Big Windup: Wait, is there really this much crying in baseball?

June 1, 2009

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bwlogoFROM JASON’S FANSUBS — When I typically sit down for a new anime, I expect — no, I demand! — mecha, evil reptiles, psychic samurai, or space pirates.

I’m looking for an escape from reality. So when Andrew put Big Windup in front of me, I wasn’t optimistic.

It’s ostensibly a baseball anime, totally destituteof laser battles or acid-spitting mutant biker girls. It doesn’t even sport jiggling breasteses or upskirt shots, so I’m not even sure it fits the definition of anime.

This one’s all about psychology, game strategy, and building character. And in the first seven episodes, a good chunk is dedicated to crying and/or getting our hero, Mihashi, to stop crying. He’s kind of a pussy.

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Honestly, I would have stopped watching after the fourth bout of crying if Andrew hadn’t promised to watch Gurren Lagann if I watch Big Windup.

The tears wear pretty thin, and they all stem from crippling self-esteem issues. Folks, you have to wonder what kind of everyday soul-crushing is going on amongst the Japanese youth with all these shows about abashed teenage boys bereft of self-worth. There just seems to be so much paralytic social awkwardness and self-doubt running amok in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Don’t get me wrong — I like the show so far, even though there are flaws. The animation is not top-notch (there are a large number of pans over stills), and the pacing drags just a bit. But I want to like it. I like baseball. I like Japan. I like cartoons. That should add up to winning numbers for Big Windup.

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What I like best isn’t actually the character story (which is rare for me; that’s usually what I put a premium on), but in this case I’m more obsessed with the baseball strategizing. There’s a lot of analysis of form and mechanics, as well as situational tactics, adaptation, and signaling. Maybe that’s the American in me fawning over his national pastime.

That’s the high point for me, though: watching the players obsess over strike zones, which breaking balls to use in different scenarios, how to load bases, how to shake a pitcher’s or a batter’s confidence, even a speech on how brain chemistry affects play (I’m not sure how pseudo-scientific the coach’s diabtribe was on thyrotropin, corticotropin and dopamine).

There’s just one nagging problem topping it all off: It’s a bit shonen, falling victim to what I’m going to label the “Bleach Syndrome.”

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For example: It takes three episodes to get four innings into a single ball game. That’s too long; it might as well be an epic showdown between Ichigo and Byakuya. It feels like our heroic pitcher is slowly leveling up, gaining the spiritual strength necessary to release his next big power-up move.

In this case, it’s just a special type of throw rather than some mystic energy release, and the show is “realistic” instead of fantasy.

Regardless, I’m probably going to keep watching Big Windup. At the very least, it will give me a little more insight when the wife and I go this summer to watch the Indians play. Go Cleveland! Please don’t suck!


Gurren Lagann believes in the me that believes its robots are awesome

May 23, 2009

Vodpod videos no longer available.

FROM JASON’S RANDOM POWER-UP — So there’s this kid, see. And he’s human. And he really, really believes in himself.

In the far-flung future, that kind of self-confidence has replaced fossil fuels and is used to run the giant robots that have replaced cars. Living underground has replaced mankind’s expansion into space. Meanwhile, evil alien beast-men have replaced the Internal Revenue Service as mankind’s greatest foe.

So, just to pre-cap here, so you’ll know what you’re getting into, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is about Ma-Ti from Captain Planet using the power of spirit to force his Transformers Headmaster to combine with Voltron and defeat BattleBeasts ruled by those aliens from V in a huge manifest destiny showdown for a Mad Max planet.

Or something.

lagann01Sounds pretty zany, huh? Well, at times it is, almost to the verge of spoofing every other giant-robo-shonen show out there. But Gurren Lagann takes care to mock its own genre and break some of the old conventions, including taking a wrenchingly brave turn by killing off a charismatic hero in early episodes.

It was that move that convinced me there was more to Lagann than its madcap earnestness — that there was a stoic story hiding under the fluff, V-wing sunglasses, fan service, and comically large drills.

Believe me, you’ll like the drills — especially when our protagonist pulls his GIGA DRILL BREAKER!!! finishing move by sprouting a borer as large as his robot’s entire body. There’s absolutely no phallic subtext there. Nope.

Yes, there are still the shonen stand-bys: last-second power-ups to unleash inner power and defeat a seemingly invincible enemy. Sudden new robot transformations. Shouting the names of attacks as they are performed. The linear appearance of progressively stronger enemies. Some scantily-clad warrior babes.

But these cliches are delivered with enough of a wink at the camera, are punctuated roundly enough by truly gut-sinking tragedy, and filled with enough fist-pumping rock-soundtrack victory moments that you hardly notice. It also helps that Lagann has ditched the tendency of shows such as, say, Bleach, to obsess over a single battle for six or seven episodes. Simon the Digger’s battles are concise but epic.

The result is that the Gainax ‘toon so far has managed to draw a comfortable median between buffoonery and profoundness without choking on its own gravity.

It’s also demonstrated the rare ability to get me rowdy and cheering for the characters, mainly by tapping into that corner of my mind still hooked on the cheese and machismo of 1980s action flicks where good guys exploded the bad guys in the name of justice.

It cribs equal parts from The A-Team and Robotech with that old message: You can do anything you put your mind to, as long as your guns are big enough and your soundtrack is rockin’ enough. Determination, the show says, is the most deadly weapon, and it’s what separates the humans from the aliens. More than anything, the Japanese seem to worship the virtue of an untempered resolve.

Untempered resolve and jiggling boobies. In Japan, there is always a Yoko. I mean, the number of butt-cheek and cleavage shots here are embarrassing, and are clearly intended to bring the horny 13-year-old audience into the fold. The resulting fan art has strained Rule 34 to a breaking point.

All that considered, I give Lagann a big score, as it’s the first anime in about two years that’s actually coerced me to watch more than four episodes. Given its flash and dazzle, which is more in the writing than the at-times shoddy animation (see the infamous episode four), it will probably lodge itself in my top 10 anime list somewhere just above Tenchi Muyo and right below Outlaw Star.


YouTube Cinema: Transformers the Movie (1986)

May 7, 2009

The treacherous Decepticons have conquered the Autobot’s home planet of Cybertron. But, from secret staging grounds on two of Cybertron’s moons the valiant Autobots plan to take back their homeland.

FROM JASON’S ENERGON STOCKPILE — Blah blah blah, Optimus Prime Dies. Youngsters crying. Childhood trauma. Yada yada yada.

There. It’s out of the way. Now let’s get down to some far more interesting aspects of one of the most memorable movies of the 1980s.

Watching Transformers the Movie (again) this week on my 42-inch plasma, I was shocked by how good this 23-year-old ‘toon looks. Each cell is a mash-up of deeply-inked shadow and ambient electric light washing over hard metal, and all of it comes through in the same supra-bright color I remember drinking in as a six-year-old.

The terrestrial backdrops are breathtaking, and even more amazing are the emminently-intricate planetscapes of Cybertron, Junk, Lithone, and Quintessa. This isn’t some minimalist Nicktoon. The depth of detail really is staggering: Each scene is filled with all the ports, exhaust grids, data banks,¬† gears, axles, and metal plating you’d expect from enormous robuts.

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Sure, some of the sequences have a ropey Scooby Doo feel (watch Soundwave carry Megatron’s body away from Autobot City). But there is more anime than Hanna-Barbera here — which makes sense, since Matrix Forever (as it’s called in Japan) was made by Toei Animation.

Toei is the powerhouse studio behind some of the most memorable anime and cartoons of the past three decades: Galaxy Express 999, Sailor Moon, Inhumanoids, Robotix, G.I. Joe, Mazinger Z, Voltron, Dragon Ball, Getter Robo, Fist of the North Star, Captain Harlock.

And through it all, Transformers the Movie is a spectacle of pure size. Everything is huge — not just Cybertron and the planet-sized Unicron, but the size of the cast, the epic battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron, the assault on the Autobot stronghold, the galaxy-spanning plot and civilizations, Devastator, the shock of the many, many deaths, the impact of Starscream’s demise, and the rise of a new leader to take season three and beyond in a completely different direction.

Who doesn’t want to see a showdown between the Constructicons and the Dinobots?

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And then there are the subtle touches that send us nerds into an orgasmic froth — like when Megatron pulls out his laser sword. Because any Star Wars devotee will know that director Nelson Shin designed the lightsabers for Episode IV: A New Hope.

Speaking of which, one IMDB dweeb really made me smile by drawing character comparisons between Star Wars and Transformers the Movie (of course, they are fairly standard Campbell-ian archetypes):

Hot Rod = Luke Skywalker
Springer = Han Solo
Arcee = Princess Leia
Optimus Prime = Obi-Wan Kenobi
Galvatron = Darth Vader
Unicron = The Emperor with the Death Star as his body
Junkions = Ewoks

All that Arthurian “hero’s journey” nonsense aside, I still think that 1980s cartoons made villains more appealing than the heroes, just like with G.I. Joe.

While the Autobots were chunky, moralistic, painted in prime colors (no pun intended), and slightly boring, the Decepticons were sleeker, all angles, and secondary colors. They also had a far more dynamic range of models — where the Autobots were, well, autos, the Decepticons were tanks, jets, guns, and even motherfucking astrotrains.

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The Decepticons also had much more social intrigue, with the morbid comedy of the Starscream vs. Megatron rivalry. None of the Autobots tried to usurp Optimus’ authority, but on the other side there was constant scheming and power-shifts.

Need more of an argument? Let’s consider the worst Autobot: Perceptor.

The robut-cum-microscope was the only Transformer my parents ever allowed me to have, saying he was non-violent and (even worse) educational. He doesn’t shoot. He just talks a lot and sees things from far away. Great power, douche-bot.

He would never have survived as a Decepticon. Megatron would have crushed him under heel for being a useless turd.

Other Autobots go down like punks in the film, taking a single shot to the chest and oozing black smoke from their lifeless corpses. Ironhide, Brawn, Ratchet, and Prowl are decimated in a matter of a 20-second space battle. They barely pull their guns.

The only other real criticism I have is that the 1986 flick suffers from a distinct lack of Megan Fox.

Oh, and that Rodimus Prime is a glorified Winnebago. WTF?!


YouTube Cinema: Robotix

March 16, 2009


Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11
Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15

FROM JASON’S ROBOT AND DINOSAUR OBSESSIONS — Robotix was to LEGOs what MASK was to Hot Wheels. It had a limited release, an oh-so-brief flare of popularity, and then collapsed into obscurity when marketing agents turned their backs on it.

A product of Toei Animation — the Japanese studio that gave rise to both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata — Robotix was a typical 1980s cartoon enterprise in that it was a blatant vehicle for a toy line.

The “Motorized, Modular Building System” made by Milton Bradley was comprised of interlocking blocks, gears, differentials, winches, tires, and sci-fi accouterments. It was a worthy antecedent to the far more successful LEGO Mindstorm franchise, and is surprisingly still sold today (though by a different manufacturer and distributor). Every set made is still backward-compatible to the original 1984 systems.

Those systems were the byproducts of a 90-minute movie which aired just once in 1985 as part of the syndicated Super Sunday. The Marvel Entertainment block ran several serialized ‘toons, including Jem, Bigfoot and the Muscle Machines, and Inhumanoids. It split Robotix into 15 six-minute shorts. Jem and Inhumanoids became popular enough to warrant full-length treatments, but at the end of their respective runs, Bigfoot and Robotix got stomped into cartoon purgatory.

I was five years old, living in Oregon at the time, and happened to see a couple of those episodes. Like any true 1980s man-cub, I was captivated by the Eastern animation idea of mecha; I was equally caught by the magnetism of GoBots, Transformers, and RoboTech, Exo-Squad, AT-ATs and AT-STs, Centurions, and of course Voltron.

So I was stupidly happy when a family friend (I believe it might have been a sometime babysitter) purchased a Robotix kit for me that Christmas. Certain clickable pieces, which themselves resembled smaller red-and-chrome robots, remained in my possession for years, finding an out-of-place life in the ol’ LEGO bucket.

They may still be there, hidden away in my parents’ attic, held hostage along with some action figures and comic books until such time as I give my parents some grandchildren.

Some awesome person posted the full Robotix series on YouTube two years ago, and it has yet to be yanked down on any kind of copyright claim, which is excellent because the ‘toon is only on DVD in the UK.

Helmed by Wally Burr, voice director of G.I. Joe the Movie, it’s rendered in the same detailed anime style of the 1980s’ most memorable 22-minute-long toy commercials. It’s also got some of the most interesting pulp plot elements: Stars going nova, lizardmen, giant robots, benevolent supercomputers, suspended animation, alien spirits transfered into machines.

And it seems as though Burr tapped some of his old Joe buddies — who geeks will recognize as some of the biggest names in the voice business — to star. There’s:

  • Peter Cullen, who was Pincher from GoBots, Zander in G.I. Joe, Optimus Prime in Transformers, and Cindarr in Visionaries.
  • Frank Welker, known for playing Scooter from GoBots, Megatron in Transformers, Torch in G.I. Joe, and Slimer in The Real Ghostbusters.
  • Pat Fraley, aka Marshall Bravestar, Krang on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Max Ray on Centurions, and Ace in G.I. Joe.
  • Corey Burton, who was Spike in Transformers, Tomax in G.I. Joe, and Dale from Chip & Dale’s Rescue Rangers.
  • Michael Bell, who had big roles as Duke in G.I. Joe, Lance in Voltron, and Prowl in Transformers.
  • Arthur Burghardt, who was Devastator in Transformers, Destro in G.I. Joe, and Turbo in GoBots.

Robotix also had narration by Victor Caroli, who did the same type of voice-over for Transformers: The Movie in 1986 and several of the television series’ episodes.

That, and many stylistic choices (such as the rock-anthem theme that’s one-half “who you gonna call” and the other half Max Hedroom), made it obvious Marvel was trying to capitalize on the Transformers craze and hoping to spur a similar sales frenzy.

Sadly, it didn’t work.

It’s a shame, because as such things go it wasn’t a bad story line, boasting a bit more complexity than most children’s adventures of the day. Of course, Robotix had the normal, innocent lack of moral ambiguity as most shows; the bad guys were determinedly evil, the good guys irreproachably ethical. But it also cooked up some interesting Cold War metaphors, and served them on a plate of techno-imagination to a pre-computer-literate audience.

Oh well.

I guess I pine a little too much for these old-style cartoons. They seem so much more detailed and rich and imaginative than the line-and-paint-bucket-fill computer-aided works aired today by Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. And believe me, I’m tired of the modern “burps and farts are funny” and “wacky, zany people doing anti-social and ludicrous things” mentalities.

I wish we could go back to blasting through the universe in spaceships that look like oversexed submarines with fins, and exploring the jungles of exotic planets filled with dangerous and mythical inhabitants.


Week of Cartoons – Day 6: For Tax Reasons

March 27, 2008

FROM ANDREW’S LAZY MIND — Jason and I share a similar love of animations from For Tax Reasons studios, which consists of Ben Levin and Matt Burnet. Well, this past week they have released two new videos, and we’re almost sexually excited about it.

The first one, H.P. Papercraft, continues their series following three young geeks in their adventures and tomfoolery in the world of anime, D&D, and vidjagames. The second is a music video for a punk song by Ben Weasel. I highly suggest you check these out as they are full of roflwaffles.

Honestly, these guys are funnier than anything we’ve seen on traditional *shudder* television in years (with the exceptions of Arrested Development and Boston Legal). We agree that if this went on Cartoon Network this week, it would generate millions in ad revenue. And the creators would deserve it.

Together, they capture the geek ideal perfectly. They give us characters caught in a revolving door of intellectual superiority and cultural awkwardness, and they make us both pity and praise them. That’s because we are these dorks; we talk just like them and do the same stupid stuff with the Intarwebs.

Seriously, give Ben and Matt money. Now. Fiddlesticks — my retainer! Enjoy.


H.P. Papercraft


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Ben Weasel – Got My Number

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IM IN UR MANGER KILLING UR SAVIOR


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Re: IM IN UR MANGER KILLING UR SAVIOR


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Re: IM IN UR MANGER KILLING UR SAVIOR


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She She She She’s A Bombshell


Week of Cartoons – Day 1: Dino Riders (1988)

March 23, 2008

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Part 2 | Part 3

FROM JASON’S 13″ KITCHEN TV — There are two things that 8-year-old boys like: Dinosaurs and outer space. When I was that age, I couldn’t be bothered with the big pirates versus ninjas question. I just wanted a triceratops mounted with a laser cannon.

Along came Dino Riders and my world was complete.

Transformers had already set the standard for using cartoons as 22-minute ads for toys, and Dino Riders called on Peter Cullen and Frank Welker — again — to pretty much re-skin the eternal Transformers struggle with a whole bucket of prehistoric awesome. It was by all accounts a flop, with just 14 episodes made and 13 hitting the air. But its brevity belied the widespread appeal of the toys, which somehow managed to stay in my bedroom until the mid-90s.

The plot, briefly (it’s part of the show opener anyway): The Valorians are a peaceful people fighting the good fight against the evil Rulons. When the Valorians use an experimental time-travel warp drive to escape their attackers, the Rulons lock on a tractor beam. Both factions are hurled back in time to prehistoric Earth, where they use their advanced technology to carry on the eternal struggle.

Oh, did I mention that the good guys are telepaths and the bad guys are snake men, ant men, and shark men?

Dino Riders had the same premise flaw as all other 1980s cartoons: There were evil characters doing evil for the sake of being evil. There was no other motivation. The Valorians’ arch-nemesis, Emporer Krulos, was a Cobra Commander clone and just wanted to rule the universe for the sake of having power. There were no shades of gray in the Cold War mindset. America considered itself the soldier of the light, and it needed an Emmanuel Goldstein caricature to be the soldier of the dark.

The show was laced with a pretty clich√© moral of universal harmony prevailing over coercion. The Valorians befriended the planet’s dinosaurs, forging alliances. The Rulons use force, creating mind-control devices called “brain boxes” to enslave vicious dinos.

There was no historical cohesiveness about the show, which mixed a few hundred million years worth of dinos into the same setting. In fact, there were primitive humans living alongside the dinosaurs, which in retrospect makes me wonder if stupid Young Earth creationists had something to do with the show.

Interestingly, the writers took great care to align docile and defensive saurians with the Valorians (stegasaurus, diplodocus, dimetrodon, brontosaurus). Meanwhile, the Rulons got dinos that were more or less tanks (T-Rex, ankylosaurus, and several triceratops-ish species). They also tried to evenly match the capabilities of the two factions; Transformers had always bothered me a bit because the Decepticons had all the jets and the Autobots were stuck with ground transportation (mostly). Dino Riders gave each side flying dinos.


TV advertisement for the toys.

My parents were at first a little upset about all the shooting of lasers and such (they were always prudish about cartoon violence), but finally caved and bought the toys because they were marginally educational. These were no cheap Chinese hunks of plastic. The dinos were extremely well-constructed and tremendously detailed, much larger-scaled than typical toys of the time (I never got the brontosaurus, which was HUGE), and often came with turrets or seats for multiple action figures.

I wish this concept would have worked out and that the stories would have been a bit more mature. Had the animation been a little more detailed, Dino Riders would have made an incredible anime cross-over hit like RoboTech, and I would have been a rabid fanatic. Oh well.

“We’re not Valorians anymore. We’re DINO RIDERS!”


Music Monday: Tripping Daisy and Rip Slyme

February 25, 2008

1. Tripping Daisy — I Got A Girl


Here’s an example of a talented early 90s band that never caught on. Maybe if the airwaves hadn’t been crowded with Pearl Jam and Bush, Tripping Daisy would have gotten more credit for their irreverent alt-punk. If nothing else, I’m surprised frontman Tim DeLaughter didn’t get more attention for his looks — in this video, he reminds me a lot of Brad Pitt a la 12 Monkeys.

I remember I Am An Elastic Firecracker (the band’s breakthrough album) got a lot of play on the Canadian radio stations that seeped across the US border, but there was never much in the way of follow-up. Maybe it’s because the band’s sound was only very loosely defined, growing more disparate and experimental toward 1996-1997.
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2. Rip Slyme — Super Shooter

I don’t listen to J-pop, but I do watch anime. So when Andrew sent me some of his more eclectic videos by AIM a few weeks ago, I recognized this one immediately as the opener to Gantz. I remember always getting pumped up by the song and then having the show let me down (anybody want some leeks?).

Rap seems to me like a distinctly American institution. Pardon my musical xenophobia here, but I laugh when I hear Mexican or German or — in this case — Japanese rap. It’s just bizarre. It’s like a Kenyan playing polka or an Indian singing reggae. Rip Slyme managed to supersede that strange boundary, though, with Super Shooter. I think it might be the video game sound queues that save them.