Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Back In Blue

I vaguely remember that "All The Anime" - the UK distributor first announced to the public as Anime Limited sometime last year - had announced Satoshi Kon's masterpiece PERFECT BLUE/パーフェクトブルー for the UK market... but I could have sworn that was a DVD only release. Seems I simply wasn't paying attention, and the Japanese HD master has been provided for an English friendly Region "B" locked UK release after all, due to drop October 14th. Even if the 1080p master is anything but flawless, it remains by far the best presentation of the film to date, and with Kon himself having tragically passed away in 2010, I suspect that this is as good as it'll ever look.

The current Amazon UK pre-order price is a reasonable £21.11/$33.10, and while I can't speak for certain, their first release - more on that in a second - was packaged in a charming little VHS Tape styled Digipak in a glossy cardboard sleeve with a nice little booklet, so I'm expecting (or at least hoping) for similar treatment here. No word on the special features, and I don't really expect the 2+ hour interview with the late director to be included, but we'll just have to wait and see what filters through in the end.

Having spoken with one studio that was keen on picking up the US rights, the price the licensors wanted was keeping it at arms-length from those who are most likely to actually grab it up. For the foreseeable future, English speakers are strongly recommended to consider picking this one up as the closest thing to a definitive presentation of Satoshi Kon's stellar animated thriller.

And for those interested in All The Anime's release of COWBOY BEBOP/カウボーイビバップ, I've now seen the first episode in person, and a smattering of caps and comparisons otherwise. Short version is that it looks like they did a fine job with the Bandai Visual materials, effectively producing a dramatically cheaper, English friendly port of the Japanese Blu-ray set on roughly half the number of discs. There's a few little oddities that are kind of annoying, sure - the discs themselves have the wrong number of episodes listed, there wasn't a chapter stop after the OP, minor annoyances I can forgive a new label, for now at the very least - but the AVC encodes, lossless audio and English subtitles, which as far as I'm concerned is all that matters here, are all presented without issue. The biggest issue - a few frames of what look like video corruption on episode 2 - are by far the biggest strike against it. To All The Anime's credit they've already acknowledged that this was an unforseen glitch, acknowledge that it was a screw-up not to catch it before replicaiton, and they'll be fixing it on future pressings, and even offer replacement copies to anyone who wants them (at least in the UK - there's no word yet on if replacements will be offered to international consumers).

The only real "questionable" issue otherwise is the fact that it's a 1080i release, which doesn't help compression (though the discs don't appear - at a glance, anyway - to have any major artifacting issues regardless), and requires your hardware to at least not totally suck to look decent. People who own the JP set and are nerdy enough that I trust them fully have said that the only 30fps content are the paged end credits, which means you could, theoretically, create a 1080p 23.98fps master out of the 1080i source without any real motion judder issues for the first two episodes. That said, this may not be true for all episodes - even the person kind enough to satisfy my nerd-queries admits he didn't check beyond the first disc. For better or worse, much of the CG content appears to have been created on digital video tape and upscaled to 1080, which means that there's some really gnarly shots of the Bebop and any of the hyper-space type effects look aliased as shit. Sadly, that's just the way it has to be, unless you want to start going down the Ghost in the Shell 2.0 rabbit hole.

FUNimation has since announced that Cowboy Bebop will be getting a Region A Blu-ray next year, and while I'm a bit gunshy after their Serial Experiments Lain transfer, I'll admit that I'm hoping they learned from that, and that FUNi's more seasoned video engineers can craft a proper 1080p master and, perhaps, even surpass Lain's shockingly amazing production book. Hey, a man can dream, can't he?

Still, if you're impatient and able to play Region "B" locked titles, there's no reason not to pick up All The Anime's current Cowboy Bebop set and wait patiently for the second half to surface in the near future. As usual, I'm not actively trying to pimp the release to anyone's gain, it's just something for my European and Region Free friends to consider.

Dragon's Crowning Achievement

I know I don't say this nearly enough, but let's talk about tits for a minute...

Perfect! Blog's over, thanks for everything people.
You can fap to anything you like, but you can't fap here.

Joking aside, I've been fascinated by the almost non-stop chatter that Vanillaware's new 80s arcade inspired Fantasy Brawler DRAGON'S CROWN has gotten from the press these last few months. Now, when I say "press" I mean websites like Kotaku, Destructoid, IGN and other similar sites that focus on video games as a general rule. With all due respect to everyone working at these sites - hell, I even like a handful of the guys that do it - they literally make money by saying things that get people just riled up enough to comment, log in, reload the page and get a fraction of a penny via advertising dollars. To haphazardly mangle a lovely quip that long-time anime critic Zac Bertschy gave at the AX Anime News Network 15th Anniversary panel beyond recognition, when he was asked why he continues to review new content when he angrily dismisses far more than he likes: He basically said he does it because those reviews are among the most viewed content on the entire site. Most of the people reading it clearly don't agree with him, but they sure want to know what he had to say about it anyway!

I get it, sad as it may be: With the only future of internet columnists being boiled down to professional blog-trolls baiting for clicks, it's hard to begrudge anyone for making constant breast jokes and overly snarky observations about much of anything. Despite the trailer having first reared its head in 2011, it largely flew under the radar until April of this year, when the impending release of the game drew nigh. With even a rudimentary understanding of the current state of click-bait ad revenue keeping the video game press alive, giving Dragon's Crown as something to talk about was basically begging for them to tear the unique, stylized, and - yes, let's not be stupid - sexualized art style a new one if they didn't like it, and tear it apart they did for the most part... but there was an unexpected twist when The Internet ran its course.  See, the eye of this shit storm is - most notably at least - an exchange between Kotaku writer Jason Schreir and the game's lead artist/Vanillaware's president, George Kamitani. In brief, Schreir called Kamitani an adolescent boy over "The Sorceress" and her gravity defying proportions, and Kamitani shot back a macho-beefcake pinup he'd worked on for the game in response and - yeah, basically called him a faggot, or such has been the consensus of the Google Translated Engrish that accompanied the joke piece. (To be fair, what else was there to say?) Both men chilled out and, gasp!, talked it over like adults - Kamitani apologized for any offense, and Schrer (to his credit) stood by his criticism, but gave Kamitani the respect his previous dickery had completely lacked.

You'd think that would be the end of it, but you forget, this is THE INTERNET. Everyone has to pull their drawers down and join the circle-jerk - yours truly included, obviously! - and either decry this as everything that's wrong with the video game community at large, or defend it as a brilliant work of satire. The detractors say it's pushing potential gamers away and making the rest of them look bad. The defenders say that toning the game down would be tantamount to censorship. Personally I think both sides took this shit way too seriously, particularly with most of the big throw-downs having happened long before the game itself actually came out.

Yes, let me be crystal clear on this: Most of the battles over this thing were fought, won and lost before anyone had even actually played it. Certainly the character designs themselves were the issue being discussed so I suppose that's somewhat fair, but this is akin to spawning a massive discussion about a movie's supposed sexism based solely on a trailer. I'm somewhat shocked to find that, once the dust settled and all the (American) critics had their say, it walked away with surprisingly positive marks - and, yes, plenty of critics who still didn't like the over the top art style still commented that the game underneath was well designed and fun, in the nostalgic Beat 'Em Up style it was clearly meant to emulate. And good on 'em for that.

And hey, at least people are actually talking about a Vanillaware game... that's more than can be said for the Muramasa: The Demon Blade HD remake. Which nobody knows is a thing because fucking nobody has a PS VITA to play it on anyway.

 Pictured: Vanillaware's usual level of subtlety.

I wish I could talk about Dragon's Crown myself... but hey, I just got my copy in this week, and haven't put in more than four or five hours or so into it yet, and as this supposedly has a 20 hour story mode, I've clearly just started to scratch the surface on a lot of things here. My first impression is certainly a positive one; it's a visually decadent button-masher with a surprisingly complex class/leveling system, in-level traps and ambushes, screen filling bosses, wild animals to use as grotesque weapons of mass destruction, a customizable inventory allowing you to focus on equipment or character specific power-ups, and a quest system that rewards exploration and grinding in "completed" areas only to find new twists and pathways in previously hidden away, all with both XP and in-game art as a delicious reward. The game's multiple class system - which has 50% more options than slots to be filled at any given time! - also encourages you to bring as much loot home as you can carry, so that you can outfit your Dwarf with the cloak your Elf can't use, or shuffle those magical glasses away for a second, inevitable playthrough with a character who actually uses magic. The game is also designed for up to 4 simultaneous players, and is kind enough to allow you to bring 3 AI controlled NPCs should you not have any friends to join your quest IRL - or, at least none who share your love for simplistic side-scrolling retro brawlers with tig ol' bitties

I'd actually written a lengthy piece about the most fundamental issue I've had with most of the criticism I've seen leveled against the game - not that I think people can't dislike the game for being exactly what it is, but the way they've gone out of their way to take a huge, steaming dump on a product that was never intended for them in the first place. CRITICAL MISS, however, kinda' beat me to the punch, and it sums up my major concerns... so I'll just have to talk about objective quality versus aesthetic merit another day. You guys are totally missing out, though; I'll just have to pull out that awesome Twink Kenshiro pin-up by Hirohiko Araki sooner or later.

This, in a nutshell, is what Dragon's Crown actually looks like:

If that last one doesn't get you hard as steel,
eat some horse steroids and call me in the morning.

Y'see, the people saying "Dragon's Crown is the worst thing ever because I don't like it" - or any other variation that completely shrugs the whole thing off as garbage unworthy of discussion - aren't really criticizing Vanillaware or George Kamitani's aesthetic, so much as they are stating their personal dislike of the product at a core value. That's perfectly fine, in and of itself: I don't give a wet rat far about Call of Honor: Modern Warfighter X, 50 Shades of Smut or the latest Rebecca Beebs single, either, but I was never an FPS Gunbro*, a horny teenaged girl with no concept of healthy sexual boundaries, or a twat who thinks music is something that must be enjoyed solely by its ironic value. (A factor, maybe - I do love the Puncolle album. But not the be-all end-all.) In short, my saying I don't want any part of these things is meaningless because I never wanted them to begin with; the potential quality of the product is irrelevant to the people who were never in the market for it, the same way the quality of bagged supermarket ice is irrelevant to polar bears. To put it another way, a vegetarian's opinion of the idea of a hamburger means nothing to someone who actually eats hamburgers. With this in mind, a lot of the people who got all up in Vanillaware's grille on this were doing so seemingly because they were upset by its very existence, not because they were otherwise interested in actually playing Dragon's Crown. And that... well, that bums me right the fuck out.

* Though, to be fair, I think I finally "get" the appeal that at least some people have here; they're MMO's for people who think stabbing basilisks with enchanted rune-daggers is silly. But I like stabbing basilisks with enchanted rune-daggers, so here I sit, forever uncool and totally satisfied anyway.

Truth be told, I tend to think the absurd character designs in Dragon's Crown is absolutely the norm for Vanillaware - it's just that this time they focused on the iconic, super-sexualized "Fantasy" style started by pulp-illustration demigod Frank Frazetta, which led to illustrators to follow suit in the same hyper-stylized aesthetic, each of whom took their own fetishes that much further in the process. Like it or not, there's nearly 50 years of "Fantasy Art" being a genre unto itself - a brash, bold, almost comically hyper-stylized one that's only been downplayed in recent years by the emergence of slightly less crazy fantasy aesthetic largely borrowed from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings (which in turn was inspired by the slightly less outlandish - but lovely - art of Alan Lee). Instead of the already asinine parody of Japanese-inspired imagery the studio usually focused on, instead it looked like something of an only slightly snarky parody of what "Western Fantasy" art looks like. In the same way that the largely underrated - but, I admit, hardly flawless - Lollipop Chainsaw was Suda 51's take on Americana by way of its cheerleader fetish and the zombie apocalypse set to a high-octane Rock 'n' Roll soundtrack, Dragon's Crown was meant to emulate - and perhaps, eclipse - an entire generation of Post-Frazetta testosterone fueled adventure.

Frazetta may be the grand daddy to all of this, but to understand why The Sorceress has such a ridiculous rack, and why The Dwarf doesn't ever wear goddamn pants, or why everything has to be a caricature of fucking everything even vaguely inspired by medieval warfare, one only need to turn their attentions to the somewhat more modern artists who took Uncle Frank's core ideals to, arguably, its logical extremes with each of them focusing on a slightly different fetishized aspect in the process. To focus on a few personal favorite examples, Boris Vallejo approached it as a way to worship the human body - lean, strong, and photogenic above everything else, using both minimal clothing and backgrounds to focus on the Adonis and Venus-esque loveliness of his subjects to make them appear as powerful and awe-inspiring as the classic Roman sculptures of old. Luis Royo, a latecomer who wasn't regularly published until the mid 1980s, focused on gothic imagery and gaudy fashion photography alike as the source of his inspiration, which has led to a somewhat consistent "Beauty and the Beast" tone to a lot of his paintings - often enough with a single beautiful woman fulfilling both roles on her own. He's also released several publications with blatantly pornographic pieces, but since the focus is on the broad strokes I'll let you go find dripping orc dick on your own time. Richard Corben - despite being slightly less interested in cumshots than Royo - has always had a special place in his heart for exaggerated sexuality, never shying away from huge floppy dicks, and has only in the last decade and a half restrained his urge to draw giant dicks to work on substantially less pulpy fare like Hellboy. Irrelevant, but I actually had a set of "Fantasy Trading Cards" sold as a complete set in a little plastic case as a kid - loved the shit of 'em, age appropriate or not, and Corben's entries were easily my favorite at the time.

Some brief samples, just for fun. I'd encourage any of you to look up artbooks on these guys if you're interested, though; JPG's are fine and all, but having a nice, glossy coffee table book is so goddamn much nicer in the end.

 Frank Frazetta

 Boris Vallejo

 Luis Royo

Richard Corben

Are these artists talented, in a technical sense? Unquestionably.Anyone who'd argue against any of these four men as having a phenomenal grasp of blocking, color theory, really any measure one would measure an artist at imitating life and engaging the viewer's senses visually. But is what they produced art? Fine art, that is, the sort of thing pretentious intellectuals can appreciate with their monacles and their white gloves at wine-tasting events? Well, that's certainly up for debate; despite replicating historical aesthetics in the broadest sense of the concept, these were literally paperback covers for young adult pulp novels and borderline pornographic comic books; nostalgia and re-appraisal has been much kinder to this material than serious art critics of the 1960s through the 1980s ever were. But love it or loathe it, the fathers of what's now seen as "Fantasy Art" wove brazen, adolescent sex fantasy into the fabric of the style itself. Dragon's Crown and its approach to sexuality is actually less ridiculous than half of the material produced by the artists I've listed above, and the sheer ignorance to this fact has left me a bit surprised. Kids these days, man. Wait, how old are they? How old am I?!

To be clear, the idea wasn't always as over the top as what we have now. Kamitani actually started working on Dragon's Crown as a concept back in 1998, when video game design was, shall we say... a bit more restrained in general. Even so, it contained absurd armor, plenty of exposed flesh, and a hyper-stylized "look" that only vaguely resembles the human body. It just had bigger hands instead of bigger asses, I... guess?

Now, why is any of this relevant? Because one of the most confusing things I've seen raised about the game is the argument that it's ignoring the larger market, which includes women who might be put off by the Sorceress' jiggling jubblies and the Amazon's terrifyingly toned assets and the Elf's... cute haircut, I guess, could put off girls who have, I dunno, grotty hair or something. See, the issue I take with this notion is that while I agree, the way most game publishers treat women is deplorable - shuffling Elizabeth to the back cover of Bioshock Infinite, not focus testing girls or women at all until the developers demanded it for for The Last of Us, so on and so forth - well, those are games with a lot to offer everyone. Complex characters, in particular, with a pair of well rounded and fully developed heroines. Similarly, the fact that Call of Duty - literally the most popular piece of electronic media released in the 21st Century - has just now added female avatars to its latest upcominc chapter is kind of surprising, particularly when you realize how fantastic and wish-fulfillment the "Modern" chapters are by design. (Not featuring any women in the WWII cycle made sense, I suppose. Today, having a vagina isn't going to prevent you from being shot in Iraq.) There's a way to be inclusive to a different audiences - namely, half the fucking population - that literally changes little, to nothing in the development process. It's just a question of how you present your product to an audience that you might not have considered even wants it. Inclusivity in the new black, breaking down the "Boys Club" image the industry itself has perpetuated for decades, so on and so forth. And that's fine for a title that has a prayer of having a wide audience in the first place.

And that, I suppose, is where I start to get a bit lost: Not in the big picture, but on this game in particular. Dragon's Crown isn't a game focused on story, relationships and world building - it's an old school beat 'em up that looks like an Albert Pyun video cover that freebased a lot of Odin Sphere. While the game's controls and partner system are decent enough to want me coming back for more, the art style was one of the things that immediately sold me - a fairly 2D side-scrolling brawler, with a unique bend on a visual style I grew up loving. Realistically, the visual style here IS Dragon's Crowns' most unique selling point, and I have serious doubts that there's a market hungry for a product that...

* Plays like the old Dungeons and Dragons arcade game and similar fantasy brawlers

* Looks like Dragon's Crown in the super-exaggerated Western Fantasy mould

* Doesn't have suggestive female costumes or exaggerated sexual characteristics

MIGHT a market for a game I've just described exist? Sure, why not! Until someone's actually created a game it's impossible to know what will and won't catch on - hell, nobody thought Pokemon was going to be a big seller and it was crapped out onto the Game Boy shortly before they figured it was time to take the system out back and put a bullet through the ol' LCD screen. But whatever this Dragon's Boobless Crown game is, it's not the game that George Kamitani was clearly interested in making, and it's likely not the game the Japanese producers who green lit a [roughly] one-million dollar budget to create

Now, would I have been interested in the game, without the sex appeal? Yes. C'mon now, I'm a grumpy old man and I'll play fucking anything with genuine pixel-art and retro mechanics. Hell, the only reason Nintento hasn't cancelled production of everything that isn't Pokemon related is because they've realized the only people who play Mario games are men in their 30s, and actually turned the complexity of their own product back a decade to cash in on that sweet, sweet nostalgia. But the thing is, I'm well aware of the Heavy Metal and Dungeons and Dragons inspired aesthetic that built the groundwork for this game. I "get" the joke, and presenting the game with a mostly naked, hyper idealized, muscular Dwarf and - let's just pretend - a far more sensibly clad and less badonkified Amazon would have felt like a copout, a limp fart to deflect inevitable charges of sexism without actually changing the formula that's woven objectification and idealism into its very core.

There's also the question of whether or not Dragon's Crown is an exaggerated homage or a blatant parody - and that, my friends, is something worth discussing. To be honest, I think it's somewhere in the middle - there's always a sense of humor in Vanillaware art, and this one merely took it to the limit of an already exaggerated aesthetic. One of the defenses brought up is that it's "Clever" or "Ironic" and I'm not convinced that's entirely true - it's fun, make no mistake, but it doesn't go out of its way to take the piss out of any of the stereotypes or concepts its playing with. If it's a parody, it's pretty damned subtle outside of the character designs, and I tend to think it was made merely as a loving homage rather than a ground-up reworking of the notion of Fantasy Tropes. Homage and Satire can get pretty murky, even to the creators themselves who are unable to pick out the love from the respect, and whatever side of this you think Dragon's Crown lands on it doesn't "excuse" the art style completely. Personally I don't think it needs an excuse just to exist beyond "it's fun", but hey, if we're delving in this far we need to get that out of the way at some point.

Kamitami himself explained in his apology to Schreir that had he kept the character designs at the less ridiculous end of the spectrum where he'd planned them 15 years ago, they really wouldn't stand out among the jarringly silly outfits we've seen Japanese Fantasy game designers come up with since:

Drakengard 3. Fuck yeah.

I could go on for days - literally, days, just posting increasingly WTF outfits in Japanese made "Fantasy" games yes Magna Carta was drawn by a Korean, shut up and let me post some Hyung Tae-Kim already. But I got shit to do, bills to pay, so if you want further proof, take a look at this:

This, for anyone blissfully unaware of endless JRPG franchising, is from Final Fantasy XIII-2: Lightning Returns. This is the main outfit for the main character of the game. This pointy, frilly, mish-mash of fantasy spines, bird feathers, and bared chunks of flesh that hovers somewhere between "totally badass" and "totally non-functional" is PERFECTLY NORMAL in the context of Japanese Fantasy design, particularly in video games where complex armor can be rendered once instead of hand-drawn thousands of times. Now, when this is the standard, how the fuck are you supposed to pay homage without looking cheap? You can either do it tongue firmly in cheek, as Vanillaware chose to do, or you can... look like a crumby knock-off, I, guess.
Simply put, the polarizing style of Dragon's Crown did exactly what it was supposed to do: It got people talking about it. A shame people had to be semi-professional dickheads in the process, but hey, if nothing else all the attention an otherwise potentially unassuming fantasy brawler got convinced me to drop $50 on a new game, just to see what everyone was screaming like a fuckweasel about. Naturally, though, what 'Murica thinks about a Japanese game is largely irrelevant; reports indicate that 175,000 physical copies were sold in the first week to an eager audience in Vanillaware's homeland, with initial reports of "300,000 copies shipped" (presumably including digital pre-sales). I won't deny that Western markets have become an increasingly important part of Japanese game development - hell, the first game in the Dark Souls franchise sold less than 135,000 copies in Japan total, and only got a pair of sequels primarily because Western audiences loved it - but Japan will continue making what Japan loves, and it so happens that Japan loves games like Hyperdimension Neptunia, Disgaea, and Senran Kagura enough to make TV shows and overpriced character merchandise based on the lead characters. In other words, Japan is a lot less sensitive to charges of sexism and objectification than the English language community.

And frankly, aside from the game having a ridiculous aesthetic - one that applies to women, men, and monsters alike - I really don't "get" the issue here. I understand that there's been a dialog about feminism, misogyny, and the representation of women both in video games and the culture surrounding them, but... well, I'm not seeing that this particular game was the poster child for inclusivity to start with. To use a not totally unrelated example, Team Ninja - yes, everyone's favorite developer, I know - was being given notes from the Western Tecmo/Koei offices to tone down the overt sexuality in Dead or Alive 5 during its initial development - smaller breasts, less revealing outfits, and so on. This is a developer trying to appeal to a wider, international audience - not inherently a bad thing, and quite in line with what a lot of the people who aren't crazy about Dragon's Crown wish Vanillaware themselves had done. Case closed, right? If Team Frickin' Ninja can tone down the jiggliness of its core franchise, clearly the competition needs to class it up and get with the time!

 Bunny Girls: Empowering Fictional Women Since DAICON IV

Well, not so fast, there: Team Ninja did as they were asked, and shipped out Alpha builds for play testers in North America. What they found was that the testers themselves - you know, the people who were actually playing this, and showed up in many cases as prior fans of the franchise - didn't like the changes to the character designs. Hey, imagine that! Dead Or Alive, a franchise that's both eternally popular and universally known not for its game mechanics, but for blatant fanservice, has a built in audience that actually likes fanservice! Call the papers, people. Said game series figures out what things it's especially good at (Grappling Mechanics + Sexy Girls = DOA), and the people who show up for the franchise not only expect, but want both? Shut the front door. With this in mind, it's pretty amusing - to my pig brain, at least - that when they updated the game later on, they included a feature they'd initially removed... the PS3 six-axis tit-jiggle physics engine that first made an appearance largely as a gag in Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 (which, notably, shares a few characters with the same universe as DOA).

Should DOA exist, or is it too far gone for the 21st century? Fuck me, it's a game that literally sells objectification as a bonus feature one DLC costume at a time, and keeps an audience that seems to blatantly encourage the mindset that fictional, idealized characters can be attractive and comoforting. The nerve of them! I mean, cripes, if you ever wanted a fighting game with just a bit less in the blatant T 'n' A department, it's not like Street Fighter, Tekken, King of Fighters, Virtua Fighter, Guilty Gear, Soul Caliber, Mortal Kombat, and a dozen other current franchises that might also satisfy your want to punch your friends in the teeth with a six-button contro-- ah, good, you saw what I did there. And no, I never said that any of these franchises were completely without fanservice, merely that it wasn't the selling point as it was with DOA, which - in attempting to cater to what it thought Western audiences wanted based on corporate number crunching, rather than actual sales data or interaction with their core consumer base - tried to tone down perhaps the one thing that keeps DOA that much different from its competition in the first place.

And hell, if watching ladies jiggling around in the ring is something that irks you in any capacity, there's a number of far less interesting boxing, wrestling, and mixed martial arts simulators to try out that are almost exclusively interested in beefcake over cheesecake. You can even buy the amazing Jojo's Bizarre Adventure game on the PSN for a song these days, and that thing's such a manly sausage fest that they actually added a naked woman to the roster just so it wouldn't quite be as gay as the Chou Aniki franchise. If Hirohiko Araki Manservice isn't enough to quell your jiggling rage, I honestly have no idea what else to offer you... tea, maybe coffee? That's all I've got at this point.

Cho Aniki: Pretty much the only time that whole flawed
"But MEN are sexualized in video games, too!" argument holds up.

With any luck, this long, broken, rambling series of sentences stapled together have convinced you that, whether you like it or not, Dragon's Crown knows exactly what it wanted to be and achieved those ends, for better or worse. Maybe you like the result - maybe you don't, that's fine either way. I just hope that if you start jibber-jabbering on about whether or not it's a success or a failure, that you're approaching it from at least a basic point of knowing what the creation was trying to do in the first place - a measured look at its roots and its aims, not merely a personal knee-jerk towards one end or the other. Dragon's Crown wasn't trying trying to reinvent the wheel; it was paying homage to the Western Fantasy stylings that the creators themselves had worked in in years past missed, cranked up to 11. It's also not meant to be a deep, convoluted character story; it's a mindless, repetitive button masher pulled from a simpler time, with the added length and complexity that have become the norm in an industry that's always pushing for a better bang for the consumer's buck. It's also not - I repeat, not - the adolescent scrawling of a teenager, or a work inherently designed to undermine the presence or prominence of women. It's a silly, tacky, and satisfyingly functional multi-player arcade-brawler that's riffing on Frank Frazetta and Pals without even the pretentious to pretend it's anything else. If you want those things, the game absolutely delivers. If you don't, well, this was never created for your tastes in the first place. And that's fine, because there's likely a billion other video games available at this moment in time to pick from, and let me assure you, every single publisher offering them will take your money just as quickly as Atlus would have.

If you were ever in the mood for this game - if the notion of gloriously rendered 2D pixel art characters slugging it out in four-way co-op arcade play with the visual aesthetic of an over-wrought Dungeons and Dragons universe sounds appealing, and you still take issue with the exaggerated sexuality... please. By all means, say whatever you need to say. Because the more I see this title get brought up, and the more I see people angry that the game exists because it doesn't appeal to them at a core level - not because it might have appealed to them, had the game not been so inherently over the top - the more I'm convinced you're as rare as a goddamn Pegacorn.

I'm exhausted, I'm sure whatever point I was trying to make has been stretched into obscurity... I give up. Hope you enjoyed watching me dump my brain-meats onto the page. And hey, since I've already brought it up, I've decided to leave on a high note: For your viewing pleasure, Hirohiko "Jojo's Bizarre Adventure" Araki's interpretation of Buronson and Tetsuo Hara's legendary Kenshiro, THE Fist of the North Star!

Stay classy, friends.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Galilei Barrasters: Yasuomi UMETSU Returns

What's that? Wizards that make coffee? I'm in!

Above is a 45 second teaser for WIZARD BARRISTERS: VALVE MAGICIAN CECIL / ウィザード・バリスターズ〜弁魔士セシル, which will be the director's second original project since the rather disappointing KITE LIBERATOR from 2008. All of the director's trademarks - unique and somewhat doll-like character designs, completely over the top action, cute incidental characters and a flash of nudity (hardcore or otherwise) - are in full force, and it leaves me absolutely thrilled to see Umetsu doing something that... y'know, isn't the last 20 minutes of that Dante's Inferno game tie-in trainwreck project. It's set for a 2014 release, and if this trailer is even remotely true - an action packed courtroom drama about magical shenanigans?! -  I couldn't be more excited.

But first we're getting... this?!

I honestly have no idea what to make of GALILEI DONNA ~ Storia di tre sorelle a caccia di un mistero. If I'm not mistaken this is Canoli for "Women of Galilei: A Tale of Three Mystery Hunting Sisters", but I barely know my Gialli from my Telifoni Bianchi, so I'll let someone more qualified make that distinction. Umetsu is evidently both the original creator of the show's premise and set to direct the series, but as you can see, the character designs - by none other than WORKING! character designer Shingo ADACHI - couldn't be much further removed from Umetsu's usual pulp-action aesthetic. At this point I don't know diddly about the show, so while I'm curious, I'm going to need at least a goddamn plot summary before I get excited about anything. At least Mrs. Kentai thinks it looks friggin' adorable.

 I'll point out that it's part of the "Noitanima" (that's "Animation" spelled backwards in Katakana) block, which was at one point dedicated to creating unique, original works that might not have appealed to the typical otaku audience, and have shown some really inspiring and fantastic programming including Eden of the East, Tatami Galaxy, Moyashimon and my beloved Wandering Son, so it's entirely possible that whatever you think this show might be, you're completely wrong. Of course, they've also played Black Rock Shooter, Guilty Crown and Katanagatari in more recent years, so for all we know this will be to sell us Nendoroids and hug pillows. In short, nobody fuck'n knows anything yet, which keeps me firmly in the "not sure if want" category until something besides a few pretty character sheets I wasn't expecting can convince me otherwise.

Truth be told, I'm actually a little surprised how excited I was to see a new piece of Umetsu animation - brief and out of context as it was. Make no mistake, PRESENCE is an absolute masterpiece, and while I'm sure the controversy will always eclipse the work itself, so is A KITE... I happen to think the uncut version packs a hell of a bigger impact, but I won't deny that the edited version lets in an audience that otherwise wouldn't have given it the time of day, and while I think it castrates one of the most interesting questions the story brings up (effectively, "How would LEON have gone down if Jean Reno were the villain?"), if the R-15 Director's Edit means more people will actually watch Kite, I won't dismiss it completely. MEZZO FORTE is an exceptionally great little OVA and a surprisingly fun expansion on Umetsu's violent urban universe, it's just not quite as good as Kite, and so goddamn few things are that's hardly an insult.

The death knell of the OVA being usurped by limited-run TV series basically hobbled the MEZZO TV series, which honestly isn't terrible, it just starts off with an incredible, theatrical level first episode and then hits rock bottom hard, leaving a series that runs out of steam just as quickly as it runs out of money. It's watchable, but it's not good, and as Umetsu hasn't touched a TV series since I'm still wary that these could both suck, too. Then again, his follow up OVA - KITE LIBERATOR - was unfettered by budgetary or censorship constraints, and it was kind of a cluster in its own right. Had it been directed by almost anyone else as an original concept I'd likely have thought it was slightly above average, but as a successor to his previous works, it falls incredibly flat. Apparently the producer behind the project, John Sirabella of Media Blasters, was no happier with the results than most of its audience... I guess if anything about Liberator makes me smile it's that it managed to make the head of one of the single most infuriating licensors in North America that much more miserable.

That said... well, I fell in love with Umetsu for more than his slow-motion bullet explosions and psuedo-legal child pornography (though neither of those things really hurt, either). The man is a visual artist with a uniquely beautiful aesthetic that's unique and instantly eye-catching, and as a technical animator his understanding about the way the human body moves - particularly in reference to action set pieces like gunplay - is some of the absolute best in the business. In short, even when Umetsu makes crap at least he goes all the way with it, and if his last two "personal" projects have been the victim of circumstance it doesn't for a moment persuade me to assume he doesn't still have an exceptional anime series left in him.

This left me wondering, are there any anime directors I'm legitimately excited to see new works from? There's always Akiyuki SHINBOU, certainly, but he's a directorial shotgun; he's either a direct face-shredding hit (Puella Magi Madoka Magica), or a big bang and a lot of dust in the wind (Dance in the Vampire Bund). Tetsuro ARAKI has an impressive enough pedigree that I try my best to keep tabs on him, but it took half a dozen episodes of Attack on Titan to make me give a shit, and if this wasn't a guy I already loved thanks to stuff like Death Note and Kurozuka, I probably would have given up before the lead character turns into a 50 foot cannibal version of The Incredible Hulk. Cowboy Bebop was so damn good we're still lusting for it 15 years later, but Shinichiro WATANABE came back with Kids on the Slope, and I couldn't have cared less - maybe that upcoming Space Dandy will do it for me, but I honestly have no clue. The guys who have directed my absolute favorite titles from the past few years - Shigeyasu YAMAUCHI of Casshern Sins, and Hiroshi HAMASAKI of Shuguri: Death Frenzy - have had no shortage of work since, they simply haven't done much else that's appealed to me, thematically or aesthetically speaking... though I probably should give Steins;Gate a chance, weak animation quality or not. That, of course is a flaw in my expecting a director who made something I like to consistently make that thing - whatever it might be - over other things, but... it's still frustrating. The best I can do is skim, see what looks interesting and go from there.

On the other hand, throwing darts and seeing what sticks has recently brought WataMote to my attention. What's not to love about a sitcom focused on social anxiety and self-hatred? Where the joke isn't the self-insert character saying "I seriously hate my life. I should just kill myself." isn't the joke, but her annoyed sibling's attempts to get her to fuck the hell off, are? (Seriously though, pre-order a pound of prozac if any of that sounds like it might feel a bit too... familiar.)

Friends, I ask you: What directors do you look forward to announcing a new project? What creators get your blood boiling, your expectations soaring? I don't for a second think that Japanese animation has gotten any less interesting or consistent than it's ever been - selective memory has a way of convincing people that everything from any given period was good, and brother is that a load of horseshit - but I am finding precious few directors or even studios who consistently give me something that's legitimately fascinating. I don't mind exploring, stumbling on some lemons and walking away with a few peaches. I just wish I had a few names I should look forward to consistently, the same way I do with live action material.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Bruce Lee's Game of Deception

My response to the following, summarized.

According to AICN's review of Shout Factory's upcoming BRUCE LEE: THE LEGACY box set:

This set was to release on Tuesday, August 6, but Shout Factory has pushed back that date to September 17. The company had to recall the set due to a labeling error on two of the discs. If you got an early copy of the set, I understand that Shout will replace the mislabeled discs for you if you contact them.

Also, there was some question as to the quality of the source material used for the Blu-rays. I spoke with a company representative on Thursday about the masters used for this set and was assured the original content provided by Fortune Star Entertainment was the best available and the same used for the Bruce Lee Blu's released a few years ago in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, we may never get the beautifully restored, pristine versions of Lee's Hong Kong films that his legacy deserves. The master reels simply haven't been properly archived and preserved.

I understand that John Ary's just toting the bullshit he's been fed on a website that's given positive reviews of shitty upscales before, but the fact that anyone thinks the multitude of available screenshots for THE BIG BOSS, FIST OF FURY and WAY OF THE DRAGON are anything but upsampled SD masters makes me want to kick things and howl like a maniac. Even if they were objectively stating that they didn't think it looked that bad I'd be less ready to put my fist through a window, but the bold, bullshit claim that it's not only "the best available" but "the same [masters] released a few years ago in Hong Kong" - well, that's a blatant lie. Love or loathe those transfers all you like, but they are not the same thing released in Hong Kong - they're not even close.

In short: Fuck Fortune Star for having sent shitty upscales in the first place, Fuck Shout Factory for not having caught it despite knowing that Fortune Star is notoriously full of not giving two shits about their own product, Fuck Fotokem for not doing the sensible thing and stealing the actual BD encodes off the Japanese box set*, and Double Fuck Cliff MacMillan for lying to our faces about the whole thing. Pretty much fuck everybody on this one - with the exception of "Old Pang Yau", who's contributions would have otherwise made this the single most comprehensive presentation of these films ever released. C'mon, I'm angry, not inhuman.

These movies have a long, convoluted and somewhat suicide-inducing history on home video, and there is no reason, no reason at all that this SHOULDN'T be the last release any sane human being would ever need... and yet, here we are seeing mother fucking Ain't It Cool News confirming that "there's nothing to see here, move along people".

 Or, to quote Bantam Rooster...

Oh, what's that? Ripping an existing Blu-ray would be a breach of contract due to using unauthorized materials? Well Fortune Star already beat you to it, and more importantly if they claim they did send you the HD masters, they'd have no recourse to try and sue you if you used actual HD content.

And yes, sadly the Blu-ray transfers themselves would be 8-bit/4:2:0 and have some level of compression artifacts. But we're talking about recompressing a BD encode for BD - the loss from one generation to another would be pretty minimal, and you can bet your ass the compression issues would be a drop in the bucket compared to the pile of lukewarm NTSC butthole we've actually been handed.

Shout Factory usually does good to excellent work, and I'm going to continue to support them when they earn it. It's just a shame this ridiculous incident has taught us we can't always assume they've got this shit covered.

Saturday, August 03, 2013


Capelight has announced the bonus features for their three-disc RE-ANIMATOR package, and in a somewhat unsurprising turn, it - for the most part - mirrors the extensive bonus features already found on previous Anchor Bay DVD/Image Blu-ray edition of the film:

* Audio Commentary with Director Stuart Godron

* Audio Commentary with Producer Brian Yuzna, Actors Jeffery Combs, Barbara Crampton, Robert Sampson and Bruce Abbot

* Anchor Bay's RE-ANIMATOR RESURRECTS feature-length retrospective documentary

* Interview with Screen Writer Dennis Paoli

* Interview with Composer Richard Band

* Interview with FANGORIA Editor Tony Timpone

* 16 Extended / Alternate Scenes + 1 Deleted Scene

* Music Analysis with composer Richard Band

* 5 TV Spots

* Original Trailer

Make no mistake, while I tend to think all available material should be included on a re-release, I'm not about to ask that anyone - much less Capelight, who have spent a fortune restoring the film itself - to produce new bonus features, particularly for a film that's had such a comprehensive coverage on all previous releases! I'm sure some fans will lament that there haven't been any "new" bonus features produced since the Anchor Bay re-release in 2007, but to put this into perspective this release probably has more minutes of relevant retrospective footage than fucking Blade Runner - and I dare any film made between 1980 and 2000 to have more interesting things to say about its production than that!

The following two bonuses were originally included on the Elite "Millennium Edition" DVD, but never made the jump to the various re-releases:

* 3 Multi-Angle Storyboard Comparisons

* Isolated Richard Band Score

It's my understanding that all of these bonus features will be on "Disc 1", and being in SD it shouldn't compromise the 86 minute long feature in any way.

There is one unexpected addition on Disc 2, however, and that's the presence of the TV VERSION alongside the remastered INTEGRAL VERSION. Don't get too excited - they've already said it's going to be an unrestored SD presentation - but as this is essentially the film with the more graphic footage swapped out for the deleted scenes, I don't blame them for not rolling out the red carpet for it. I don't think the TV version has ever been released on video in any official capacity, though the "R-Rated" cut (which both Yuzna and Gordon seem swift to disown) did surface briefly in American theaters and on Laserdisc, but not VHS for fuck knows what reason.

And now... we play the waiting game.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Re-Animating A Stuart Gordon Classic

Mediabook, you say!

The following info has been translated by my good friend Gurotaku from the CAPELIGHT PICTURES FACEBOOK page regarding their RE-ANIMATOR Blu-ray Special Edition:

RE-ANIMATOR will be a limited edition 3-disc set, including two Blu-ray discs and a DVD. The DVD and Blu-ray with both feature the extensively restored DIRECTOR'S CUT, and the second Blu-ray will include a completely restored INTEGRAL CUT, featuring several extended and deleted scenes that were used on TV and the edited "R-Rated" versions of the film, restored to their proper place. Germany has released the "Integral Version" on PAL DVD with a runtime of about 100 minutes, but how the less graphic 'alternate' takes have been re-intergrated into the uncensored version, I can't rightly say.

Capelight restored 45,000 frames by hand from the Master Positive print, and estimate having removed over 250,000 instances of print damage in the process. The original 35mm film grain will be presented "as naturally as is technically possible", and they've even gone out of their way to apologize for a handful of special effects generated on video that will look worse than the rest of the film (and always have). In short, unless they seriously screw this one up during authoring/encoding, it's going to be a keeper. I've never seen the "Integral Cut" myself - just the deleted scenes as a bonus feature lacking in context - but any remotely justified reason to re-watch one of Stuart Gordon's best horror films is fine by me.

Also of note, Capelight have evidently appealed the film's status of being on the German "Index" of banned and harmful material, meaning that this uncensored release can be sold anywhere over the counter. Not only is this great news for Capelight (who can sell a metric fuckton more copies in Germany), but it means you can import from Amazon Germany and other actual German shops at a decent discount, rather than waffling around them through DTM or similar Austrian/Belgian mail order sites. Also, the "wendecover" notice above that big-ass ugly FSK rating means it's either a sticker or a piece of paper affixed to the media book, and will be completely removable on the actual product. Thank Christ for that, because seriously, Germany is only a half-step behind those hilariously bad Aussie rating boxes that take up more of the package than the actual title of the film itself.

The release date is set for September 27th, and the MSRP is a surprisingly inexpensive 19.99 Euros. At this time a list of bonus material, region coding, and language option has not yet been released to the public. I personally wouldn't be surprised if a less expensive 1-disc BD in a regular case joins the marketplace a year down the road, as it did for ESCAPE FROM PRECINCT 13, but at these prices I'm not about to wait and see.

I'm curious what the full story on this restoration is, as (supposedly) Capelight had access to both the OCN and the AP. Maybe the positive elements were less damaged? With any luck, we'll get to see a restoration demo on the finished disc - I'd love nothing more than to know how much love and insanity went into cleaning up one of the more deserving pieces of grotesque black-comedy the mid 1980s spawned in that brief, beautiful period when the audience was just jaded enough that you could basically try fucking anything on the screen, and nobody would bat an eye if the MPAA shot it down because this new-fangled VHS technology meant you could release it anyway.

Before I forget to mention it, Brian Yuzna's SOCIETY is getting a German BD release the same day as Re-Animator. Can't say I'm quite as excited for Yuzna's grotesquely silly piece of not-Lovecraft-inspired social satire, but hell, I'll absolutely buy that for the 18 Euros they're asking. No further details, other than that it's a new 2K restoration just like Re-Animator and the upcoming Bride of Re-Animator BD.

And since Capelight's on my mind, it's worth noting that the German release of CHAINED is - to the best of my knowledge, at least - the only version of the film to include the uncensored execution scene included within the feature itself, rather than as a deleted scene. Again, I don't get a dime out of pointing you anywhere, so if you want it, go do it. Not for me. For you. And for Jennifer Lynch... seriously, that poor girl deserves a break.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

13 Trampled Flowers: AKU NO HANA ~ THE FLOWERS OF EVIL In Review

Why didn't I make this my Anime Expo costume?

The following post is going to, in no uncertain terms, SPOIL THE ABSOLUTE SHIT out of the 13 episode 惡の華/FLOWERS OF EVIL TV anime, and roughly the first 7 volumes of manga it was based on. I spoke AT SOME LENGTH about the show previously, but that was specifically about the first 7 episodes; this is about the final six, and how it's all shaken out compared to the original comics. So, y'know, if you plan to watch and read the show but haven't yet, go do it. Seriously, go buy it RIGHT NOW - time's a wasting, and that shipping isn't gonna get any freer if you pick 'em up one at a time.

If you ask me, FLOWERS OF EVIL peaks at episode 10, and that's... not entirely a complaint, I guess. That 22 minute piece is one of the more impressive pieces of unusual televised content I've ever seen, essentially a stilted, self-hating piece of tragedy porn that looks the audience in the eye and says "Yes, you were completely wrong about what this was. Deal with it." The show's glacial pacing picks up for just long enough to revel in what makes this story so goddamned interesting to start with, and finally comes full circle with it; Nakamura's fascination with Kasuga was her misunderstanding that his impulsive, selfish nature hid something deeper. Something dark and terrifying that threatened the dull, crushing normalcy of her miserable life. But was she right? Did she ever really have a partner in Kasuga?

When Kasuga is stripped of everything, forced to choose between justifying the love of the girl he had a romanticized crush on and the girl who challenged his belief in everything... he chooses neither. He breaks down in tears, admitting he doesn't understand a goddamned word of Baudelaire, and just convinced himself his pseudo-intellectual fascination with classic literature was a way to convince him that he's not just as ordinary and boring as everyone else. The entire show to that point had - to one degree or another - been our lead character (I refuse to call him a "hero") trying to figure himself out whilst simultaneously wrapping himself in layers of complicated, pretentious bullshit, to the point where even he believed it. What does Nakamura do with this moment of unexpected clarity? She, quite literally, THROWS IT BACK IN HIS SNIVELING FACE. And I was overjoyed.

Nakamura's quest to find another emotionally shattered sociopath to share her miserable crawl towards oblivion has failed, and in the end, Kasuga's unexpected, grotesque honesty has cost him the respect and affection of both women in his life. It's an emotionally devastating sequence - one designed to somewhat cleverly undo a lot of the seemingly valid criticisms viewers might have had until that point about the story being pretentious (as opposed to the characters within the show - creating a character with unlikable traits doesn't mean the author has created an unlikable piece by accident), and it proudly wears the whole concept of Flowers of Evil for the world to see in both the most blatant, and amusing, visual possible. Yeah, it's a bit on the nose, and yes, it borders on approaching the very ideas the story proper is rejecting of pretentious wankery actually meaning anything.

And y'know what? I fucking loved it, because it's earned that brief moment of self-indulgent symbolism. The most obvious point of comparison the TV series had drawn up to this point was the bizarre, slow-burn films of surrealist mastermind David Lynch, but Lynch worked in nightmarish imagery specifically to explore the inner workings of the human mind in exaggerated ways, meaning that - for example - "The Baby" in Eraserhead is very real, at least insofar as anything in that film is. When faced to cop to that uncomfortable level of clarity, Flowers of Evil quickly and violently rejects the un-reality of its initial presentation; Kasuga's own visions of the "Flowers" watching his evolution into a deviant are then regulated to his dreams, and the only glimpse of the "Other Side" appear in the hastily scribbled notebooks that the characters themselves have created.

That overbearing sensation of discomfort and broken narrative doesn't change, but the subtle, at times almost supernatural underpinnings - suggesting that the story is, somehow, more than it really is, to the point where Mrs. Kentai was curious if the series had supernatural elements at play - basically evaporate with Kasuga's inflated sense of self-importance. Part of me wishes the series had actually taken it a step further - filled the whole proceedings with even more insane internal-visuals leading up to Kasuga's breakdown, be they blatantly false (like him seeing Saeki as the Virgin Mary) or merely over the top (Nakamura's "So Anime!" bit of skipping through a pulsating rainbow backdrop) - but, as ever, I find that what works in the show just wasn't focused on quite enough to draw the comparisons I want to. In effect, the Flowers of Evil TV series reminds me of a great David Lynch movie... but, I'm not convinced it's as good as a great David Lynch movie.

Whatever you think this means... it's actually far worse.

Having recently read way too much chatter from viewers who either were emotionally unable, or consciously unwilling, to see the largely clear-cut ideas presented in the narrative, I'm going to throw out my interpretation of what makes this story so fascinating, and a lot of it comes down to the dynamic of power; Nakamura assaults Kasuga and forces him to wear Saeki's gym clothes. Kasuga doesn't agree to it, but he doesn't actively strike Nakamura, either. He's a coward. He's a sniveling, unsure ball of confused adolescence afraid that Nakamura will expose his "sin", and when it's over Nakamura sits on top of him, panting, looking - for lack of a better term - satisfied. This scene is an inversion of sexual assault as it's typically known; she dwarfs him emotionally, and the domination of his body follows suit. She's overpowering and even emasculating him. She makes Kasuga her indisputable bitch without needing to penetrate either of them, because sex isn't really a part of her agenda - not directly, in any case; ever the literal symbol, Nakamura strips Kasuga of his pretenses and exposes him for what she thinks he really is: A sexually frustrated, fetish-clothing obsesses deviant.

When she makes Kasuga admit to being hard and touching himself while wearing them, the shaky validity of her assertions are somewhat irrelevant - what matters is she sees through the romanticism that Kasuga can't, again, because he's bought into his own sense of intellectually inflated nonsense. Arguments that Kasuga could have fought her off or that he may have secretly "wanted it" are missing the whole point of their characters; interpreting it as anything but one character exerting the emotional power the other has granted them is stretching quite a bit, as is questioning how creepy this dynamic could have been had their genders been reversed. As I said last time, the inversion - the switching of gender and power roles - from a hundred different rape-fetish anime and eroge in the pattern of Isaku and Yakin Byoutou was the whole POINT of this relationship, which might be possible to do, if you haven't whacked it to countless Isaku knock-offs in the last decade, and I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the people who find themselves uncomfortable with this idea are doing so out of a fundamental lack in understanding that this scenario is perfectly normal for "rough" minded Japanese cartoon pornography. It'd be like trying to discuss Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon without having seen a single Jason or Michael Meyers movie - you could, sure, but why would you even want to? Someone's telling you a joke, and you don't have enough background in the subject to follow it.

Episode 10 is the turning point, the moment Kasuga realizes he's fundamentally a blank slate; he doesn't really know why he exists, and he's been selfishly aggrandizing Saeki whilst lying to himself about his "wicked" personality so he didn't have to face the fact that he was, like everyone else around him, just a pathetic creep with selfish desires. Episode 11 leaves him still drawn for reasons he doesn't understand to Nakamura - the girl who abused him, who humiliated him, and who destroyed his illusions about himself - and the next two episodes are devoted to Kasuga both trying to apologize, and in the end, finally understand Nakamura. He succeeds (on some level, anyway) when he reads through Nakamura's uncomfortably serial-killeresque diary, and is heartbroken by what he finds; the realization that she only wanted to help him on her own twisted terms - a fellow freak trying to drag one of her own out of the closet, and one that increasingly found little worth being excited for when she no longer had the purpose of helping a fellow tortured soul lick his own wounds. Without the aide of another 13 episodes to work with, the Flowers of Evil TV series essentially ends with Kasuga finally accepting that if he has to be something, it might as well be what he always thought he was: He lives the lie of being a deviant until it becomes his reality, and he finds the terms to do it that finally give him the responsibility he so openly threw away when he tried to deal with Saeki's emotional baggage. In short, the TV series ends with Kasuga realizing his own worth and becoming a man... he just does it in the single most destructive way possible by deciding to be Nakamura's vassal.

There's a single moment in Episode 13 that strikes a chord in me I had to ponder for a moment: When Nakamura comes into her room and finds Kasuga in tears reading her diary, there's a moment where she grins, the same way she would when she'd torment Kasuga... but why? Why is she elated by this act of betrayal? Because whether or not Kasuga realized it, he had done to Nakamura what he had previously done to Saeki; he invaded her privacy in a moment of perverse weakness, and in very awkward terms has proven that Nakamura was now the object of his affections.

Of course, he was still a shit-bug reading her diary after having proven to be far less an individual than she'd previously expected, so she flipped out anyway. Hard to blame her, all things considered. But this in turn begins one of the more fascinating aspects of these two characters, as they enter into an increasingly uncomfortable, not-directly-sexual D/s relationship: The whole way through, Kasuga continues to do things that make Nakamura proud - namely peeling off his "skin" of his own accord and carving out a portal to "The Other Side" for her, and Nakamura continues to - as she sees fit - both nurture and tease him, not unlike the way most people would treat a dog they were particularly fond of. Kasuga is clearly physically attracted to Nakamura, but never tries to get any closer than Nakamura's own terms dictate that he be allowed; she even uses him as furniture and flashes fleshy bits of her body to establish that he's still in command, acknowledging that part of Kasuga's true self involves desires she herself is satisfied to ignore. Before "The Other Side" is destroyed, there's some question as to if Nakamura's attitude towards physical attraction is as non-existent as she suggests, but that quickly becomes irrelevant when her fun is interrupted, setting their relationship back to square one without any reason for Nakamura not to pummel the poor kid into submission.

This comes to its thematic high mark when Nakamura physically tears away at Kasuga's flesh, and gives her final order... clearly out of his depth, Kasuga loses his shit for a moment, but agrees to Nakamura's slightly more dramatic - and no less shocking - demands to end the contract on her own terms. Kasuga stands his ground and becomes what Nakamura thought he was, even at the cost of his own being.

Boom goes the dynamite.

This relationship's core concept gets far more uncomfortable when - in the manga, at least - Saeki looks at the dynamic between Kasuga and Nakamura and tries to emulate it herself. Saeki is a far more interesting character than some people give her credit for; yes, there may be an undercurrent of perverse wish-fulfillment in seeing her not reject Kasuga for his previous actions, but she's a young girl, and for the first time she feels like someone has acknowledged that she exists - that she's a fully formed, independent, beautiful person capable of making others want and love her. She sees Kasuga's innocent worship of her as a vindication of her own existence - itself seemingly a complicated dance for her parents sake she's sick of keeping up - and when Kasuga breaks up with her, she doesn't see it as the boy trying to protect her; she sees it as having somehow "lost" to Nakamura, the only person Saeki sees as capable of not giving a single fuck about what others think of her. Saeki's sense of self-worth are built entirely on her being an ideal - not an actual person - and she becomes infuriated with Nakamura's ability to be everything she's not, merely by not caring about everything she does. When she's refused by Kasuga as she offers the last thing she feels she has to give - her physical innocence - she ignores him and takes him by force, which likely isn't that hard to do with a sexually amorphous 14 year old boy. (Hell, I still get boners when they're least appropriate, and I'm at least twice Kasuga's age.)

This is important on two levels, one I'm curious if some readers glossed over; the most obvious point is that she physically dominates Kasuga and then shows off the bloody proof to Nakamura, who basically just laughs and asks why she should care. Again, Nakamura's focus on Kasuga having sex had nothing to do with her wanting to have sex with Kasuga, so her reaction - at least, the one she spoke of out loud - is that it was irrelevant, and that Saeki could fuck the little shit whenever she wanted. The more subtle fallout is the fact that, when Kasuga worked up the nerve to ask Saeki out in the first place, he specifically asked for a platonic relationship. That's right, he literally asked for a non-sexual romance so he could keep this pure, romanticized image of Saeki alive in his head, and she shatters it by physically violating him. Forcing herself on him is bad enough; the fact that the act contradicted the one thing he ever requested of her when they entered in their thinly formed relationship makes it so much worse, though.

Why does any of this this matter, though? If Nakamura doesn't care, why does she become so frustrated afterward? This is because Nakamura took control of Kasuga not to demean him, but to peel off the layers of his artifice and find the beast lurking beneath; she tormented and abused him specifically with the goal to help him. Saeki is far less altruistic, and merely takes control to further her own sense of self worth; Kasuga quickly became a pawn to show Nakamura that she still "won" a competition she never understood to begin with. Saeki used Kasuga's body just as Kasuga used his fantasy of Nakamura, projecting an idealized romance on their own selfish terms without ever really acknowledging that the other was an actual human being. By comparison, Nakamura turns out to be the compassionate woman in this unusual romantic triangle; she certainly took enjoyment in watching Kasuga squirm, but she only did it because she legitimately thought it would make him happy to begin with. Granted, Nakamura's still a crazy bitch, but at least she was a sincere, well meaning kind of crazy bitch. In the end, the physically violent sociopath could be the most honest and emotionally cohesive character in this whole affair... how's that for a depressing snapshot of adolescence?

But to get back to the TV series for a moment, the final episode did something... interesting. I can't call it good, because the grotesquely slow pacing that embodies the show made it a requirement in the first place, and while I understand the concept behind pacing this like an arthouse feature there's too much ground to cover to justify it. But I can't call it bad either, because the very nature of the beast is only interesting BECAUSE the rest of the show has been so intensely argumentative to the tone of it. I'm talking, of course, about the show's three-minute long flash-forward, layering out of context dialog and quick glimpses - some of them merely a second long - of unprovoked violence, implicit sexual assault, and the ultimate plan to reach the Other Side.

The only way I find I can describe this version of Flowers of Evil is if the legendary finale to Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver had been a series of uncertain, fast cuts interspersed through the footage of Travis Bickle waking up in the hospital bed, not really answering the burning questions of what went down during what was the film's ultimate act of violent catharsis, other than to leave the impression that "shit got real". Taxi Driver might not seem like a particularly appropriate comparison piece, but both Bickle and Nakamura are young, angry people who project their frustration onto the world around them until they both resort to drastic measures; if Flowers of Evil has any catharsis, it's all buried in that churning, indistinct montage, promising the ultimate conclusion of the show's antiheroes without actually explaining a goddamned thing. Part of me is overjoyed they found a way to acknowledge this material at all; the rest of me wishes they had simply sped the pace up to 2X and we could have actually gotten to see that footage play out in real time. I'm slightly jealous of Justin Sevakis' recent comment summing up that there's an excellent feature film to be made from the 13 episodes of raw footage, which is honestly the only way I could see the final stretch of the manga's story arc being animated by way of a 90 minute rotoscoped feature.

D'aw! Look at all the emotional baggage!

At the end of the day, Flowers of Evil - the TV adaptation, at the very least - was made to please a select few, but raise the ire of everyone else, and left plenty of potential fans in the dust to approach the uncomfortable subject matter on its own terms, flawed as they could be. Mrs. Kentai cringes every time she sees me watching it, and when faced with the reality that the "cute" designs of the original manga are no worse at expressing the same ideas and sentiment as the intentionally distorted rotoscoped visuals of the TV series, I find myself unable to argue that they were 'better' than a typical anime art style - more unique and conversation worthy, sure, but I'm not convinced they were necessary to tell the story itself, lest the original material would crumble under its own adorable nature. While there are brilliant moments peppered through the show - Nakamura stripping Kasuga, the destruction of the class room, even the way the wet pages of Baudelaire being thrown in Kasuga's face were handled - at the end of the day, the decision to create a totally unique and polarizing art style served to grab people's attentions and establish that Japan is far from finished trying to innovate TV animation, but not too much else. I'm fine with this show looking, and even unfolding the way it does; it certainly grabbed my eyeballs, and it's caused ten times the discussion that the thematically similar teen-romance deconstruction epic School Days ever did in the English speaking world. (And that's not entirely fair, because School Days is fucking brilliant.)

And therein lies the real rub, doesn't it? Fans of the original manga expected a more or less straight-up adaptation of the original manga, which director Nagahama rejected as being pointless; the original work is fine the way it is, and he suggested creator Oshimi adapt it as a live action series. A VERY INTERESTING TRANSLATION of an interview with these two men to promote the TV series reveals some very interesting methodology behind the show's creation, and in the interest of exploring how this show came to be, here's the summary in full:

In short (note that this is a quick & dirty summary):

- At first Nagahama (the director) refused the offer to direct the adaptation, because he thought that simply turning this manga into a pretty, clean-looking anime would be pointless. He says that he believes that when the mangaka draws this story he's seeing something "else" which he expresses as a manga. So there would be no point in simply presenting it in animated form, at that rate you might as well just read the manga and be done with it.

- He thought if it was to be adapted at all, it should be done as a live drama. When he was offered the job the second time, he pitched the idea of using rotoscope. He was aware that the result would be different from the manga.

- Oshimi (the mangaka) says Nagahama is right about the way he creates the manga: the original story is something that exists in his head, and he draws what he sees in his mind. So basically the anime and the manga are two different versions of the story that exists in Oshimi's head. By the way, he was also aware that due to the rotoscope the anime would look different from his work, and he thought it was an interesting idea.

- Oshimi also says that he thinks Nagahama has a very deep insight into the story, and firmly believes that he's taking it in the right direction. He also very much approves of Nagahama's wish of the anime leaving the viewers with a scar.

- Oshimi was pretty much "in" on the whole thing, they tested the rotoscope method on him.

- The interviewer asks about the impact the visuals would have on viewers, and Nagahama says he's well aware that a lot of people will go "what the fudge" and "this is gross," "I hate this, I'm not watching this." But he's pretty much okay with that, too, because he thinks it's fine as long as it leaves an impact on people. Viewers may dismiss it right away, but some may check it out later and find it interesting, or they may come across the manga, recognize the title, and read that.

- Oshimi says that he once got a fan letter from a high school girl who wrote that when she read the manga in middle school she thought it was stupid, but she tried to read it again when she was older and she found it very good. Nagahama says that this is what he's going for, to leave an impact, even if it's negative. He's trying to create something that one can't just ignore or dismiss. 

- Oshimi also says that the anime has many scenes that he wishes he would've drawn the way they are in the anime, for example a scene with Kasuga and Nakamura in the classroom. 

- Also, he confesses he's writing the manga with the intention of murdering the readers with it (metaphorically, of course), thinks the anime is doing the same, and relishes the idea of the viewers getting slaughtered, jokingly of course. (lol #1)

 They leave the following messages to the fans:

- Oshimi: He guarantees that those who feel very strongly about Aku no hana will enjoy the anime. However, chara-moe types, those who go "Nakamura-san, unf unf" will probably feel betrayed. (lol #2) 

- Nagahama: Since it's so different from the usual anime, he can't say that everyone will love it. But those who watch the first episode and think "I want to see more" will not have their expectations betrayed.

In other words, the two architects behind the TV series went out of their way to craft something they knew the average anime fan would reject - from the sound of it, the cute art style in the original manga may well have been something the publisher requested, rather than something Oshimi himself was particularly into. Without casting judgment or even saying whether or not that's a "good" idea, I have to admit, I admire the balls that decision made, and for sticking to it once made. I'd *LOVE* to have seen the pitch they made to investors, "No, really! The show will be so hated by the fans of the manga that everyone who HASN'T read it will be so curious they'll check it out!" One wonders what might have been in the hands of a less defensive Nagahama...

Not sure if thrilled, disappointed, aroused, or all of the above...

Was it right to craft such a different, "ugly" style just to draw attention to the original manga? Well, there's now a stack of Vertical published books on my shelf, and if the point of the TV show was to cause enough controversy to get people to check the original material out, mission fucking accomplished. I'm glad to have these if, for no other reason, I can force my wife to look at the twisted, depressing, and yet not entirely unsympathetic relationship between these three central characters and understand why I willingly sat through four minutes of two characters walking in total silence. To be fair, even that stretch of silence serves both a narrative and a thematic purpose... it just drives me insane, watching such a fascinatingly ugly story drag its feet before it can really dive into the deep end where it belongs.

While I'd argue the semantics 'till I was blue in the face if I cared more, a friend of mine - who loves the show harder than I do - claims that it's "not anime", and really shouldn't be judged by the same metric any other piece of contemporary Japanese cartoons should be. It's so far removed from anything Japan typically creates, or even likes, that its only reasonable company are pieces of experimental French animation - .  It was a show literally created as a raised middle finger to expectations and even to the audience that would typically lap this up like 2D crack, and - particularly from a director who's made some popular and "traditionally" beautiful animation - it's a bold, crazy move. I respect it, even. But at the end of the day, it's - by and large - the thing I find myself torn over. The pacing I can deal with. The soundtrack I've come to love. But that sloppy, inconsistent rotoscoping? I've finished the show and I STILL don't know if I love it or hate it.

I won't praise Flowers of Evil for being "deep", because doing so would just make me a shit-bug: What I will say is that is successfully crafts a three dimensional portrait of an unconventional love-triangle/tragedy, and while the anime totally fails to cover the entire breadth of the story itself, it does a very unconventional and fascinating job of presenting those ideas none the less. It's a malformed experiment, released to the public without the budget or episode count to fully work... but if you can watch the final minutes of episode 7 and not think that alone was worth trying, I don't know what more could convince anyone.

In the end, Flowers of Evil is a totally unique, fascinating... but imperfect experience. It captured my fancy, it crushed my soul, and in the end, it gave me a lot to think about - not by way of piling in unnecessary symbolism, but by brutally rejecting it, and asking the viewer little more than to accept that broken people can simply be broken. Much like the grim, fatalistic relationship its lead cast shares together, there's something simultaneously hideous and beautiful about it, and my only wish was that this had been well received enough for the full storyline to run its course to the end of the Summer Festival. (That post-time skip bullshit afterward can fuck right off, thanks. Nope, I don't even care what Oshimi has up his sleeve, it should have ended at the Summer Festival.) But this it how it ends... not with a bang, or a whimper, but with confusion, fear, loathing and the promise of both more and nothing in the same shuddering caw. If nothing else, Flowers of Evil ends on the same uncomfortable and uncompromising note as its young antagonists; angry, alone, and unsure of what will happen now that he realizes how far past the lines of normalcy he's treading, and can't turn back without severe consequence. It's not exactly fun, but perhaps it's a fitting blue-ball finale for a story obsessed with the bleak hopelessness of adolescence. Whether or not you find that very notion to be a pretentious bag of bollocks is, I suppose, a personal call.

"Attention, shit-bugs!"

Fans of unusual, challenging animation as forms of expression are absolutely recommended to check out the anime on... ugh, Crunchy Roll, and pick it up on DVD/Blu-ray whenever Sentai Filmworks gets around to releasing it. For those curious to explore the diseased, violent mind of Japan's outliers in love - but aren't sure if they can take Arthouse pacing and generally unpleasant art design - might be better off buying Vertical's release of the original manga. Frankly, I'm in for both, but hold no delusions that most viewers or readers will even want to experience this more than once.

Do forgive this bit of poorly edited self-indulgence: I'm very much in the mood to post something more interesting than yet another complaint about Fist of Fury, and I'd rather post this while it's somewhat fresh and throbbing before I file it away forever.  Also, my fucking smoke alarm's battery died recently, so sleep has been... hit or miss, for the last two or three days.