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

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders I

STARDUST
The glass ceiling shines gloriously bright here. Isn’t the trouble with glass ceilings that they’re invisible? Yet the flaws here are so obvious. The series is no major experiment. Creators who fall to such obvious flaws often can’t get the basics of storytelling. I haven’t seen an anime that gave up so miserably since Sword Art Online. There’s no other way to describe what happens to the series halfway through. You literally see the band members running out of ideas, but the concert is still rocking.

It’s not a major disaster like Sword Art Online because the nature of giving up is different. That anime hinted at psychological and philosophical insight only to deliver a boring monomyth about an asshole and a helpless princess. Stardust Crusaders simply gives up on pushing its idea further. It’s content with sitting in the same place, offering good variations but never breaking out of the mold. I’m not sure what it says about the creator that they managed to create 10 episodes that barely add anything, yet are still a lot of fun.

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The improvement over the first installment is that this one lives up to the title of ‘bizarre’. The previous season gained its energy from pushing archetypes to the extreme. Nothing about it was weird, thought. It was all archetypical, tough guys posing and using battle startergies. Stardust Crusaders throws the same passion for archetypes into bizare-ness.

There are about 15 villains of the week here, and each of them is a puzzle in its own. Anytime you think they ran out of ideas, something new comes up. No villain is truly like the other. The creators use this to play with genres and story types. You get the dream narrative, the killer car, the hostile creepy-looking town and the ghost ship. It’s a prime example of why people who whine about good guys winning miss the point. Of course the good guys will win – there’s no reason for them to lose unless ‘the world is unjust’ is something you explore. The fun thing about these stories is how they solve the puzzle. Just like the first series, it’s never about shouting and brute strength. Each villain is a puzzle to solve. In a way, it’s a mish-mash of mystery and battle shounen.

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Yet this successful formula is exactly what keeps the series down. The series’ ideas never progress. There’s no gradual change in tone or characters. Events happen, but they’re too self-contained. It’s a heroic journey that’s told as a Slice of Life anime. The disconnection between the events lowers their meaning. An anime about a band of heroes fighting a different enemy every time can be fine, but it clashes with what the series is at heart. The result is something that’s stuck in-between. It’s too Slice-of-Life for the journey to feel like it actually progresses, and too journey-like for the episodes to truly deviate from each other.

It doesn’t help that the series gives up at some point. What’s worse, sitting comfortably behind your limits or trying fruitlessly to break them? The Stands eventually lose their meaning. They carry Tarot card names but their powers have little to do with it and the creators don’t even try to come up with names. What started off as using Tarot and colors as inspiration for villain was dropped in exchange for weird superpowers. They’re entertaining superpowers, but it only reinforces the disconnection between the events.

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The series stops halfway through the actual arc. You’d think that would be a problem, but the lack of conclusion comes more from the format rather than splitting up the series. It’s these aforementioned flaws that make the last episode feel anticlimatic. All these events and enemies, and in the end nothing changed. Our heroes arrive in Egypt, so what?

Stardust Crusaders is never bad. What’s frustrating is that it always threatens to be way better than its predecessor. The characters are way better – distinctively quirky and silly. They each contribute something to the group but have enough agency to create as much conflict as they solve. The focus also never locks in on one character. They each have equal screen time. It’s so balanced it’s easy to forget Jotaru is kind of meant to be the main character. Both the enemies and the characters are more bizarre, sillier, more mythic and lifelike than the predecessor. The art is also more colorful and varied. While it doesn’t play so much with colors, the scenery is varied and the characters suffer less from Same Face Syndrome.

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The glass ceiling is tough to break. Maybe the series didn’t even try, but chose to sit under a different ceiling. It’s still recommended to anyone who’s into fighting and macho dudes. The genre hardly gets better than this unless you’re going full retard with Kill la Kill. It dodges all the problems long-running shounen shows have – there’s focus, no babbling, no info dumps and it actually ends. Despite doing pretty much everything right, the result is only a good anime and nothing beyond this.

3 stands out of 5

 

 

 

 

 

Big Order

 

Big Order poster
Sakae has a bizarre, messy mind. For all the flaws in Future Diary, it’s a masterpiece. The low points – and there are many – are there because there’s few anime like it. Future Diary had no main tradition to draw from, no main road to follow. A lot of great anime follow clear traditions, building on obvious flaws and emphasizing strengths. Even the abstract Serial Experiments Lain belongs warmly in pre-millenium tension art.

It’s hard to decide whether Future Diary falls more on its good side. Expecting Big Order to fulfill that series’ promise is silly, since there can never be another one like it. If the premise sounds familiar to you, you’ll be disappointed. The structures aren’t similar at all. Still, the little you can expect is that the anime will fail in a spectacular fashion.

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The crucial flaw in Big Order isn’t the lacking characters or the plot. The bad traits of Future Diary are amplified, but at least they have the same energy that one had. The problem is that the core of the anime is generic. Remove the layers, the odd designs, the violence and the messy plot and you’re left with some kind of a battle shounen about saving the world for this one person we love so much because we’re related to them by blood.

I never wanted to say this about a work by Sakae. Big Order is normal. Everything good about is just a cover on a generic story.

The beginning is good enough. The power of Orders is close to be symbolic rather than battle skills. There’s a little exploration about the nature of wills, how our wills are limited and they could even do something the concept of losing loved ones. Two characters get completely different wishes despite losing their family. The conflicting nature of wishes is addressed and by the time the antagonist is revealed, he’s given some time to express himself.

The character design isn’t as expressive, but Sakae still goes wild with it. There’s a nun with bunny ears, a twintailed girl with a flower in hair, two long-haired dudes and a square guy. Everyone wears weird outfits and the design plays with body structure and size. Characters who appear for barely 10 minutes in the whole show get a memorable design.

The highlight of the show is DAISY, a bizarre creation that deserved a better anime or at least a cameo appearance in the revamp of Future Diay, whenever someone gets around to make it. That little touch of having her hang upside down adds a lot. It emphasizes the distance she views humanity from. Although she’s meant to be a fairy who grants wishes, she’s always distant and slightly cynical towards the whole thing. It gets nowhere, but every time she appears she injects some life.

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Oddly enough, the most normal creations in the anime are the main characters. People who wanted a Future Diary copy were disappointed. In fact, it often feels like the anime tries too hard to distance itself from its big sister. Why is that? Future Diary is unique enough to be worth revisiting. If Sakae wants to do something new so much, why is he falling back on cliches?

Yukki/Yuno were deeply flawed human beings. People disliked them for their nature, but they missed the point. They were supposed to be imperfect. Everyone in that series was imperfect, was full of desires and selfishness. This gave them humanity and made it believable at its most surreal. Eiji is a likable guy who only wants to live happy with his sister, but he has no desires, no motivations whatsoever.

He’s responsible for humanity’s worst horror, and that concept of guilt is explored for a while but abandoned. Scenes showing how much everyone hates Eiji are that type of deep moments Sakae can conjure. How everyone gathers around televisions, how they wallow in their hatred for this one person is frightening. Even if he is that horrible, what about this hatred? It’s the cult of anti-personality, and even if you think it doesn’t exist just look at how everyone reacts to Trump or Hitler.

Since Eiji is, at his heart, a generic moral hero who only wants to defend his loved ones this means nothing. His only drive in the series is protecting his sister and the guilt kind of drives him, but was it necessary? He’d want to keep his sister safe even if he didn’t cause a great destruction. We never see the psychological effect of guilt, of knowing everyone hates you. Occasionally there are hints Eiji is actually working alone, but that’s never expanded upon. The whole ‘one man and his sister against the world’ could work even just as a fun show, but it never goes there. The guilt is just another element in the many tired speeches about protecting Sena.

As for her, she’s an object. Everyone cares deeply about her happiness, but why? Her connection to Eiji is only by blood. It’s not that we don’t know how their relationship is. It simply doesn’t exist. Whenever they interact, she’s simply being cute and he’s being nice. If her cuteness was integral, if that charm was emphasized, exaggerated and played with then fine. She’s never portrayed as a character that captures people’s heart. Rather, it’s the lifeless trope of hapless girl who’s convenient to rescue.

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It doesn’t help that the few times we get insight into other characters, it always has to do with protecting loved ones. The Future Diary had the ‘dark past’ cliche, but at least each character had a slightly different past and reacted to it different. Characters may have different Orders, but they all wish they could’ve rescued their friends or family and they don’t gain different conclusions out of the loss.

Loss is one of the worst experiences you can go through. If we all experienced in the same way though, it wouldn’t be so harrowing. Misery loves company, and by listening to how others felt when their parents or friends or spouses died would’ve helped us through. Loss is such a harrowing thing, and how you lose someone affects how you react to it. Big Order only plays with the emotional weight it has. It gives the characters a convenient excuse to do what they do. That’s better than making them plain evil, but it’s not enough to make them wholly human. They’re not given motivations, but batteries in different colors.

The only thing the show has going for it is Sakae’s wild imagination. The little he had left was for wacky set-pieces. There are odd situations and turns all over the anime. Gates open to mental spaces, characters become pregnant by touching their ears, an obstacle course – somewhere here an incredibly fun anime is hiding. But Big Order doesn’t have the conviction Future Diary had.

That one jumped from genre to genre, but it approached each with so much conviction you could create 10 seperate anime out of it. Big Order is more scared of becoming a clone, so it does away with anything resembling Thriller, chucks away most of the romance and piles on the action. There aren’t many tonal shifts and doing away with the death game scenario looks silly with what you have left. If it concludes with people sacrificing themselves to make a non-character happy, what’s the point?

There’s energy and verve here, but Big Order is a mess without directions. Notice the use of plural form. If it was an amalgam of genres that didn’t gel, it would be brave enough to be interesting. Instead, it’s too scared of its big sister. So it pushes forward, one wacky set-piece after another. Without a core, or multiple ones to rely on all it has is cliches. This is a perfect examples of when tropes are a bad thing. The anime uses them only because it has nothing to say, because it’s too afraid to explore its themes and too afraid to pile on the ideas. So yes, there’s a Rock God and a pentagram of some sorts and gates and an upside down fairy, but it’s just another story about protecting the little sister. Try BioShock instead.

2.5 floating girls out of 5

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure

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Imagine if Dragon Ball Z was actually good, or if Kill la Kill wasn’t so weird.

I feel sorry for this anime. It takes a stupid, pointless idea and makes the best of it. The world has dozens of stories about macho dudes beating up other macho dudes because they don’t agree with their morals. In the worst cases, these stories are filled with overcomplicated fight systems nobody cares about, and silly monologues.

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The world of macho dudes who never really die, where time doesn’t exist is a bit tired now. Franchises like Naruto, One Piece and Dragon Ball will outlast the heat death of the universe. It’s bizarre how no author of these mangas pulled a Robert Jordan, but nothing is as bizarre as this anime.

Macho-ness, like most tropes, is bad because it’s boring. The problem with using tropes has nothing to do with sophistication. It’s just that after seeing the same technique for 100 stories, you get bored. You become like JoJo and can predict their next sentences. Bad cliches are used by storytellers who don’t know what kind of story they want to tell. Is it an epic adventure? A silly show about silly people beating each other? An examination of good an evil?

JoJo‘s strength is the focus, unlike all these shows. The anime makes it clear what it wants to be early in the beginning. Then, every single thing that happens connects to that. JoJo wants to deliver a simple story of good and evil. The bad guys are really, really bad. The good guys are really good and charming. If the fate of the world was really in the hands of a macho dude, we’d all be filled with adrenaline. When it’s a bunch of colors on the screen, you need more than this.

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Since JoJo knows its purpose is to deliver excitement, it will do everything it can to raise the stakes. Bad guys don’t come back after being defeated just because you can milk the show a little more. They come back because it raises the stakes, makes us wonder how they can be defeated. The anime establishes that everyone knows what everyone’s next move is, which is exciting because we wonder when will one of these will fail.

Battles in anime always have pre-determined results. Every battle in anime is a man playing chess against himself. So a battle is only as exciting when the writers can challenge themselves, when they find ways to overturn their own schemes. The set-pieces drive the battles, not just meaningless shots of people using fists. Each battle is a progression of moves. It’s an odd way to describe a fight but they’re like a chess game in how every move has a clear influence on what happens next. There’s something thrilling in seeing a person trying hard to beat himself up in chess.

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It’s not the animation that sparks up the battle, which is weird. Most of the time, exciting fights are well animated. They have fluid movements that create a kinetic energy. JoJo opts for more still shots, but its set-pieces and beautiful progression saves it.

The art style itself is very old school and gloriously macho. It’s so old-school it’s jarring at first. Everyone has a Schwarznegger build and dangerously low amounts of fat. Even characters who don’t fight look muscular, with square faces and bodies of an endomorph. This style can be ugly. It does suffer from Same Face Syndrome, but they make up for it in other ways. Where it fails to dazzle in character shapes, it succeeds in customes and hairstyle. Every important character has a unique, often elaborate dress style.

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In fact, beyond the endomorph build, JoJo‘s version of macho is unique. Perhaps it was common in old times, but today it’s rarer. We now love our heroes rebellious, slightly selfish and enforcing their morality in brutal ways. We want Deadpool and Iron Man, heroes who are only good because the plot requires it. The macho-ness of JoJo is the ‘respectable gentleman’, a man who respects even his enemies. The first part drills this the most, but even the second arc with the rowdy second JoJo has it. Wham is an honorable villain. JoJo duels him fairly and with respect, rather than with malice.

So the characters don’t look gritty and tough. Rather, in the language of 12-year-old kids, they look gay. Their customes are elaborate and decorative. They look like men who are so sure of their macho-ness that they don’t mind looking so ridiculous.

The female design also enforces this weird form of macho-ness. JoJo doesn’t downplay the female’s femininity. In fact, it shows it with all the glory. Although there are no ecchi moments, the female characters look distinctly feminine – lipstick, eyelashes, gentle features. A common problem in battle shounen is that everyone is so macho, the show is afraid of femininity. So besides having longer hair and breasts, the females look like men. JoJo doesn’t need sexuality to remember its female characters are female. It’s a macho series that doesn’t view femininity as a weakness.vlcsnap-2016-03-05-23h15m50s208

For all its fun (and it’s a lot of fun), there’s a glass ceiling it cannot break. It’s a great macho adventure about saving the world, but that’s all there is. It does a lot with its style, but it’s always limited by it. Dragon Ball Z looks pathetic next to it, but JoJo is overshadowed by Kill la Kill. For all of its weirdness and energy, it never becomes as absurd Kill la Kill. It aims there and it succeeds enough to not become useless. I’ll definitely check out the sequels, but Imaishi’s cartoon prove there is so much more you can do with macho bullshit and saving the world. The fact JoJo keeps up with it and and is still worthwhile is a point for it.

JoJo is excellent at what it does. There are plenty of silly people who think there’s no value in adventure stories about saving the world. It may not be Kill la Kill, but it gets everything else right – the pacing is focused, the art is beautiful, the fights are coherent. It’s the sort of thing that inspires a lot of anime that can’t measure up to it.

6 skedaddling out of 5 here

 

One Punch Man

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Many bad shows are a case of good ideas poorly executed. It’s rare for a show to miss its target in the premise, but One Punch Man does. For a while, the series assumes that powerful characters are a problem in fiction.

They’re not. Anyone who’s concerned with how intelligent or strong or agile a character is should stop talking about fiction. These aren’t role-playing characters. They don’t have charcter stats and skill trees. If a character has a trait, it’s supposed to be meaningful to his personality.

A character isn’t defined by how strong he is but by simply being strong. It’s not hard to write intelligent characters. Just have someone solve mathematical problems and put the answer in the character’s brain. It doesn’t matter that Max Cohen is a walking calculator. What’s interesting is how his genius affects his worldview and isolate him.

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In the first episodes, the series piledrives into the ground the idea that overpowered characters are silly. I don’t think anyone thought otherwise, so we get something like Kill La Kill only with less charisma. Everyone looks like Arnold Schwarznegger. Everyone screams and every conflict is solved with one punch. Mr. Krabs also makes a cameo appearance in the first episode, but he’s transformed into another bodybuilding loudmouth.

There’s only so much you can do with a character who solves everything with one punch. Thankfully, Saitama is not as bland as his skill. He’s a great protagonist with a personality that’s connected to his super-strength. It’s almost psychological how bored he is of all the macho bullshit, but he’s also vain and wants the attention. The anime remains satirical and exaggerated but the protagonist has a realistic psychology.

It’s Saitama’s desire for stardom and everyone’s megalomania that shapes the main arc. At this point the anime abandons making fun of obvious targets and starts creating actual absurd situations. The villains are rarely interesting. Their purpose is to always get knocked out by one punch. Rather, it’s stardom that’s being satirized.

How ironic it is to discuss the Bandwagon Fallacy in a review of a popular anime? Popularity doesn’t prove quality. Just because you don’t have a diploma from an Intelligence Institution doesn’t mean you’re stupid. Yet we take these things very seriously. People are often more curious about whether my writing is popular instead of how good it is.

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Diplomas or popularity don’t prove you’re talented. They only prove someone thinks are you are. Popularity is even worse than diplomas, though. Diplomas are given by people of authority who take their topics seriously. People can be easily swayed.

The most popular people on earth aren’t the hard workers or the life savers. The most popular people are those with the highest social value. They are the charismatic, the beautiful, the entertaining. Taylor Swift is more well-known than a person who saves a baby from a fire. That’s because Taylor is charismatic, beautiful and writes catchy songs. Just because you save a person from a fire doesn’t mean you’re a desirable social presence. It gets even worse with peolpe who Famous Because They’re Famous.

The series is wise enough not to pull that strawmen. There are these silly celebrities, but here the popularity of most heroes are justified. They’re both charismatic and talented, but they’re never as talented as Saitama.

That’s because, unlike them, he never worked on being popular. He became the strongest hero because he only put effort into being strong rather than being popular. That’s the cost of talent. Sometimes you focus so much on it that you forget to make people notice you.

There’s a major rise in quality once the series finds its satirical target. While it presents it well, pointing absurdities without resorting to strawmen it can never attain a sense of madness it aims for.

In the first episodes, it thinks it will get by having everyone scream and some stupid ideas like a muscular crab and a kabuto macho dude. I used different words but this is the same idea. It tones down later but the series never gives up on this.

There are some interesting visual ideas, but almost everything is given the macho look. It fits with themes, but after the 10th dude who looks like sirloin steak it becomes boring. When Tornado appears and we get a cute girl it’s a shock.

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Just as they are all macho dudes, their personalities are all macho. Besides Saitama’s everyman personality and Genos, who acts like he walked into the wrong anime, characters blur into each other. It makes for a consistent world. At least the anime tried to find variety in macho bullshit rather than pretend their kaleidoscopic. Still, it makes for a world that’s always less exciting than how the characters perceive it.

One Punch Man isn’t amazing and quickly stops acting like the Most Hyped Show of the Season. That’s a good thing. It’s when it realizes its limitations (the world is monochrome and tame, overpowered characters aren’t worth satirizing) and its strengths (satirizing celebrity culture, finding variety in macho bullshit) it becomes a worthwhile show that has enough personality to appeal to those outside the genre.

3.5 one punches out of 5

Iron Man (2008)

Iron-Man-2008

I almost wish she was the center of the film

“Has he lost his mind?
Can he see or is he blind?

There’s a reason why the film ends with the riff from the famous Black Sabbath song but without the lyrics. Black Sabbath’s song described a flawed and conflicted person. He might be interesting, but nothing we’d hope to be. The same thing can’t be said of Iron Man‘s Tony Star. Black Sabbath said about their character that nobody wants him. You couldn’t find a more unfit description for Tony Stark

If this was just a dumb superhero film, I might have forgiven that. It wouldn’t work well as one anyway, though. There isn’t enough violence and the characters aren’t insane enough. Too many moments hint that the creators wanted to make this an important superhero film. The nature of weaponry is an obvious theme. The creators understand a superhero should be a symbol for some idea, not just a human with superpowers.

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A time before duckface

Tony Stark’s suit leaves little room for exploration, though. It’s not a Medabot. Medabots symbolized toys as weapons, and were an exaggerated portrayal of violent toys. It’s not a Terminator, which was a weapon with the appearance of a human being. Tony Stark’s suit is just a means to save people and instigate the final action scene.

There is something about how weapons can be harmful in the wrong hands, but that’s an idea that goes nowhere. The film never asks if there is more to do with weapons other than attack other human beings or if weaponry (and violence) is a part of being human.

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No hair, no heart?

The people who represent the bad way of using weapons are evil clowns. The Ten Rings are just a gang of mooks who are like the bandits from Borderlands without the humor. As for Obadiah, he was stuck under Tony’s shadow and for some reason we’re expected to dislike him for his evil deeds. No matter how hard the film tries to make Obadiah look like the devil, his story remains more interesting psychologically.

Obadiah’s development happens off-screen, but his is a story that can never get old. He’s a man stuck under another’s shadow who felt like he never got what he deserved. This is a common sentiment and the fact Obadiah still lives a kickin’ life makes it even better. Even as a villain, these ideas could’ve been explored. Why Obadiah wants Stark’s place so much? Why can’t he be content with still being stinking rich? They say no matter what you do there’s always someone better than you. What if there’s only one person who’s better than you?

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This is a sci-fi film, in case you didn’t notice

Obadiah’s motives have nothing to do with these. He’s evil so there will be someone to fight with (and also because he’s not as pretty). These so-called motives are here to put a cover that a film is serious and that its villains have motives.

Tony has some sort of arc, but it barely qualifies as a cheap psycho-drama. His development happens in 20 minutes. After spending some time in a cave and seeing that people shoot each other in real life, he develops a desire to save the world. That’s all that happens. It doesn’t affect anything else. He’s still a womanizer and he still loves being funny.

He was a selfish person in the beginning. That was why we saw him have sex with a lot of women and being told he has nothing because he doesn’t have a family. You’d think that such a person would change dramatically along with his desire to save the world. You don’t have to make a complete 180-turn. Impmon became less of a bully but he still retained his sarcastic personality. Tony doesn’t become anything new but is just given a desire to save the world.

Allow me to be cynical, but that’s because the film wants to keep Tony’s coolness. The beginning isn’t meant to satire the lives of the rich and famous. It’s meant to portray them as cool, charismatic and living an ideal life. Tony may have given up selling weapons, but no way will he give up the cool lifestyle of casinos and having sex with anyone he wants. Even if the rich truly live such perfect lives with no problems at all, isn’t it insulting? Most people will never live this way, so why dangle the carrot?

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Tony aims for Chris Martin’s ex

The seriousness of the film is ridiculous when you look deeper, but there’s a good side to this. The storytelling is so focused that it feels much shorter than it is. No scenes are unnecessary. There are no extra characters that don’t serve some purpose later. Action scenes don’t clog the film with incoherent explosions. In fact, there are few of them and even in those scenes they don’t go full retard. They’re not a series of endless explosions but a collection of set-pieces that build up to a conclusion. It’s not one of the best action scenes ever, but it’s purposeful.

Pepper Potts is also a unique character to see in such a film. It’s been a while since we had a female side kick that could be worthwhile without packing heat. She’s not developed, but the script never lets her fall into cliches. She never becomes pure eye candy, or a woman whose character is passed off as strong because she kills people. She almost ended up as an empty character, but Paltrow’s performance gives her a humanity everyone else lacks. Everyone is charismatic enough, but Paltrow is the only one who plays like her character can star in a variety of other stories.

Guitars also make constant apperance in the musical score. It’s a bold decision. It’s not the most uncommon element yet but it’s still rare compared to cliched orchestras. This adds some punch to many scenes. If the only point of Tony’s character is that he’s cool and macho, add some macho guitars to go along with it.

Iron Man became popular because it’s a well-constructed film. All the professionals in the film industry and I still see a lot of incoherent stories. Simplicity is rarely a death sentence in films, especially when you want to make some easy fun. Iron Man’s attempts at depth aren’t convincing, but it’s fun enough.

3 cool suits out of 5

Charlotte (The Anime)

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“No one man should have all that power,” – Kanye West

Watchmen was a response to the explosion of superhero comics. Charlotte feels like a response to the explosion of superhero films. The Marvel Cinematic Universe helped to keep superheroes in the public’s consciousness, but it was just a dumbing-down of what Sam Raimi did before. Charlotte has a more interesting take.

These teens are superheroes. They may not have capes and a one-eyed boss (although an eye does get plucked out), but they got superpowers that can be used for saving the world. Why should they, though? A superpower is just an extension of any kind of power.

How many powerful people use their power to contribute to humanity? Musicians use their talent to vent their frustration and sell records. Programmers build websites to get traffic. Most people I know become doctors¬†because it’s a respected profession and gets money. The mindset that you should use your power to contribute is rare.

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Yuu and Nao are two different sides of the coin. For the first two and a half episode, they’re an interesting exploration of power. Yuu uses his to move on up, taking advantage of people but not actually hurting them. Nao’s desire to protect others leads her to plenty of physical confrontation.

Being a moral hero isn’t easy. Nao may have¬†good intentions, but she leaves a trail of beat up people and isolates herself. Yuu’s achievements rely on a skill he gained by luck, not by hard work. There could be an interesting examination of how we shun people who work hard and praise those who just won the genetic lottery.

Nao also has a reasonable motivation for being moral. Her moral behavior isn’t convenient but results in isolation. Sadly, this is where the character development stops.

Yusa is brought in as much-(un)needed cuteness, as if Nao isn’t pretty herself. Ayumi already does the forced cuteness bad enough, so what does Yusa contribute? Worse, she makes another character turn into a drooling fanboy. Takajou first looks like a middle ground between Nao’s vigilance and Yuu’s selfishness, but after Yusa appears all he does is worship her.

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This forced cuteness clashes with the occasional grim tone. Yusa and Ayumi are too-much-sugar cute. They’d be overly-optimistic in Azumanga. Their cuteness is plain happiness, with no unique design or quirk. Next to the cuteness there’s grief, overcoming it, time traveling and what power does to the user.

The treatment of grief does acknowledge the darkness. We see the downward spiral, the isolation and how a person is so overwhelmed he abandons life. Then after 2 episodes he rises up and things are going well. Grief is supposed to change us forever. It doesn’t automatically make us good guys. Nao’s grief turned her into a vigilantee. When Impmon’s whole world was wrecked, he changed but part of him remained. There’s no hint in Yuu that he used to be a selfish brat. He transforms into a moral hero with no relation to what he used to be.

It’s not that the story of Charlotte is convenient by nature. The core premise is an attempt at subverting a common trope. The problem must be in the length. Charlotte has too many ideas and stories which can’t be crammed in 13 episodes. Mirai Nikki couldn’t develop it all in 26.

At least Mirai Nikki played by its own rules. Charlotte often gives up any time it could get interesting. The last episodes is where its most harmful. A senseless enemy appears whose contribution to the story is nil. The only contribution is the killing of another character, but it they don’t do anything meaningful with it. The death doesn’t affect the story in anyway. We don’t see how the characters deal with grief, or how that death is a meaningful conclusion to that character’s story.

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They already touched on grief. The only thing that conflict adds to the story is to make Yuu be heroic while killing a device that makes Yuu work a little harder in the climax. Yuu is interesting because he’s the opposite of a moral hero, so turning him into one works against the story. The climax also didn’t need such a dramatic brush with death to start.

At least the final episode redeems the series. Like the detour to Dealing With Grief, it’s too short for its own. Still, its idea is intriguing and the psychological development is well-paced. It’s further development on the original ideas the series started with.

While Charlotte does suffer from rushed pacing, it overcomes it by well-structuring its episode. The last episode is an epic journey that often takes more than 10 episodes in other anime. The creators managed to sum it up in 20 minutes without the journey losing too much impact. There is talented people there, they just took on too much.

Charlotte‘s main problem is that all its detours don’t always rise from the premise. Mirai Nikki explores both an ensemble cast and the Nature of Time and Space, but these are things that are found in the premise. Nothing about Charlotte’s idea of superpowered teenagers has anything to do with exploring the nature of death or time travel.

All these detours also lead to too many characters who aren’t given enough to do. Too many events are external. The puzzle-solving of the first episodes was fun, but after that it’s all big events. The creators can’t imagine a way to approach them that’s not dull heroism, so there’s no emotional payoff.

That’s why the sentimental moments often feel manipulative. This is a criticism that’s been directed at KEY often, but here it feels even more out-of-place. Charlotte is either too plot-driven or too psychological for such convenient wrapping-up. It’s been a long time since I watched Kanon (2006), but it was a pure drama. The sentimentality rose naturally, instead of feeling tacked on.

Some credit must be given to the soundtrack. It seems originality in soundtracks is now common in anime. There is attention paid to the textures and use of rhythm that is rare in Western scores. In this case, it borrows some cues from Bass Music to create the right intensity – one that is not world-altering, but still so.

Charlotte is a clever idea that took unnecessary, if interesting baggage and didn’t have enough episodes to connect everything. It’s more enjoyable than annoying. The episode are somehow paced well, even if the overall pace isn’t. It manages to make a final turn at the end so the journey won’t be futile. Wasted potentials are everywhere, but Charlotte works more than it doesn’t. It’s not brilliant, but it’s good enough to show there are still creative minds in anime.

3 comets out of 5