Ransom Riggs – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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The world has its outcasts. They often have unique talents, like creating fire out of nothing or transforming David Bowie’s music into worthwhile. This gives them power. Emma can burn you down, and Marilyn Manson has sold a lot of records. Power makes people to react to you in funny ways. Some hate you just because you’re weird, others because you’re a danger. Some follow you, either because they’re afraid or they think you’re some sort of badass God.

How the outcast manages their situation is a question for many authors to answer. After all, not all powers are the same. The hatred people have for Justin Bieber is vastly different than the hatred people have for Manson. People hated Manson because he ruined kids, told them God isn’t real and that they should remain weird. As for Justin Bieber, people hated him because girls loved him. How does this work I don’t know – maybe they were simply jealous. The X-Men series is supposed to be an exploration of this question. It’s about two factions with two different views on their position. Riggs’ novel features almost direct copies of these factions.

Now, the common platitude of “everything’s been done before!” will rear its head if you’re inexperienced in literature. That’s not how originality works. Copy a template, fine. Just fill it with different materials. For a while, Riggs is successful at that. His characters, in a way, live up to their ‘peculiar’ title. Their powers are small, often coming off as genetic defects. The levitating girl doesn’t control her levitation. She’s like a balloon and has to wear weighted shoes so she won’t slip off. The invisible person takes advantage of that, but it’s a radically different life when people can’t see you.

For a while, Riggs is interested by what being an outcast is like. Our hero is thrown into that position and everyone around him calls him mentally ill. They either feel sorry for him or reject him. He’s too confused in that position, so all he can do is shoot everyone including himself. His only solid connection is with his grandfather who’s an outcast like him. He can only connect to peculiar children like him.

There’s an interesting parable here to mental illness. Look at subreddits like Sanctioned Suicide. Many mentally ill people can only connect deeply to people in the same boat as theirs. Pro-ana communities develop their own culture and jargon. We’re so quick to judge them. X-Men was meant to parallel the struggles of LGBT people, but mental illness is different. Even with social acceptance, anorexia and suicidal thoughts and self-harm are weights people carry. Even with social acceptance, peculiar people are a minority. No amount of acceptance will give the floating girl the ability to control her power.

Too bad all these ideas are blended with a dull mix of genres. If Riggs wanted to write a multicolored story, hopping from genre to genre for fun then fine. It never feels like this. He never throws the story convincingly into the elements. There’s some conviction when he dabbles in horror. The spooky monster remains shrouded in mystery for a while, and even pushed aside for some pages. Focusing on the uncertainity of the spooky monster makes the horror aspect more convincing. Unknown things are pretty scary.

All mysteries dissolve when a character just spits out exposition. In fact, no information is actually discovered or figured out. People just hand over the answers to the questions when it’s time to advance the plot. It’s like a Game Master telling you the background and name and disposition of every NPC. The knowledge descending on your character makes it stronger, but also makes the game more boring.

The bad guys want to take over the world and subjugate humanity. That’s fine, since a lot of people in real life actually did that. Why, though? Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Caligula were real people. They had philosophies, personalities, and inner lives. They didn’t laugh maniacally when they ordered massacres but saw their vision of their bright future taking shape. The villains may view themselves as right, but we never get the philosophy behind their desire for power. The reason they want power isn’t because power is attractive, but because that makes them evil and useful antagonists.

Their disease infects all other characters, too. Very few characters have unique reactions or talk style. Some are silly quirks that can’t be taken seriously. The two rapper dudes are straight out of a horrible John Green novel. The natives of an island talk with broken English because that’s how people in the sticks must talk like. Others fare a little better, but Enoch’s cynicism is never elaborated upon.

He’s a great potential wasted. His power is to put actual hearts in material and make it kind-of alive. That’s the sort of power that leads one to view the value of life differently. He can bring back people from the dead but only halfway. He uses hearts as tools. Enoch often slides into a cynical, detached speech. Even among the peculiars he’s an outcast. Yet Riggs never expands on that. What is his philosophy? To which kids he relate to more, to which less? What kind of things did he do besides building a miniature army?

The protagonist is the worst insult to character development. Again, there are seeds of something worthwhile – a little cynicism, insecurity and pessimistic worldview that might lead to something. It plays instead like a side-quest in a cheap RPG game. Person meets dying man, dying man leaves some clues and person goes on to explore these clues to discover a bigger mystery. Video game protagonists are rarely well-written since it’s the player doing all the acting. Fifty pages or so into the novel, Jacob loses all personality and follows clues. He’s sometimes not sure whether he can do something, but the only drive for his decision is the reader’s desire to know more. There’s even a silly romance there that doesn’t pretend to be profound. Green mined the trope of weird girl loving a skinny dude who’s sure he’s ugly (despite skinny people being all over magazines), but Riggs merely puts a few make-out scenes. It’s too boring to be creeped out by the fact the girl is actually 80 years old or so.

The last pages of the book are a long-winded action scene. This is too sad to talk about, because it makes the book seem entirely worthless when it isn’t. The idea of a loop is quite brilliant. These kids may live long but they haven’t matured a bit, and here you have a chance to mediate about time. Riggs occasionally paints a pretty picture in his prose. The few paragraphs about the bombs and reset have enough to suffice for a short story. Why does he fill the last pages with chasing the bad guy, shooting people and a cliffhanger that relies on reading the rest of the trilogy?

Riggs’ prose is easy and pleasant enough. It’s fast, sometimes slides into introspection but never too much. That makes a decent story bearable. It’s not offensively boring, just kind of ‘there’. If Riggs did something wild with his ideas and failed, fine. He barely tries since it concludes in info dumps and shoot-outs. The photographs are actually real, which is cool but doesn’t add anything. Riggs intergates them by saying “here’s a photograph” and showing them. It’s like illustrations, only pictures instead. Maybe if Riggs tried to write a single short story surrounding them, he’ll have a safer but wider space to work his ideas.

It’s not a terrible book but not a great one, either. Maybe, as a distraction, it’s good enough. There are good ideas that may stick around and the prose is pleasant. Life is too short for distractions, though. If you like X-Men or stories about hidden strange worlds just beneath our own you might enjoy this. It’s too inoffensive for me to tell you to avoid, but also too unremarkable to offer it to anyone.

2 photographs out of 5

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JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders I

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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

 

 

 

 

 

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

Attack on Titan (Shinkegi No Kyojin)

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We have a weird obsession with our own self-destruction. It’s not just stories about how we’re destroying the Earth. We are attracted to the sight of humans being butchered, cut up and eaten. The arts have constantly provided a safe place for people to view these things, knowing these people aren’t really dying.

As profound and deep as it sounds, it also gave rise to exploitation films. Sometimes, they get a budget and we get something like the Saw series. The worst offenders are those that use the grim’n’dark atmosphere of violence to shock. The audience for Saw is there for the visual spectacle, but many people are still sure grimdarkness is a sign of depth and maturity. Just look at all those crappy FPS games with monochromatic tough guys, or that very popular fantasy series that’s all about who will be the king.

The premise sure sounds like it will join these ranks. Anime is full of overblown violence, especially in shows with a very serious tone. There’s also a realistic art style to boot. After a few episodes, though, you notice you spent more time with the characters rather than looking at titans eating humans.

Attack on Titan never feels like it’s even trying to join the rank of shlock grimdarkness. This is a very humane story, one where the characters are much more important than what happens next. It doesn’t even sink into exploitating their suffering. It’s far more excited with the variety of humans to linger on one detail.

Calling Attack on Titan a story that loves humans sound silly. Heads are being chopped off and there are a lot of assholes around, but that’s the strength. It looks at humanity’s worst aspects, admits their exist and still refuses to give up on it.

In fact, it’s a criticism of such misanthropy. The titans are distorted versions of us. That’s a visualization of how misanthropes see humanity – as senseless animals just bent on destruction. Yet the whole purpose the titans exist, just to chop humans to destroy them all is the logical end of misanthropy.

It’s not a caricature, though. The creators understand why misanthropes exist in the first place. Cruelty is everywhere. Sometimes it’s cliches about how the elite only cares about themselves (Thankfully, the series doesn’t linger on that too much). Sometimes we get a more interesting look at how assholes are born. A military police officer can’t hear the explanation of how all these destruction is going to get humanity anywhere. Right now his own world is under attack. We care more about our home environment than we do about humanity as a whole.

Caring about the whole isn’t easy. The series presents two ways of doing it. Either persevere as if nothing is happening and hide behind the walls, or make great sacrifices, risk losing everything but also gain everything.

It’s not an easy choice at all. The ideal situation is that Erwin’s plans will work, but there’s no guarantee it will. We’re always encouraged to take risks, but the reason it’s a risk in the first place is because of the possibility of failure.

Failure is an ever-looming presence in Attack on Titan. Plans never go as expected, and sometimes even Erwin isn’t sure where to go from that failure. The series asks whether the risk is worth taking even if the plan fails. It doesn’t present a simplistic, complete failure. The characters always gain something from the risks they take. A complete loss is easy to write and doesn’t leave much to explore. Rather, it asks whether what was gained was worth the exchange.

While this focus on dealing with failure is admirable (and possibly pretty rare in these types of anime), it sometimes become repetitive. The series never sinks into milking its tragedy. We see titans eating humans, but just enough to understand the horror of it all. The camera never lingers on dead bodies and titans chewing on a human. We still get an overpowered enemy for the ending, though.

The last part of the series goes in a different direction. It’s a nice risk, but I’m still not sure whether it was worth it. It’s an extended action sequence that’s well-animated and exciting, but can feel too out-of-place. Up until then the series was concerned with the characters. We got various worldviews and personalities and saw them interact. The training arc is especially great. The action sequence relies on more on what will happen next than on the characers’ personalities.

There are still character moments there. A moment of banter between the elite soldier defines what makes this series so engrossing. The way each of them talks is modified by their personality (Oluo’s narcissism, Petra’s empathy). The action is also entertaining enough. It’s well-animated, unique to the series rather than just generic sword swinging and uses extended, moving shots. There is a kinetic energy to it. The camera moves as the soldiers fly with their gear, and that transmits this motion more effective.

Too bad their enemy is pretty dull. It borders on invincible. Fighting an all-powerful enemy can be used well, but only psychologically (As in Harlan Ellison’s story about mouths and screaming). An action scene against an enemy who can block each attack quickly becomes repetitive. There’s a reason why the last fighting scene in Medabots is so short.

The enemy is given the occasional downfall and these are the most intense moments. Anytime it breaks out and finds a way around there’s a sense of been-there-done-that. At that point, it just felt like the creators was dragging the series on and piling on tragedies.

Up until then, it constantly kept moving forward and didn’t linger on unnecessary details. The reason we get these time skips because we don’t need 40 episodes of Eren’s childhood to understand him. We’re given enough to understand and then it moves on. Why linger on the least exciting section? Maybe they’re trying to appeal to an audience who’s in it for the action. At least they gave them unique action scenes.

Overpowered enemy means the ending isn’t very different than what happened a few episodes before it. The lack of conclusion isn’t the big problem. The manga keeps going, and the series doesn’t put all its money on the Big Conclusion anyway. The conclusion is not satisfying enough, but it doesn’t negate all that came before. The problem is that not enough changed when it ends. Change is only hinted at, but the enemy hasn’t been really defeated and not a lot of progress was made. I did not want all points wrapped up, but I wanted a lesson learned. A good ending is one that wraps up the themes, not plot points.

The series also gets credit for changing my view on realistic character design. My previous experience was with Monster, where everyone looked like real people and no one looked interesting or unique. Animation gives total control. The animators decide everything – the size of the head, the shape of the eyes, the color of the hair.

There is supposed to be a good reason to include a detail. If not, it’s just meaningless fluff with no purpose. That’s why, in cartoons, the characters tend to have ridiculous designs that are either interesting to look at or to inform us about the character’s personality. Attack on Titan has this attention to detail. The facial expression especially have a lot of work put into them. Levi has small, narrow eyes that reflect his world that’s nothing but killing titans. Eren’s eyes are wide but muscular, which fit with his idealism, extremist views and desire to go to the world outside. Petra also has such wide eyes, but they’re softer. She’s more emphatic than anyone around here.

It also avoids the shounen trap and let women look like women. A lot of shounen anime give the women breasts, but not actual female beauty. It’s no attempt to subvert gender norms. The femininity is removed without something to replace it. Here, though, women are allowed to look like women whether they’re mother figures (Petra), hardened warriors (Annie, Mikasa) or wild eccentrics (Hanji, Sasha).

It’s a good moment to say that the series avoids all cliches of misogyny and feminism in its representation of women. The women in Attack on Titan are allowed to be human beings, not walking pin-up posters or bland strong women. They have characters and personalities just like the guys. They do drop the ball Mikasa, but that’s less because they try to make her strong and more because they forgot to give her a personality. Why do we waste our time, asking whether a sexy schoolgirl with a one armed scissor is feminist when this one gets it all right?

Despite the small flaws, Attack on Titan is well worth the fame. It’s good to easy it became so big. There are at times when it feels unstoppable, like it’s hell-bent on becoming the best anime ever. Almost every scene has purpose and every dialogue exchange contributes to the characters and worlds. Even when it becomes just an extended action sequence, it’s fantastic. That’s how good it is.

4 titans out of 5