Sunday, 16 April 2017

Style Substitutes Substance: A Review of Waid and Samnee's 'Black Widow' (2016-7 comic)

I don’t mean style over substance as an insult. In Waid and Samnee’s twelve-issue, single-arc run on Black Widow, plot threads only just hold together, characters have rote motivations, and the themes extend to characters saying ‘secret’ a lot. On their own, these elements are merely competent. Here, they are redeemed, because they fuel the book’s style.

Black Widow runs from SHIELD. A masked terrorist named Weeping Lion blackmails her into digging up her own past. He wants information on the Red Room, a school for child assassins. The Red Room has resurrected, ready to educate a new generation of assassins.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

A Gay Old Time: A Review of 'Moll Cutpurse: Her True History' by Ellen Galford (1985)

It’s amazing what you can find, trawling through second-hand bookstores. I found a swashbuckling, historical yarn, starring a tomboyish lesbian, in a loving relationship, written in the 1980s – which doesn’t end in misery.

During the reigns of Elizabeth and James I, when women weren’t at their most emancipated, a dashing thief-tress stole her way through England: Moll Cutpurse. We follow her from her start as her parent’s problem child, to her managing a pick-pocket academy, to her bambooziling a shanghai-ing ship captain, and beyond. Throughout her life, Moll has one constant, her apothecary girlfriend Bridget. 

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Approaching Mediocrity: A Review of 'Kindred Spirits on the Roof' (2015 manga)

Perhaps this collection appeals to fans of the original game, but Kindred Spirits on the Roof underwhelms as a standalone manga. Cameos pop up, as though we should care about them, and maybe players of the game do. But none of the characters in this work are compelling or distinct. What we have here are graphic novellas that feel slight and unsatisfying.

Both stories share Shirojo high-school as a setting, but otherwise do not overlap. The first story focuses on Shiori. She still pangs with guilt over fleeing her best friend, Mako, when Mako confessed her love for Shiori. With the help of her new friends, Hina and Seina, Shiori must learn to stop running from her problems, and her feelings.

The second story concerns a girl, Hase, who adores seeing female friendships. She loves her voyeurism so much, she joins the quiz club just to pour over the friendship of the club’s two leaders, Tomoe and Sasaki. Together they aim to win the national quiz tournament. And will Tomoe and Sasaki’s friendship become something more? (Not even a spoiler: it will.) 

Sunday, 19 March 2017

All Sweetness and Light: A Review of 'Hana and Hina After School' Vol. 1 (2015 manga)

Calling Hana and Hina After School ‘sweet’ seems like damning with faint praise. It’s like I’m saying, ‘This piece of fluff has nothing to say.’ And indeed, this series does have little to say (at least in this volume). But while this series has no grand moral messages, nor very deep characters, nor even grand conflict, the series is a sweet story of budding love.  

Quite against school rules, Hana has a part-time job. She works in a toy store, but she keeps a low profile. If her school finds out, they’ll expel her. One day, one of her regular customers, the dashing Hina, asks if the store still has a vacancy open. It turns out, despite her cool demeanour, Hina goes gaga over everything cute: plush-toys, dolls, Hana – Not that she’d ever reveal that last one. But until both Hana and Hina figure out their feelings, their biggest worry is that their school will discover their jobs, and expel them. 

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Break Your Shell: A Review of Princess Jellyfish Omnibus One (2009 manga)

Princess Jellyfish has a passive protagonist shocked into life by a manic pixie dream girl – and yet it’s not a bad book. Going on omnibus one, this seems to be a belated-coming-of-age story. Our heroine’s must learn to overcome her passivity. And the manic pixie dream girl is not the male wish fulfilment it so often is, because 1) this book is about a woman’s coming-of-age, and 2) our dream girl is a male transvestite.  

Tsukimi is a fujoshi, who shares an apartment building with other fujoshi, self-proclaimed ‘rotten women’. They have no time for social lives, or, really, lives at all, outside their obsessions. Tsukimi seems resigned to a life of social stagnation. Until, she runs into Koibuchi, a girl with all the style and affability Tsukimi lacks. But it turns out Koibuchi is a cross-dressing guy. And though Tsukimi gave up on her social life, Koibuchi has far more ambition for her.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Isn't This All Just a Bit Ridiculous: A Review of Daphne du Maurier's 'The Birds' (1952 short-story)

When applied to modern fiction, the word ‘fable’ sounds like an excuse. The word suggests the work harkens back to a simpler, more primal style – and thus the lack complex characters and plot is entirely justified. At times, the word ‘fable’ is justified (see Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery). Some have called Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds fable-like, though I am not so sure. The story’s simplicity is not a feature, but a fault. The story’s self-seriousness, and lack of compelling characters, undermines its genuinely terrifying aspects.

In an isolated English village, birds attack Nat Hocken’s family. These little birds break through his windows to peck out his eyes. By the next day, he has fifty avian carcases to clean up, and no villager will believe him. People soon have no choice but to believe, as the birds blacken the sky in London. A state of emergency is declared. The BBC warns the populace to stay indoors. Against nature so unnatural, can Nat Hocken and his family survive? 

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Good is Enough: A Review of 'Secret of the Princess' (2012-5 manga)

Sometimes, a well-done love story is enough. In Milk Morinaga yuri oeuvre, there’s manga with more depth and scope. While such qualities can elevate a work to greatness, a merely decent story is nothing to scoff at. Secret of the Princess somewhat explores the shackles of heteronormativity, but this seems thematic gravy to what is a well-done yuri love story.

Miu’s mother raised her to snag a prince. Miu lives by her mother’s advice, making herself cute and girly so she can marry a handsome guy. Trouble is, she goes to an all-girls’ school. For all her girliness, Miu’s had no practise dating. What if she finds the one only to mess up their first date? When Fujiwara, Miu’s tomboyish upperclassman, smashes a vase, she begs Miu to keep quiet. She’ll do anything in return. Anything. Miu demands she and Fujiwara start dating – just so Miu can practise for her future prince, of course. But is Miu’s prince closer than she thinks.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Someone Else's Nostalgia: A Review of 'Mai Mai Miracle' (2009 anime film)

Full Disclosure: I backed this film’s Kickstarter. I have buyer’s remorse. Also, spoilers.

Mai Mai Miracle wants you to feel things, other than boredom. Great animation veils undercooked characters and an unfocussed plot. Unfortunately, the film is otherwise so competent, that no dunderheaded artistic choice will distract you from how much of a slog the film is.

In 1950s Japan, there forms an unlikely friendship between an outgoing, rural tomboy and a shy, city girl. Our tomboy, Shinko, has a vivid imagination. She transforms the countryside into the ancient Land of Suo’s capital. She dreams of a lonely princess, who wants only to meet a girl her age. Our shy girl, Kiiko, can’t quite grasp Shinko’s fantasies, but reaches out to them regardless. Our heroines, alongside four boys, adventure through the countryside, until one of the boys has his life changed forever. 

Sunday, 12 February 2017

You Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks: An Analysis of Jason's 'Lost Cat' (2013 comic)

Contains Spoilers for the Entirety of Jason’s Lost Cat

You wouldn’t think a detective tale of a dead-eyed, anthropomorphised dog suffering mid-life crisis could be a tender examination of resignation. Jason tells a Chandler-esque crime story, which isn’t really a crime story. He tells a love story which isn’t really a love story. He tells an alien invasion story, that only becomes so by the end. Jason tells the story of Dan Dellon, a man who can’t change, but almost knows he should.

PI Dan Dellon finds a lost cat on leaving his office. When he returns it, he strikes up a conversation with its owner, Charlotte. He asks her on a date, which she accepts. Charlotte doesn’t show. Two men claiming to be Charlotte’s brothers come snooping. Dan smells a fish. But that’s a red herring. An old man, Dumont, hires Dan to find a nude painting of his former sweetheart. But that’s a red herring. When Dan closes Dumont’s case, and surrenders to the dead ends of Charlotte’s case, Dan lets years pass. He lives alone, accompanied only by a fantasy of him and Charlotte growing old together. During an alien invasion, Charlotte returns to Dan. She was a scout, and is just now coming to say goodbye. After Dan waves a gun at her, calling her a liar, Dan embraces his fantasy of Charlotte, the real Charlotte having left him.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

'Stars have Fallen in a Stagnant Pool': A Review of Akira Kurosawa's 'Scandal' (1950 film)

[Warning: Spoilers for the entirety of Akira Kurosawa’s Scandal]

Akira Kurosawa’s Scandal is a masterfully directed first draft. It is a potentially great film where one can see every mistake dragging it down. When writing, Kurosawa and Kikushima seemingly started with, ‘What if two innocent people got libelled in a sex scandal?’ As they continued, however, their interest shifted from the libel victims to their lawyer, Hiruta (Takashi Shimura), and his redemption story. In early drafts, such shifts of focus are fine, but the writers neglected to make the whole script fit this new focus.

The painter Ichirou Aoye (Toshiro Mifune) and the singer Miyako Saijo (Shirley Yamaguchi) vacation in the mountains, separately. A chance encounter leads Ichiro to chauffeur Miyako to their inn, where they have a platonic conversation in her room. Two tabloid photographers trailed them. They take a photo of this famous singer and her ‘paramour’. The tabloid has plastered their libel all over Tokyo’s streets when our heroes return. Help arrives in the attorney Hiruta, a poor, weasly-looking man, with a consumptive daughter. Can Hiruta save them? 

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Anime Recommendation: Revolutionary Girl Utena

Sorry, something came up, so I can’t post a full-length review this week. Instead, I’ll just recommend one of my favourite anime: Revolutionary Girl Utena.

Utena is a parody, a tragedy, a bildungsroman, a queer love story, a feminist text, a magical realist tale, a critique of ideals and seeming perfection, a fairy-tale that has outgrown fairy-tales, and most of all a thoroughly entertaining anime. Utena is a coming-of age-story, but not sentimental. It does not see the death of childhood as a sad, if necessary, fact of life.

To Utena, childhood means ignorance, self-righteousness, and received ideas. A true adult abandons false ideals, and cultivates their truest self. The show first presents our hero, Utena, as a ‘gender rebel’, a girl who dresses as a boy and aspires to be a prince. But her rebellion is not revolution, as she still operates under false ideals. As a girl, she refuses to play the role she was cast, the princess – yet she still plays a role, the prince. Even ‘rebelling’ against the gender binary, she plays into it. Her journey through the series requires her to move beyond ‘prince’ and ‘princess’, to fight not for these ideals, but for tangible things.

Here, I have shallowly dug into a single theme in this sprawling series. I could go on about the show’s exploration of self-pity, incest, the Problem of Evil, patriarchy, teenage pretension, self-delusion, etc.,etc.

When the Blu-Ray set of Utena comes out, I plan to do an analysis of it.    

Sunday, 22 January 2017

To Cairo with Laughs: A Review of 'OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies' (2006 Film)

You hear ‘parody of 60s spy films’, you think ‘Austin Powers’. OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies proves the French do it better. While still camp and parodic, OSS 117 has more restraint the Anglophone alternative. As fits a parody based on a genuine exemplar of the spygenre, it feels like 21st-century comedians uncovered a mid-20th-century non-comedic script treatment. They mock the clichés and prejudices of an old form, but still weave a decent narrative around the old form  

French spy Jack Jefferson is KIA in 1950s Cairo. What does this have to do with a Soviet arms shipment? And how are the Eagle of Koep, an Islamic extremist group, involved. The French secret service sends OSS 117 to investigate, their Middle-East specialist. He doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘fear’. Or any words of Arabic. Or even the word ‘Arabic’ – But has cultural ignorance ever stopped the West? With Jefferson’s former assistant, the beautiful Larmina El Akmar Betouche, and a warehouse of chickens, OSS 117 must get the truth.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

All in the Execution: A Review of 'Emma: A Victorian Romance, Omnibus 1' by Kaoru Mori (2002 Manga)

Emma: A Victorian Romance shows it’s all in the execution. Open a compendium of stock-plots to ‘forbidden love, interclass’, and you’ll find Emma’s outline. Yet Kaoru Mori avoids going through the motions, imbuing an old story with calm life.    

When William, a member of the landed gentry, visits his former governess in London, he grows infatuated with her maid, Emma. Although Emma catches all the young men’s eyes, William may have caught her eye, too. But, as they say, in Victorian England there are two nations, the Upper-classes and the Lower, and never shall the two cross. Can William and Emma’s sapling love survive the boot of propriety and practicality?

Sunday, 1 January 2017

A Teen Witch Fights a Tank: A Review of 'Izetta: The Last Witch' (2016 Anime)

I doubt any of the staff of Izetta: The Last Witch’s thought they were making art. They aimed as high as the best of trash, and got damn close. Expect no deeply explored themes, expect no round characters, but do expect a teenage witch riding a rifle as a broom. Expect camp, WW2, action trash, with little on its mind.

In an ersatz-WW2, the Germanian Empire fights for world dominion. Hope falls to Archduchess Ortfiné, ruler of the miniscule nation of Elystadt. While fleeing Germanian agents, she finds a young witch. With the help of Izetta the last witch, Ortfiné escapes her pursuers, before taking on the Germanian Empire.