Tuesday, December 25, 2012


"Is that the Jack Sack you got there? Nice!"

Not recognizing the reference, I could only suppose that he had made a witticism, and I inquired to determine that it had not been at my expense. As it turned out, he was complimenting me on my Rothco military-style messenger bag--the "Jack Sack," as he called it, after Jack Bauer, the enhanced interrogator protagonist of the FOX hit series 24, who notably carried a very similar--if not, in fact, identical--shoulder bag throughout season 5 of the show.

I should point out that I was never personally a fan of 24, and it had not been my intention to cosplay Jack Bauer. I had no idea whatsoever, when I purchased my bag, that it was any kind of "Jack Sack." Indeed, it was rather a blow to my ego to learn that I was not only unoriginal but had even unwittingly aligned myself with the fandom for a show that I really didn't care for. I had been out in public with the bag several times already, and, although none had voiced the observation before now, I shuddered at the thought of how many more people might have recognized it as the "Jack Sack" and privately thought to themselves, "Watch out guys, we're dealing with a badass over here."

In case I didn't quite believe (or want to believe) that it was so, I was forthwith directed to an entire blog that was inspired by and named after the "Jack Sack." Sure enough, there was a picture of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) wearing an olive drab canvas bag that looked nigh indistinguishable from that I had so proudly obtained some three months ago and was even at that moment (now rather less proudly) still carrying. And, compounding my dismay, this blog extolling the virtues of the Jack Sack seemed written in an ironic tone! It referred to it as "the original manpurse," when I had specifically chosen this messenger bag, yes, because it was both practical and affordable, but also because, with its rugged military styling, it was the most masculine and un-purse-like that I could find.

Researching the business further on my own, however, I discovered that, although indeed the bag had been quite the coveted item once, made so by 24, and that Jack Bauer's carrying it had prominently played a part in making "man purses" slightly more socially acceptable, this was all years ago. Querying the Internet on "Jack Bauer bag," I found that nearly all relevant discussion dated back to 2006, around when season 5 of 24 was airing for the first time. Some more recent results discussed different sacks and packs that the character carried in later seasons, and, by the time the show ended its run, nobody was asking anymore where to buy any of Jack Bauer's bags. Meanwhile, if you read the customer reviews for the Rothco bag on Amazon, you'll find many positive appraisals, none of them describing or acknowledging it as "the bag from 24." It's a popular item still, but probably now again for the same reasons that people used to buy it back before Jack Bauer ever started carrying it--not because it's the "Jack Sack" but because it's practical, affordable, and fairly un-purse-like.

The occasional 24 geek notwithstanding, I now feel reassured that I can resume carrying my bag out into public without fear of any sane person misidentifying me as a Jack Bauer wannabe. Alas, there remains the fear, now greater than ever, that my messenger bag is yet not un-purse-like enough.

"Well, as long as you're going to carry a man purse, you might as well make it the manliest purse."

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My Secret Identity

"Henry, do you have two email addresses?" she asked apprehensively.

"Of course not," I answered. "I have six."

Here was the breakdown:

1) Personal email. This is given out only directly to the very small number of people I know, trust, and correspond with regularly.
2) Professional email. Given to employers, prospective employers, and the government.
3) Business email. Used for my bank account, bills, online shopping, anything involving money.
4) Fake personal email. When I meet someone and they ask for my email but I don't really want to give them my personal email, I give them my fake personal email. I also use this for mailing lists and newsletters.
5) To save myself having to regularly log into so many separate email accounts, I have 2-4 above set up to forward everything into a single Outlook/Hotmail account, which I keep private.
6) Then, because I have issues with Outlook's functionality, I have my Outlook email set up to forward everything into a Gmail account. The username for this account is random gibberish, and I have never shared it except with my own Outlook email for the aforementioned forwarding purposes.

"That's . . . " And I waited for her to say "brilliant," or at least "sensible." Instead, she gave me "That's crazy. Like, maybe sociopathic."

I'll admit I was a tad taken aback at this reaction.

She continued: "Having a 'fake personal email' is creepy, but everything you said after that is insane. Like, literally insane. Double-forwards? Spies don't even do that!"

Memo to self: Instead of referring to it as my "fake personal email," from now on call it my "newsletter subscription email." Setting that aside, I tried to explain the prudence of my system. This way, even if a hacker gets into any one of the first four accounts, they get access to only one slice of my identity. And the more sensitive the information an account concerns, the lower the visibility of that email, therefore the lower the probability that it will be hacked.

But she only looked at me as though I had suddenly become a stranger to her.

Well, I guess I'm glad I told her I only kept six email addresses.

Monday, December 3, 2012


Although it was not among the Rolling Stones tracks selected for discussion in honor of their 50th anniversary by any of the band members on NPR's All Things Considered, nor one of the 14 Rolling Stones songs to make Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time", I consider "Angie" to be my personal favorite Rolling Stones song. In fact, it possibly even ranks among my top four favorite songs of all time.

Mick Jagger's face is incredibly creepy and distracting in this official music video, though, so perhaps just avert your eyes as you listen:

They also filmed an alternate video, but he's 100 times worse in that one. Before these high-quality videos were uploaded to the band's official YouTube channel just a few months ago, the preferred "Angie" video on YouTube was this from user EagleMDare, featuring nothing but the album version of the song playing over the unrelated still image of a random gorgeous woman. And the image periodically dissolves to a mirrored version of itself. Ah, YouTube. But I digress.

The one thing that always used to bug me about "Angie" was that I felt the song should have ended on the penultimate lyric "Angie, Angie, ain't it good to be alive?" Or perhaps the line should have switched places at the end of the song with the actual final lyric "Angie, Angie, they can't say we never tried." It's a melancholy song either way, but I felt that "ain't it good to be alive?" would have ended it on a more consoling note, with a perspective toward the future and possibility, whereas I felt "they can't say we never tried," echoing a line from earlier in the song, brought the perspective back again toward the past and regret.

Just the other day, however, as I was in my car listening to the Pink song "Try," I thought of "Angie," and I had a change of heart over that last lyric. And, yes, I realize it's probably sacrilege to be interpreting the Stones through Pink, but I'm only saying that the one song happened to make me think of the other, as happens all the time. Anyway, as I thought over "Angie," I concluded that, after all, this has never been a feel-good song. It has neither aspiration nor obligation to provide hopefulness or a happy ending, and perhaps ending on "they can't say we never tried" is more artistically honest. Hard to say, though, since Mick Jagger, who sings it with such passion--and I can't imagine anyone else ever pulling this song off--isn't traditionally believed to have written the damn thing!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

What is a man?

I know almost nothing about this game, except that I probably won't be playing it any time soon. I didn't play the first one, and I probably won't for a while, especially now that this teaser has seemingly spoiled what I assume was the big twist. But they say the thing, so I feel almost obligated to post it.

Robert Carlyle does his best, but, alas, a pale shadow of the original.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What I've Been Playing #5: Batman: Arkham Asylum

I just started Batman: Arkham Asylum and, so far, have been enjoying it quite a bit. The game manages to capture most of the various facets of the Batman character that collectively make him such a geek fantasy to roleplay.

Physically, he's a beast and, on the normal difficulty, easily capable of taking apart a whole gang of muscled (unarmed) goons with a variety of punches, kicks, and a near-uncanny ability to sense and counter oncoming attacks. And this decimation is always highlighted in spectacular fashion with a cinematic slow-mo zoom-in on the finishing blow. Very satisfying.

It's a different story when the baddies are packing heat. Batman can't withstand bullets, alas, but Arkham Asylum conveniently transforms into a stealth game in these situations, encouraging you to take foes out from the shadows. So far, these segments remind me of the first Metal Gear Solid more than anything else; they're essentially puzzle rooms, where you observe and then exploit simple enemy patterns. What distinguishes Arkham Asylum is, not so much the mechanics, but the minor narrative details that make you feel like you really are the Dark Knight. As you silently pick off enemies one at a time, you get to watch their remaining comrades progressively lose their heads in panic. Seeing how terrified they are of you is perhaps even more empowering than when you get to pummel them with Batman's martial arts.

Less empowering, however, is Batman's telling silence whenever some friendly NPC remarks that the Joker and other rogues should simply be "fried." This comes up with alarming regularity, which is perhaps understandable, since you're usually running into these NPCs only after some buddies of theirs have just been murdered by one of Batman's lunatic foes. Also, why would they stop making this point, considering Batman never has a response?

The no-kill policy maintained by Batman and most other comics superheroes has long fascinated me. As a kid, I was quite often frustrated by heroes refusing to end the lives of villains who were clearly irredeemable and almost certain to strike again in subsequent stories. I wondered at times if that made me a bad person, but I know I wasn't alone in my feelings. Indeed, Hollywood, unlike comics and cartoons, seemed to consistently agree with me that bad guys should be ended with extreme prejudice. And it's nothing so simple an issue as superhero comics merely aspiring to higher moral standards than Hollywood. After decades of stories of the Joker somehow breaking out of Arkham repeatedly to commit many murders, Batman becomes hard to take seriously as a moral paragon, as his refusal to do what must be done starts to sound more like just a selfish or even neurotic impulse to preserve some kind of personal purity above serving the greater good.

Mind you, I'm not even taking the "if this were real life" tack; I'm saying that, internal to the comics world, Batman's no-kill philosophy must be challenged. If it be evil to take the one life of the Joker, nevertheless it must surely be the greater evil to let him live and inevitably take dozens more lives. That is, unless Batman and the Gotham authorities sincerely believe, every time they apprehend the Joker, that it really will be the last time they have to deal with him. But, in that case, I better see Batman looking truly shocked and disappointed every time the Joker breaks out. But I don't see that.

Clearly, many of the comics writers too have recognized the mounting absurdity of Batman's high horse moralizing (although, in fairness, what doesn't become absurd when a story spans 70+ years with the same cast of ageless heroes and villains?). Otherwise, these NPCs wouldn't be saying these things. Yet how I wish Batman would respond! Because I don't even know that he's wrong; I just know that it's a challenging topic. And when these guys make these challenging statements against everything Batman stands for, and he just stands there silent, I can't help thinking, Batman, you're taking a beating here! These are the moments that demand a response! Where is the "lecture, philosophize, or browbeat" button prompt? Instead, he passively allows these random NPCs to make him look foolish.

Well, it's early yet. Maybe Batman is seriously meditating upon their words, and this is all building toward a climactic quick time event, when the player will have to take all arguments presented into consideration before deciding whether or not Batman will end the Joker. Now that would be empowering.

Friday, November 2, 2012

"If it didn't happen in the movies, it's not real."

So, a few years back, me and the boys were discussing Star Wars, and some nut commented how sad it was that Chewbacca was dead. And I was like, What is this nut talking about? Is he some kind of nut? He explained that it all went down in some novel, which was "canon" and "a huge story" in the fan community. Well, I considered myself "the fan community," and I held that no Expanded Universe content could ever be considered "canon," "a huge story," or at all worth discussing in my presence. This nut huffed at me as though I were the one being ridiculous. "Sorry," he said, "but if you haven't been reading the books, then you've been missing out on some really important Star Wars stories." On the contrary, I rather felt that any nut who would bring up "Chewbecca's death" should have been the one prohibited from participating in any serious discussion of Star Wars. At the time, my hardline position was basically "If it didn't happen in the movies, it's not real."

Things got complicated, however, with the arrival of the Clone Wars cartoons. It had been easy to dismiss the books, because I hadn't read any of them, I wasn't interested in reading them, and everything I'd heard about them suggested to me that they were not worth my reading them. But I did watch the Genndy cartoons, which I initially approached more as promos for Revenge of the Sith than as fiction unto themselves, canon or otherwise. I was apathetic toward the first season, which I thought really added nothing to the story. The more intriguing elements of Season 2 were Anakin's trials and especially the debut of the General Grievous character. After that cliffhanger finale, I could not wait to see Grievous in Revenge of the Sith. Little did I suspect that that cliffhanger was really hype, not for Revenge of the Sith, but for a third season of Clone Wars, wherein Grievous grew progressively less impressive with each appearance, until finally, by the time we got to the actual movie, he was totally lame, in almost every sense of the word. Mind you, I still considered him the coolest character in the prequel trilogy, but his best moments weren't actually in the movies. And thus, because of Clone Wars, suddenly I had become the guy who would bring up non-movie elements during discussions of Star Wars.

When the Clone Wars movie came out in 2008, that was when I really had to reexamine my position on the canon. After much soul-searching on the matter, I did not so much change my stance as clarify its original meaning. My clarified position on canon: "Unless Lucas himself wrote it, it's not real." Thus, Episodes I-VI were real, and everything else was not, though the Clone Wars stuff was at least occasionally interesting. In the course of amending that conditional, however, I had to confront a reality I had never seriously considered before, namely, the inevitability that there were going to be feature films called "Star Wars" that would have no place in Lucas's story. It seemed obvious once I considered the simple economics of it; the property was far too profitable to ever end simply with the story that one man had to tell. In fact, for years already, hundreds of other people had already been writing their own Star Wars stories, which Lucas approved because they made him money. I just didn't really notice because I didn't pay attention to all those books. But why had it never occurred to me that the Expanded Universe could encompass more than just books? Movies were where the big money was, and there were surely at least as many people out there wanting to make Star Wars movies as there were to write novels. I considered that it might not happen until after Lucas died, but eventually there were going to have to be blockbuster movies that would be part of what I considered the "not real" Expanded Universe. The potential for moneys simply demanded it.

Now, it seems we won't even have to wait for Lucas to die first. Frankly, I'm rather stunned by Disney's forthrightness in stating its intention to release a new movie every 2-3 years (and that's following the completion of their sequel trilogy). That's surely a press release note for investors; does any fan seriously interpret anything other than crass commercialism out of that promise?

That said, I do like Star Wars, and I like summer blockbuster season. Even without knowing anything about what Episode VII will be, I'm already more excited at the prospect of getting to see a Star Wars summer blockbuster in 2015 than I was about the Avengers sequel. But will it be canon? Well, since they're daring to call it "Episode VII," and since Lucas has already said that he had story treatments for the sequels, I'm hoping it won't go too far afield of what I currently consider canon. If Chewbacca dies in "Episode IX" on movie screens across the world, then that may be when I finally withdraw altogether from serious discussions of Star Wars canon, lest I come across as the nut denying that this thing everybody saw ever actually happened.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

On Blogging

I can't believe I'm into my fifth year with this blog. In the beginning, I started it for two main reasons: 1) to keep myself in the habit of writing semi-regularly, and 2) to have a space to express myself whenever I had things I wanted to say but no one to say them to. Now, I find myself rarely ever having things I actually want to say, and instead I'm stretching to find things to say just so that I'll have things to fill this space with. Madness.

Sometimes I fantasize about starting up a more "professional" outlet--still unfiltered but encompassing more serious editorial and weightier topics. Ideally, I would also have interviews and guest columnists. I can't really see that working, though, unless I already had a large readership. Alas, page views have been way down ever since my Pokemon Stadium post got delisted from Google's image search results. (I don't think they actually "delisted" it; for whatever reason, it just doesn't get those hits anymore.)

What I've Been Watching #2

I watched my first episode of The Jerry Springer Show today. Not the full episode, but I tuned in randomly about halfway in, and, well, I did not change the channel until it was over.

The guest was a young black man who lived with his girlfriend and her mother. He said he was on the show to reveal that he had been cheating on his girlfriend with a friend of hers. Also, he had (bleep)ed the mother. Apparently, the mother had been giving him a hard time for not helping out enough around the house, so he opted to earn his keep by (bleep)ing her. He seemed to enjoy talking about it.

They then brought in the girlfriend to confront her man. She was quite angry. He told her she was too bossy and never listened to him. Also, he said she was violent. Jerry asked if that was true. She admitted to having thrown things at him and maybe stabbing him, but she explained that she couldn't control that.

Then the mother came in and got yelled at by her daughter. The mother said her daughter should have listened to her when she told her before that this guy was no good. She said the daughter wouldn't listen to her, even though she only wanted daughter not to end up like mother. As for why she let the guy (bleep) her, the mother said it "just happened."

The friend--the one the guy had been cheating on his girlfriend with--was then brought in. Almost immediately, the two young women started shoving one another. Somewhere a bell rang, and the audience began chanting "Je-rry! Je-rry!"

After a commercial break, audience members were allowed to make comments at the guests. A blonde lady, speaking to the mother, said that a mother is supposed to take care of her kids. Then the blonde lady flashed the audience and said, "I want my (bleep)," whereupon someone threw beads at her.

Finally, Jerry made some closing remarks. He was sharp, eloquent, generally perceptive.

The show was pretty much everything I would have expected it to be, based on all I'd heard about it during its period of immense popularity some fifteen years ago. Maybe the fighting was tamer than at the show's peak. Mostly, the experience made me wonder how the show was such a sensation in the first place--enough of a trending topic that, even though I had never seen the show itself, I could recognize and understand the constant references to it on the prime-time and late-night shows that I did watch. I was only watching it now because I'm unemployed. Was there a period of widespread unemployment some fifteen years ago that similarly led huge numbers of people to tune in during the day?

Monday, October 8, 2012

A History of Shenanigans

That's the recently released Nintendo 3DS XL with a coming-soon-to-Japan XL version of the Circle Pad Pro. Makes me so mad just to look at that picture, and I hope the reasons why are obvious, because I'm far too exhausted by my own anger even to complain at length over Nintendo's shenanigans.

In other news, after about 6 years, my DS Lite looks to be facing the end of its life. Since yesterday, the touchscreen has taken to shaking quite violently. Sony and Microsoft get a bad rap; it's only ever the Nintendo systems that crap out on me. First it was an OG Game Boy, then a GameCube, now this.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

So ready to go digital

So Resident Evil 6 is getting totally savaged on Metacritic--critics and users alike. I myself played the demo and didn't like it. Even so, I picked it up at retail day-one because . . . well, let's be honest, I'll buy crap just to have it, so long as it has "Resident Evil" on the cover.

To be specific, I even paid the $30 premium for the "Archives" edition for 360, which bundles in Resident Evil Code: Veronica X HD, Resident Evil 4 HD, Resident Evil 5 Gold Edition, and the Resident Evil Degeneration movie. Degeneration is dreadful and, on its own, not worth paying for at any price; you can just consider it a bonus in this package. But each of those games normally goes for around $20 (about $10 too much for CVX), so if you don't already have more than one of them, then the bundle is not a bad deal (that is, provided you still want and intend to play RE6 itself sooner rather than later).

That said, Resident Evil 6 Archives is surprisingly quite the opposite of a conventional "collector's edition"--probably not the sort of item you'd be happy with if you're buying things just to have them. If it proves to be rare, then I suppose that in itself will make it a collectible. But it's a very unattractive and cheaply put-together package. RE6 already has some of the more boring box art in recent memory, and the Archives cover is a possibly even less inspiring grayscale version of the same, only with the words "Archives" and "Includes" above a list of all the titles included. At least it has a slipcover, though it's the same and just as tacky as the front of the case.

Among collectors, the bigger gripe (or at least equally bad) is that CVX, 4, and 5 are all strictly digital; the box just includes download codes for the approximately 13 gigs' worth of content. Degeneration is a standard-def DVD, which may well be the greater offense. So, basically, Capcom pressed an extra batch of RE6 discs, generated a bunch of download codes, and tossed in leftover Degeneration DVDs (of which they probably have thousands lying around), all thrown together in a package with a cover that looks like a placeholder image. There's not even an instruction manual included! What total crap! (The standard edition of RE6 reportedly doesn't come with a manual either.)

So, yeah, it all sounds pretty disgusting, doesn't it?

Well, the package makes for an unquestionably lame collectible. On the other hand, I'm lately starting to feel that, price being equal, the digital versions of games in many ways hold more practical value for me than physical media. The convenience of being able to load games right off the hard drive, instead of popping discs in and out of the tray every time you want to switch games, is not to be underestimated. Yes, essentially, not only am I a wasteful spender, but I'm also lazy. But the reality is that the majority of the games I've played on the 360 over the last year have been off the hard drive, and that comfort is certainly something I've come to appreciate. Also--and I'm being completely serious here--I've had multiple occasions when, on a whim, I would load up a game on my already-on 360. Meanwhile, walking over to my games shelf, picking out a game, and then inserting it into the console is not something that I would ever do on a whim. And, as I am these days an increasingly more casual player, my gaming almost depends primarily on whims to initiate.

I'm actually glad that the included RE4 and CVX are digital rather than physical copies. Knowing myself as I do, I know that I would never pop in disc versions of either of those games into my 360. On the other hand, there's a chance, however slim, that I might one day, on a whim, load RE4 off the hard drive. That possibility also makes my spending seem less wasteful than if I were paying only for a disc to gratify my sense of collector's vanity. And, since I already have RE5 on disc, it's nice to also have a digital copy now. (Of course, it would be even better if, when I bought the physical copy, they would just include the downloadable version free, but that's obviously a pipe dream.)

In fact, I honestly wish that the included RE6 were a download as well. Certainly, the overall cheapness of this bundle makes me wish they had simply gone all the way and made it nothing but codes on a sheet inside that crappy box. Even setting aside the underwhelming physical component to this specific release, however, going all-digital is something that, more and more, I feel I can really get behind. It's convenient, saves shelf space, and is more secure in a way, since you can usually re-download even if your hard drive fails, whereas if something happens to your disc, you're screwed. Sony made a big deal recently of its being able to offer downloadable versions of RE6 and other major titles simultaneous with their retail releases. Had that been an option on the 360, I would seriously have considered it for RE6. Aside from my collector's mentality, which is largely mooted here by the lame cover art and lack of manual, the only real argument for the physical version is that Archives is the better value and, ironically, only available at retail.

On that note, it's worth mentioning that, for the same price as Archives, you can get its PS3 counterpart, Resident Evil 6 Anthology, which swaps out CVX and Degeneration (the weaker parts of Archives) for downloadable PS1 versions of RE Director's Cut, RE2, and RE3. Outside of this bundle, those games would collectively cost you about the same as CVX + Degeneration, but they're probably more worth your time.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Princess Mononoke

Shigesato Itoi, not exactly a household name in the States, is probably best known here as the genius creator of EarthBound/Mother, Nintendo's offbeat role-playing video game series. In Japan, however, he was already a famous writer and pop culture personality, whose celebrity factored integrally into the quirky games getting made in the first place. A formidably prolific essayist and interviewer, he has kept his website, “Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun” (“Almost Daily Itoi News”), updated daily (yes, contrary to the site's name) for over a decade now. But he originally rose to stardom as THE go-to copywriter in Japan, his taglines typically achieving near-ubiquitous recognition during the country's bubble economy of the 1980s. For obvious reasons, this sort of catchy and minimalist phrase-writing tends to lose everything in translation, but I do rather like the audacious taglines for his Famicom game Mother: "No crying until the ending" and "Guaranteed masterpiece."

Naturally, Japan's most eminent copywriter has also crossed paths with Studio Ghibli, which has been responsible for Japan's biggest domestic film productions. Over the years, Itoi has contributed the taglines to most of the studio's Japanese releases, including 1997's Princess Mononoke. As a behind-the-scenes documentary highlights, Itoi, who had never before had trouble encapsulating the movies into single phrases to the satisfaction of Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki, struggled mightily to verbalize the essence of director Hayao Miyazaki's magnum opus into catchy ad copy. Together with Suzuki and Miyazaki, Itoi considered some fifty different possibilities before finally settling on "生きろ" (ikiro), which may be translated as the one-word existential imperative "Live" (or "Be").

The story of Princess Mononoke's tagline is rather more attractive to me than the story of the film itself. I also totally get why Itoi had such a hard time with it. I think I've seen this movie a whole three times now, and every time I come away at almost a complete loss as to what I think or how I feel about it.

Miyazaki's films are often noted for their environmentalist themes, but, going through his body of work now one film at a time, I have come to find that this and Nausicaa are the only ones actually to feature his ecological concerns as core to the central conflicts. Indeed, Princess Mononoke is like a "grown-up" version of Nausicaa--not necessarily in the sense of being intended for a more mature audience, but rather in that its director's outlook clearly evolved considerably in those 13 years between.

Miyazaki is Japan's most prominent director of animated films, but he's also done a bit of work in manga. Nausicaa, the movie that built Studio Ghibli, was, of course, a manga before it was an anime, but something you might not know is that the movie only adapted roughly the first quarter of the manga. Between films, Miyazaki continued to revisit this story and project, working on the Nausicaa manga for over a decade, only concluding it in 1994. I've never read the manga, but the consensus among those who have seems to be that the story evolved toward a far more sophisticated worldview beyond what we got in the movie. That movie, among other things, depended upon an almost literal deus ex machina to resolve things in a happy manner. Miyazaki has so far been fairly adamantly opposed to the idea of adapting the rest of the manga into any animated sequels, but the first film he directed following his completion of the manga may be regarded as a kind of "do-over." Princess Mononoke, though taking the earlier film as its foundation, reflects those years he spent actively contemplating and reassessing Nausicaa to produce in every way a much harder work.

Set in a heavily mythologized version of feudal Japan, it depicts the struggle between the gun-toting humans of Iron Town and the talking giant animal gods of the forest, whose resources are rapidly being consumed by the humans. There are also some imperialistic samurai trying to lay siege to Iron Town, and the frustrated animal tribes don't exactly put up a united front either, their desperation and pettiness rising as their shared territory diminishes. It's pretty dense, probably overly ambitious for a feature film, even with a running time over two hours. These days, it's not uncommon for me to fall asleep to the TV after a long day has depleted me. But this is one of the few movies where I think I've fallen asleep during at least one viewing simply because just watching and trying to process it tired me out.

The opening sequence deliberately echoes Nausicaa's, with the protagonist trying frantically to halt the advance of a raging giant boar. But this beast will not be calmed, having been driven to a demonic madness from the iron ball lodged in its body. To protect his village, the hero has no choice but to slay the boar god. Thus, the shift from Nausicaa toward a more pessimistic take in Princess Mononoke becomes almost immediately apparent.

For one thing, this is by far the most violent film in the Studio Ghibli canon. I'm talking on-screen decapitations and limbs-a-flyin'. Fans introduced to Miyazaki through his other works may be shocked on first viewing Princess Mononoke. In fact, as translator Steve Alpert's online production diary (sadly no longer available, but partially archived here and here) recalled, when Disney executive Michael O. Johnson viewed the trailer for Princess Mononoke, he was struck speechless. The movie had still been early in development when Disney secured the rights to the Ghibli catalog, and now it was going to be the first US commercial theatrical release out of the agreement. Johnson had been a major supporter of Disney's deal with Ghibli, based on his having seen and liked Kiki and Totoro, and, now knowing that he would shortly have to pitch Princess Mononoke to other Disney execs, he asked Toshio Suzuki to please give him something less violent to work with:

"Do we have to have the arms and heads flying off? Isn't there something softer in the film? Romance maybe? Can't I get a nice romantic scene, you know, between the hero and heroine? Maybe a kiss or something?"

Despite the violence, Princess Mononoke is probably less unsettling than either Grave of the Fireflies or Pom Poko at their most graphic moments. The film suffers from an identity crisis as a result, because, although its violence makes it a hard sell as family-friendly viewing, it still feels rather cartoonish and kid-oriented. The humans tend to be drawn cute, personalities lack dimension, dialogue is juvenile, and, even when a character has his hands shot off with an arrow, the moment is played somewhat for laughs, as the poor bastard just looks around witlessly in delayed reaction, instead of collapsing in shock and agony.

The only compelling character for me is Lady Eboshi, leader of Iron Town, and very much an evolved version of Princess Kushana, who was similarly my favorite in Nausicaa. The closest thing the story has to a persistent incarnate antagonist, she is entirely remorseless in her deforestation campaign. To her own people, however, she is a hero for social equality, standing up to the emperor, rescuing girls out of brothels to instead be productive members of her ironworks, and even employing lepers to develop her firearms. All this good she accomplishes depends on her being able to harness the forest's resources. She's probably a bit too megalomaniacal to comfortably label a good guy, but she's certainly no worse than any of the bestial gods representing the other side.

The only real white hat is our hero Ashitaka, basically a male version of Nausicaa, his uncompromising and self-sacrificing idealism similarly obnoxious. But whereas Nausicaa the movie was far too much in love with its heroine, Princess Mononoke seems to acknowledge how naive Ashitaka's ideals are, and he takes a beating for them every step of the way. I suppose the fact that he holds fast to his convictions anyway is what makes characters like him and Nausicaa ultimately better than their critics.

Princess Mononoke is about as dense and bewildering visually as it is narratively. One can easily guess that the scale of this project far exceeded any previous Ghibli production. There are so many moving pieces that it almost feels at times overindulgent. The writhing masses of serpent-like tentacles that adorn the body of the beast in the opening sequence is an oft-cited highlight, but perhaps even more impressive is a later scene featuring a lush background of individually animated blades of grass. This was also the second Ghibli film to utilize computer-generated effects (Whisper of the Heart was the first, though in only one isolated scene), albeit with mixed results, including a pretty awful morph effect employed early on.

I previously said that Nausicaa was among my least favorite Miyazaki films, but, as I've gone back through them over these last couple months, what's interesting to me is that, out of all of them, Nausicaa is the one I find my mind drifting to most often. Specifically, it's that image of young Nausicaa with the baby Ohmu. There is such an indelible quality to that scene. Princess Mononoke is the only other Miyazaki movie I've come across thus far to so strike me with images possessed of a similar power, most of them involving the Shishigami or "Forest Spirit," an enigmatic god worshiped by the animals of the forest, who would presume a kinship with it, though truly they understand it no better than anyone else. Unlike those other so-called "gods"--really just giant talking animals--the Forest Spirit is a god of the unknowable and omnipotent variety. With the body of a stag, the feet of a bird, and the face of a baboon, never speaking and its expression never changing, it treads the water's surface and appears able to grant either life or death as it pleases, though none can ever comprehend why it does one or the other. For reasons I can't entirely explain, I find its appearance intensely unnerving, though also bestowed with a certain haunting majesty. I half-joked that Totoro seems the sort of creature one might encounter in a nightmare, but the Forest Spirit is what lies beneath, lurking several layers deeper into one's unconscious.

So, after three or so viewings, I'm still not sure what to take away from this film, other than that it's possibly Miyazaki's most visually masterful. I don't know where I'd personally rank it among his films overall, or whether I even like the story at all. Unlike Nausicaa, where it seemed a lot of problems could have been avoided if only the humans could have learned to live and let live, Princess Mononoke presents a conflict with no easy answers, as both sides simply need something that they can't both have. Reducing the dilemma down to Miyazaki's real ecological concerns, it seems the years between Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke revealed to him two truths: 1) Yeah, we humans kind of ruin the world, but we can't really help it if we want to live, and 2) Love nature though you may, the notion of a benign, harmony-seeking life force of the planet is complete rubbish. So what does that leave us? If your instinctive response is "nothing," then I assure you you're not alone.

It can be frustrating, especially if you come in looking for a black-and-white narrative from a movie that is in other ways rather cartoonish, to stick with a story for two hours and still not know which side it's arguing for. Done poorly, this eschewing of a Nausicaa-esque happy ending or, really, anything whatsoever resembling a resolution, can leave one with the impression that the director doesn't know what his own point is, or if he even has one. Even done well, fatalistic stories such as this tend not to be altogether satisfying experiences. But maybe that is the message ultimately of Princess Mononoke. Life is rough, ugly, even largely incomprehensible (yes, that last one especially). We soldier on, not to overcome or understand, but because we must. Like the tagline says, "Live."

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

R m8y

You perhaps know that today is "International Talk Like a Pirate Day." But did you know that it's also "No Text on Board Pledge Day"? What, you didn't? Oh, that's because it's completely bogus. It appears to be some sort of AT&T promotion, capping off their "It Can Wait" campaign to discourage against texting while driving. You've probably encountered their PSAs on TV, radio, or the YouTube. They all play out pretty much the same way: some sad-looking individual eulogizes a loved one, who, it is then revealed, died because they were texting while driving. The stories are made all the more tragic--rather, embarrassing--by the fact that the dead guy's final words were invariably some totally inane message, maybe only partially keyed in in some depressing texting shorthand. Here's a particularly devastating TV ad:

Don't get me wrong, I'm totally against texting while driving. I mean, the risk simply isn't worth it. We're all gonna die some day, but, when I go, it'll be because I tried and failed to stop some world-destroying doomsday device. Okay, maybe not, but, for sure, I WON'T go out on some humiliating story about how the other driver lost his brain over a text that would have suggested he didn't have much of one in the first place.

This all reminds me of a different PSA that left quite an impression on me as a child. As far as I can remember, it was a warning against trying to beat the train across the tracks. Some Mexican driver, despite his young son's pleading from the backseat not to try it, insists that they can make it. Then, in the next shot, we see the scattered wreckage of their car littering the tracks, informing us that, in fact, they did not make it and should not have tried.

Hmm, thinking about it now, it seems unlikely that that's what the ad was really about. I mean, was this really such a common problem that the Ad Council needed to distribute a PSA about it, which, from what I recall, played ALL THE TIME during after-school television from about 4 to 7pm? Maybe, being a kid with a rather short attention span, I took entirely the wrong message from it. Maybe it was actually some anti-illegal immigration thing.

Anyway, the "It Can Wait" campaign has a clear enough message, but, in this case too, I question the necessity of such a media blitzkrieg, assaulting me with ads everywhere I go, even enlisting members of the US Women's Gymnastics Olympic team, American Idol contestants, and other minor celebrities to "take the pledge." It's pretty obviously a bad idea to text while driving, and if people are dying because of this, then I'd think the periodic news story about it happening would be enough to discourage it. At least, that's how fear and caution are typically sown in my circles; some (usually older) lady reports some horrible story that she heard on the news or, at the very least, somewhere, and then it spreads anecdotally, and everyone nods in unity at how we must be more careful. Whether or not that process is actually fruitful, I have to believe it's at least as effective and certainly far less expensive than a bunch of TV ads that people often tune out anyway.

As I see it, this is most likely just AT&T's attempt to buy some good publicity for itself as a socially responsible company, probably in response to some heat it was getting over this texting-while-driving problem that, fairly or not, the telecommunications industry may be seen as causing in the first place. Yes, it's all rather like those Philip Morris anti-smoking ads.

Friday, September 14, 2012

God Bless McLarge Sodas

When I first heard the news out of New York that the city was banning the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces at restaurants, I thought, Surely we don't have that crap in California, right? Then I did a little digging and found that, not only do we have the extra large sodas, but I myself actually enjoyed a 32 oz. Coke at McDonald's just the other day. I think, when I ordered, I just asked for a "large," which, at a mere 69 cents, seemed like a fantastic value to go along with my McDouble off the Dollar Menu. I'm better at counting change than fluid ounces or calories, so I didn't even realize just how much of a value it was. But, even though it looked big, I thought, as long as it was only a "large," which usually signifies to me a slightly indulgent but still reasonable and not extreme portion, I was okay. Alas, it would be more honest to list the 32 oz. size as "huge" on their menu.

So, um, in summary, I am proud to live in California, where at least I know I'm free to order huge sodas.

(Hey, look, in my defense, I only filled the cup halfway anyway.)

Monday, August 20, 2012

What I've Been Playing #4

I don't usually like to play online with strangers, but Microsoft had switched on Xbox Live Gold for free for all users over the past weekend, and, since the service is ordinarily $60/year, I figured it behooved me to take advantage and get as much out of the weekend as I could. As it happened, the only 360 game that my brother and I both owned and could play online together was Red Dead Redemption, which I coincidentally had only started playing in single-player a few days earlier.

Red Dead Redemption is a two-year-old game at this point, and, even at the peak of its popularity, I don't imagine it was ever a title to sell on the merit of its multiplayer. Meanwhile, I hadn't done any competitive online gaming since I last tried out one of those military shooter games, which I left after one session with a (perhaps too hasty?) negative opinion of. Alas, although I may have hoped for a different and better experience, Red Dead Redemption's online was, right off the bat, exactly what I expected.

In the past, I've broadly compared all online shooters to "the wild wild West" (not the Will Smith movie, nor the earlier TV series), a lawless frontier that brings out its denizens' most vile and destructive tendencies. You might think that an especially apt analogy in the case of Red Dead Redemption, but actually "wild wild West" has never come close to capturing the untamable savagery of the online arena. That said, Red Dead Redemption is indeed worse in some ways than even a typical round of FPS team deathmatch. In the default "Free Roam" mode, less a gameplay type in and of itself than what this game offers in place of a lobby--the central hub where players can connect to form teams and match up with other players--you're tossed, without any directives or guidance, into a severely depopulated version of the complete open world of the single-player game. You'll see other players running around, and you can propose a match or posse up and roam the land together. But it's more likely that the first person you approach will just try to shoot you. You see, even though Free Roam contains no real scoring system or victory conditions of its own, in practice it nevertheless manages to become just a never-ending battle royale of everybody shooting everybody, even though nobody stays dead and none of it gains anybody anything. Basically, people don't even need to be incentivized to start shooting without prejudice; it's just their instinctive go-to. No AI game master governing with rules, calling time and declaring winners, the only law is the gun and a fight everybody loses. You can try to avoid this by choosing to enter a "friendly" version of Free Roam, where player-killing is turned off. But, guess what, even that doesn't make people any friendlier; instead, if they can't shoot you, they'll shoot and kill your horse instead. Seriously, it's an incessant stream of notifications that some guy killed so-and-so's mount, etc. I wonder why these horse-killers don't just stay in the non-friendly rooms, or why they don't go into actual versus games, instead of attacking people in the lobby.

I thought I'd have better luck in the cooperative mission mode, "Outlaws to the End," consisting of a handful of four-player stages, which mostly involve exterminating groups of AI bad guys while getting from point A to B. The action is usually so hairy in these stages as to be almost unmanageable without a full team of four working together. So, not only are you not supposed to attack the other players, but, for very practical reasons, you're strongly encouraged against it if you want to survive. Why was I shocked and appalled when people still didn't play along?

The very first group of players I was matched up with was tasked with laying siege to a fort, retrieving the kidnapped girl within, then escaping together via four-horse coach. This was maybe the third mission I'd taken on with this group, and, although we had yet to complete a mission together, nothing too crazy had happened; the enemies had just overwhelmed us. This time, after we cleared the fort of enemies, three of us waited by the coach while the fourth player went to escort the girl over. While we waited, one of my teammates started shooting the horses harnessed to the coach. At first, it didn't even register to me what he was doing, because a civilized human being's mind isn't rigged to understand that kind of sociopathy, which goes against all sense and sensibility. I mean, I've seen some sick stuff in games, but I can honestly say that I never expected to see this. Folks, you can't script this stuff.

Thus, three of the horses were already dead or dying by the time my brother thought to try to stop him. I don't know if this guy was crazy or what, because there was never any communication, but, whatever the case, with one horse left living by the time the last player and kidnapped girl joined us, this maniac relented and took the driver's seat. I said hell no and pulled him off, then started whipping that last horse to carry us as far from that creep and toward our objective as possible. We got pretty far, but it was really quite hopeless. With enemy riders harassing us the whole way, that one-horse coach never stood a chance. Once that last horse inevitably went down, it was automatic game over.

After that fiasco, my brother and I were resolved that, as soon as the next mission started, we were going to shoot that horse-killer dead before he could sabotage us again. It was his turn to be shocked as we both started opening fire on him from behind. By the time he realized we were serious, it was too late for him to do anything but die. I don't know what was going through the mind of the fourth player as all this was happening, but clearly it was time for him to pick a side. Unfortunately, when my brother and I were shortly thereafter felled by AI enemies, the fourth guy chose to revive the horse-killer, whereupon they both left us for dead.

Now, if only this horse-killer had been a singular lunatic, a good time might still have been had, but, no, nearly every team I played with featured at least one asshole. At one point, as we were sharing a raft and fighting against enemies standing on the shore, the guy behind me just shot me in the head for no reason. On another occasion, same stage and well into it, a different guy decided to start hurling firebombs on the raft, knowing that it was too cramped for us, his teammates and the only ones aboard, to avoid getting set on fire. Then there was the guy who, shortly into a mission, decided to blow up everyone with dynamite before logging himself off, as if that had been the only thing he had wanted out of the game all along. This kind of rampant team-killing--the lowest of the low--is usually indicative of a game gone completely to hell. As offensive as some Call of Duty players may be, at least you don't generally have to go into a match worrying that your own teammates might stab you in the back.

As easy as it is to blame cretinous jerks for ruining everybody's fun, I do have to say that the game itself doesn't exactly help matters. On more than one occasion, when it was time for our four-man team to get on the coach together, I would get up along the side of the carriage and press the button to try to get in through one of the doors, but instead I would end up accidentally pulling the coachman off and taking his seat a la Grand Theft Auto. It was completely unintentional, but, since we weren't sharing a line on voice chat, I had no way of telling the other player that. And so, over an honest mistake, the trust would be broken, and all hell would break loose as it became every man for himself. A part of me wonders if that's how it all began, if the first shot fired wasn't actually an accident, but thereafter nobody could stop shooting anymore and trying to take back what they thought was theirs. Or maybe it's just that I was playing on a Thursday with a bunch of twelve-year-olds at a time of day when any responsible adult would be at work instead of playing Xbox Live. Maybe.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Whisper of the Heart

Whisper of the Heart (1995) was Studio Ghibli's first theatrical feature directed by someone other than Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. Based on a manga by Aoi Hiragi, with a screenplay by Miyazaki, it was the directorial debut for Yoshifumi Kondo, who had previously worked as an animator and character designer on a number of Miyazaki and Takahata's projects. Tragically, this would be the only film Kondo would ever direct, as he died just a few years later of an aneurysm said to have been brought on by overwork. If the beginnings seen in Whisper of the Heart are any indication, then Studio Ghibli and the world lost a tremendous talent.

Set in then-present-day Tokyo—in fact, it's the same Tama Hills area, just a generation later, as depicted previously in Pom PokoWhisper of the Heart follows Shizuku, a 14-year-old junior high student, as she prepares for the transition to high school and, perhaps, the rest of her life. The premise is more straightforward than previous Ghibli films, although this is also, in many ways, a story distinctly concerned with Japanese society. If you've been around anime for a while, then a lot of this movie's "peculiarities" that probably shouldn't jibe with your own junior high experience may not even register as anything out of the ordinary. If, on the other hand, you're one of those viewers wondering why the female students are all wearing sailor outfits, then perhaps some cultural notes are in order.

The key thing you really need to understand is that, in Japan, although most students continue from junior high into high school, it is not compulsory, and there is actually a lot of competition and complicated admissions procedures to get into higher-ranked schools. When anime and manga characters are stressed out over "exams," this is usually referring to high school entrance exams. The process is vaguely similar to getting into university for those of us in the US. Meanwhile, in Japan, what high school you end up in often predetermines what university you attend, or whether you proceed to higher education at all; students not on track for college typically go from junior high to vocational high schools that prepare them for jobs instead. Thus, the transition from junior high to high school is a pivotal moment in the Japanese student's education, as it may well dictate how they spend the rest of their life. Oh, and those sailor outfits? I don't know why either, but that's just the standard uniform in Japan for some reason.

In Whisper of the Heart, we catch Shizuku coming up on that pivotal moment, but, whereas more ambitious students are stressed out over whether they will make it into the high school of their choice, Shizuku doesn't seem to have a clue what she wants for her future. A voracious reader, she is, however, sufficiently distracted by her books that she is not initially too worried, not even to the extent that her situation probably warrants. Instead of studying for exams, she reads fiction, checking out book after book from the library. And, apparently, she's not the only one. Looking over the checkout cards in her books, she notices that every book has been checked out previously by some guy named Seiji Amasawa.

If you were born after this movie was made, you may not even know what the deal is with these "checkout cards," since most libraries just keep digital records nowadays. But this is obviously the setup for a romance, perhaps of the fairytale sort found in Shizuku's books, and, although it is not as contrived as it first sounds, Shizuku does end up meeting and falling for Seiji, a fellow student in the same year but a different class.

The heart of the film, which truly emerges after they begin their relationship, is Shizuku's struggle to define herself. In Seiji, Shizuku is confronted with someone who knows exactly what he wants out of life. His dream is an eccentric one—he wants to be a professional luthier (maker of stringed instruments)—but he's already invested a good deal more thought and effort into it than Shizuku has in any plans for herself. This is not a story about "finding" yourself in someone else, but, for Shizuku, meeting Seiji becomes a sort of catalyst for her to work seriously at figuring out what she's going to make of herself. Because she loves stories, her first thought is to become a writer, which she quickly learns is hard work, as difficult, in its own way, as any other trial a Ghibli protagonist has ever gone through. Like most budding young artists, she grapples with feelings of inadequacy, knowing that her work is her very soul and yet still she must assess it critically as unsatisfactory. Such are the setbacks and disappointments one faces on the road to becoming oneself. You wonder where you're headed, question whether or not you can really get there, perhaps change your mind several times along the way to where you finally end up, if it's anywhere at all. Maybe some people are born knowing exactly what they want to do with their lives, but I would consider them the lucky ones. That has not been my experience, and so I can totally identify with Shizuku's struggle, which is depicted almost crushingly true-to-life.

Whisper of the Heart is perhaps not altogether Ghibli's most profound work. It is still an anime about junior high students and not able to escape all the attendant cliches, such as a subplot that has Shizuku unwittingly drawn into a love quadrangle, which instead becomes a comedy of errors because these Japanese students must be so indirect in expressing their intentions. That one is a facepalm-inducing subplot that has precious little to do with the main story, but Whisper of the Heart is filled with many other minor digressions that flesh out the characters in subtle ways. Shizuku's family, for instance, is, first of all, not only present and active in her life, but her parents and sister actually come across as complete people unto themselves, as opposed to just plot devices. We learn from dialogue here and there that the mother is attending school as a grad student. Meanwhile, the older sister, in college and also working, is ready to move out of their cramped apartment, where she shares a room with Shizuku. Later on, we see that Shizuku has the room to herself. The movie does not dwell on these details, but they make conversations sound more convincingly real and provide a sense that there is more going on in this world than a single teenager dealing with her angst. One of my favorite such bits comes when Shizuku visits her best friend, who, as they head to her room, casually whispers, "I'm having a fight with my father. I'm not talking to him." This is never followed up on, and the father in question, perfectly affable, gives no indication that there is any such fight. It's just a silly inclusion, as believable as it is insignificant.

Among Ghibli films, Whisper of the Heart has most in common with Kiki's Delivery Service and Only Yesterday, both of them similarly more subdued stories of young females wrestling with questions of personal identity. If Kondo was not yet so accomplished as his predecessors in the Studio Ghibli director's chair, exhibiting not quite the flair of Miyazaki nor the depth of Takahata, nevertheless his Whisper of the Heart was possessed of an earnestness and sincerity that have made it a personal favorite of mine.

Friday, August 17, 2012

I am not a Slytherin

Have you tried Pottermore, the new official website of the Harry Potter books, which invites visitors to explore the stories "in a whole new way and discover exclusive new writing from J.K. Rowling"? Well, I have, and I can tell you it's complete rubbish.

It's an interactive website that is intended to enhance one's reading of the books. Each chapter of each book (right now, only the first book and parts of the second are ready) is done up in Flash, users encouraged to click around to uncover bits of writing from J.K. Rowling, ranging from encyclopedia entries to behind-the-scenes info. In practice, it feels like it just summarizes the books. I haven't read them in a few years, but I remember the stories well enough that slowly trudging through this buggy website chapter-by-chapter (and Pottermore forces you to go in order; you can't jump around to whichever parts might interest you) feels pointlessly redundant, adding nothing of value to my appreciation of the fiction. If you were actually reading the books alongside the website, maybe it would be more fun, but, on the contrary, I have to imagine it would feel even more redundant, not to mention cumbersome, having to switch back and forth between book and website all the time. It might work better if the Pottermore content were directly integrated into digital versions of the novels, so that you could click around to explore further as highlighted terms catch your interest during your reading. Still, although that works for Wikipedia, I don't think that's any way to read a novel. I don't even like interrupting myself to read the footnotes in annotated editions.

Pottermore also features a social network game component. As you read along through the chapters, you also progress through your own journey at Hogwarts, eventually opening things up for you to compete against other users in . . . I don't know what, because I didn't get that far. To start, you have to select from one of a handful of usernames that the site makes up for you. My options were uniformly stupid. I suppose users are not permitted to create their own names because Pottermore needs to be kid-friendly, and they certainly wouldn't want kids exposed to perverts with all manner of wiener names. Anyway, after that comes the "fun stuff," as you eventually receive your own wand and get sorted into one of the four houses at Hogwarts. The site determines these according to a bunch of personality quizzes. For example, during the sorting, you may be asked, "How would you like to be known to history: The Wise, The Good, The Great, or The Bold?" In this particular case, it's totally transparent which house each choice represents, so if you wanted to increase your odds of getting into Gryffindor, you would of course choose "The Bold." But other questions are less obvious or one-to-one, and, in any case, I tried to answer every question honestly. In this case, I chose "The Good," obviously corresponding to Hufflepuff, even though I would personally be embarrassed to end up in Hufflepuff. A lot of the questions I did not have immediate responses to (because I didn't particularly care one way or another), and I might well have chosen differently were I asked again. For example, asked whether I preferred "Dawn" or "Dusk," I chose "Dusk" simply because the sun has been way too hot lately.

After over an hour of slogging my way through Pottermore, including one instance of the site locking up my computer, to finally reach the sorting ceremony in chapter 7, I was ultimately informed that I belonged to Slytherin.


Along with getting your wand, getting to find out your house is the only remotely exciting part of Pottermore. And after all that buildup, my waiting patiently, playing by their infantile rules, having to read through summaries of stories that I already knew all too well, finally my reward for all that was to be told that I was a bad person. And this from a website obviously aimed primarily at kids! Why is Slytherin even a possibility? What devoted Harry Potter reader would ever dream of getting sorted into the house for jerks? You might as well tell them they've been sorted into hell.

For a moment there, I was tempted to open up a second Pottermore account, so that I could retake the sorting quiz, gaming it so it would let me into Gryffindor. But then sense took back hold of me, as I realized what madness that would have been. Pottermore had already taken so much from me. I was not about to let it take any more. Nice try, talking hat, but you don't get to tell me where I belong.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

On Joysticks

The hype surrounding Persona 4 Arena's release temporarily reignited my passion for fighting games such that I felt compelled to mod my Xbox 360 MadCatz Tournament Edition "S" FightStick to be compatible with the PS3 as well. It was a fairly straightforward job, as I just purchased an already assembled PS3 controller circuit board, which I then had to install into my 360 stick. Looking back, I'm not sure why I ever had a 360 stick to begin with, seeing as how all my fighting games (including Persona 4 Arena) are on the PS3. Also, since I already had a PS3 stick, you might wonder why I had to mod my 360 stick to turn it into a second PS3-compatible stick. I don't intend to make a hobby of this, but I suppose it was something kind of fun to do, which also kept me busy for a day while unemployed.

When I was younger and more passionate about fighting games, I once thought to myself that, one day when I found the time, I would build my own joystick. Eventually, so I imagined, I would even study up on all the necessary skills and labor to put together a complete arcade cabinet, once I had the funds and a place of my own to keep it.

Mind you, this was around the early 2000s. In those days, your only options for arcade-quality joysticks for PS1/PS2 were to 1) build it yourself, 2) order one from MAS Systems, or 3) pay someone advertising on the newsgroups/forums to build one custom for you. No matter which route you went, if you wanted real arcade parts and quality construction, you would be looking at spending $100 minimum (usually closer to $200). Anything you could find in stores from MadCatz, Pelican, Nuby, etc. would be complete junk.

As the fighting game community grew online, and fewer and fewer members of it remembered or cared what the local arcade experience was, the rugged American-style sticks peddled by MAS and other small operators fell out of favor. Japanese sticks by Ascii and especially Hori started to become more sought after. Online fighting game "professors" were able to break down the science of why lighter, looser stick levers and convex buttons were the way to go if you wanted to achieve your full potential. When Hori released its "Real Arcade Pro" controller for the PS2, sporting a genuine Sanwa JLF stick straight out of the Japanese arcade cabinets, it quickly became lauded by importers as the new standard in home joysticks, never mind that the buttons were still not Sanwa but merely Hori knockoffs.

Many American console players finally got their first chance to see what joysticks were all about in 2005, when Namco bundled Tekken 5 for the PS2 with a Hori stick. Although both the buttons and stick were cheaper Hori parts, rather than genuine Sanwa, the build was otherwise the same as the Real Arcade Pro, making it perhaps the first fairly high-quality joystick widely available in the US. By this time, Hori had released the Real Arcade Pro 2 in Japan, which featured Sanwa buttons and stick, and anything less was soon being declared garbage by joystick aficionados. Nevertheless, pretty much every casual-to-semi-competitive player I knew in the US was using the Tekken 5 Hori stick.

Things changed in a big way, however, when Street Fighter IV came out in 2009, accompanied by the official Tournament Edition FightStick from MadCatz. Selling for about what you would expect to pay for a custom-built joystick, it was the first domestic, mass-market stick to feature a full complement of the highest-quality Sanwa parts. Its success pushed Hori to finally pursue the US market more aggressively with new premium joysticks.

With these recent developments, my old dream of one day building my own stick has been abandoned, not because I've realized it's unrealistic (as has been the case with so many other dreams), but because it has become obsolete. There's no longer any need to build a custom stick in order to compete or capture the "authentic arcade experience." Nowadays, you can easily (though still not cheaply) get a domestic, licensed-by-Sony/Microsoft stick from MadCatz or Hori, and it will be as good as any stick that you could build yourself. In fact, I have two of these MadCatz sticks for some reason. And I don't even play or enjoy fighting games nearly as much as I used to!

Well, I suppose it might still be fun to try to build an American-style stick with a bat top. Or maybe a "left-handed" joystick (I used to think it made more sense, as a right-handed person, to have the stick on the right side and the buttons on the left). Or maybe one day I'll even build that arcade cabinet.

What I've Been Playing #3: Persona 4 Arena

I never played Persona 4, so some of the fanservice appeal of this game is probably lost on me. The only Persona 3 characters are Mitsuru, Akihiko, Aigis, and Elizabeth. I wouldn't be surprised if Atlus released more characters via DLC or in an updated version of the game.

The story mode is done as a visual novel. It's time-consuming but not actually very comprehensive, and it's largely non-interactive. Most of your time "playing" is really spent reading your selected character's text narration atop static backgrounds and character portraits. Seems pretty mind-numbing to me. The story itself is supposed to be a sequel to Persona 4 (which, again, doesn't mean much to me, since I never played that game), but, from what I've seen of it, it seems to be a typical fighting game story, as characters just run into and start fighting each other for fairly contrived reasons.

The fighting engine is a Guilty Gear derivative, also in the same vein as other "anime fighters," such as BlazBlueMelty Blood, and Arcana Heart. Not sure how this came to be its own distinctly identifiable sub-genre, but it's much faster and looser than Street Fighter or King of Fighters, and it's got the usual air-dashes, double-jumps, and all manner of systems and sub-systems. Frankly, fighting games these days are just getting too convoluted for me.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Who Framed Zangief?

Seen Disney's Wreck-It Ralph trailer?

After years of frustration over how video games have been depicted in film—from the addition of incessant 8-bit sound effects to modern games, to hyperactive kids mashing every button during a turn-based RPG, to embarrassing scenes of two people holding controllers during a one-player game, and awful adaptation after awful adaptation—it's refreshing to finally see a movie that seems to "get it." Director Rich Moore's affection for and knowledge of video games is obvious from the attention to detail shown in this trailer. It's not just a bunch of gratuitous geeky name-drops. They went and licensed recognizable characters, ranging from as mainstream as Bowser to as cult as Q*bert, made sure they looked authentic to the games, and have even brought in the original voice actors where applicable. If the Official Nintendo Seal of Quality still existed, I feel like this movie would deserve it, at least as much as any of those lousy Mario & Sonic Olympic games by Sega.

That said, I do have to take exception to the movie's lumping in of Zangief with the bad guys. It's a shame that, as otherwise faithful to the games and obviously Capcom-approved as it is, Wreck-It Ralph is still guilty of making such a glaring error (or of taking such wanton liberty). The real Zangief is no more a bad guy than any of the other World Warriors (never mind that, in nearly every Street Fighter since Champion Edition, even the actual bad guys have been playable and therefore able to win the game anyway). The only times Zangief has ever been a bad guy have been the 1994 Street Fighter movie, which is hardly canonical (and, in fact, is notoriously a poster child for the "mishandled video game movie"—precisely the sort of thing Wreck-It Ralph should be distancing itself from), and the 1995 USA Network cartoon, itself loosely based on the movie.

Moreover, if you'll recall, even in the 1994 movie, Zangief was not really a bad guy; he considered himself a good guy but was just too stupid to realize that his boss, M. Bison, was the enemy of freedom and peace! In the end, however, he does come around and take his rightful place as one of the good guys.

*sigh* Oh well. This Wreck-It Ralph situation ironically may be compared to the Disney characters' appearances in the Kingdom Hearts games. The Kingdom Hearts Mickey Mouse may look and even sound like Mickey Mouse should, and Walt Disney's name may be all over the legal text, but I don't think any true Disney enthusiast would ever consider Kingdom Hearts part of Mickey Mouse canon. No siree!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Pom Poko

Following the tragic Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and the poignant Only Yesterday (1991), director Isao Takahata gives us . . . a talking, singing animal picture? Indeed, on the surface, Pom Poko (1994) seems the most cartoonish entry in the entire Studio Ghibli library, and perhaps it is. But the story is also surprisingly dark and, at times, outright unsettling.

In mockumentary fashion, Pom Poko follows a community of raccoon dogs or "tanuki" (called simply "raccoons" in the Disney translation) fighting to preserve their habitat in the Tama Hills, which, in the 1960s, is rapidly succumbing to urban development and deforestation. Tanuki are characterized in Japanese folklore as mischievous creatures possessing mystical powers of illusion and shapeshifting. In Pom Poko, it is these powers that the tanuki primarily draw upon to wage their war against encroaching humanity. Mostly, this involves pranking the unwitting humans by staging ghost stories to scare them off the land, basically haunting the area in the manner of a Scooby-Doo villain. Although they make for rather mean tricks to play on the humans, many of the schemes the tanuki devise are hilarious to observe.

Even funnier is an alternative proposal of trying to blend into human society. Masters of transforming, the tanuki are even able to pose as humans, albeit with some strain. We see early on that some less gifted tanuki are comically unable to pull off the human form convincingly. Then, when a team infiltrates the city to research human society, the documentary narrator drily suggests that the dark circles you sometimes see under people's eyes actually indicate undercover tanuki on the verge of reverting due to the exhaustion of having to maintain human form.

For the first half, Pom Poko is by far the funniest movie Ghibli has ever done. Into the second hour, although the movie itself maintains the same playful tone, I no longer found the story a laughing matter. The tanuki succeed in scaring off individual humans, but these victories do little to slow the tide of civilization advancing into their home. The movie repeats a pattern, of the tanuki frightening a group of humans, then celebrating their accomplishment, only to see on the TV news that the land developers are undaunted. After a couple cycles of this, a sense of futility sets in. At that point, well before the closing credits, you realize that the tanuki are never going to be able to win the war, and then watching them continue to fight on hopelessly with the same old tactics becomes simply exhausting, even agonizing, which is maybe the point—I mean, imagine how the tanuki must feel, if even we the viewers are starting to feel worn down. But it also becomes repetitive and tiresome to watch, and I don't really buy that that was Takahata's intention. It starts to seem gratuitous after a while.

The most elaborate sequence in the entire movie involves the tanuki focusing all their collective power to stage a grand parade of spirits through the city streets. The desperate tanuki bet just about everything on this massive operation, but there's not even any message (e.g. "get off our land") accompanying it to the humans. Given that it is a parade, it comes across more fun than scary or threatening, and that's how the humans in the movie end up taking it as well. Do a little research, and you'll find that the spirits featured in this sequence (and elsewhere throughout the movie) are all nods to Japanese folklore and literature. Having this information maybe adds an extra dimension to one's viewing experience, when you realize that, in addition to the environmental message bemoaning the thoughtless advance of urbanization, Takahata is celebrating Japan's folkloric traditions while also lamenting their shrinking place in modern Japanese culture. But obviously none of that resonates with me, and so this just comes across as a very long and self-indulgent sequence that doesn't serve the main "raccoon dog war" narrative in any effective way.

The movie could have used some editing, but, when it works, it is as emotionally affecting as Takahata's previous films. In fact, I honestly think this tops Grave of the Fireflies as Ghibli's most feel-bad movie. Although their powers make them ideal tricksters, tanuki are traditionally held to be jolly by nature, also lazy and absentminded. Pom Poko emphasizes all these traits of theirs to show why they could never effectively wage a war. That only makes it feel all the more wrong as the tanuki fail and die, all the while never losing their playful demeanor. In one especially unsettling scene, a group of tanuki, freshly run over, are depicted in extra-cartoony form
—a style used elsewhere in the film usually when the characters are having a silly good time—as they address the camera for their final words: "Well, I guess we're no match for the humans." In the next shot, we're shown the road littered with very realistically drawn dead tanuki bodies.

Pom Poko is not subtle, and it's overlong by about twenty minutes in the middle. Even so, no other Ghibli movie ever made me laugh so hard or feel so terrible. And certainly no other ever did both to me in the same movie.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Inspirational Quote of the Moment #4

"Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. It's harsh, and cruel. But that's why there's us: champions. Doesn't matter where we come from, what we've done, or suffered, or even if we make a difference. We live as though the world were as it should be, to show it what it can be."

- Chris Bosh, NBA champion

(I once paraphrased the above, actually from the TV show Angel, to some applause in real life. I didn't mention that it came from a vampire TV show, and I omitted the word "champions." It made me wonder in what real-life context one could ever include the word "champions" and not sound like a complete lunatic, utterly undermining an otherwise solid quote.)

Monday, July 2, 2012

Porco Rosso

Porco Rosso (1992) is easily Hayao Miyazaki's most adult film, as well as his most clearly personal. Miyazaki injects a lot of his concerns and passions into each of his films—his environmentalism, his feminism, his love of aviation—but, whereas many of his other movies seem to be about imparting to his young viewers some of his values and experience, Porco Rosso plays out more like a story he wrote to himself.

Set after World War I, Porco Rosso revolves around an Italian former flying ace, who at some point became cursed with a literal pig's face, thus earning him the nickname "Porco." The movie is unexpectedly deadpan regarding this affliction. Given that this is a Miyazaki picture, one perhaps expects some fanciful adventure to ensue, wherein the characters journey to colorful locales and endure whimsical trials in a quest to break this gypsy or whatever curse and restore him to his human form. But no, instead, when people see Porco for the first time, they at most act mildly intrigued, and then everybody moves on. And it's not as if this is some fantasy world filled with animal people; Porco's pig form is the only supernatural element in the entire story, which is otherwise more precisely set in a real place and time than any other Miyazaki movie. Porco himself does not seem too overly concerned about the curse. It hasn't affected his diet, his lifestyle, or his piloting skills. He's basically just a human being who happens to have the face of a pig, and, like it or not, the movie doesn't bother to explore the how of it.

Pig or no, Porco remains a legendary aviator, and, in between-wars Italy, he makes his living as a bounty hunter, becoming the bane of the air pirates of the Adriatic. They enlist the services of an American ace and self-styled Casanova named Curtis (ironically voiced in the Disney dub by Cary Elwes) to take Porco down. Potentially complicating this rivalry (but mostly just adding some humor at the American's expense), Curtis also has his eyes on the nightclub owner, Gina, who is obviously in love with her dear friend Porco, despite that he seems mostly dead to romance.

It's clear early on that the showdown between Porco and Curtis will form the climax of the story. Building up to that, the film's middle act is surprisingly sedate and unhurried. It's the most laid-back movie Miyazaki has ever done, without an abundance of action or events or the sorts of otherworldly sights that the director is typically known for. It is more concerned with having viewers spend time getting familiar with the characters and setting.

As Porco prepares for his duel, ordering repairs and adjustments on his plane, he is disconcerted to find the local workforce made up entirely of women, the economic depression having earlier forced all the men to relocate in search of work. Also placing the story's setting is a subplot that has Porco having to evade the Italian secret police because he is not on board with the new Fascist regime. And probably my favorite scene occurs when Porco and an old war buddy still in the service meet inside a movie theater. As they talk, the projector plays a slapstick black-and-white cartoon seemingly inspired by Betty Boop and early Mickey Mouse. Porco and his friend's respective assessments of the cartoon are classic, and I'm guessing Miyazaki himself would probably agree with both of them.

Porco Rosso does have its share of breathtaking moments as well. 
In today's context, where news about "the war" conjures images of drones pounding the Middle East, the kind of aerial combat featured in Porco Rosso is already almost unimaginable. When Porco recounts a particularly grim episode from his dogfighting during the war, the flashback is presented with a muted delicacy that further imbues the scene with an eerie surrealism, as each side's fighters first form up with precision and grace, then meet in a balletic dance that seems almost choreographed. When the first plane bursts into flames and goes down, one comprehends it as in a dream. Intellectually, you understand what has happened. And yet the scene, of these machines circling far above mankind's natural dwelling place, and as unresistingly fragile as they are unrepentantly destructive, remains just slightly isolated from sensory reality. To try to resolve this dissonance is to confront some innate madness of war, or maybe even just mortality.

And perhaps that is where the film offers some clue as to why Porco became a pig. Living alone in a tent on an island, a burned-out and world-weary Bogart-esque cynic—in fact, the entire movie is designed to be as close as you'll find to a cartoon Casablanca—the mercenary Porco is unlike any other Miyazaki protagonist yet, in a way, perhaps more thoroughly Miyazaki than all the others. The implication is that, during the war, Porco experienced something horrible that changed the way he saw the world, and that change has manifested physically in his taking on a pig form, thereby changing, in turn, the way the world sees him.

Miyazaki never was a soldier, but there is little doubt that Porco is a self-portrait of the director himself. In interviews with the man, what's consistently apparent is his negativity toward this age we live in. He's down on the state of the Japanese animation industry, down on how Japan is raising its youth, down on society in general, kinda just down on everything. It's an odd attitude for a director best known for films that seemingly cater to a romantic worldview. The man and his work appear in conflict. I wonder if this tension troubles him. Porco Rosso suggests that it does.

Nearly all his protagonists are youngsters, still spirited and optimistic. Perhaps they too are self-portraits of a sort
reflections of his own worldview at that age. But Porco is the only one who is truly middle-aged, as Miyazaki himself was when he wrote this story. What we see in Porco is a realist with not a lot of faith in humanity. Yet we also get the sense that he was not always this way. No, obviously he did not begin life already disillusioned; that's something that can only come with age and experience. Whether it must come with age and experience is debatable, but that it happened to Miyazaki is certain, and perhaps a part of him sees that as regrettable. No doubt, it's not easy to live with what you've become, when you can still remember how much nicer the world used to look. And thus, while Porco himself shows no desire to return to human form, nevertheless the film's heroines, Gina and the spunky young mechanic Fio, root for his curse to be broken—essentially, for him to regain his hopefulness and vigor for life. Whether Miyazaki roots for that is hard to determine. I don't think the movie intends for Porco's happy ending to be conditional upon his regaining his human form, but maybe that's just my own interpretation through a lens of contented disillusionment. But Fio especially—clearly in the lineage of Nausicaa—seems inserted into the movie specifically to argue on behalf of the part of Miyazaki that does still hope. Yes, it's as though a struggle between two aspects of Miyazaki is playing out within a movie to serve as a message from the director to himself. Fascinating.

Following the more youth-oriented Kiki's Delivery Service, Porco Rosso comes across as Miyazaki pausing in a moment of self-reflection to consider his own stage of life. It's not too serious a survey
—he did give himself a pig's head, after all—but thoughtful and honest, self-indulgent yet humble. And, after watching it, I feel like I know and appreciate the man behind the movies better.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Inspirational Quote of the Moment #3

"The Lord will surely not judge you, but I shall. Guilty of being a man, when we should have been gods!"

- Eve

Hey Katie

Sorry to hear things didn't work out with Tom. Anything you need, just let me-

Oh wait, I don't bloody know you people.

(Context: Coworker announces that Katie Holmes is filing for divorce. He's glad, says, "She deserves better." I wouldn't know.)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Only Yesterday

To date, Isao Takahata's Only Yesterday (1991) is the only theatrical Studio Ghibli feature yet to receive (or be scheduled for) an English-language dub or US release. During a Q&A back in 2005, Disney's Rick Dempsey, who directed a number of the English dubs of Ghibli films, explained that the adaptation had been shelved indefinitely because the original movie was more for adults, and if and when it did get a US release, it might be subtitled-only. This surprised me, considering that Disney found a way to bring over Pom Poko (1994), despite it featuring tanuki testicles on display for pretty much the entire movie. I didn't think any Ghibli movie could pose more of a marketing challenge for Disney than that one (well, except for Grave of the Fireflies, which Disney never had the rights to anyway). But maybe it's because of the lengthy episode centered on menstruation, or maybe it's that the father comes off abusive in one scene. Or maybe Only Yesterday just wouldn't be that compelling to Disney's target demographic of children. Whatever the case, it's a shame that this film remains unavailable in the US. I was able to view it when Turner Classic Movies aired a subtitled version in 2006, despite it not having an official US release. What I found was an unforgettable movie unlike any other Ghibli had ever done, unlike anything else I had ever seen in animation.

Based on a manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, Only Yesterday tells the story of Taeko, a single woman working in Tokyo, who, while vacationing in the countryside, finds herself flashing back to memories from when she was in the fifth grade. The original manga was a compilation of episodes about only the child Taeko, but the movie shifts back and forth between the adult Taeko in 1982 and the flashbacks set in 1966.

In either setting, moments are drawn and discussed with a delicate realism seldom seen in animation. Takahata devotes time and startling attention to detail to such simple scenes as characters eating pineapple or picking safflower. If you were one to count cels, then you might regard his allotting so many to realizing such mundane moments to be a wasteful expenditure of labor and run time. And yet, where seeing the Catbus in Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro may have made me think, “I've never seen anything like this before,” these meditative sequences in Only Yesterday, though much the opposite of the Catbus, nevertheless evoked in me a similar reaction of “I didn't know you could do that in animation.” Indeed, these quiet, reflective scenes, for all their simplicity, have a mood and a power to them that you'll find almost nowhere else in the medium.

The flashbacks contain occasional whimsical flourishes, as when a blushing Taeko's emotional state, following her first awkward romantic experience, is illustrated by her rushing off in the direction of the drawn background, but then, without missing a step, seemingly running along the surface of the animation cel itself, her feet lifting off the painted road, before she then proceeds to swim through the clouds toward sleep and dream. These touches charmingly depict the way a child's imagination can warp reality, as well as how the memories of childhood can be further tinted by nostalgia looking back.

The memories themselves are slices of life, not dramatic turning points. The flashbacks come to Taeko as she approaches a crossroads in her as yet unfulfilled adult life, but we are not meant to understand that her tenth year was her most pivotal, when this or that wrong turn or fateful decision determined the trajectory of the rest of her life. My favorite part of the movie comes when child Taeko is overjoyed to be offered an acting gig, only to have her own father forbid her going into showbiz. Cutting back to the present, Taeko's friends, having heard her tell the story, remark on the cruelty of her father to stand in the way of her dreams. But then Taeko reminds them and us that a whole seventeen years passed between then and now, and, in high school, she did try acting, only to find that it wasn't for her. But if it ultimately didn't shape the outcome of her life, then why was this memory featured for our consideration above, say, one from her high school attempt at acting?

Perhaps a memory doesn't have to be especially consequential in order to be personally meaningful. And, to be sure, Takahata's approach is, above all else, deeply personal. Some lengthy asides about organic farming notwithstanding, Takahata's movie is brimming with humanity. Now close in age to the adult Taeko, I find myself easily able to identify with the character at both stages depicted. I don't mean the details, but the awkwardness, the loneliness, the restlessness that she reveals upon self-reflection—it all rings so true, as do memories that poignantly blend nostalgia and embarrassment.

Reflecting on my own ten-year-old self, what I remember are footraces and essay contests, ice cream socials and Drug Abuse Resistance Education, and the time I should have gotten at least a triple in softball but was instead called out for throwing the bat. Looking at my life now, does any of that stuff still matter? These experiences have never helped me land a job or a wife or, really, anything else beyond the moments themselves. To that extent, they certainly haven't defined who I am. And yet, looking at it another way, those memories are no less my story than any others in my life. I look back and think that maybe those moments did reveal who I was and am, not by defining me, but by how I defined them. At least, for whatever reason, they have stuck with me. I can recall them clearly and still feel now as I did in the moments, as if it were all only yesterday.