I don’t often write about video media, but I enthusiastically recommend the lovely, bittersweet animated series Don Hertzfeldt has been building, currently up to three episodes.
My synopsis of the first episode (2015): a woman from the future visits her toddler self, to explain that someday she will be cloned, and her memories will be transferred to her future clones. The toddler and her future self explore the beautiful, colorful, abstract, terrifyingly glitchy future, in which time travel tourism sometimes gets you killed.
These short, poignant, funny, philosophical films earned all the awards they have been given and deserve even more. The simple stick figures make the characters feel innocent and universal; the abstract backgrounds and art are great; the use of his toddler relative’s voice is brilliant; and the way all of these stories reflect a human struggle to find meaning makes these emotionally moving. I recommend these zealously, regardless of your tastes!
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.*
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:
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.
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.
Far-right racists were coming to power in Britain in the 1970s. When Clapton blurted out racist ideology, and punks seemed like they could go in a bad direction, a bunch of ordinary folks who gave a damn worked up an anti-racist punk zine, organized a network of multi-racial concerts, and functioned as the heart of a broad anti-racist movement.
This is a feel-good documentary, with stressful bits about the UK far right racists. It features performances from X-Ray Spex and the Clash!
Rock Against Racism was formed in 1976, prompted by Eric Clapton. It blends fresh interviews with archive footage to recreate a hostile environment of anti-immigrant hysteria and National Front marches.
There is always fussing within the arts community about artists contributing to mass movements, and whether or not it is effective to make art for a cause, and… it can work very well. Being a part of the solution doesn’t mean you and your group have to solve everything – movements aren’t all-or-nothing. Just being part of the solution moves things in a better direction.
I enjoyed this film, which… is still too topical, really. It is great to see examples of youth organizing of the past against all the usual villains.
I just watched the great documentary about civil rights icon John Lewis, and half of my ticket goes to my local movie theater, The Roxie.
It is remarkable to know how much work and self-sacrifice effective mass movements require, and how deeply impressive it is that heroes and heroines dedicate so much of their lives so directly to making things better for all of us.
Using interviews and rare archival footage, JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE chronicles Lewis’ 60-plus years of social activism and legislative action on civil rights, voting rights, gun control, health-care reform and immigration.