a big discussion point, but not that exciting. The only good thing about it is how unorthodox it is. The character design is a weird take on realism that looks grotesque without bridging the gap. What especially sticks out are the lips, which look huge. The sketchiness also makes the character design inconsistent. In too many scenes, the characters look like blobs.

This is not minimalism. They look like shapes drawn in a few seconds. The roughness achieves nothing. It could be an expression of the character’s imperfection, but the story disagrees with that. Peco and Tsukimoto are heroic champions. It doesn’t achieve any type of warmth because it’s too stylized and distant. All the rough lines and emphasized lips don’t give it the elegant simplicity that saved Mushishi’s character design. Being different is great, but if it doesn’t contribute to the story it’s just a fancy cover. There’s nothing particularly unusual about it other than a sketchy look that achieves nothing.

The animation is different, and Ping Pong fares better there. The series overcomes one of anime’s main flaws – its static animation. Most anime are fairly static, with more focus on design rather than motion. While Ping Pong fails in design, it’s a total success in kinetic energy. The Ping Pong matches are stylized action scenes that rely on visual expressions, not coherency.

Animating a sports match as it looks in reality is pointless. If you want to watch a real game, you’ll watch a real one. The only reason we watch a sports story is because of what the sport means to the characters. Each match is animated with focus on its place in the character development. The matches are the same in what happens in them. They all consist of people hitting the ball. The difference between them is the meaning, and so every match is an engrossing action scene that leaves everything else in the dust. It doesn’t just set the blueprint for how to animate sport scenes but how to animate action scenes in general.

Ping Pong is not the peak of anime. It’s not even among the more unusual of its type. Despite trying to create its own rules, not enough of them serve the story and it falls back on sport prodigies. The exploration of that type doesn’t go deep enough. Still, it has a great cast of side-characters and fantastic action scenes. Its attempts at understanding its cast are admirable, and so it relies more on developed characters than emotional manipulation. It’s not a milestone, but there’s enough to enjoy here.

3.5 chinese people out of 5