The 2nd Dimension

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Viewing Journal: Beck (complete)

Series Overview
DVD Info

Overall= B-
Story = B-
Video = D+
Audio = C+


Tanaka Yukio, better known by his nickname Koyuki is a 14 year old who feels disconnected from life in general. Through the act of saving a mismatched dog, he meets guitarist Minami Ryuusuke, and becomes involved in Ryuusuke's new band BECK. Koyuki's life starts to change as the band struggles towards fame. (Source: ANN)

There is no shortage of shows involving teenagers discovering that they have an innate talent for something, and -- with the help and encouragement of those around them -- "working their hardest" to develop and increase their abilities until they become the best in the world. It's a formula that works well most of the time because friendship, encouragement, triumph, and rise to greatness are all uplifting themes that most anyone can get behind, Beck being no exception. But Beck also has the added benefit of being about a rock band, which makes it more relatable than most.

Koyuki is a normal 14-year old who one day happens upon a freakish-looking dog, and through it meets up with Ryuusuke -- a guitarist who is working to start a new band. Koyuki begins to learn some guitar and develops his singing talents and eventually ends up bringing the new band Beck/Mongolian Chop Squad stardom in Japan with hopes of making it big in the US.

I think the biggest draw of this show is the fact that it actually seems plausible. Sure, some of the characters and plot threads are unlikely to exist in reality, but the general idea of someone going from being a nobody to being a rock star is plausible because there are so many real stories of rock bands who made that happen. Plus Koyuki's feeling of detachment and his desire for freedom and expression through music are also easy for most people to relate to because music is such a universally understood medium of expression.

The show also does a good job of maintaining a relatively subtle tone. One way it does this is by eliminating any background music in its soundtrack; so the only time you hear music is when the bands are playing. This kind of technique was also used in the Paradise Kiss anime and in both cases was successful in giving the show a realistic and genuine feel by allowing to characters and drama to stand out on their own without the crutch of background music.

The one unfortunate thing is that there isn't much of an ending to the show. The last episode is mostly just a bunch of music-related visuals with Koyuki's voice in the background narrating what the band is doing. My guess is that -- as with so many anime with similar endings -- either the show's writers didn't have an ending planned, or it ran out of material to pull from the original manga, or both.

As for the animation, it's pretty bad. The character designs and animation vary between episodes, but the majority of the time they are sloppy. The only parts that really stand out as being better quality are the times when the bands are playing on stage. It's disappointing, but still didn't keep me from enjoying the story much.

There are a couple of interesting things to note about this show. The first is the fact that the characters -- in the original Japanese dialogue anyway -- will occasionally shift from speaking Japanese to speaking English because two of the characters were raised in America. It's amusing because their accents are so thick when they speak English that if it weren't for subtitles I wouldn't have any idea what they were saying. This is made all the worse when they start swearing in English, which looses some of it's effect because the voice-actors didn't seem to know how to act as well in English as in Japanese.

The other thing that I thought was interesting was how character's reactions to Koyuki's singing -- and Beck's music in general -- compared to the actual quality of the music itself. Back before I saw the anime and had heard of the Beck manga I thought, "How can you have a manga about a rock band? There's no way to hear the music!" But now that I've seen the anime version I can see where the story would actually work better in manga form. That's because in the anime, Koyuki's singing, even at the best of times, is pretty bad. (He reminded me of someone who would have gotten kick off of American Idol in the early rounds.) But regardless, the characters in the anime would react to Koyuki like he was the greatest thing since The Beatles. In manga form this wouldn't be a problem because you couldn't hear the music, so it would be easier to accept that his singing was great as long as you used your imagination. (Though I do have to say that I did enjoy the opening and second ending songs. And if you listen closely you'll catch a Pillows song in the last episode.)

Musical quality discrepancies aside though, I really did enjoy the Beck anime if for no other reason than I generally like stories that involve rock bands. I'm not sure that everyone would like it though since the general storyline is unoriginal and it's animation is sub-par.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Viewing Journal: Irresponsible Captain Tylor (complete)

Series Overview
DVD Info

Overall= C+
Story = C+
Video = C+
Audio = C


Justy Ueki Tylor thought a career in the United Planets Space Force (UPSF) would give him an easy life: enlist, get a desk job, spend the rest of his life in quiet, boring comfort. No sooner does he take the qualifying exam than war breaks out with the Raalgon Empire, and circumstances quickly conspire to land this volunteer off the street in command of the cruiser "Soyokaze." Now Tylor faces two uphill battles - against the Raalgon fleet that wants to kill him, and against his own crew, who expect him to conform to some standard of military discipline. But as the war rages, Tylor's easy-going ways might have a better chance of converting his crew than vice-versa. (Source: ANN)

This show takes some getting used to. In the beginning it is hard to accept how Captain Tylor gets to be captain of his ship. It's not that I expect hardcore realism from a sci-fi comedy anime, and I know that much of Tylor's success is supposed to be due to "luck"; but even given that, the reaction of the characters seem unnatural and contrived in order to land him into the captain's seat of the Soyokaze as quickly as possible. The reasons that the commanders of the UPSF use to give Tylor command of a ship don't make sense, and then even after he gets command, the way that the commanders from both the UPSF and the Raalgon Empire overreact to his antics are unconvincing and inconsistent with their personalities.

That all being said, once all the pieces are in place: Tylor is captain of the ship, the higher-ups are focused on getting rid of Tylor, and the Raalgon leaders are interested in kidnapping him -- and once you've gotten over the fact that everything up to that point made no logical sense -- then it's actually a pretty fun show to watch. It's not that it is any more realistic or believable at that point; it's just that the characters react more naturally and consistently to the situations.

The main draw of the show is how it tries to blur the line between how much of Tylor's success is due to luck and how much is due to his conscious strategy. As first everything seems to be due purely to luck, but as it progresses it becomes increasingly unclear, and Tylor starts to seem like a stronger character.

As for the visuals, this is an old-school anime, so it's from the days before digital animation. As a result the art is much more detailed and spontaneous. I've really started to get interested in these kind of old-school sci-fi anime because it seems like there is so much more creativity and fun in the designs. Of course, there's no re-mastering here so the quality of the video is not as crisp and clear as you'll get in modern anime, which I'm guessing is enough to turn a lot of viewers away.

The music is mostly typical 80's type of anime music: cheesy and campy but still fitting. There is also some music that is pulled from well-known movie soundtracks which is used in the last few episodes making for some funny moments.

So in the end, I'm glad that I watched this show. Even though the first few episodes were kind of ridiculous (and not in a good way), overall it was a fun show to watch.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Reading Journal: Battle Royale

Book Overview

Overall= C+


As part of a ruthless program by the totalitarian government, ninth-grade students are taken to a small isolated island with a map, food, and various weapons. Forced to wear special collars that explode when they break a rule, they must fight each other for three days until only one "winner" remains. (Source: Amazon)

About a year and a half ago I watched the live action Battle Royale movie and loved it. So when I heard that the original book version was being translated and released in the US, I had to see how the two compared. And after finishing the book, I'll say that it's definitely an interesting read, but not nearly as entertaining as the movie.

The story of Battle Royale plays out like a combination of Lord of the Flies meets 1984 meets The Running Man. It takes place in an alternate history Japan where, as part of a military research program, a class of forty-two unwitting students are taken to an island, given random weapons, and told to kill each other within three days. The last student standing is labelled the victor and granted a dubious award, but if more than one student is left after the allotted time, everyone dies.

The initial draw of the book is the question of "what would you do in that situation?" And to its credit the book does a good job of showing forty-two kids, each with distinct personalities, history, emotional baggage, and philosophies on how to approach the game. In fact, part of what kept me reading was to see (1) how each character would deal with the situation, and (2) how each character would bite it in the end.

The real value of the book is in it's role as an allegory for youth. It's meant to show that this is in fact how real kids view the world: that they live in an oppressive world in which they have little control, and that adults simply use them and push them into a cutthroat, kill-or-be-killed educational system. I can see where this would be all the more true in Japan where so much more stress is put on succeeding in school no matter what. I found it particularly enlightening how the students in the book, in order to find some level of freedom and rebellion in under the restrictive government, turn to contraband music and literature smuggled from America.

So purely from those ideas and insights, the book is definitely an interesting read. But the entertainment value in terms of the suspense and thrill that you would expect from such a violent story is limited by the author's awkward, amateurish writing style.

The first chapter opens with the line "42 students remaining", which is actually a great way to begin because right away I was hooked with an adrenaline rush since I knew that by the end that number would dwindle down. But as the story built up to the point where I expected the action to really get going, it was suddenly interrupted by an ill-timed flashback; and it continued in that vein throughout. Now, I'm not faulting the flashbacks themselves, it's just that I've seen other authors who are able to use that kind of character development to enhance suspense; but here it tends to disrupt the pace of the action and destroy much of the suspense.

Plus, the characters themselves seem more like one-dimensional stereotypes for kinds of students instead of fully fleshed-out, believable characters. It's like an extended version of the cast of Breakfast Club where you have the jock, the nerd, the rebel, and the princess, along with the arrogant rich boy, the coward, the idiot, and of course everyone's favorites: the stone-cold stoic killer, and the psychopathic bitch. This can be amusing at times, but limits the level of empathy, and -- as a result -- limits the potential for suspense.

There were other things about the author's writing style that I wasn't crazy about. For instance, he is pretty blunt when describing things. So he's more likely to say something like "the red blood flowed from his head" as opposed to "the crimson fluid oozed out of his gaping wound like lava through the caverns of hell." Not that I need poetry, but I think adding more color to the language makes a book easier to read. The other thing I don't like is that the point-of-view will spontaneously shift from one character to another in the middle of a chapter, which can be confusing and, again, break the pace. Though instances like that tend to happen less as the book goes on, which give me the impression that the author was developing his writing skill as he went.

For those who have seen the movie, I do think this book is a worthwhile read just because, though inferior for entertainment value, it does add a lot of description to the characters and setting that helps make a lot more sense out of what is going on. First of all, as mentioned before, just about every single character gets some level of description of their background and personalities, but more importantly there is a lot more explanation of the world in which the story takes place and the real purpose and origin behind the program-o-death. In the movie there was some explanation, but it didn't seem to make much sense; but here, thankfully, it's more fleshed-out.

On the flip side, the movie does a better job at keeping the pace of the action and suspense by cutting back on the flashback sequences, including just enough to give the story some depth. And although many of characters are just as much stereotyped in the movie as in the book, the movie does a better job of playing up the camp-factor, making the stereotypes seem more like intentional exaggerations instead of limitations in the writing.

So overall this book has a fascinating premise, but the execution is so flawed as to limit its full potential. I mentioned in a previous post that my enjoyment of the movie version may have been due to low expectations, so it stands to reason that my high expectations for the book might be the reason behind my lack luster review. But I don't think so.