2017
02.13
I'm not sure why I made this.

I’m not sure why I made this.

Boy, are people hyped for the new Samurai Jack. Even the people who don’t care for the show have the mental thought noise of Phil LaMarr saying “Gotta get back, back to the past” in their head recently. None of that hesitant hype people had for the new Powerpuff Girls or Teen Titans Go that eventually soured and became seething rage that quickly overpopulated actual discussion of those respective shows. Just genuine awe and excitement over seeing a little show about a samurai fighting an evil wizard come back to the TV screen. Refreshing, especially for a show I never expected to come back. I just assumed the “Jump Good” episode was the ending and was done with it, while being mildly woken up by the occasional “Tartakovsky is in the next stage of production for the Samurai Jack movie” news every other year for the past decade. And to be honest, up until writing this article and doing the research, I haven’t watched many episodes of Samurai Jack for ages. Some I haven’t seen since they originally aired, but it’s cool that the new season’s given me an opportunity to re-open this trove.

A disgraced writer named Lawrence Miles once talked about the reason why Looney Tunes characters have lasted to this day, because they’re not written to be relatable, but to be iconic. Look at a purple bird running, and you automatically get the image of Road Runner without any further explanation, you just hear the “Meep meep!” in your head as soon as the thought enters. It’s kind of the same with Samurai Jack. I know there have been jokes about how Jack looks exactly like Professor Utonium, but there’s a nice simplicity in his design and Aku’s that says more with less. How you only need to look at a mere outline to be able to go “Oh, hey. That’s Aku!” Styling like that gives viewers an easy identity to put on the show. It’s a show built on creating not just relatable or fun characters, but ones that can be iconic in a sense. But then that leads to the other argument, that the show is too simple with how Aku’s a one-dimensional villain whose dialogue consists of either laughing or “Foolish samurai!” To that, I say the show’s DNA holds more than enough to contradict that claim.

From Yojimbo, to Lone Wolf and Cub, to Tezuka, to pre-crazy Frank Miller, Samurai Jack’s the obvious product of someone who’s read and watched all of that and uses them to put the puzzle pieces together for his own work. So many cardinal works consumed and digested, all to form one unified essence within this show. You can see it in the shots resembling less that of traditional animated fights and more like comic panels, the episode tributes to other artists, and many cheeky in-jokes like when Huntor from Dexter’s Lab made a cameo. Signs that Tartakovsky is more than happy to pay homage to past works to honor his current one. Even in talks about his new season, he’s absolutely gleeful to discuss how films as recent as Mad Max: Fury Road gave him ideas.

Despite being that open in what the show derives from, Samurai Jack also had a unique flavor most of its contemporaries didn’t have back then. Action cartoons in that era were more superhero fare like Justice League, or too self-aware and comedic to tell a dramatic story like Megas XLR. Samurai Jack didn’t have either of that, with Tartakovsky’s interviews emphasizing how he wanted to create a more vulnerable protagonist than the other fare. How the lack of dialogue for some scenes would help kids focus on the animation and artwork. I’m especially amused by this show’s answer to censoring violence, by just having Jack kill robots and cyborgs who bleed oil, even as enemies are mutilated or given visceral deaths, they always either explode or bleed oil. I’m almost sad the new season will probably relax that law, because it was charming. Like when Jack fights a bunch of reptilian warriors, and he can only cut off their arms because they’re the cybernetic part. That was cute.

Not to say it’s all perfect though, because there are some issues getting in the way when re-evaluating this show. Like a reference to the Austin Powers theme in the Mad Jack episode, timely then but scoff-worthy to hear now. The Sah-moo-rai episode, which while still funny to me, was somewhat embarrassing to watch given how unashamedly stereotypical he was. A little bit like watching a Wayans Bros movie. Or the one where Jack has to save all the teenagers from the evils of rave music, where he has to explain to the demon DJ that he thinks the music is bad-bad instead of slang bad. All of these little detours that have probably made fans scratch their heads when the thought of a pacifier sucking, Dr. Seuss hat wearing Jack dancing pops up in their brains. For every liter of pure focus, there was an ounce of that running in the series.

And it does beg to question what this show’s ultimate plan was. I always thought that by the last season, Aku’s forces were waning, given that he had to resort to getting formerly retired robots like X9, or increasingly incompetent bounty hunters to do his work. Leading to this idea that Aku will eventually lose merely out of his own failure than through Jack’s strength. I guess my idea was wrong considering how much of a sorry shape Jack is in. But still, it’s refreshing to know the final season will be more connected this time, with a definite endgame in store and not a finale where Jack takes care of a baby.

2017
02.08
Sweet Platonic Monkey Love

Sweet Platonic Monkey Love

I hate having a film that I want to watch, but I don’t either because of lack of time, there are other things to watch, genuine forgetfulness, and so on. I’m seldom known for being on point the moment something important pops up. And while many films can hold that distinction for me, one that just kept getting away was Kubo. Meant to watch it on August, but no theaters around me had it. Meant to watch it on November, but I’m too frugal to slip $30 for a DVD. And for half a year, “You should watch Kubo, it’s a fun movie” kept flowing into my thoughts while my lack of strong will stopped me from seeing it until now. Yeah, second article in a row of me talking about stuff I’ve taken forever to get to. Definitely not the last if I actually remember what I had on my backlog.

And what a pleasant surprise from Kubo. Even with all the hype, and how fans were justly loud and angry at a certain Sony movie about meat products doing better, I was still amazed over how great this movie was. Every shot and scene felt like it was crafted out of love. Being Asian myself, I’m always intrigued when a western animated film tries to adapt eastern elements, like in Mulan and Kung Fu Panda. Or even in shows like Samurai Jack and Avatar. It’s fun to pinpoint which details they got right and what cultural allusions they added in. Even the ones I don’t like are more often than not made because the creator has genuine curiosity for other cultures and wants to capture it in their own story. Kubo’s director Travis Knight is definitely such a creator, using all this experience to make such an ethereal fairy tale. Everything he puts into his film is sincere, where you can even get emotional resonance out of the waves of the oceans in some scenes. I know that sounds overly pontifical, but it’s true.

The film has deep meanings established, but all accessible enough to be told in a 101-minute kids’ movie. For instance, I appreciate the way the film handles death and how we deal with it. While death’s sad, the agony over it shouldn’t consume you as long as you utilize your memories for comfort, and participate in a few rituals to keep your mind clear of bad thoughts. A message told in many other animated films, but the way it’s presented here is more than exceptional. Mortality is simply one stage of a human’s journey, while the second is how they impact their loved ones. People can die physically, but never spiritually as someone’s there to remember them. And if you don’t agree with that like the Moon King did, then your perception of others, even your kin, gets thrown out the window. Now convey that message with giant eyes and a titanic skeleton, and you get a modern folk tale known as Kubo.

Kubo’s an alright character, especially when he’s played by someone who previously acted as such a nonentity as Rickon Stark. But the real charm comes from the way the supporting cast fill their shoes. Charlize Theron makes a great Monkey, and Matthew McConaughey’s fun performance makes me regret previously mocking his gargly voice in True Detective and those car commercials. I wasn’t too sure about why they cast Ralph Fiennes though, because he does an old Asian man voice for his character. Like if he watched clips of Aku from Samurai Jack as resource material for his performance, it sounded as if they wanted him to sound like Mako Iwamatsu since they obviously can’t get the actual Mako Iwamatsu. I’m not going to be one of those assholes who claims everything’s “Orientalist”, but they did have George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in the movie too. Nothing was stopping Laika from using either of them instead, or getting the guy who played Uncle from Jackie Chan Adventures. While Fiennes was still good in his role, and I’m perfectly fine with non-Asian actors playing Asian characters in cartoons, there was just something off about that. It would be like if they made a Luke Cage cartoon, and Diamondback was played by Steve Blum who went out of his way to sound like a black guy.

So yeah, thumbs up to Laika, and hope this film gets a second lease on life from word-of-mouth.

2017
02.04
but a miserable pile of secrets?

but a miserable pile of secrets?

Rose of Versailles was always that show I heard referenced to for years, but never got around to watching it. For years, I’ve watched more of that musical theatre version of the story than the manga or the anime. Embarrassing, I know. How dare I write reviews of anime when I haven’t watched all of the greats yet? But that was then, and now I’m cured, delivered, and I’ve seen the light that is a 70s/80s anime from Tokyo Movie Shinsha. Alleluia. But looking at this show with modern eyes, it’s provocative how much of this story resonates now. Strangely appealing in these current times due to having a female lead who abandons gender norms whilst facing an increasingly divided social and economic hierarchy. Women throughout the series are forced to choose their roles in life at the cost of those they love. Society is on the brink of bloody change. If someone had the nerve to adapt the manga now, they would probably be celebrated as topical and hardhitting by short-minded anime critics who don’t realize it first came out in 1972.

I’m sure someone out there can make a good argument that our lead Oscar’s life is meant to be a prototypical transgender narrative. And I would agree with that point, since the manga author is well-used to writing about transgender themes like in her 1978 publication Claudine. Throughout the story, Oscar is in conflict with her gender identity, wanting to be a warrior and doing well in her job. Yet her urges to be with Fersen and her relationship with Andre plays a great deal in her personal affairs, along with a one-sided crush from Rosalie’s perspective. But she doesn’t choose to be masculine, it’s forced upon her by her well-meaning but controlling father. To me, it’s less of her fight between genders, and more of her battle between becoming a warrior like her father intended or being a lover to Andre, Fersen, or even Rosalie. That’s what makes Oscar stand out and lead this anime by herself, because her personality allows for all of these interpretations on her inner struggles. She’s probably one of the best female characters the anime/manga medium has to offer thanks to that.

I’m especially impressed by how this show can handle characterization given its stylistic choices. Because no matter how broadminded you can be, this is a show that came out in 1979, and it shows quite painfully in some places. Occasionally when we get a dramatic scene, organ music straight out of a 60s soap opera plays. And when a romantic scene occurs, you get what I assume to be a synth version of a harp playing. I’m not sure how to properly describe it beyond that, but the music overall feels very out of place for a show set in the midst of the French Revolution. It’s especially glaring thanks to the animation that’s aged well for the most part, even if the directorial change from Tadao Nagahama to Osamu Dezaki is noticeable. When Dezaki takes the helm, many of the “Oh, look how pretty French royalty is!” moments go away, and he introduces this bard under a bridge whose songs foreshadow the end of the aristocracy. Nagahama already depicted the lords and ladies of France as coldhearted, but he did pull his punches whenever Marie Antoinette shows up. After he dies, that’s put in doubt.

One of those show’s biggest questions lies in whether or not Marie Antoinette is at fault for the common Frenchman’s plight. In contrast to the “let them eat cake” portrayal, Rose of Versailles treats her as someone very out of control of her situation. Many challenges to nobility are done without her knowledge, and her name is often used in aristocrats’ schemes without her consent. But she never seeks a way to undo these wrongs, instead holding out in her palaces while people like her mother beg her to fulfill her duty as a queen. Sure, she does try to take the moral stance in situations right in front of her, but Marie never seeks out these problems firsthand. She’s not pro-active, letting those around her grow decadent and abuse the common folk while she realizes too late that they’re going to look at her as the cause for all their suffering. But she can’t join the working class and sympathize with their plight because that means losing good favor with the noblemen she’s known all her life, making her too afraid to join the righteous path if it means abandoning familiar surroundings. She’s not the cause for all this suffering, just an unwitting scapegoat and symptom of how bluebloods or those who at least claim to bluebloods can abuse their power.

Throughout Antoinette’s reign, we see all of these horrible, despicable people find riches and fame in Versailles, like Guement, DuBarry, and Jeanne. What’s interesting about the latter two is that neither are born noble. DuBarry started out as a bloodthirsty prostitute who got lucky enough to be a king’s mistress, and Jeanne just cheated and killed her way to grandeur. We get few and far moments that these two women are anything but abominable, and it’s through Jeanne’s self-centered actions that shake up the foundation of French society. Nobody’s in agreement, everybody’s scheming to take each others’ positions, and none of the peasants can do anything about it for the majority of the show. They have to stand around while their own kind are either shot or run over by carriages, unable to do anything because a noble’s blood running down the streets would bring forth armies while a commoner’s blood would not. No matter how many cry about needing bread to feed their families, all it takes is a handful of nobles, blind to the public’s opinion, to decide who lives and who dies.

But the show’s indecisive on the “nobles = bad, commoners = good” argument. Chalk that up to shades of gray. Look at Rosalie for instance, the good sister compared to Jeanne. She’s revealed to have noble blood on her birth mother’s side all along. Even then, she’s in conflict with that ancestry, doing much to renounce that connection in favor of how her adoptive mother raised her. It’s another example of women in this series trying to fight back against the role their parents have given them, to varying results. Her character arc never rises to a satisfying conclusion, with her just leaving and becoming Bernard’s husband. I heard from questionable sources that was because her character was unpopular when the manga was ongoing, and the author just decided to shuffle her away as a response. Something I wish didn’t happen, because Rosalie had some potential for the later parts of the series. That’s one issue with the series, it doesn’t fully involve itself in some characters with parts to play, like Fersen, Marie Antoinette’s lover. He leaves to fight in America for seven years. Then when he comes back, he finds his beloved France torn by class warfare and hatred from both nobles and peasants. The 97% lower-class versus the 3% nobles. But his story arc and eventual conclusion (one with historical basis at that) just gets told secondhand by the narrator. The show tries to fit so many years of French history into forty episodes that important events are sped through instead of indulged upon. Somewhat of a necessity to make sure the plot doesn’t lag, but lamentable nonetheless.

But we do get some cool moments for other characters, such as how tensions between classes lead to vigilantes like the Black Knight. I thought that was a fun addition. I initially believed it to be out of place, but then just reminded myself of Zorro or Fantomas. Or Princess Knight, something of a precursor to Rose of Versailles’ characterization. I guess if you’re going to do something important and nerve-wrecking to one of your characters, having a masked crusader show up and attack him is one way to handle it. I know to others this arc will come off as dumb for what’s meant to be a sign of political outcry, but I still like this idea. When tensions rise, people are going to go for fantastical, out there, and silly ideas to solve problems. If you added more pulp in history, people are more likely to devour it.

An interesting thing to note is how Robespierre, one of the most important figures in the Reign of Terror, only makes brief appearances and cameos for the first 30 episodes. Learning about the French Revolution back in school, he was always written in my history books like he was omnipresent. The face of a looming force about to break out into France. I recall my history teacher bringing up Robespierre just as much as she brought up Bonaparte, making him sound like the ultimate example of all the good and evils that come from a revolution. While the show makes sure to remind us that he’s the spearhead for something greater, it’s not as strongly pronounced as I expected, focusing more on the French Revolution on a step-by-step basis with Robespierre as simply one of these steps. It takes until episode 34 for his speeches to occur, when he speaks at the Etats-Generaux. Even when rioters start attacking people who aren’t even nobles, Robespierre doesn’t show up at the beginning. The anime doesn’t even do much to portray him as corrupt, using Saint-Just as the questionable revolutionary instead.

I guess the easy answer for why Robespierre only shows up sparingly is because this is adapted from a shojo manga, and that demographic is unlikely to sympathize with a lawyer in his thirties. While someone like Oscar is far more of an energizing character who can lead her own plot and flatter the audience with ease. She’s the one who encapsulates all of this chaos. All of that conflict, all of those desires for a better world while wondering if that means straying from your loved ones, in one package. Everybody’s had that moment of realization, where they see the world around them is about to change into something unrecognizable. Maybe something wonderful, but never through peaceful means. They witness as their life is transformed through fire and blood. And in those times, the diplomats, the royals, the peasants, they can’t just simply resist. They all have to become warriors to survive the change.