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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Cogito Ergo Proxy

Yay, back at home for Thanksgiving Break. I really haven’t been too busy lately, but I also haven’t done much either.

Ergo Proxy happened this week. Sigh. It's an incredibly difficult task to describe exactly what's up with Proxy. At first glance, it's a darker, grittier, and bleaker version of Lain, complete with a dystopian derelict of a city compounded with incessant "what is reality?" musings. However, after a fairly innocuous start, Proxy quickly spirals into flat-out depravity by laying on the surrealism so thick and in such a protracted manner that the whole shebang morphs into a twisted incomprehensible jumble of nonsense.


One of Proxy's motifs is the concept of one's "identity," and how our true "selves" are shaped by our raison d'etre's. Thus, it is extremely ironic that the characters themselves don't really develop at all throughout the entire series. Sure there's some psychological development, but all the characters feel rather shallow and seem all too content with lackadaisically meandering around. They prefer to wander aimlessly rather than looking inwards to foster genuine growth or looking forward to embark on a journey of discovery and there's always this feeling that story progression is repeatedly being ground to a complete halt. Doubly tragic is the fact that the show spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on characters' inner dialogue, which wouldn't be so unbearable if it didn't come across as tedious and meaningless drivel. Perhaps a more fitting name for the series would be Ergo Prolix-y (har har).


The biggest problem with Proxy is that it's literally choking on its own hamfisted pretentiousness. It makes severe sacrifices to shove its existentialist philosophies into your face instead of disseminating them in a discreet and subtle manner, which, as proven by the likes of Evangelion often fails miserably. Proxy is no exception. At best, it sparks faint intellectual rumination. At worst, it's borderline obnoxious. And believe me, it leans towards the latter far more often than not. As for the sacrifices, let's just say that the plot literally plummets down a bottomless abyss, never to be seen again, about halfway through the series. There's at least some semblance of a story early on, but by the end, Proxy is struggling to inch by on disjointed stand-alone episodes and a contrived conspiracy yarn held together by wet tissue paper.


Proxy is just one of those series’ that it gets done in by its own lofty aspirations. The first episode is a gorgeously engrossing opener with vast potential that quickly gets whittled away by more and more staggering lapses in relevance, plot coherence, characterization, and pacing. In fact, the only reason I stuck through with it for so long is because I have a soft spot for dark dystopian backdrops such as 1984 and feel that Proxy did a great job with its alluring mix of gothic and cyberpunk. If not for the setting and scenery, I'd have dumped it around that childishly gimmicky gameshow episode. Hey, at least the music is a blast. That opening is pure genius.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Planetes

Let’s face it, the concept of life in outer space doesn’t lend itself too easily to being depicted as mundane. Being set in a vast void full of intrigue, wonder, and infinite possibilities far away from the confines of humble civilization, life in space is generally seen as extravagant and exotic escapism. If there happens to be dissent leading to large scale conflicts, there’s always pitched spacefleet showdowns and intergalactic massacre to fall back on to keep things howlingly melodramatic. And if that doesn’t work, just play off the mystery angle and crank up the paranoia of being trapped in a distressingly dark and enigmatic vacuum of emptiness, à la 2001. After all, everything is better…in SPACE.


Having said that, however, is there any particular reason that a story set in outer space can’t focus on the more unsophisticated and unidealistic side of life? Enter Planetes, released in 2005, produced by studio Sunrise and directed by none other than Gorō Taniguchi, best known for his work on the recent commercially successful colossus known as Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion. A far cry from the likes of Geass, however, Planetes is a tragically overlooked sci-fi marvel that paints an unflinchingly convincing picture of what life in space would be like for one of the most under-appreciated professions known to mankind: garbage collectors.

This totally works and I am not even kidding.

You see, in space, even the tiniest unfettered scrap of detritus could have devastating effects if allowed to breach Earth’s atmosphere; therefore, a diligent clean-up crew dedicated to monitoring and scooping up the monstrous clutter is needed in order to avert such a disaster. As on planet Earth, it’s a monotonous and brutally thankless, yet indispensable job.

So, how exactly does one take the concept of “garbage men…in SPACE” and make it work? Simple. Craft a well-written narrative with a strict adherence to technical and logistical realism, magnificently fine attention-to-detail, and a remarkably sympathetic cast of characters, then let the breathtaking backdrop of outer space work its magic.


Ai and Hachi

While the weight bears down crushingly hard on the cast of characters, there’s fortunately a fine, if unspectacular line-up to be had. Much of the focus is on the perpetually grouchy and disgruntled Hachi Hoshino and how he contemptibly views chirpy, naïve, and eager fresh recruit Ai Tanabe as a neverending nuisance. While their disparaging banter is nothing original, it nevertheless is enough to imbue the story with likable, lighthearted charm and can make for some authentic, though still easy-going, romantic drama from time to time.

Planetes admittedly does occasionally wander off into farcical territory when it comes to life and living conditions in space, but it still manages an incredible job of staying true to the laws of physics. There’s no noise in space, for example, and the series puts heavy emphasis on delineating the oft-trivialized rigorous training processes required to even survive, let alone function in an occupation, aboard a space station.

Courtesy of i09

Additionally, the plot also doesn’t feel forced or far-fetched, proving once again that Planetes likes to stay well within the bounds of realism. It’s your typical “spotlight on one or two characters per week” deal as the focus bounces between their strained relationships and how to deal with the crisis at hand, be it recovering errant pieces of debris that happen to possess MacGuffin levels of plot significance, putting a stop to a hostile kidnapping, jeopardizing the entire garbage collecting outfit by attempting to teach the higher-ups a lesson in morals and etiquette, and even quelling a political uprising.

None of these scenarios seem particularly fresh or new, but against the mystical backdrop of space, the series makes us look at every tense sequence from a new perspective. There’s no need to flaunt flashy firefights when a humble little hostage situation or spate of heated political unrest is all it takes to remind us how the wonder, thrill, and danger of everyday occurrences is drastically magnified in the vacuum of space. We often take for granted just how exciting simply existing in space can be and Planetes clearly goes out of its way to restore the inherent sense of wonder that has long since been worn away by decades of bombastic space shootouts.



Whereas most shows are content with the trickle of new ideas from the dried-up and depleted husk of the sci-fi genre, Planetes manages to breathe just a little bit of life back into the deteriorating carcass with a slice-of-life spin like no other. While it’s not deep or particularly pretty to look at, Planetes will undoubtedly still tickle the fancy of anyone even remotely interested in sci-fi. I’d go as far as to say that even bitter cynics may have their faith in sci-fi renewed after a viewing.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Inaugural post and Lucky Star musings

Let me preface this by saying I know this is a belated issue which is behind by several years and that I just wanted to vent a bit on the stupidity of people who bash Lucky Star. Not that I feel such an argument is no longer pertinent. I mention Eva, and heck, Eva raging and ranting over misconstrued perceptions is still going on to this day (although to be honest, Eva hatred is a bit more justified).

And the world cheered.

For some reason, Lucky Star seems to have one of the largest divergent bases in recent history. Although the show’s been well-received overall, just walk into any anime forum, mention Lucky Star and watch as flame wars erupt almost instantaneously. While such a scenario is not unusual in and of itself, heated Lucky Star debates are distinct in that you will find that there are just as many supporters as haters. The general opinion of the vocal populace is literally split right down the middle. It’s like Evangelion all over again.

I’m fairly certain I don’t need to go into great detail about why Lucky Star enthusiasts are entitled to their opinion. There’s plenty to like about the show; I mean it was produced with the intention of catering to otaku, a goal that it accomplishes almost too well. Apart from the flagrant otaku-bait, there are certainly more than a handful of genuinely funny jokes sprinkled throughout the series. And there’s just something about the whole premise of a laid-back show built around inane, random, yet surprisingly well-written conversations that’s rather charming. It’s not the best show, but it’s far from the worst, and has more than its fair share of redeeming qualities to make up for its pervasive flaws.

No, I want to explore the source from which all the Lucky Star hate-o-rade flows so readily.

Lucky Star RAGE boils down to a clear and honest misunderstanding stemming from unreasonable, although understandable preconceptions. What do I mean by this? The main problem with Lucky Star is that it lends itself to be compared to other slice-of-life comedies far too easily. Comparisons are inevitable and are at times necessary, but with Lucky Star, drawing comparisons is a tragic mistake.

The vast majority of the hate directed at Lucky Star is hate that would have otherwise never existed had it not been for an unfortunate case of mistaken identity. Simply put, people walked into Lucky Star fully expecting one thing and got something completely different. Now why was that the case?

It’s because Lucky Star was initially perceived by everyone as more comedy than slice-of-life. Viewers expected to be incapacitated by bouts of uncontrollable laughter from start to finish and then balked when the first few episodes contained nothing but airy quasi-existential conversations about chocolate cornets. If you were one of those people, don’t feel ashamed because you were definitely not alone. But that doesn’t change the fact that you, like everyone else, completely missed the point.

Slice-of-life comedies have more variety than one may think. In fact, they can be spread across an entire spectrum of plain old slice-of-life and comedy that happens to be centered around slice-of-life, as illustrated by the following magnificent chart from the Cruel Angel Theses from over a year ago:


Incidentally, my argument was fueled by a post from the aforementioned blog on the same subject. It was a good read.

People walked into Lucky Star with the expectation that it would fall towards the right side of the spectrum instead of coming in completely unopinionated. It’s perfectly fine to pick up a series and then find out that it’s not exactly what you expected. The problem arises when you fervently rush to the internet or out to your friends to unrepentantly moan and bitch about how it wasn’t exactly what you expected.

Complaining about Lucky Star being “too boring and unfunny” is like complaining how there’s not enough action in a shoujo romance series. If you’re not into shoujo, you will generally not be watching shoujo titles and consequently not be participating in the community centered around shoujo series’s. And if the same logic were applied to Lucky Star, the people who didn’t want to see laid-back, sedative slice-of-life series packed with irreverent discussions would not have picked it up from the start and then cried like entitled idiots, thereby drastically reducing the scads of frenzied, bleeding-heart Lucky Star bashers and their detrimental effect on the community.

Hate originating from erroneous and arbitrary pigeonholing is entirely unwarranted. Hell, pigeonholing in general is often futile and pointless, but when it’s used to base entire opinions and arguments off of, it’s just downright retarded. And I’ll be damned if I let Lucky Star hate-dom off the hook just because the “Lucky Star is boring” side of the argument is so prevalent.

Lucky Star is not boring. The problem is you. Your attention span is too short for Lucky Star and you shouldn’t be watching it in the first place if that’s the case. And also, please shut up about it. Do not bemoan the fact that a mainstream show was not entirely suited to your likes, unless you’re willing to look at it somewhat critically and objectively.

I’m pretty sure that Kyoto Animation is at least partially to blame for the pre-emptive pigeonholing (although, I reiterate: such an act is generally ineffectual and impractical) due to the misleading high-octane opening sequence and a concept eerily similar to AzuDai. Although that second point is less meaningful seeing as Lucky Star has more in common with Hidamari Sketch, which for some bizarre reason never got the whole “It’s not funny, therefore it sucks” treatment, at least not to the degree that Lucky Star did. People seemed to get Sketch right from the get-go, whereas no one saw Lucky Star for what it was.

A sketchy crew.

Once again, if you’re really going to rail on Lucky Star, please at least attempt to dissect it in a somewhat mature fashion and don’t put personal taste at the forefront of your argument. Lord knows there’s a laundry list of flaws that the series ripe for the picking and to be used as ammunition against its multitude of strengths. In the end, I just want less of:

Lucky Star sucks because it’s a bunch of random school girls talking about random stuff. It’s too slow, too boring, and not funny.


It’s getting tiresome.



Now, how exactly do I feel about Lucky Star, personally? In a nutshell, I genuinely enjoyed myself more than I care to admit and I find the show very entertaining overall.

First off, there’s Konata, a character that I can immediately relate to, which makes watching her in action a picturesque joy.

Simply irresistible.

Konata is perpetually lazy and has a habit of prioritizing her hobbies of reading manga, watching anime, and playing video games. Hey, that reminds me of someone! As someone who has been an avid fan of World of Warcraft for many years, I am also on equal footing with Konata’s love for wasting hours of precious time in MMORPGs. And of course, all of these seemingly-overwhelming distracters don’t stop either of us from sliding by in our asinine academic endeavors. Konata’s unequivocally endearing eccentricity is without a doubt the main draw of the series, at least for me.

Much to the credit of the show, however, Konata’s abundantly prevailing presence does not go unchallenged. Rounding the cast are the studious and short-tempered Kagami, who fits the new definition of tsundere to a tee, the lovably clumsy Tsukasa, whose innocent ineptitude is often hilariously charming, and the ditzy Miyuki, who embodies the concept of moe perfectly. In particular, the banter between Konata and Kagami is unfailingly priceless, especially any time Kagami reacts in a scathing and snarky fashion, purely out of disgust or disbelief, to something Konata has said or done. And boy does this happen with merciless frequency, much to the chagrin of Kagami and to the amusement of the audience.

Of course, the other feature that absolutely cannot go unmentioned is the side-splittingly hilarious Lucky Channel, which airs during the last two or three minutes of each episode. While the humor in Lucky Star is often hit-or-miss, the Lucky Channel segments are the parts of the show which remain consistently funny. The interplay between the clueless and pitiable Minoru Shiraishi and the cynical, jaded, and highly abusive Akira Kogami is a riot. Half of the fun comes from watching Akira flit between her bubbly, cutesy demeanor, and one of intensely dour morbidity with astonishing ease, while the other half is derived from watching her tear into her poor co-host as he struggles to survive under the strain of her constant abusive tendencies.

Is it bad that this is the best part of Lucky Star? Hell no!

Apart from Lucky Channel, whether the rest of Lucky Star is fantastic, mildly amusing, average, or a complete waste of time is primarily left up to personal taste, which, as mentioned during the Lucky Star hate-dom rant, is an obnoxious and unfortunate reality. The incessant pop culture, otaku-centric references will come across as either cute and clever or mind-numbingly grating due to their often obscure nature. While the show manages to be surprisingly colorful, cheerful, and upbeat, the pacing is rather sluggish and the lack of an actual plot may cause some to dismiss the series as mindless nonsense. On the other hand, however, these arguments really don’t carry significant weight seeing as a lessened emphasis on plot and frequent idling are staples of the slice-of-life genre.

While Lucky Star may fall short on story, it manages to rise to the occasion with some shockingly emotional and unexpectedly heartwarming scenes of character development. I am mainly referring to the tearful scene focused on Konata’s mother towards the end of the series, but additional bits and pieces of character development are sprinkled throughout as the series nears its conclusion. It’s worth remembering that if you’re looking for deep character introspection and growth in spades, you shouldn’t be looking for it in a sedative slice-of-life series that is primarily concerned with pandering to hardcore otaku through pop-culture references. The sheer incongruity of one or two genuinely heartfelt moments is more than enough to push Lucky Star above and beyond, especially considering how the rest of the series is laden with wacky, lighthearted, and irreverent silliness.

The state you mind you should be in for a viewing of Lucky Star.

Lucky Star is rife with infectious charm, awash with addictively quirky characters, and overflowing with casual conversations on the trials and tribulations of life. Sure the series isn’t thought-provoking or stimulating but Lucky Star was never meant to inspire or engage. It’s something you watch when you want to kick back and immerse yourself in the whimsical day-to-day lives of four high-school girls with a sugary otaku-slant. Heck, you might even get a laugh or two out of it for all your efforts.