SAILOR MOON CRYSTAL and Thoughts on Animation and the Internet

Wikipedia

So like every other ’90s kid, I’ve been watching Sailor Moon Crystal, the anime that isn’t so much a remake of the beloved ’90s anime, but rather a reboot designed by Toei Animation to be more faithful to Naoko Takeuchi’s original manga. Because the series is only 26 episodes long, Toei has decided to air new episodes on a biweekly basis to sustain interest.

I say “air” even though the series is what the West knows as a webseries and what Japan knows as an Original Net Animation (ONA, derived from Original Video Animation, the term for direct-to-video anime) because the series is still very much structured like a television show. It’s two acts broken up by one commercial break, although Hulu (where I view it, although the show also airs on Crunchyroll and NicoNico, which livestream the premiere of every episode), adds more commercials because it’s Hulu’s way, and every episode thus far has been rather self-contained. The series’ 4 episodes have thus far been about Usagi (Kotono Mitsuishi) finding out she’s Sailor Moon, the recruiting of Ami (Hisako Kanemoto) and Rei (Rina Sato) as Sailor Scouts Mercury and Mars respectively, and a team-up episode where they wind up learning more about the nature of the villains they’re facing, the forces of Dark Kingdom.

Watching the show has been a rather unique experience, as I feel it’s my first real exposure to the material. Like all other people my age who had cable, I watched the ’90s version as a kid, but was never super-invested in it; largely, then, Crystal feels like my proper introduction into this particular story (I never read the manga or Codename: Sailor V, which came before it). That might be true for a lot of people, I suspect, but for a lot of anime fans I know personally, it’s the polar opposite.

To this group of fans, it’s more of having the material they loved properly realized in a way they can visibly see. See, while the North American dub–done by DIC Entertainment–was incredibly popular in syndication and on Cartoon Network, it was full of bizarre censorship (like two Scouts who were also lovers, Uranus and Neptune, being called cousins), Westernized name changes and other oddities like educational segments. A full breakdown of the adaptation can be found here.

Crystal, then, can be seen as an attempt to properly show American fans the sort of thing they should’ve gotten back in the day, with modern anime storytelling. Of course, there’s one big risk attached to that. That is, Toei and Viz Media (the new American licensor for Sailor Moon) have to take the chance that old and new fans will check out Crystal rather than the original anime, which is being released uncut and in subtitled Japanese for the first time on Hulu, with two episodes going up every Monday (a ridiculously lavish DVD/Blu-Ray set by Viz, with a brand new, more accurate dub, will be released in the fall). The risk of people flocking to see the better version of the old stuff rather than the brand new stuff is present and, while noteworthy, it doesn’t seem to have affected Crystal‘s reception.

The response to Crystal has been, while not entirely tepid, rather mixed. I mean, a lot of people have seen the show, obviously–the first episode has now been streamed over a million times on Crunchyroll alone–but critical reception has been rather mixed, with many citing the show’s hyperdetailed animation as stiff, particularly in the CGI transformation sequences. For some reviewers, the faithful recreation of Takeuchi’s original art, enormous eyes and all, is also a problem.

Personally, I don’t think the animation is that bad; I actually find it smooth and fluid, although I do find character faces a little stiff. Still, I’m not the target audience here–that would be diehards as well as young kids–and I’m okay with that.

It’s interesting that Crystal is Internet-only, as opposed to airing on a Japanese network firsthand. There are quite a few web-first anime, but most of them tend to be series of shorts, like the somewhat infamous Hetalia. Economically, I understand the impulse; most 20-somethings and kids watch more things online than on TV, after all, and the livestreaming of episodes allows for them to be disseminated quicker among the Internet. But seeing as how web-first programming is usually reserved for programs that wouldn’t stand a chance on regular TV, it’s odd to see a new Sailor Moon show–which is as close as you can get to a sure success–being given this treatment.

Still, this appears to be working so far, so maybe more full-length anime shows will get this kind of treatment. Who’s to say? In the meantime, I’ll keep watching Crystal and taking it all in.

Grant Morrison Week #2: JLA

NOTE: This was meant to be posted yesterday, but I’ve been really sick and exhausted, so I had to postpone it. Also, this was meant to be about another one of Morrison’s DC works–which I’m still planning to review–but I didn’t get it done in time. So instead, this.

Source: Wikipedia

One of the things I talked about on Wednesday was about how Morrison’s writing is full of incredibly big ideas, some of which pay off, others don’t. Morrison’s 41-issue tenure on JLA, the Justice League comic that ran from 1997-2006 (with Morrison kicking the book off), is full of ideas that do. Even better, they manage to feel completely true to the spirit of all these iconic characters while incorporating their history and their (then-current) status quo.

I haven’t finished the full run yet–at present, I’m halfway through the famous “Rock of Ages” story–but I like a lot of what I’ve read so far and Morrison’s go-for-broke plotting, along with the dynamic artwork of Howard Porter and Oscar Jimenez, are the reason why.

Basically, the setup behind this version of the Justice League–something stated explicitly in the first story arc–is that the League–which here has Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner), The Flash (Wally West), and Aquaman, with Green Arrow (Connor Hawke) and Aztek joining later on–only meets up in response to bombastic, large-scale threats.

Accordingly, every issue is full of gigantic, crazy stuff. For example, the first arc has the League facing off against the Hyperclan, a group of proactive superheroes from space who win over the public with their grand gestures but (of course) turn out to have sinister motives. A two-part story, which introduces the one-time DC Universe mainstay of Zauriel, involves Superman, who at the time had electric powers (it’s complicated), wrestling an evil angel named Asmodel who looked like a giant bull.

I repeat: Electric Superman wrestled a bull angel. How do you not want to check that out?

Basically, it’s everything I love about old-school comics–the crazy ideas, the weird stuff just tossed at the reader without any rationalizing other than “because”–combined with that punk rock energy Morrison always has, a reverence for and understanding of these characters and a lot more literary pizazz.

Of course, a comic book writer is only as good as his artist, and Porter (with Jiminez subbing in at some points), delivers the goods in droves. His characters and backgrounds are big. It’s been said that the DC heroes are gods, and Porter underlies that assumption with art that is energetic, bombastic and pleasing. He’s great fun.

If you liked the two Justice League cartoons–my friend at Critical Hit! wrote a great post about them which reminds me I really should get back into those at some point–and you want to know where the go-for-broke stuff came from, this entire run has been collected in trade and is really easy to find. Check it out.

Grant Morrison Week #1: TALKING WITH GODS (Review)

Source: grantmorrison.com

When I was in high school and The Dark Knight came out, like millions of other people, I got excited about Batman. Unlike most people, I actually tried to get into current Batman comics. However, while Warner Bros. had a certified monster hit on their hands, getting millions upon millions of people excited about a guy named Bruce Wayne who dressed up as a bat and punched criminals in the face for the first time or the first time in a long time, DC Comics, their subsidiary that had originated the character had done perhaps the worst possible thing they could do for this moment:

They killed Batman.

Ok, to be fair, he was actually zapped back in time by the Omega Beams of the omnipotent despot Darkseid, but we found that out later. Now, Batman was definitively dead, with former Robin Dick Grayson forced into taking up the mantle instead.

These circumstances were due, I was told, to writer Grant Morrison, who had killed Batman off in the pages of the big “crossover event” of the year, Final Crisis, while simultaneously driving Bats crazy through the psychological torture of the evil Black Glove organization in the concurrent “Batman R.I.P.” storyline in the pages of the eponymous comic. I read both those storylines and came away very, very confused.

Final Crisis was bursting with an insane amount of ideas–the most prominent of which involve the superhero/New God Orion dying and Darkseid finally obtaining the “Anti-Life Equation” by unlocking the components in people’s minds through the Internet and gaining complete control over every sentient being in the universe–but it’s a fevered mess that resolves in a really trippy, goofy way. (I should stress that I haven’t read the story in years, but it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth).

“Batman R.I.P.” felt similarly muddled and rushed; I felt like I had wandered in late to something. It turns out I had. Beginning with the introduction of Bruce’s biological son, Damien, in the Batman and Son” storyline, Morrison–across multiple titles and with the help of various artists including Frank Quitely, Cameron Stewart, Andy Kubert and Chris Burnham, among others–embarked on a gigantic story putting Batman through hell and back. One of the big things Morrison stressed was that every Batman story ever written–going all the way back to 1939–had actually happened to the character.

Again, that’s a hell of an idea. The kind of big, showy thing that Morrison–who crossed over into American comics in the 1980s as part of the vaunted “British Invasion,” alongside Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore–has spent his entire career doing. But excised from the whole, “R.I.P.” confused the heck out of me, although I have gone on to read some more of his Batman run and enjoyed it immensely (particularly his amazing Batman & Robin run). Whether I just got bad advice or DC’s marketing department didn’t clarify well enough, I was left cold on Morrison.

But then when I turned 18, I received both volumes of his amazing, transcendent, lovely All-Star Superman for my birthday and fell in love with his reverent-but-not-too-reverent approach to comics history and his optimistic, awe-struck view of the Big Blue Boy Scout. The following year, I asked for his memoir/superhero comics history Supergods. Again, I was swept away by his captivating, bombastic prose and rock-and-roll personality (although his more out-there views I was a little less than sold on). His Action Comics run in DC’s New 52 reboot was something I also enjoyed, and I’m looking forward to his long-awaited The Multiversity series when it comes out in trade.

I tell you that rambling to tell you this: if you’re in a similar place where I was with Morrison, you owe it to yourself to check out the Respect Films/ Sequart documentary Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods, released in 2011 and available on Hulu.

Constructed chronologically through several interviews with Morrison himself–shot in several locations, as indicated by the sudden changes in background and outfits he undergoes–as well as his friends and fellow industry pros, Gods is a brisk eighty-five minutes. No particular area of Morrison’s life and career feel shafted. Director Patrick Meaney shoots his subject in straightforward ways, and isn’t afraid to make the images on screen abstract–whether it be a shot of Morrison walking or a strange panel from one of his comics–when Grant’s voiceover goes into the obtuse range.

Meaney and DP Jordan Rennert–who, I must add, are delightful gentlemen in person–construct and compose their talking head shots with maximum clarity. While Morrison is the foremost voice on display here, he’s not the dominant one. Having so much outside perspective allows the viewer some distance from the more hard-to-take anecdotes Morrison offers, such as his claim that a visit from fourth-dimensional beings where he was shown the true nature of the universe inspired his Vertigo series The Invisibles. Conversely, in Supergods, readers had to take Morrison’s claims at face value.

The one fault I have with this movie is something I suspect the filmmakers had no control over. When Morrison’s wife, Kristi, enters the narrative, she’s praised by all who talk about her as an overwhelmingly positive influence on Grant’s life and work (she also acts as his manager). It’s bizarre, then, that she’s never seen outside of photographs and not even interviewed. Maybe she declined to be on camera, which I can understand, but her importance to Morrison that the film stresses is undercut by her absence.

Regardless, this is a well-done independent film and a good documentary that will make you sympathetic to someone who’s a rather polarizing figure in comics culture. It is very much worth your time.

NOTE: As the header says, this is the start of Grant Morrison Week. We’ll be back Friday with a look at one of Morrison’s most famous works.

Star Trek Saturdays #39

It’s time for Star Trek Saturdays #39!!!

292px-TOS_head

This week’s episode is “Mirror, Mirror.” It’s one of the most important episodes in Trek history, defining how pop culture views parallel universes as well as being a standout episode all on its own merits.

We open with Kirk, Uhura, McCoy and Scotty on the planet of the Halkans trying to get their leader (Vic Perrin) to let the Federation mine their dilithium as a power source. The chief refuses on the grounds that while the Federation is peaceful now, that could always change in the future. He explains that his people are complete pacifists who are aware of the tremendous power their dilithium crystals have. If even one life is taken, he says, that would end the Halkans’ history of total peace; as a race, they’re willing to do anything to prevent that. Kirk says he can respect those ethics and hopes that he’s able to prove the Federation has similar intent.

Suddenly, Spock calls Kirk to inform him that an ion storm is brewing in orbit and that it’s rather violent and unpredictable. Kirk says that they should prepare to beam the landing party up and plot a wider orbit to avoid the storm. As the party prepares to leave, the chief tells Kirk that he’ll speak to the ruling council, but Kirk shouldn’t expect anything. He also says that given their weapons, the Enterprise could force the Halkans to give up the dilithium. Kirk replies that he can, but he never will. “That should tell you something,” he says.

The landing party is beamed up, but something goes wrong with the transportation beam due to the ion storm. When the group materializes, everything looks different. Most notably, Spock has…a goatee!!!

http://img1.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20090220220251/memoryalpha/en/images/a/a7/Spock_%28mirror%29.jpg

Not only that, but the landing party now has more flamboyant uniforms and everyone does the following Nazi-esque salute to Kirk.

Bearded Spock asks for a status report on the mission. Not sure what to do, Kirk simply says nothing changed. Spock asks if the planet has any military capabilities and Kirk says no. Saying it’s regrettable that the Halkans chose to commit suicide, Beard Spock contacts security chief Sulu and tells him to prime the phaser banks to destroy the planet’s cities.

He then turns to the transporter technician, Kyle, and asks him for his “agonizer.” Fervently pleading that he was doing the best he could and that the power beam of the transporter jumped after being hit by the ion storm, Kyle’s pleas fall on deaf ears and Spock shocks him quite violently with his agonizer. The landing party simply stands in shock, terrified by what they’re seeing.

Where have they landed? How did they get here? And, most importantly, how do they get back?

This is the introduction to one of the most enduring concepts in Trek: the mirror universe. Here, Starfleet still exists, but it services the tyrannical Terran Empire, rather than Starfleet. As we see several times throughout this episode, Starfleet officers here are cruel and manipulative, with the accepted way of promotion being assassination of the guy above you.

Dumping people from the prime universe–particularly people as virtuous as McCoy–is a great way to highlight the differences between the two locations. What’s interesting is that writer Jerome Bixby–adapting his own 1953 short story “One Way Street”–uses this conceit highly efficiently. I was expecting several times for Kirk to get the ship’s computer to tell him of this new history he’d found himself dumped into, but that doesn’t happen. Rather, we see the depravity and vileness of things for ourselves. It’s a great tactic, and I wonder if the episodes of Deep Space Nine or Enterprise that went back to the mirror universe did a similar thing.

Complementing Bixby’s script is the smooth, smart direction of Marc Daniels. Working in tandem with the production designers, he creates a world that’s just slightly off enough to be menacing. He also stages some really good fight scenes, particularly one between Spock and the USS Enterprise crew in sickbay.

It’s a bit of a cliche that evil roles are inherently more fun to play for actors, but here, it proves true. Perhaps the best example of this here is evil Sulu. After mostly just hanging around on the bridge, here, George Takei is finally given something to do and it’s great. Mirror Sulu, who’s the security chief of the ISS Enterprise, is a twisted, scheming jerkbag and he ultimately turns out to be the real villain of the episode. It’s a great, showy turn and Takei is obviously having a blast.

The rest of the cast is also exemplary. Nimoy shows the similarities between the two Spocks, even if their dispositions are different. Shatner only gets one scene as evil Kirk, but he’s hilarious. As regular Kirk–“trapped in a world he never made!” as they say–he proves surprisingly adept at blending in with the mirror universe, even showing genuine desire for the “captain’s woman,” Marlena, played to a hilt by Barbara Luna. Nichelle Nichols has a similar blending-in scene at one point and it’s really awesome to see Uhura play devious for a change.

It’s easy to see why this episode changed how we think of parallel universes. It’s fully realized and never slips into cliche. Check it out.

Thanks to Memory Alpha for the pics and episode information, as well as Amazon Instant Video for hosting the show. We’ll see you next time and until then, live long and prosper.

Guardians of the Galaxy–Review

Source: Wikipedia

It’s become sort of a hallmark of the Marvel Studios films to toggle back and forth between using original material and incorporating wholesale storylines from the comics canon. Barring the S.H.I.E.L.D.-heavy connection, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was basically a straight version of the Winter Soldier’s introductory storyline. Iron Man is essentially a feature-length version of the character’s updated origin from the “Extremis” story by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov.

With Guardians of the Galaxy, things are different. Here, writer-director James Gunn–rewriting an earlier script by Nicole Perlman–is taking the incarnation of the team put together by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning in the past few years and giving them a wholly original story to play around in. There’s backstory, sure, but the specifics are brand new.

After a heart-rending prologue in which a young Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff) loses his mother to cancer and is then abducted by a group of alien thieves called the Ravagers, the present day of the film finds an adult Quill, going by the name “Star-Lord” (Chris Pratt), sashaying and sliding his way across an abandoned alien temple to ’70s music from a Walkman while retrieving a mysterious orb on behalf of his boss/surrogate dad, Yondu (Michael Rooker) so it can be sold for a heavy price. However, he’s accosted by Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou), who tries to steal the orb from him for his boss, the fanatical Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace).

Quill escapes and tries to sell the orb directly to the buyer on the planet Xandar, home of the Nova Corps. The buyer refuses once he learns that Ronan–who’s threatening to destroy Xandar despite a Kree-Xandarian peace treaty–wants it and Quill winds up being pursued by Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who’s been loaned out to Ronan, along with Nebula (Karen Gillan) as muscle by her adopted father Thanos the “Mad Titan”(Josh Brolin, going uncredited). Gamora, Quill and bounty hunters Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel)–who try to capture Quill for the huge bounty Yondu has placed on his head for muscling him out of his share of the orb–all wind up being thrown in jail by the Nova Corps.

There, they run into Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a morose musclebound giant who dreams of killing Ronan as vengeance for his murdered family. The group reluctantly bands together and breaks out, with Gamora–wanting to break away from the grip of Thanos and Ronan–leading them in a plan to sell the orb to someone else and split the money 5 ways. Of course, things go wrong.

What follows is perhaps one of the best movies of the year. It’s definitely in the top tier of Marvel Studios films–stronger, I’d dare to say, than The Avengers, if not quite as great as Winter Soldier–as well as being one of the best sci-fi/action movies of recent vintage.

It’s a funny thing. Despite coming from a superhero studio, this really isn’t a superhero movie. What it is is perhaps the best example of post-Star Wars SF filmmaking yet. The world and tech is lived in; big, crazy concepts are introduced and mostly brushed aside. In short, it’s easygoing and loose, something that a lot of blockbusters miss.

Key to the film’s joyful, groovy atmosphere is the cast, particularly Pratt. The Lego Movie might’ve been the first sign, but this film proves that without a doubt, he is a goddamn movie star. He’s charismatic, he’s goofy and he can shift to serious when it calls for it. In short, it’s like watching Firefly, but if the cast was one person. Trust me when I say that his work alone sells this movie.

However, he’s not the only draw, cast-wise. Everyone involved does outstanding work, from Pace’s over-the-top villainy as Ronan (which straight up nails the bombast of the character’s original appearances) to the soulful melancholy of Bautista as Drax. Also, all one needs to do is look at any given fight scene with Drax to wonder just why a major movie studio put a pro wrestler in its space movie.

Rocket and Groot, of course, are the big draws and they deliver on all fronts. Cooper–who provided the voice and was filmed gesticulating by the animators for reference, while the role of Rocket on-set was played by Gunn’s brother Sean–nails the wiseass tone of Rocket. And as the vocab-impaired Groot, Diesel turns in what is without a doubt his best performance since The Iron Giant. I’m not ashamed to say that I gasped and nearly cried at his big emotional moment; Diesel is that good.

Unfortunately, as they tend to be in this kind of movie, the women are sidelined. Saldana and Gillan are both great here, don’t get me wrong. But they get the shaft at points and it’s rather annoying, particularly with Nebula; I could sense that there was something we were missing and it kinda stank.

Now I’m not familiar with Gunn’s other work–although Super has been in my Netflix queue for a good long while–but as far as mainstream debuts go, this is a winner. I wrote on Twitter earlier after seeing this movie today that the little kids who see this today will be the George Lucas of tomorrow, creating whole new worlds out of cloth.

Reflecting on that, it seems like James Gunn was one of those kids. This was a long shot for a lot of reasons; the fact that millions upon millions of people now know who the Kree, the Celestials and Rocket Racoon are is mind-blowing. Folks: see this movie. You won’t regret it because there’s very little to regret.

In closing, let me just say that if you’ve already seen this movie and loved it like I do, please consider donating to the ongoing medical expenses and care of Bill Mantlo, the writer who co-created Rocket Racoon in the ’80s. Mantlo, a beloved comics writer, was in a near-fatal hit-and-run accident in 1992 and now requires round-the-clock help in an assisted living facility. You can find out more about his condition here; please consider donating a buck or two his way. Thank you.

 

 

REVIEW: GRAVITY FALLS Season 2 Premiere: Still Weird and Perfect

Tom Speelman:

So one of the best shows on television is back!

Originally posted on Another Castle:

(SPOILER WARNING for Season 1 Finale of Gravity Falls)

To say that the Disney Channel series Gravity Falls was a surprise is an understatement.  The animated series–created by CalArts alumni Alex Hirsch–premiered in June 2012. By the end of its first season the following summer (like most kids’ shows nowadays, this series has really staggered airdates), it had won a large fanbase of all ages hooked by its great jokes, stellar animation, terrific cast and surprisingly intriguing and dark plot. Not to mention the codes and easter eggs sprawled throughout the show. The fact that the network responsible for tripe like Dog With A Blog was airing this felt like a minor miracle.

The way things came together in the finale–with twins Dipper (Jason Ritter) and Mabel Pines (Kristen Schaal) saving their home away from home, the Mystery Shack and coming clean to their great-uncle (“Grunkle”) Stan (Hirsch) about…

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A Late Link and an Update on Post-SDCC Recovery

So there was no blog post last Friday because I was at Comic-Con and well…it was Comic-Con, man! It was exhilarating, awesome, life-changing and exhausting all at once. I had a LOT of fun, and I’ll be posting photos here soon, as soon as I get them onto Facebook and run some on Another Castle first. I did for the first day, and you can find them right here.

But I forgot to put up before I left something incredibly cool. As I said on here, I was invited to Comic-Con to discuss the work of Carl Barks, the creator of Scrooge McDuck.

Well, two weeks ago, I got in touch with Mike Phillips, the editor-in-chief of the Sequart Organization, a fine company devoted to expressing the idea that comics are art. Which is, of course, true. As part of that idea, Sequart recently ran a “Comics Artists Week,” a week of articles devoted to praising artists specifically, as too many comics critics praise writing first and foremost while leaving art at the margins (something I wholly agree with).

What I did is take my 20-page paper and simplify the language for a general audience, as well as limit my points to only speaking about art. It’s not plagirizing if it’s from yourself!

Enjoy!