Friday, November 9, 2007

Moving Day

Without fanfare, I announce that future entries will be located at a new site. I've already redirected FeedBurner, so feed readers should experience a smooth transition.

Thanks for reading, and I'll see you on the other side.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Nanoha StrikerS: Wins tricks but who's keeping score?

Nanoha StrikerS episode 26: Someone is about to be pwnt
Solid snipers win games, or can just ruin your day if you're on the wrong side of that scope. They sit in the back, don't make much noise, and hand you a one-way ticket back to your respawn point only after you've fought past a host of obstacles. That little sniper rifle icon in the corner with your name to the right of it feels completely arbitrary.

At the same time, the stereotypical sniper is underutilized, precisely because they choose to sit around waiting for enemies to round that fateful (and fatal) corner. When they add to their points column, it is a result that was a split second in the making.

Vice is that stereotypical sniper, by coincidence more than choice, but that coincidence was fabricated by a story writer. His situation is merely one coincidence in a battle marked by numerous arbitrary moments that seemed written with, what else, a split second's worth of consideration.

Playing trump does happen, especially in Euchre, but:

a) The universe, and by extension, Life, may be deterministic but since we can't compute the universe's interactions in general, we'll live with stochastic processes and random variables (that are neither random nor variables).

b) Since Life is random for all that we know, bad things can and do happen to everyone and everything, you included.

c) On the bright side, you might just be misfortune incarnate to your opponents, and will derive much hilarity when you dish out the pain. The probability of this event occurring is non-zero.

In a story context, it's a one-way street, which usually manifests as a I Am Not Left Handed scenario. This is convenient for writers, and not so interesting to viewers. Specific to StrikerS, we are teased with the use of never before seen abilities from almost every Section 6 combatant, abilities which basically win games, and then the series is over. I feel like I missed the PWN train and had to settle for the Half Decent bus.

At least we caught a glimpse of said train as it left the station.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sky Strings

Sky Girls episode 13: Stop feeding the fishPro tip: Stop feeding the fish

(Progress: 15/26)

Stripey pointed out the music behind Sky Girls. Indeed, it's been a while since I've seen a series whose incidental music goes beyond just that — incidental. Nodame Cantabile had music as its focus, but there was a time for music, and there was a time for dialog with music in the background, like most other shows.

A lot of the time, it's a simple matter of repetition (once or twice per episode is sufficient) and upping the volume. The balance can be shifted to favour music over speech, since (for me) the viewer is going to selectively amplify dialog. Consider it as a form of pre-emphasis to compensate for the inherent bias of the receiver.

Novelty helps, too. While it may not be as sweeping as Midway March, as performed by the Boston Pops Orchestra, it's been a while since I've heard a fanfare march anywhere, and Sky Girls delivers a pretty decent one. I find that it's worth sitting through something like the Sonic Diver launch sequence just to hear it.

The light march and the soaring, bittersweet strings in the segment that Stripey posted give off a World War II vibe. The image of that era and its planes, compared to a post-apocalyptic world with fighter jets and Sonic Divers, can be jarring. But as pieces that embody the military spirit in the former, and the human spirit in the latter, they are not unwelcome in the least.

The pensive piano figures heavily elsewhere, and is inevitably viewed in a positive light by me. It can indicate the dredging up of the muddy past, or the troubled mind beneath a stoic visage. While the pensive piano does not necessarily herald additional exploration of the world and the characters, for the time being I'll take comfort in the possibility that it may. And if, eleven episodes later, it doesn't, at least the music is pretty good.

Sky Girls episode 15: The seventeenth angelThe seventeenth angel

They appeared, they blew stuff up, humanity develops giant robots to counter them. I suppose that Sky Girls, like Evangelion, needs no justification for its antagonists.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Was Zegapain really that cheesy?

Following gia's post about the dubbing over of God Knows led me to a certain trailer. Well, two trailers, but first things first.

Yet another reason not to like dubs aside, this is not the Zegapain that I remember. Zegapain's fights were never the hook, yet it's this aspect that they chose to play up. And what was spoken made it sound as if Zegapain had the worst premise in the world. Like, whoa.

Thumbs up to the FLAG trailer, though. It captured the sentiment, and the orchestral piece used just reinforces it. This is one release I'm looking forward to picking up.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Budget humour

Doujin Work episode 11: Awkward
(Progress: 12/12)

Looking at the line again, it's funny if taken out of context, but for the record, I wanted to state that Najimi was the unwitting benefactor of lulz, like, oh I don't know, William Hung.

Doujin Work has appeal because it's outrageous. Perhaps it's not outrageous as it could have been, but there's still plenty of shameless elements. It's outrageously cheap looking for one (and a show stopper for many), with just enough drawn (and animated) to support the dialog that carries the show. The screws of misunderstanding are turned in over the top fashion but generally manage to remain fresh given that an episode is half the typical length.

Doujin Work episode 11: Behold! The PowerBanana H5
The series stumbles at the end, trying to connect back to the (ludicrous) premise that got everything started in the first place. Najimi was in it for the money, and then over the course of the series began playing for pride, although she never admits that it's nigh impossible for someone of her skill level to earn a living. When confronted with the unlikely possibility, she rejects it and we are treated to a short statement about work ethic. Morality tales may be meaningful, but they certainly aren't outrageous.

I won't be taking anything away from Doujin Work except the ED, but there's something endearing about something so ghetto looking, for mostly nostalgic reasons. And because it may have inspired the following:

Zetsubou Sensei episode 7: Cheap animation has left me in despair!
For comparison,

Doujin Work OP sequence

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Saturday, October 6, 2007

Gurren-Lagann: Closing remarks

Gurren-Lagann episode 27: Nia's Memorial

Our duty, as men and women, is to proceed as if limits to our abilities did not exist. — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

There are any number of motivational quotes that would crystallize Gurren-Lagann, but I happened upon the above candidate in the latest (September) issue of IEEE GOLDRush, but that's not very important (I mean, it's IEEE). So here's to the kid's show that wasn't, and the affirmation that cool needs no other reason.

* * *

There's an innocent-looking tree sitting in the kitchen. You look at it one day and see a shoot. Two days later, it's completely unfurled and the thin base stem looks as if it's gotten that much taller. Pretty soon, it'll be screaming for increasingly larger plant pots. At long last, it will be planted outside, where it will continue to grow faster and taller than I ever did.

When I spot yet another shoot appear, I think about Gurren-Lagann. Plant you now, dig you later.

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Friday, October 5, 2007

"The Agriculture Ministry is not in charge of Gundam"

It belongs to the Ministry of Cartoon Robots.

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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

As if millions of physicists suddenly cried out in terror

Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann, wherein humanity discovers the Unified Field Theory and in return, agrees to discard the laws of thermodynamics. For the sake of a pretty fight of course. A solution to the inevitable destruction of the universe continues to elude the species as a whole.

(Progress: 27/27)

Gurren-Lagann episode 27: Simon who?In an era of peace, there is little room for heroes

Old soldiers never die, but they may undergo puberty a second time. Even Yoko's jaw is squared at the end. I quite like my voice as it is right now and I'm not sure how I would feel were it to drop another octave over the course of 20 years. Perhaps this voice deepening was done to emphasize the time skip to kids, Gurren-Lagann being a kids' show and all. Right?

After seeing The Incredibles, a friend remarked that it had a foundation for children, with layers that would only be picked up by older people. It was entertaining for kids and their handlers, a very rewarding quality for those who managed to achieve that balance.

Gurren-Lagann episode 27: Subtlety
Subtlety was never a strong point of this series. Viewers are whacked over the head with the theme on at least four occasions:
  1. The encounter with the isolated village
  2. Lord Genome's stated motivations following his defeat
  3. Rossiu and his Red Star leftists (trying to pick up where Genome left off but things quickly spiraled out of control)
  4. The Anti-Spirals
It was always about population control and the problem of finite resources, played out on an increasingly larger scale. And each time the answer was to kick reason to the curb and break out of the limits imposed by others. Alone, the sentiment is inspirational and is a large factor in the feel-goodness of this series. Underneath that, though, spelled out in no uncertain terms by the Anti-Spirals on numerous occasions throughout the multi-episode battle, is how ugly breaking out can get.

Infiltrate, assimilate, consume the wreckage of the fallen, repeat. Friend or foe, it matters not and indeed we see Simon taking control of and absorbing things from either side throughout the series. It can be clever and heroic like his commandeering of the Daigenzan, but it can also border upon the horrific. Seeing Genome's head mounted to the base of a giant drill that gets consumed has hallmarks of the latter.

There's this sense of fatalism, depending on how far you want to push the symbolism. Even if all life were wiped out, entropy happens. You can try to reduce entropy in localized systems, but at cost to the larger whole. In other words, the universe, as far as we know, will burn itself out on its own. With our entropy producing ways, we would merely accelerate the process.

Gurren-Lagann episode 27: The evil eye
The eyes. Or just the eye. He's clearly half human, half Contractor. Wait, wrong series.

Is this how Simon spent his time to defending the universe? As a sage? It might not be a bad idea, for what steps should be taken to keep the resource party going for as long as possible? Forcefully take responsibility away from individuals and dictate terms? Or, as Simon advises the child, less force and more suggestion?

Gurren-Lagann is at turns cartoony, over the top, yet quite serious if you dare to venture beyond the fun factor. There's a lot to like, unless you're a physicist. Then it may just leave you in despair.

Lastly, I don't even remember what the first ED song and sequence was, but I always stick around and watch the Minna no Peace sequence in full. Loud anthemic rock, and Gurren-Lagann is definitely a better package with its own anthem.

Simon losing Nia and leaving everyone else mirrors the ED imagery. Usually the hero re-integrates into society after completing the last stages of his quest alone. Simon has always had support, and with his job done, heads out on his own. One last twist to a well-executed series.

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Monday, October 1, 2007

Darker than Black shareholder applauds Serious Business

Darker than Black episode 25: The killing fields of South America
(Progress: 25/25)

But disapproves of child labour soldiers.

Darker than Black episode 25: Unmasking Hei
Of the mysteries surrounding Hei, be it his lack of a payment scheme although he ate a lot, or his un-Contractor-like irrationalities, it never occurred to me that he is the only Contractor in the series to wear a mask. I shrugged it off for the usual reasons, like he might be recognized by the authorities, but he didn't commence operations starting episode one, and no other Contractor took measures to hide their face.

In the beginning, there was a clear distinction between Hei as a regular person and Hei as a Contractor. The lightning bolt on the mask isn't some dishonest bluff. When he puts on the mask, he puts on lightning, on at least two levels. Later on, we see that he uses his abilities without the mask, a symbolic blurring of divisions.

People have long feared corporations. Images come to mind of mindless drones, the stereotypical company man defined only through his work, labouring under the equally dispassionate leadership that rules with an iron fist and is concerned only about its immediate interests. What is a Contractor if not a model cog, supposed to carry out orders unquestionably and without regard for the effects it may have on others?

How ironic is it then, that the reaction against Contractors is embodied in a group that is organized and called the Syndicate. With that knowledge, many of the missions that take place can be framed in the context of dealing with rogue Contractors or any objects related to the Hell's Gate.

Darker than Black has been open-ended on a number of items, one of them being the Syndicate/Organization/Illuminati. It is claimed that they essentially own the world's intelligence agencies, and yet the Russian FSB had sent out two Contractors to gather intelligence on the Syndicate.

What was the Syndicate attempting to accomplish by smuggling Dolls? When would this supposedly all-powerful organization resort to that kind of means for fund-raising?

The series concludes with an incomplete view of the world and its major players. Partial pictures have a disadvantage to more fleshed out views, partly because there is the suspicion that even the writers don't have a definitive idea of where things are going. It also allows such things as the springing of arbitrary surprises at the last minute, like Hei's sister's full abilities and the mechanism behind the disappearance of the Heaven's Gate.

At the end of the day, Darker than Black is not a series with instant appeal. There are no broke bounty hunters to instantly relate to (the broke part, of course). Its subject matter touches upon issues that can hit a little too close to home at times, pointing out things that we may not wish to acknowledge - let alone discuss - about ourselves or others in general. There isn't much in the way of answers, either, just a push to consider and compare their world and ours. I think I did see one message, which may or may not have some relevance outside of the series:

Behind every Contractor there is a human. One only has to afford them the dignity of being one to see that.


DtB 25 was the first episode watched on my new system, in a resolution exceeding 704x400. I could get used to this. When in doubt, just throw more hardware at the problem.

Or new hardware. I witnessed first-hand the bursty activity that compressed video can generate when trying to watch video sourced from external storage over USB 1.1. In scenes with either lots of movement (Gurren-Lagann ED) or localized high-speed motion (Gurren-Lagann OP with the circling Mugans) over many frames, the USB 1.1 connection is saturated.

The high-level reason is that something like DivX is unable employ large amounts of prediction between frames. The other extreme is a still shot, with will compress much better. It's easy to predict the position of a motionless object.

704x400 can still saturate the poky USB 1.1 connection on occasion, but in general it requires a pause to fill up the buffer and clear the bottleneck, so I've generally stuck to 704x400 resolution in the past. Of course, there's no problem with USB 2.0.

What about moving higher resolution media to internal storage for playback? I had never de-fragmented my old hard drive, and since it is more or less at capacity in addition to being almost four years old, it can have a hard time serving up the necessary bandwidth for stall-free playback. Yes, it was that fragmented. Playing back live performances, at relatively uncompressed 10,000 kbps MPEG-2, was not a good experience, if it could be called even that.

On the topic of new stuff, this current theme is broken in my latest installation Firefox, with grey flooding into the sidebar. It looks like the hunt is on for something different, unless I can get this resolved.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

It depends on how one defines deterrance

ZnT II episode 12: Final battle
(ZnT II complete)

I suppose it's easier to non-fatally deter an army of 70,000 as opposed to an army of 7,000,000 [1]. It's also a lot harder to pick out commanders in such a crowd. Sometimes, one just has to kill a bunch of Red Shirts. Or put them to sleep. Who knows. I've stopped caring.

An otherwise powerful finale ruined at the end, etc. I have nothing further to add.

[1] Maybe it was a typo on the translator's part. What's two zeros anyway? Myths tack on a zero every time they're past from one generation to another. Enron did it for lulz.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Code-E: About token conspiracies and sock puppets

Code-E episode 8: Nice nose
(Progress: Complete, 12/12)

Eleven episodes later, I still can't let go of the fact that I'm watching a puppet show a good amount of the time. And people complain about Escaflowne noses. Try no noses.

There are two somewhat major components to Code-E's story. The first is coping with being different (an understatement). The second is a typical love triangle with teen angst which, when combined with being different, leads to cheap special effects attempting to depict the disruption of anything that utilizes electrons.

Notice how neither of the above include anything remotely cool or novel. Sure, being a walking EMP weapon is kind of neat in a sadistic sort of way, but the number of instances where it was used for neat is exactly three, all of which involved restoration of well-being. Last time I checked, electromagnetic radiation may or may not increase the risk of developing cancer, so even that is a bit of a stretch.

This is hardly a comparison, but two things that Read or Die (the OVA) and Code-E have in common, besides being produced by the same studio, is that they have glasses-wearing female leads with special abilities. And maybe a spy-type soundtrack. The similarities end there.

Yomiko Readman manipulated paper for seemingly mundane uses like making a paper plane. Did I mention it was a giant paper plane? Capable of supporting two adults, one of whom was carrying a rifle? Now that is neat. Also neat is creating a blade out of paper currency, and a crowbar to swing around pipes. Paper kills people! Who would have thought?

Chinami Ebihara is insecure but not so easily pushed around, because anyone putting the screws on her backs away when they see every single electronic device around them go haywire. Unless you're the resident stereotypical socially inept science nerd. Intense electromagnetic radiation disrupts electronics! Who would have thought?

Sorry, but watching a weak lead freak out and create QUALITY sparks day in and day out gets old fast.

Love triangle. Awkward adolescents suffer copious amounts of teen angst. QUALITY sparks! Behave immaturely. Incredibly juvenile. Running out of synonyms. Repeating self. Moving on.

If there was a second season and if that second season gave some answers and background on a slew of mysteries, then go watch this series. There is no closure at the conclusion. Chinami is pursued by shady foreigners and…? Some guy sabotages (my own impression) a new town development because…? The development had a violent resonance response to E/M because…? And so on.

Code-E just leaves viewers dangling. It could use that second season, but I question whether it deserves one.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann: This surreal moment brought to you by the letter J

Gurren-Lagann episode 26: PBS logo plus Anti-Spiral figure
(Progress: Episode 26)

Some people have a fear of clowns. Me? I get weirded out when seeing the PBS logo, especially when set against a black background like in the above. I don't have any bad childhood memories of PBS programming, although I can't say the same for the National Film Board of Canada (and Boards of Canada seem to agree); it's just the logo that I have always found disconcerting.

Maybe it's the notion that I was bearing witness to a severed human head, or rather, the suggestion of one. At the age of 4 or so, it was hard enough trying to deal with the latest virus or bacterial infection, and now I was multi-tasking trying to make sense of vaguely humanoid outlines. It had the components of a face, but it lacked emotion. Having only seen human faces with expression up till then, it was something that I struggled to reconcile. I may or may not have curled up into a ball and started muttering to myself.

The Anti-Spiral figure elicits a similar response. Instead of muttering to myself, I'm writing, which is basically the same thing. Its design is generic, yes, but just like the PBS logo, I find its genericness to be disturbing. There's something sinister, not elegant, in the simplistic design of both.

Animated as a sketchy outline, the Anti-Spiral goes one better, hinting at an unknowable, unseeable, pulsing chaos. It is an entropy that defies current understanding, the same random movement that gives rise to quantum mechanics.

Emotions that are unknown, a form that is unknown, and mastery of the unknown. Anti-Spirals keep me awake at night.

On a marginally related note

The entire last half of episode 27 was quite surreal. Seeing the first channel surfing scene, I thought I might have been watching an episode of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei. Of the several references Gainax got in, I only picked up on one, much to my chagrin.

Yoko Bebop

Who knew that Yoko dreamed of being a bounty hunter with a jazz background?

Channel surfing part two, the drastic shift in dress and scenery, Yoko's discarding of her alternate reality was wonderfully wtf. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it, but I get the sense that what she wanted was avoiding coming to grips with Kamina's death, so it was necessarily Kamina that held the TV showing her all these happy scenes. The one scene that she finally returns to, though, is not bright and clear, but the muted and smoky site of Kamina's death. This is her reality, the one that she accepts before rejoining the fight.

Simon's scene was much more straightforward, with a weak Kamina targeting Simon's insecurities. A parallel is drawn between a fictional outcome of the earlier war and the battle going on now. It's okay to stop fighting, as long as a simple life can be made out of view of the ruling class. Beastmen and Anti-Spirals alike are merciful so long as their power is not challenged.

In the end, Simon reaffirms that he does things not for Kamina, but for himself. Problem solved, for the second time. He then proceeds to turn into Megaman, assimilating all of his surviving comrades. When the next episode preview features a familiar looking sniper rifle, what other explanation is there?

Gurren-Lagann episode 26: Mega-Lagann

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Darker than Black: The Hell's Gate Cult

Darker than Black episode 23: Hei holds Pai
(Progress: Episode 24)

In addition to Tensai Okamura and Yoko Kanno, add Bones and falling stars to the list of things that Cowboy Bebop and Darker than Black have in common.

Maybe I'm a little late in making the connection — the South American entity was called Heaven's Gate, after all. In my defence, 10 years ago is a long time, and I had a narrow(er) world view back then. Budget cuts and teacher's strike were terms that were infinitely more relevant at the time, as they lead to no school.

The term works on a couple levels, like how there was a cult, the fact that millions died (although who knows if that's the case if they can't set foot in the area around the gate), and how a war was fought around and possibly over Heaven's Gate.

Contractors are an odd sort. They are generally described in the vaguest of terms as self-interested and having no conscience. Neither trait is special. One would have to have no conscience to take on killing people as a job, and being self-interested and apathetic to most other things unrelated to survival comes with the turf.

What is curious is how Contractors have continued to put up with killing each other and important people for over a decade. I'm not quite sure how risking one's neck to kill someone else serves one's interests better than, say, a cushy desk job. I suppose being in essence a mercenary does have a pigeon-holing effect.

The fact that there's a chicken and egg problem — that if you just quit then others Contractors will come after you, so no one is particularly inclined to leave — may also have something to do with it. And if nothing else, non-Contractor special forces teams have proved perfectly capable of taking their marks to the cleaners, although those can turn into messy affairs.

It seems that the amount of free-will that a Contractor exercises is proportional to their effectiveness as a killer. Wei is so bad-ass that he develops pride and ambition. The irony is that like Maki, that ridiculously powerful bomber kid, the human flaws he exhibits on the job lead to his downfall.

Hei's situation is blurred by the possibility that he may have inherited his powers as opposed to being arbitrarily assigned them along with a shiny new star, and thus may not have signed the boilerplate employment agreement (unless his payment is to eat a ton and never get fat), but he's still one of the best Contractors in the field. How does he demonstrate his free-will? By rescuing his teammates, because he can.

I don't think that most of the sub-ordinates of Evening Primrose have free-will so much as they are rational people acting on the information given to them. If someone went up to Mai and told her, That accelerator you're defending will kill you if switched on, she would surely think twice about toasting Amagiri and Brita. Enlightened self-interest does have enlightenment as a prerequisite.

As the show gets set to conclude, we see Contractors serving their true employer. They may do so only reluctantly and without the zealotry one might expect of a cult, but they are inextricably bound to its existence. It's the worst kind of working relationship.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Zero no Tsukaima Futatsuki no Kishi: A whiff of betrayal

ZnT II episode 10: Stupidity
When Zero no Tsukaima's first season was still airing, I stumbled across a thread that summarized events in the light novel up to its seventh volume. Since they never took place in the first season's run, and with no guarantee of a second season at the time, I proceeded to forget about most of it.

What did stick with me was the underlying conflict that pervaded the later volumes, which boils down to pacifists against warmongers when set in a comparatively backward and primitive era. This may or may not sound something like the premise of Zipang.

In other words, Zero no Tsukaima Futatsuki no Kishi could have had a promising, coherent, plot, except J.C. Staff has generally chosen service over serious, backing away from the darker undercurrent that began to take hold in the later episodes of the first season.

Sure, service sells and trivializing the overall story with undeveloped side plots has probably turned out to be pretty profitable for all involved, but I do get a sense of frustration having seen even a high-level view of what things could have been. I think I understand a bit what it must feel like for a fan of the source material to watch such a gutted adaptation.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Lucky Star: An animated kind of stand-up

Lucky Star episode 21: One pretty street
Kyoto Animation takes the season off, although if one only had the above screenshot to go on, they might be inclined to disagree. Why must they tease us so? They're KyoAni: It's because they can.

Likewise, they were (rightfully) confident that their random Shiraishi endings would be mostly tolerated, being no worse than the terrible singing or fireworks kicking found on YouTube, and people watch that stuff in droves.

Lucky Star is easy: easy-going given its slice of life nature, probably easy to produce given KyoAni's magic, and easy like taking a picture given today's digital cameras. The series as a whole is a well-executed snapshot, of the lives of the characters over the course of a year (or two?), of (Japanese) fandom, even the state of technology, although Blogger and other publishing systems now have caching mechanisms so timeouts don't toast a post.

Lucky Star episode 21: Click!
It seems incredibly convenient, art imitating reality in a more extreme sense, but I welcome it as it speaks of and points out things that I'm aware of but wouldn't usually speak to others about, much less form a conversation around. It need not be about geeky things, although a lot of them are. For example, I personally wouldn't feel comfortable talking about how much of a slacker I am (and hearing about how much of a slacker the other person is) with just anyone. I also can't get away with a thirty second rant about how difficult it is to crawl out of bed in the morning. Even though many would nod their heads in agreement, what follows from such a declaration?

Where one can get away with this, though, is stand-up comedy. Punchlines are expected to be copious and frequent, and there are many instances where situational jokes are short, to the point, and have little to no correlation with the one that came before and the one that will follow.

Lucky Star only has some structural and pacing similarities to stand-up, so the comparison is somewhat superficial. For me it's not even funny most of the time, although what many find at least chuckle-inducing I just find clever or amusing. At the end of the day, Lucky Star dares to codify many observations into scenes and dialog that are not totally absurd, and for that it was an interesting watch.

So will Lucky Star stand the test of time? If nothing changes in a decade or more, perhaps. More likely is that years from now, it will be watched like one would watch archival footage: with merely academic interest. What was it like to be an otaku, Japanese or otherwise, circa 2007? More to the point, what were we like? Lucky Star would shed some light on those questions, covering such topics as the popular character tropes, series, gaming habits, food, and the immense response to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.

Lucky Star episode 24: The IRONYThe IRONY

The last item on the list may suffer from bias via conflict of interest. Just a tad.

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Saturday, September 8, 2007

Beautiful World full-length PV

For completeness. It's been a bit over a week since it first aired, but it completely escaped my notice. Thanks to DarkMirage for the heads up.

There are at least two versions floating around on YouTube. Both have sequences or scenes that have been recycled back in, too. The first one bears a broadcast station's watermark up to the length of the short teaser version of the PV. Given that the title screen appears twice, it seems less authentic than the second one, which DM linked to, although I'm still skeptical that they'd be so cheap as to recycle stuff in a real PV release.

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Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS: Don't pull your punches

For the time being, yesy has turned into this serial subbing machine. I am not complaining.

Nanoha StrikerS episode 21: Leg shot
I think I've seen more blood in episode 21 than in the first two seasons combined. Ironic, then, that fighting was really all the first two seasons were about, and it continues to be the main strength in this latest run.

Blood drives home the fact that, unlike the battles of old, people are really out to kill each other this time around. In the past, all the good guys did was get in the way of bad guys intent on accumulating stuff. Now, they have an objective to take, and the bad guys aren't accumulating trinkets (anymore) so much as endeavouring to hold the planet hostage and blow stuff up.

Nanoha StrikerS is worth following now more than ever (due in no small part to yesy), as the battle that was prompted by the events of episode 19 is going to round out the rest of this series. Mistakes under fire have already been made. Being shot in the leg (and the other incident in episode 21) is just the beginning of a very unclean day. This is definitely not the kid's show of the past two seasons.

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Nodame Cantabile: Coda

Nodame Cantabile episode 23: Professionals
I think the above about sums up most of my ramblings concerning the series to date. Props to Froth-Bite for their efforts!

The last episode was a lot of flashback with some inspirational splashed in, but didn't carry the same finality as the episode before it. This is really not the end for these characters, so jumping up and screaming There! It's done! would be inappropriate. I'm not even wistful at all about it. What partings there were, were devoid of tear-inducing moments, as most partings are or ought to be.

Visually, the series does come off as cheap, although there's nothing terribly exciting about watching people playing instruments in general. The CG, despite all the work that probably went into it, never captured the flare that virtuosos possess in their movements. If you can get beyond that and listen to the music, the dialog, and interactions, I think you'll find a consistently decent series that really delivers towards its conclusion.

Being a former student of music probably disposes me towards something like Nodame Cantabile, and your mileage may vary otherwise.

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Cowboy Bebop: Mou man tai

Cowboy Bebop episode 26: Last supper
Many years ago, I saw a block of three episodes in the middle of Cowboy Bebop, with one or two scattered episodes towards the beginning, and then I just stopped and walked away from it. I wasn't bewildered at the start of this mini-marathon of sorts, and felt nothing at its conclusion. Cowboy Bebop is the kind of series that doesn't require any prior history or emotional commitment to get into the more advanced episodes, but that makes it easy to stop watching. Like the ending quote of one of the episodes, easy come, easy go.

Over the course of two days, I think I now understand the appeal a bit better than with my previously limited sample size. My eyes also itch a bit, but I chalk that up to autumn allergies.

It's not the characters, at least for me it's not. None of the main cast were engaging. They're not unrealistic, but there was nothing special about their portrayal. Spike can fight, has a death wish, has some baggage that is nicely animated but plays little part in the day-to-day activities of the group. Jet is the bruiser, voice of reason, all-around handyman that everyone else takes for granted. Faye is typical all talk but insincere about her own feelings, plus unsympathetic money whore. Ed is like an Osaka given hax, but stripped of the skillz is just a dumb kid. The dog is, well, pretty remarkable for a dog, but not really a character.

The writing, while generally solid, can also be hit and miss. At times the dreaded idiot lecture was resorted to, or the story was neatly wrapped up for the sake of containing it in an episode. Episode 6 combined both, with the long pseudo-scientific explanation and the instant fabrication of a silver bullet, so to speak. There are also a lot of convenient coincidences or ironies that make the outcome obvious early on, which takes the fun out of watching sometimes. Points, though, for the parallel situations between the first and final episodes, as well as the fatalistic symbolism in that last episode.

Chessmaster Hex is a clever name. Old school rappers liked to prefix their names with Grandmaster, which is an actual chess rank. Just thought that it was something worth mentioning.

Cowboy Bebop is interesting to me mostly because of the sheer scale of its vision and its slick execution. Intense fight scenes, thrust vectoring with a pistol, the gritty depictions of Hong Kong urban living, the imagined renditions of surfaces on other planets, the series was a vehicle for cool and its animation quality easily holds its own to this day, over nine years since the first episode aired. That this quality was achieved in conjunction with several in-between studios is a testament to their co-ordination.

I actually wound up watching most of the series with the english dub (but with subtitles to cross-reference), the first time I've ever done so. At times the dialog was verbose, just stuffing words in to fill mouth-flap time, and the side-character voices could also be ridiculously flat, but the use of a variety of accents did give scenes more colour. Mushroom Samba was fun to watch (minus Ed) with African-Americans giving one another attitude, and the actual use of cantonese and cantonese-accented english, particularly in episode 2, was priceless, hence the title. One chinese phrase that didn't make it over to the english dub, though, was the first episode's sliced beef dish. Subtitles confirmed that it was mandarin. Also in mandarin was Pao's name on his gravestone.

That they threw in random stuff like a news report about the Israel-Syria conflict (in english on both language tracks!), and naming a space shuttle after the Columbia, was bonus. Whether that thing can actually go into orbit with only its main orbital engines and some puny looking, nose side mounted rockets, is up in the air. I'm leaning towards no, but this is a series where fights in vacuum make noise, so hard science fiction fans look elsewhere or otherwise put up with it.

I guess no discussion about this series is complete without at least some mention of the soundtrack. The jury's still out, although I've revised my opinion toward the positive side. Yoko Kanno gets points for the sheer volume of output for this series. I suspect, though I'm too lazy to find out, that it easily tops Escaflowne in number of pieces.

But as for greatest soundtrack for an anime series? I would stand by that only if I were willing to say that all other soundtracks suck, and I'm not quite ready to do that. Certainly the music integrates well and colours some poignant moments, and if that were the only metric, then yes it may very well be the best soundtrack for an anime series.

As for how the music stands by itself, it's mostly jazz, which is the one component of the soundtrack that many rave about. Is there anything particularly special about Cowboy Bebop's jazz? Not really. Take Tank! as an example. Yes, I'm walking on this ice with many. In its full-length incarnation, Tank! is a standard intro-solo-outro structure. The motifs, or licks, scream stereotypical, one of the first patterns that come to mind when jazz, as a general term, is brought up. Oh yeah! Jazz is all about saxophones and trumpets doing that cool descending thing all day. Clearly a watershed moment in the history of jazz at large.

Sure, there is a bit of fusion with other styles, like in Space Lion, and the Mai Yamane songs are strong, but I can go cherry-pick good material from soundtracks for Escaflowne and Darker than Black as well. It proves nothing about the overall offering.

I suspect that most diehard fans are because of sheer novelty. If nothing else, a heavy jazz component in a soundtrack for an anime series was novel for its time, and to be different is cool, after all. These are the people who go around saying Jazz is greater than thou without having ever owned such a CD in their lives. I'd want to call them Bebop-tards, but Bebop is pretty intellectual so the term would just cancel itself out.

I wouldn't look too deeply into Cowboy Bebop. It's best enjoyed with the brain on auto-pilot and a tolerance for silliness, which I seem to lack. For Serious Business (but with less fighting), consider its spiritual successor: Darker than Black.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2007

A life investment

Byousoku 5 cm: Cosmonaut
Taken alone, Oukashou may have been a typical romantic short, if only because it had a proper end, which is to say that the two characters actually see each other off. But with respect to the second question, a confusing story with an extreme adherence to show don't tell is not in anyway unique to anime. In that sense, Byousoku 5 cm does fall into the general art film category.

What may be particularly head-scratching to the viewer, though, is that they aren't really watching the usual kind of story that has a beginning, middle, and end. There's no villain, no mystery, barely a whiff of a definitive relationship by the end of it all. The only time anyone says goodbye to anyone else is in Oukashou. To many viewers, what exactly is an ending that features no partings?

Having never seen something quite like it before, it may take some time to get comfortable with watching life, and not the reality TV kind, either.

Nor is Byousoku 5 cm life caricatured, exaggerating personalities and situations for dramatic and comedic effect. Here, the characters don't blow up or melt down in spectacular fashion. They let fear eat away at them, paralyze them. People are put on pedestals. Characters burn out. Regret does not lead to action, it leads to lingering bitterness. Unrequited love goes unrequited.

These three short stories are polished into a mirror-like finish. I suspect that gazing upon it necessarily means reflecting on your life up to that point. To take an extreme example, you can't show this to a 6 year old; they'll haven't a clue that what they're witnessing in the last short is a hollowing out of the human soul.

Perhaps one might say that if you derive nothing from watching Byousoku 5 cm, then you truly haven't lived yet. But all are welcome to join the club in due time. At the end of the day, you get what you put in.

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Monday, September 3, 2007

Pre-OVA Aria: Return to innocence

Aria the Natural episode 4: Post office
It's kind of neat how an OVA follows Aria the Animation and Aria the Natural, hence the somewhat similar title structure. Well, it's not especially unique nor particularly significant, but it's a coincidence, one of those fleeting sparks of recognition. And if you were Akari Mizunashi, you would pronounce it to be good, and so it is.

Aria's setting is a city and world of small miracles, its story an adventure per episode. The main cast is, for lack of a better word, reasonable, even the alternate faces used to indicate annoyance/shock/embarrassment. Athena is a dignified sort of spacey, the kind you wouldn't mind meeting in real life, as opposed to the stereotypically exaggerated spacey character that is only tolerable when observed from the comfort of a video display.

The undine is a perfect vehicle for exploration and discovery. On one level, Aria is tourist marketing for a destination that doesn't exist, but it also captures the wonder of yesteryear, of fables, fairy tales, and adventure novels. It's not traditional fare, though. There are no villains, no pirates (or ninjas!) and such consequent battles. There isn't even much tension, merely mystery and wonder. The Alchemist is a good approximation of Aria's feel. For a similar anime series, comparisons to Bartender aren't unwarranted, but where Bartender concerns itself with personal stories, Aria has a much larger scope, balancing the cast with the city at large.

For a series that places the focus on trainees, there is very little in the way of training scenes, and they have this tendency to go on adventures instead, which is fine by me. The difficulties in being an undine are glossed over, and various potential mishaps — such as spills, colliding with a bridge (with your head), or colliding with another gondola — are only depicted in flashbacks or in a controlled environment such as during the training day episode in Aria the Animation.

The sacrifices made to terraform Aqua, nee Mars, are similarly obscured, such as the sunken base, and it is only implied as to what has befallen Earth Man-Home, where it's no longer safe to swim in the oceans, and one must go off-planet to see cultural landmarks.

But I'd prefer that such things are not brought up. It would defeat the purpose of watching Aria in the first place. On a related note, I would have preferred not to have seen stuff like the following:

Aria the Natural episode 10: You don't run with scissors so why are you hanging them?
There are some things you just shouldn't do, like hanging scissors from the ceiling, trying to electrify a bus using a hydro pole, and creating a fire hazard by lighting lots of exposed candles in a house. Miracles, coincidences, time travel, I can deal with for some strange reason. But getting away with not setting the house on fire? Not so much. It brings out the jaded cynic in a hurry, who, I have on good authority, is quite the party pooper.

More bizarre is my dislike for stressful moments in something like Aria, specifically anything that places stress on Akari's simple mind. Whether it's being taken advantage of by a ghost in a black dress, or going around in circles and having a brain freeze [that was a convenient episode to animate, eh?], situations that exploit simple people and have nothing else to offer are generally dissatisfying to watch. It's all very predictable, but ruins the mysterious atmosphere that pulls the viewer along.

Aqua and Neo-Venezia is a vision. More morality tales and magic, less dependence on technology, a rejection of many of the objects that have a heavy environmental footprint. Given a clean slate, this is a wish for a return to innocence, of which Akari the Eternally Surprised is its personification. Anything that detracts from that view simply feels out of place, even if its inclusion adds to realism.

Hope. It's what I felt most watching the idyllic lifestyle, the tidy surroundings, the past woven into the present, and heartwarming moments. Strange how coincidences tend to cheapen plot when abused, but I have no qualms with heaping them on in the absence of plot. Perhaps when watching a series that filters its characters, story, and environment through rose-tinted glasses, I can't help but ask for a matching pair.

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This one's a keeper

Utada Hikaru performs Beautiful World on Hey! Hey! Hey!
After watching this, her CDTV performance went right out the window. Stronger voice, nitpicks that were more along the lines of, could be improved as opposed to that's just outright wrong and I'm cringing now, and generally not flat and not uninspired.

I also like the hair, a bit of a return to her old style. Then again, I always thought bangs in front of forehead to be out of place.

[YouTube] for those who don't have 490 MB to spare.

Update: Her Utaban performance is incrementally better, with Music Fighter up there as well. Still has range trouble, though, and she cuts her phrases short compared to her album version. Her return to Music Station was a nervous one. While the added echo/reverb from the stage setup was neat, she showed nerves and was uptight, plus she clearly mis-pitched on a couple occasions.

While I'm at it, I thought her Music Station performance of Kiss & Cry was quite good, although we're going to have to disagree on this one. I suppose she's unhappy because nothing special came out of it, but there's nothing wrong with a perfect textbook performance, either.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Pre-OVA Maria-sama ga Miteru: People watching

Marimite Haru episode 13: In front of Sachiko's door
September approaches, so it's as good a time as any other to get through some older series, and what better way to face the prospect of school with a series about school? Granted, there is little in common between Lillian and wherever I'm off to, but they are both almost self-sustaining environments, more or less closed off to the rest of the world, and fed by a never-ending supply of new students and relationships.

If the OVA is about the unfolding of process, then its predecessors are about the unfolding of people. I realize now that the OVA's seemingly goal-oriented structure [1] is a partial result of a normalizing of relationships, as well as the cast coming into their own as administrators. Prior, such tasks were left to their seniors, out of view.

While not dealing with weighty or even relevant issues, the unfolding stories and character interactions are compelling to watch, particularly the story of Shimako. She comes across as having a lot of baggage, and just how much isn't revealed until halfway into Maria-sama ga Miteru ~Haru~. It's also then that parallels and and the perceptiveness of past observations come to light, and despite the claim that only Sei knew Shimako's story among her peers, one has to wonder at just how much the other Roses knew.

Mis-communication runs rife in many of the drawn out conflicts in the series. As per her hair style, it allows Touko to turn the screws on Yumi and to a lesser extent, Noriko. Most misunderstandings are actually pretty straightforward situations, with the exception of Shimako's, stretching into the second season the way it did.

Back to people watching. Witness some conflict, develop some insight into a character or two, push the reset button after the resolution, next please! I don't mean to imply that either season was devoid of commitment, not at all. The focus on the characters is clear, the interactions flow well, and an excuse (like WAR) isn't necessary to have interactions in the first place.

Maria-sama ga Miteru's setting is like a casual (but not too casual) sidewalk: comfortable, moderated spontaneity, mostly non-threatening. A fine place for observing the ordinary aspects of life.

* * *

[1] At least for the first three episodes. Many thanks to Otenba / Lililicious for their progress thus far.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Zero no Tsukaima: Futatsuki no Kishi

The first season of Zero no Tsukaima started strong, but the story really began to drag after the Staff of Destruction arc. The second season, now at the halfway point, just continues the aimless wandering with war as a backdrop.

Kirche and Tabitha continue to be conveniently timed assistance, reduced to bit roles following the RPG [spoilers!] arc. To some extent, the Valliere sisters are their replacements. Saito's lecher act has gotten old since he never gets away with it, nor does he try to stand up for himself like he did earlier in the first season.

As far as actual events go, they are all related to the pending war, but they could be related to anything. Add to that the isolated feel of each episode, and you get a show that makes for disengaging viewing. I don't care for the war because it's so distant. I don't care for the events themselves, since they are generic situations where war and other related words are thrown in because the writers think that the viewer will automatically start caring.

If they had a longer episode run, could they have done a better job adapting the source light novel series? Perhaps. But as it stands, ZnT II is just like any other predictable sitcom, with magical elements, and the word war thrown in as a value-add. At the end of each episode, the writers push the reset button, absolving themselves of the need to write effect since it took so much effort to write cause in the first place.

Zero no Tsukaima II episode 8: One of many conveniently timed flashbacks
I totally don't know who the Flame Snake is. Every time Colbert-sensei has a flashback involving a village, and fire, I stick my head in a conveniently placed hole in my floor.

In the first series, we all knew that the secretary was the thief, that Wales was sketchy, etc. Only the first example was forgivable because it was an excuse to deploy a rocket launcher. I don't think anything Colbert does, now that he's gone from badass mofo to pacifist zen master, will quite live up to the satisfaction of seeing an RPG applied to a sand golem, but anything less will only solidify this series' mediocrity.

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Gurren-Lagann episode 22: Our cruisers can't repel awesomeness of that magnitude!

Gurren-Lagann episode 22: Moon lasersNow witness the full power of this fully armed and operational battle station!

This is the Death Star that the Empire only wished they had built.

Gurren-Lagann episode 22: Death Star
I think the above screen capture seals the deal.

Gurren-Lagann episode 22: Moon core
Thermal exhaust port access to core? Check.

And now it's time for my favourite Return of the Jedi line!

Gurren-Lagann episode 22: Last episode's ambushIt's a trap!

Gurren-Lagann episode 22: Moon firingIt's a trap!

Gurren-Lagann episode 22: CagedIt's a CAGE!

Gurren-Lagann episode 22: Stalled in front of the moon's control portIt's a stick up!

It feels almost unfair that carbon-based life (necessarily) prevailed against a much more prepared enemy. They camped out space waiting for the appearance of Genome's dreadnought, they built the Death Star III on Genome's moon, and they installed a hostage in front of the moon's control port. They knew everything.

But once again, it's really hard to convince life to stop living. Except for Rossiu. He's been their tool ever since Genome's fall and at the end, and he looked ready to slash his wrists.

Call it evolution on steroids. Blizzard Games, take note. Terrans can evidently out-evolve the Zerg.

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That is all. Visit U.Blog for some more pictures!

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Ulrich Schnauss talks to his feet

But fails to shoot it. I think.

Warning! This is not really related to j-pop or anime, other than a brief reference to Nodame Cantabile. This entry does feature more of my scatterbrained listening habits.

Following on from Martin's comment mentioning My Bloody Valentine, I thought I'd mention Ulrich Schnauss' latest, Goodbye, which arrived in the mail the other day.

Preliminary reading: interview, and Pitchforkmedia review.

I don't come down as hard on Goodbye as the reviewer does, but I do have my own misgivings. For one, it's not the Ulrich Schnauss of Far away trains passing by, which I encountered one sleepless night by randomly tuning my clock-radio to the now defunct Brave New Waves program on CBC Radio 2.

Shoegaze is the name of the game here, a far cry from the warm, uplifting, and very tuneful lines of two albums prior. You might say that he's seriously returning to his roots. If you do happen to be a fan of shoegaze, Goodbye may be worth saying Hello to, but I say preview first before committing.

The review brought up a term that I forgot to include in my entry on Megumi Noda but mentioned in another: self-consciousness. That is to say, Megumi Noda is not self-conscious at all; not about her appearance, not about her playing style, not about the things she says. That's about as close as this entry is going to get to anime.

That Ulrich is being too self-conscious when it comes to shoegaze just doesn't compute to me. If one takes the claim to the other extreme, then any fool or two can just stand there with a few guitars and set up this giant wall of sound for a few minutes while muttering into their microphones, and call it shoegaze. Wait, maybe they do, and it would be called bad shoegaze if anyone did see what they did there.

Shoegaze at its best is meticulously layered. Ulrich notes that tracks in Goodbye may have about 100 elements running at the same time. The man deserves some praise for effort.

I can't just like something because of the amount of effort that went into its production, though. I suppose that means I will never rise above the practical listener, who can't or won't appreciate effort for the sake of effort. There may be beauty in these tracks, like tantalizing but microscopic portholes in the sonic wall, but I'm of the opinion that beauty be emphasized and not buried. As such, I find little resonance in shoegaze.

Reviews have generally been positive, though, so this may be an excellent addition to the genre. I don't know enough about what makes good shoegaze to say.

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Summary Burner switched off!

By popular demand!

In another of those, never-spot-the-obvious-until-it's-brought-up moments, it finally occurred to me that the Antenna automatically summarized entries anyway. So now there is choice! Summarized feeds via the Antenna, or full entries via FeedBurner or Blogger. Having Blogger redirect to FeedBurner for stats is a nice touch.

While not the impetus for switching off the Summary Burner, I also get the vast majority of site updates via Google Reader, using it more as an update notifier with varying amounts of latency up to a few hours. If the headline is intriguing, I'll read the summary, and if the content is promising, I'll head to the site.

I'm subscribed to few actual blogs, anime related or otherwise, and prefer to go through aggregators, which all summarize entries. So I sort of grew into feeds with the summary mindset, and haven't quite turned Google Reader into my primary reading pane.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

A drill that will consume the heavens

At this point I'd hesitate to consider Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann's Anti-Spiral faction as being explicitly anti-life. Maybe they're silicon-based life. It would go some way towards explaining Nia's SHODAN makeover. Even if they were, we're almost obligated to support Spirals, DNA, and other symbols associated with carbon-based lifeforms. Not only are they ridiculously cool, we also happen to not be droids.

Although if you are, that's cool too.

One can't completely write off the Anti-Spirals as generic bad guys, as SHODAN Nia offers an interesting, if brief, commentary on carbon-based life. It was probably brief because it's depressing to contemplate the big picture. Spirals are viewed as this grave threat to the universe because life does what life does: consumes and multiplies without consideration. It thus fell to the Anti-Spirals to put carbon-based life in its place, which is to say, in convenient and easy to manage boxes, with the threat of complete extermination to keep them from expanding outside of their boundaries. Eventually, in theory, the molten crust of the respective planets would cool, and they'd all die anyway, causing minimal additional damage to the cold and austere beauty of the universe.

It's a situation that plays out all the time, with humans in the role of Anti-Spirals, and weeds, pests, and even other humans in the role of Spirals. Trying to stem the vicious rampancy of growth and consumption sounds like a just and responsible thing to do, especially when described with terms like vicious and rampant, until the realization hits that doing so may involve some messy details, like inducing resource starvation or just plain death.

Beyond that, Spirals are also agents of chaos. It's evident, even now. We like to burn our dinosaurs fossils, kill animals, kill trees, kill each other, dig stuff out of the ground, and generally engage in the very clean practice known as industry. What would happen should humanity ever escape its current confines and run amok throughout the universe? We'd be like this unstoppable force of entropy, vacuuming resources from planets and asteroids, gobbling energy by creating our own stars or just subjugating existing ones, and generally accelerating the level of decay all around us.

Spiral power is the desire to survive, whether that involves fighting, consuming resources, or multiplying. It exists even while doing so means that the necessities to that existence are slowly eroded. To an entity like the Anti-Spirals, Spirals are just out to consume the entire universe, and then die out when the job is done.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Megumi Noda: A for Amateurism

As Chinese parents, it seemed only natural to attempt to force music upon their child. Not the seemingly logical Chinese music that is their heritage, mind you, but Western-European music. This is not a general truth, and I don't mean any offense. But for me and those around me, it's true enough, and we all find it slightly amusing.

I was an odd case, in that I more or less said I wanted to try piano, without quite knowing what I was getting myself and my parents - who had to buy a piano, pay for lessons, and chauffeur me once a week year round - into. Early on, I wound up not liking the instrument very much, and it wasn't because I wanted to play whatever I wanted however I pleased, like one Megumi Noda from Nodame Cantabile. It was precisely because I wanted to play things right, and my parents wouldn't let me.

And so I suffered from a kind of reverse-Nodame complex - a Chiaki complex, then? - which wouldn't actually be a problem if my parents saw things the way most people saw so-called "Classical" music. An example situation is at the very bottom, for those interested. I'm not trying (too hard) to blame anyone. Things got better later on. And then university happened so they never had to hear me again.

:D ?

Nodame Cantabile episode 20: There isn't a single wasted note.
Strictly speaking about music performance, I, like most others, take (or took) a fairly professional approach. In preparation for a performance, you rehearse, and if everything goes the way it's supposed to on performance day, things will sound exactly as they did in rehearsal. Each section, however one chooses to define it, must be played in a certain way. How fine grained (block, phrase, chord, notes) and the style (staccato, semi-detached, legato, cantabile style), is up to the performer or performers or the conductor, but once decided, any deviation is a step away from perfection, a scratch in the otherwise flawless orb.

That's what classical performance boils down to: a shiny object. It is music objectified. Music professionals deliver a product, and they are expected to be pretty consistent about it over the course of a tour or concert run. People pay money to hear what the audience heard the night before, the night before that, and the night before that. That's not to say that performers don't love what they do. It's just that everyone, everyone has their off days, but they are still expected to deliver the same results regardless of their personal situation.

Nodame Cantabile episode 20: Just not her day
This is why Nodame is different, and refreshing to watch while she necessarily infuriates the bookish and/or stuck up characters around her. Despite her sudden change in her work ethic and performance style, she is still very much on the amateur end of the performance spectrum. If she's burnt out, it shows. If she doesn't feel like performing, she will do so only begrudgingly. On the other hand, she can be brilliant when in the right mood. Through it all, her odd and very unprofessional facial expressions indicate exactly what she is feeling.

Professionals leave their personal lives (or maybe just the bad bits) in the car, in the dressing room, or at the door. Nodame takes her baggage wherever she goes, and it both helps and hinders her.

Notice, too, that no one really cares about her per se. She is viewed only in the context of her performance and talent. The real question is not, "Did she sleep well?" or "Did she burn herself out?", it's "Was the performance any good?" There are no mitigating circumstances. The human element is abstracted away, and just as the performance is objectified, so is the performer. Performers are really cogs that produce the finished product.

Nodame doesn't agree with that sentiment, refusing to let conformity be beaten into her. Her amateurism, however, goes beyond her inconsistent performance. Not only is she not necessarily note perfect, she also insists on adding her own embellishments, going so far as to improvise out the rest of her Petrushka performance in the final round of the Maradona competition.

Improvisation is the exception, not the rule. The bulk of Western-European music does not contain soloing sections like jazz. In the subset that does, usually concerto pieces with cadenza sections for the soloist, there is usually little actual improvisation as the cadenza is written down, many times by the composer (as opposed to the performer), and performed as if improvised. Everything is scripted, even the parts that aren't.

What all this comes down to is that Nodame's choice to leave music and go be a teacher is not nearly as crazy or comedic as it first seems. For her, music is not Serious Business, but something she does out of love. She is thus an amateur in the true spirit of the word, i.e. someone who does something out of love, and is not necessarily a n00b. When she falls out of love with music, she stops. If she thinks that a piece is somewhat lacking, she'll add her own details to spruce it up. Music was never a profession, hence her decision to look elsewhere for a real job.

To go to Europe and continue her studies would mean experiencing the inflexible world that she is so at odds with. It would be a titanic struggle, the kind of conflict that sells, no doubt.

* * *

The example: Richter playing Appassionata, third movement [YouTube]. Even at 58 kbps, it's still pretty awesome. If you like Beethoven, that is. If I were to even attempt to play like this (I don't even have the sheet music), I'd be called out for a) playing too damn fast, and b) playing too loud and "angry-like" (I was hitting the piano and damaging it, apparently).

Were it Bach or some Romantic piece, add option c) playing too many incorrect notes in passages with really chromatic harmonies and "strange" intervals. That they sound wrong to uninformed ears doesn't make them so. It would take me a number of years before being able to articulate and define the issue, and yet more to argue why it wasn't an issue in the first place. It's hard to convince people that "it's written that way" when they can't read music in the first place.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Nodame Cantabile: Raw notes

Waiting on Froth-Bite to complete the series. I'm in no particular hurry, otherwise I'd have finished the last episode using speed subs. I've already read a bit about the last episode so I have a vague idea of how it's going to end, even if I don't know the minute details.

While not as consistent in production as, say, Honey and Clover, Nodame Cantabile was a much more enjoyable watch for me because it speaks to something I relate to. It's a self-serving reason, but if people are told to write about what they know, then I'm going to watch what I know. Rest assured, though! I do have a frustration/boredom threshold, and the only series I have dropped happens to be La Corda d'Oro, another music type series.

One of the elements I have the most mixed feelings about, which goes beyond the frequent still shots and CG, is the large blocks of time devoted to concert performances. On one hand, I want to listen to the music, but on the other, it exposes the disadvantage of trying to package a music setting into 22 minute episodes.

I have no doubt that anyone who has no interest in classical music will be bored out of their minds watching several minutes of still shots and CG instrument playing, all without dialog. I also understand that quite a bit of the source story was cut, probably as a result of the episode length and series run time. What remained, though, was still a serviceable story with what looks to be a solid finish, although at several points it felt rushed, such as the bit with Chiaki's family and various confrontations between characters.

As per the title, the rest of this entry doesn't have much in the way of discussion about What It Means To Me. When I'm done the series proper, I may be able to attempt to write about something to that effect. The notes are compiled in more or less chronological order.

Nodame: Vicious!
I really like Ayako Kawasumi's evil/dark/angry mode. There was a teaser in one of the earlier episodes where she expresses jealousy, but a dry spell quickly hit and I've been disappointed until episode 15.

Nodame Cantabile: reed discussionLIES!

Hardcore woodwind players will make their own reeds out of blanks, not unlike carving sculptures out of blocks of wood. And for noobs like me, we can buy Rico Royal 4's. Woodwinds, by definition, is a superset that includes clarinets, saxophones, bassoons, and oboes.

In the immediate aftermath of the introduction of the second OP, it came off as a poor choice. We've only reached the halfway point. It's a little early to say goodbye, isn't it? And that is exactly what Sagittarius feels like. It was only with the conclusion of the RS Orchestra arc that it began to fit the context of the series.

I was kind of weirded out by how Chiaki's consistent abuse didn't break Nodame, but one infraction by Eto made her murderously grim. I suppose there was some give and take when it came to Chiaki. Plus, Chiaki isn't strictly her teacher, and as hinted in episode 21, she might have a fear of piano instructors. Just noting this in case I find myself wondering all of a sudden in the future.

Nodame Cantabile episode 19: Standing ovation?The only person unable to give a standing ovation

Episode 19 was really powerful. The Rising Stars Orchestra arc that it concluded had some good momentum through its goal orientation, or maybe it was because I had begun my Froth-Bite catchup marathon around that point. We see a shift in thinking from Nodame which was very selfless.

Nodame Cantabile episode 19: One unhappy photo
Nodame has not deviated from her attempts to keep Chiaki close to her, but before, she endeavoured to fit their relationship within the context of her own ambitions, which were landlocked. In episode 19, she decides to lay her future on the line, just as Chiaki did conducting the RS Orchestra, so that she might fit in with Chiaki's dreams.

Nodame's competition failure was inevitable, having been a miracle that she even made it past the round that occurred on her off day. But consider the message being sent were she to have won, or even placed in the competition. It's the dream of every talented student no matter what the subject of study: to cruise through school/work/life based on innate gifts.

Talent can only take you so far. If the commitment to practice and memorize isn't there, a performer can never be the complete package. It's a lesson that isn't restricted to only the performing world. Nodame lacks discipline, and her passion for music is only an indirect consequence of her love for Chiaki. In her current mindset, she could never succeed as a performer on her own.

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