Book: Dear Life by Alice Munro

A modest cover revealing rewards to be immodest about!

Dear Life
by Alice Munro
published by Vintage Books (Random House), New York
2012

I came to this collection of short stories knowing that Alice Munro had won international recognition for her outstanding writing, but not knowing if I would ENJOY it. I do! I’m delighted (and deeply impressed) by her remarkable clarity, her sharply observed descriptions of human behavior, her characters’ methods of acting out their emotional states, and her spare, crisp, and often bleak Ontario landscapes.

She says SO MUCH so efficiently! Two sentences in and I am THERE.

The collection of short stories has several themes, and the one I choose to emphasize is: turning points. Our characters decide to reach out to a stranger; have a spontaneous love affair on a train; decide NOT to return from war to their awaiting family; try to resist looking into the open casket… and these decisions do (or don’t!) change the trajectory of their lives. There is a tension between things that happen to them, their relative acceptance of circumstances, and how long they can accept things as they are before fleeing or being cast out.

The interactions are largely interpersonal, and feel like large dramas playing out on small, domestic stages. The women in particular are constantly balancing their limited options and their opportunities, rolling with what is expected of them – until they won’t. Social pressures erupt in judgments of all sorts, invariably against women who don’t try hard enough, or try too hard – the acceptable zones are small and ill-defined. Characters face conservative, conformist social pressures with a 1950s-70s weight that I’d characterize as “American mid-western,” though these stories are emphatically Canadian. (SO CANADIAN.)

From the first story I marvelled at her descriptions. How can the increasingly exaggerated and theatrical goodbyes people make through windows be so immediately and clearly written? You may not know someone’s height, or the pattern on their shirt, but you are quickly led to their careful manner, their sense of privacy, the way they speak when angry, the compromises they have made to be themselves, and what those cost them.

I have fussed over certain turns of phrase in writing about other authors, and I can say that Munro is doing something else: her language is brisk and sharp, cool and clear in a non-showy way, and all the more stunning for it.

It will be difficult to tolerate less skilled, more verbose stories by other authors for some time…

Book: The Mermaid Saga, volume 1, by Rumiko Takahashi

Yes, even the cover is so lovely…

Mermaid Saga (volume 1)
by Rumiko Takahashi
published in English by VIZ Media, LLC, San Francisco
2020

Yes, Rumiko Takahashi, the ‘princess of manga,’ published these stories in 2003, but now Viz has a beautiful, “signature edition” in English and with color inserts that is truly special! The second volume is being published this month, so I rushed out to get the first, and I LOVE it. You can read a free preview at the Viz website (viz.com)!

Mana is a lovely girl, being affectionately raised in a remote village of women, but must live in shackles. She is being raised… for a purpose that hasn’t been disclosed to her.

Yuta has watched his wife and loved ones die of old age while he remains young, after inadvertently eating the flesh of a mermaid. While his fellow diners died horribly or turned into miserable monsters, he received the immortality and endless youth that so many others will kill for. But he doesn’t want to live forever.

Unlike Takahashi’s light-hearted, comedic manga like Ursei Yatsura or Ranma 1/2, Mermaid Saga is a dramatic horror story. There is violence and plenty of death; monsters are real; humans behave monstrously; and people ruin the lives of people they claim to love through betrayals, violence, jealousy, murder, and imprisonment.

The artwork is lovely, which may seem like a funny thing to say when Yuta is constantly filthy and bleeding from some new wound! Takahashi’s work is beautifully composed; the fabrics are all lovingly rendered; the landscapes and cityscapes are all evocative; there is a convincing amount of detail (just enough, exactly where it should be); the action lines are bold, and anything that flows has lovely curves; everyone has FANTASTIC HAIR; old people are super, super old… The color and toned work in certain sections are an added bonus. SHE IS SO GOOD! I want to call her the QUEEN of manga, though they don’t historically have queens in Japan, but she deserves all the accolades.

Mana and Yuta didn’t CHOOSE their situation, but they are actively choosing to change it! It’s a compelling, serious set of stories. I’m hoping I’ll have volume 2 in my hands later this month!

Film: Inuyasha by Rumiko Takahashi

This image is from https://universeconquest.fandom.com/ Fan wikis are a great way to keep track of episodes and characters. The fandom page I used to track my progress through all 196 episodes is https://inuyasha.fandom.com. My iTunes seasons were broken into renumbered sub-seasons, so I have three episode 1s for season 6, and needed the fandom list to watch in order.

Inuyasha (seasons 1-6, plus Inuyasha: The Final Act; 196 episodes(!) total)
Based on the manga by Rumiko Takahashi
Published in English by Viz Media, LLC, San Francisco
2000 – 2004 and 2009 – 2010

So!  The last quarter of 2020 really got to me, and I needed a vacation for my mind. While poking around HBO during the holiday break, I came across Inuyasha by the remarkably talented Rumiko Takahashi, the same manga artist who created the most popular manga / anime stories of my youth.  [Imagine I’m narrating flashbacks from the late 80s and early 90s of going to university anime clubs, to see fan-subtitled or fan-dubbed versions of her work in overflowing lecture halls after classes ended!] I read about this series online – you don’t even have to finish wording your Google search before realizing that it’s a phenomenon, and people want to know WHY it is so popular.

It’s popular because it has so much going for it!

Why did I commit so many hours of my life (plus a few hundred dollars to purchase all seven seasons to watch at my convenience) to see the story through to the end? I WILL TELL YOU. (You knew this.)

First, a long-ish synopsis: Kagome, an ordinary Japanese high school girl in the modern world, travels through an old well to an alternate-universe-version of feudal Japan, where magic is real, demons (including harmless, friendly, nature spirits) are everywhere, and she is a reincarnation of a powerful priestess. She teams up with a dog-eared youth, Inuyasha, to save the world from evil once her magical jewel is broken and scattered across the land. A villain named Naraku is their main competition to reassemble the powerful jewel, and he is a part of Inuyasha & prior-Kagome’s tragic past.

There are TONS of other characters, weapons with special abilities, curses, incarnations of Naraku (characters made out of his flesh, but functioning as independent characters), love triangles, rivalries, discrimination, demons who look like monsters, demons that look like impossibly beautiful men, beautiful demons that have crushes on other beautiful demons, light physical comedy, teenage awkwardness, and a collection of small, shrill sidekicks who help explain the story to the audience by having things explained to them. (You annoy me, Shippo!) I will just write about my favorite elements of this.

I love isekai stories. My kindergarten notebooks have my early, handwritten stories of little girls who find strange caves and wind up in another world. These portal stories are so common in Japanese fiction that the genre has a name: Isekai (wikipedia.org). Kagome’s trips between contemporary Japan and fantasy magical feudal Japan through the well put this in that category.

The isekai elements feel metaphorical. Even if this is just a “feudal fairy tale,” as the opening credits put it, it FEELS like it represents something else. Kagome has a really rough time balancing out her obligations in the contemporary world – the scenes where she freaks out in class because she doesn’t understand her math tests AT ALL are hilarious! – with her life as a demon-slayer in the feudal one. She has unique skills that her team needs in the feudal world, while she is just another student in the contemporary one! She literally saves lives in the feudal world, but this other life of hers is secret from her classmates. (Thankfully, her family is very supportive.) Having important parts of your life that no one knows about is a relatable structure.

I love the background art. There are more “realistic” styles of anime, but Inuyasha is illustrated in a “classic” style that Takahashi helped establish. Big eyes, big hair, tiny mouths – that’s part of what makes this style. Meanwhile, the background art, skies, sunsets, streams, forests, and seasons are all lovingly rendered. As a watercolorist, I really appreciate the effort that went into these!

Scenery in Inuyasha is rendered beautifully in these screen grabs. The watercolorist in me is impressed at the sheer volume of beautiful backgrounds that were produced for this – it is many lifetimes worth of portfolios!

If I created even a tiny number of works of this quality, I would be so proud!

In addition to the beautiful representations of nature, there are great, very specifically Japanese renditions of palaces, food, sword hilts, houses, temples, and other details. The sort of things I studied back when I was in architecture, and/or on visits to Japan. People who really LIKED these things drew them, and that inspires my appreciation.

Feudal life is harsh, and bad things happen, which raise the stakes. Characters die. Everyone on the team has lost at least one immediate family member to a premature death. Many of them are coping with past traumas, which make them vulnerable and give them emotional baggage. This is the only anime I’ve seen where the main characters REGULARLY spend time burying entire villages of slain bystanders. It makes the evil they are battling more real, and also explains the anti-demon discrimination and rejection their group experiences, even if their demons are ‘good guys.’ Even some of the villainous characters feel trapped in their situations, and the main protagonists sometimes rescue them; little truces and scenes of mutual assistance spring up from time to time, and some characters have ambiguous motivations…

Lord Sesshōmaru is beautiful. I figured this out on my own, but if I hadn’t, there are multiple characters who swoon over him to be sure I get the picture. I’ve burst out laughing with, “Lord Sesshōmaru is SO DASHING!” spontaneously when he has appeared on screen, because they trained me well. (Lesson: definitely leave offerings of food to beautiful men you encounter in forests. I’m just saying.) He is always impeccably dressed. And he doesn’t let losing an arm phase him, nor change the flow of his sleeves.

Sesshōmaru is a beautiful character. He wears the same color of eyeliner I do, but it looks better on him. He has fantastic hair. He always looks like he smells nice. He pretends to be uncaring, with his gorgeous case of ‘resting b*tch face,’ but he intervenes to save others too often for it to be as unintended as he claims. He is also super-powerful and effective – he gets stuff DONE.

The English dialog is skillfully done. There were EXCELLENT script consultants for Viz’s dubbed scripts! There’s a scene where two heros are bickering, and one of their friends remarks that both of the guys are “as dumb as a sack of hammers,” and that is EXACTLY RIGHT. I’m sure the original Japanese insult was amazing, but this shows great skill.

The characters develop. The protagonists each have their own traumas to manage, and each bears a separate grudge against Naraku, which they had planned to resolve independently. Over the series, they learn that they are more effective as a team, develop awareness beyond their own pain, and properly look after each other. Even Inuyasha, who begins as a self-centered man-child, and, um… stays that way for a very long time, eventually becomes aware of other people’s feelings. You WANT him to develop, because Kagome loves him immediately.

The story has a solid structure, and clear goals. The core story is the battle against Naraku and his increasingly strong/difficult minions, and it’s a clear, simple setup with plenty of opportunity for variations. There are episodes which don’t move the story forward, yes, including some back stories for minor characters (Shippo!?!?), but even when they can’t find the main villain, the protagonists pick up a skill, or reaffirm their values, or make friends. The episodes are about 20 minutes apiece, so you can knock out three in an hour and feel like something happened!

There are other things to enjoy about this series – that theme music for Season 6 is so good! – but I need to stop before I scare you. Like any creative product, there are periodic imperfections, but that’s to be expected in such a vast collection, and the quality remains very high. Characters look hastily drawn now and then; the restart after a long gap between Season 6 and Final Act felt abrupt to me as a binge-watcher (which was not the expected experience at the time it was made), and some of the tiny, loud characters get more screen time than I’d like. Happily, the last season really picked up pace once it got going, and was EVENTFUL. I’m glad I watched through to the end.

So: I highly recommend this classic, high volume, well-executed, charming series. Go reave some iron and steal some souls!

Book: The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

Cover of the Obelisk Gate

The Obelisk Gate (Book Two in the Broken Earth Trilogy)
by N.K. Jemisin
published by Hachette, New York
2016

Note that Hachette’s site for the trilogy, linked above, contains light spoilers, in that the summaries reveal whether certain characters survive the previous volume(s).

Essun’s long quest to avenge her murdered toddler son and rescue her daughter, if that is still even possible, suffers a detour. She and her peculiar traveling companions are attracted to a place where Hoa says that there are many others of her kind, but her daughter isn’t there. The Season (the devastating aftermath of a volcanic/seismic cataclysm) is becoming more severe, and people – now organizing into factions – are becoming more desperate…

In this book: Essun finally returns her attention to the giant, floating crystals in the sky; Hoa’s backstory and insights about the stoneaters add depth (we learn how he REALLY met Essun!); someone who should know better disregards light up, hovering, holographic warning symbols; a powerful child makes some severe value judgments; and there is some mass murder.

I want to gush – there were times while listening to this that I refused to stop to do <some real-world thing>, because I HAD TO HEAR MORE – but won’t risk spoilers. I will just say that I am delighted by the story’s progress in this volume, especially the ancient technology revelations, and am eager for the third book. The last pages of this volume serve as a warning that our major characters are not all sharing the same goals…

As with the first volume, I’m LISTENING to this book on the Hachette audiobook version, and it is extremely well done, and I recommend it highly.

Film: Dystopian Anime: Iczer 1

Iczer 1
based on manga by Aran Rei
directed by Toshiki Hirano
1985

Admittedly, this is a sci-fi horror story, not merely a dystopia. But… have you watched the news lately?

Overview: Humanoid aliens looking for a new home get mixed up with some creepier aliens, and by the time their ship arrives at earth, these alien “Cthulhu” immediately cause humans to have weird mask faces, become murderous, or explode in gory, bloody ways as they turn into an army of monsters. This approach allows the Cthulhu to take control of earth without having to have a destructive, conventional war (which humans still think they have a chance at!). A blonde alien with enormous hair and an even more enormous giant robot takes the humans’ side of this fight. All she needs is a sympathetic human girl to [take a deep breath here] get naked and use her emotions to power the giant robot, so she can succeed in battle. (I probably had you until that last sentence.). The Cthulhu also have a giant robot or two, and they fight back!

This embedded video is a link to a gorgeous, clean, fan-subtitled version of the film (via Reflex Studios)(YouTube):

Why I like it: It has everything – alien invasions, secret earth spaceships hidden near Mt. Fuji, light sabers, big hair, energy weapons, giant robots, fights that throw people into walls that they make craters in, parents that burst and turn into monsters, tentacle attacks, and a nearly all-female cast! (This particular version is CLASSY, so the tentacle scenes are brief! ) The timing and use of music is brilliant in several scenes, which I don’t want to spoil for you.

You’ll notice the summaries elsewhere describe the “body horror” elements quite a bit, and I’ll just say: it is definitely in the sci-fi horror genre, and the body horror is much like that of the film Aliens. So, while it isn’t realistic, just the same, the idea of parents exploding and becoming monsters isn’t exactly child-friendly, so don’t share this with little ones.

Film: Dystopian Anime: Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell (1995)
(Japanese original title: Kôkaku Kidôtai per IMDB)
based on the manga by Masamune Shirow
directed by Mamoru Oshii
1995 (Japan & UK), 1996 (US)

Continuing my new habit of watching dire futures as a way of tolerating the dire present, I went back and watched the first and possibly best version of Ghost in the Shell. GitS is another Masamune Shirow manga (I wrote about him previously when reviewing the translated Appleseed manga).

Overview: An anti-terrorist unit of a future police force has to battle an unseen hacker adversary who can ‘hack’ humans’ cybernetic minds, and turn innocent individuals into his violent henchmen. The protagonist is a female cyborg with human brain, who ponders questions about what it means to be human in an era of augmented individuals. Her philosophical exposition and debates with her coworkers break out between brutal scenes of hand-to-hand combat and cyborg-vs-tank battles in a visually rich future version of Hong Kong.

Here’s the original Japanese preview; if you are in the U.S. and over 18, you can watch the complete film subtitled in English on YouTube at this link.

Why I like it: The animation is top notch: real artists clearly developed the illustrations, which are colored well, and have just-realistic-enough lighting effects; the use of computer graphics is selective and well-placed. The music really sets a mood, especially the choral piece by Kenji Kawai (YouTube). The direction is excellent: there is a scene where rain falls quietly on the gun turret of a tank, and you are forced (at turret-point) to appreciate the effort that went into the many details of the scene. The protagonist looks intense, serious, and a bit unsettling (rather than young and playful, as protagonists are in many of Shirow’s manga) which FEELS RIGHT for a cyborg.

This is a different story with the same characters and settings as the 2017 live action version starring Scarlett Johansson: if you’ve seen that, you’ll appreciate the fidelity of that movie to the composition of certain scenes. That film was about the protagonist’s back-story, while this 1995 film is more of a standalone adventure, which ends on a very different trajectory for the main character.

Note that, the animator(s) and art director(s) are especially fond of women’s breasts, and even though there is no practical reason a cyborg would have nipples, you do wind up seeing them a lot. *shaking my head.*

Film: Dystopian Television During the Pandemic

I’m a big reader, writer, and all-around-city-explorer, and don’t usually make time in my routine for television. In normal times I work long hours, see movies on the big screen with friends, go out to social dinners, run evening errands, take long walks, read non-fiction, go to evening museum events, and have a packed life: TV is just too big a time-suck. (I have so many friends who CLAIM they want to pursue some passion, but can’t because of time constraints; these same friends can summarize thousands of hours of shows, and don’t make the connection.) During this pandemic, however, I am heeding the signs posted throughout my neighborhood begging me to stay at home. Cultural institutions, movie theaters, most indoor gathering places, and all non-essential shops are closed. The streetcars stopped running, so my normal routes to explore are out of reach. There is news that melts my heart on every device around me, and I’ve found concentrating on books has been hit-or-miss, as my mind strays back to the problems of the day.

To refresh myself, I decided to seek out dystopian fiction in various video/film formats. Considering the times I am living in, I wanted something less optimistic than fairy tales or positive-future-sci-fi: since I’m living in a world where people would all become zombies due to their desire for ‘freedom’ or refusal to believe in a zombie plague, I wanted stories grounded in human flaws. I am fond of this genre (I have written dystopian novellas!!), and thought a distraction from current dystopia could be stories that are DIFFERENTLY dystopian. I found some great shows that could fully hold my attention and interest. (What are the odds?)

I’ll write about them here, in the order I watched them in:

Watchmen (2019, one season of 9 episodes, HBO (series page))

Note that this series is set in the future of an alternative world of the ’80s comic book of the same name, but this series can also stand alone. (I do NOT recommend the 2009 movie, which is unduly creepy toward its female characters.)

Overview: decades after corrective actions are made for the (real life) 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, white supremacist violence leads the police to need to wear masks, hide their identities, and engage in very direct confrontations with extremists. The series follows one remarkable veteran and police-officer who tries to raise her family and make Tulsa safe against violent, organized terrorists. Meanwhile, the world is pelted with rains of interdimensional space squid, and people bemoan the disappearance of the god-like superhero who won the Vietnam War for the U.S.

Why I like it: it was done well enough to give me actual anxiety, so I needed a break after the first episode before I could deal with the rest! The casting is great; Regina King is a bad-ass, compelling lead; Jeremy Irons is a compelling, amoral character in a weird situation; the sci-fi elements are pretty chill, and presented in a matter-of-fact, non-distracting, just-roll-with-it way; the dialog is tight… I felt INVESTED.

Lovecraft Country (2020, one season, 10 episodes, HBO (series page))

Overview: a veteran’s father goes missing, and his search takes him and his loved ones through the dangers of both a segregated, racist, violent U.S. AND an equally dangerous, secret world of magic, curses, and monsters from another universe.

Why I like it: The primarily black cast is fantastic; all of the characters are developed, interesting, flawed, afraid, and determined in some way; the villains are layered, and their infighting and rivalries are elaborate; the costumes (especially for Ruby and Christina) are GORGEOUS; the plot is mysterious; the plot stakes are high – there are dark and often fatal consequences for mistakes and misunderstandings; the sets are great and varied… Oh, and like Watchmen, the Tulsa Massacre also figures in.

This is the first show that I’ve listened to the PODCAST for, and it was worth listening to! There is a lot of insight on the characters and script that I didn’t know I wanted to know.

Altered Carbon (2018 & 2020, 2 seasons, 18 episodes, Netflix (series page)

Overview: Elite military operative Takeshi Kovacs is revived after 250 years in a digital prison, given a new body, and obligated to solve the murder of the wealthy creep who bailed him out. His pre-owned body has its own history with the police; his mind has a history with his mercenary sister and his lost rebel love interest, both of whom may still live.

Why I like it: it’s real sci-fi! The world is compelling, and the debates within both seasons about the ethics of the technology are realistic; the characters are fun; the world is diverse (the way my own world is); the head rebel love interest is a fun character (yes, three in a row in this post with a compelling black female lead!), and all of the major female characters have compelling motivations and different skill sets; the actors who play Kovacs are all fun, attractive (well-defined abs for miles!), and each get their own timelines/eras to take on, which lends variety and clearly defines eras in his life; the sets are great; there are some tech-artifact mysteries to be solved; and a lot happens.

Raised by Wolves (2020, 1 season (so far), HBO (series page))

Overview: After a war between religious and atheist groups leaves the earth in ruins, two androids are entrusted with human embryos to raise on Kepler 22-b, far from the dangers of human zealotry. The planet is strewn with the bones of extinct, giant reptiles and hot gas vents. It is difficult to provide enough food to keep the children healthy. Meanwhile, a colony ship is on the way, and the religious colonists believe it is a sin for androids to raise children. However, Mother, one of the androids, happens to be a reprogrammed weapon of mass destruction…

Why I like it: Ridley Scott brings us layered sci-fi! Settling new worlds, and all the things that can go wrong in that effort, is always exciting, and the design of the ships, sets, and such is all stimulating. (That colony ship!!) The two androids, Mother (who appears as a young, white woman) and Father (who appears as a young, black man), show their quirky, awkward, charming dedication to child protection and collaboration, while engaging in a purposeful rebellion against their original servant programming and the religious patriarchy. YAAY FOR ANDROIDS OVERTHROWING THE PATRIARCHY! Oh, and the villains (whose motivations change over the first season, and who (of course) do not believe they are villains) are interesting, too.

Science Fiction custody battles are the best custody battles!

~~~

These are all recent shows, and I recommend them if you like high stakes, well-executed, entertaining stories.

I’ll write about older video works, including animation, separately and later.

Life: January 2021

I did not enjoy the month of January.

I’m not saying I didn’t have some good days, but the world and my country had some UNUSUALLY BAD DAYS, and so the math is unfavorable.

Beginning of the month: right-wing threats seemed to flood social media sites, egged on by the now-former president. I’d already been stressed by his ‘even if I lose I will stay’ rhetoric dating back to last summer, and no one seemed to be taking it very seriously. The lack of attention to on-line rhetoric was alarming.

January 6th: my midday meeting was interrupted when the partner of the person I was meeting with walked in to say that the US Capitol building was being attacked, and perhaps he could give that some attention? That was the beginning of many hours of horror.

January 8th: while the people who violently attacked the Capitol had been allowed to wander away freely, which was exasperating on every possible level, the US hit a daily death rate of FOUR THOUSAND PER DAY.

U.S. tops 4,000 daily deaths from coronavirus for 1st time
By EUGENE GARCIA, LISA MARIE PANE and THALIA BEATY
January 8, 2021 at ap.com

January 15th: The official global death tally from the COVID-19 Pandemic hit 2 million.

View of my phone’s home screen that morning

Global report: coronavirus death toll reaches 2 million
Tom Phillips, Guardian (guardian.co.uk)
Sat 16 Jan 2021 00.21 EST

January 19: The US hit an official death toll of four hundred thousand.

My homescreen again. Background art by me (Swiss watercolor pencil)

US coronavirus death toll passes 400,000 amid grim forecast over winter
Jessica Glenza, UK Guardian
Tue 19 Jan 2021 14.42 EST

That was ALL TOO MUCH. Plus, local COVID cases spiked again; another dear friend remained sick with COVID-19 for the entire month of January in a city with no hospital capacity; plus the US went on high alert once the authorities decided to actually read the threats against the government that people had been making online, and nearly every state had some threat made against their capitols and other government offices.

Yes, the Inauguration on January 20th went VERY WELL – it was great – and a relief! – to watch, and nearly impossible to concentrate on anything else. Yes, the new government appears to be off to a coherent, sane start.

Yes, my friend is still on the mend, and hasn’t had to be hospitalized, despite some worrying symptoms.

Yes, I made a ton of art on the weekends, which allowed me to turn my attention entirely into paint, color, and forms, and away from the madness and sickness that dominates the news.

But… I wouldn’t want to experience January 2021 again.