Real Robot Sincerity: Pacific Rim Uprising

I enjoyed the hell out of the first Pacific Rim. Being able to see a big-budget film directly inspired by the giant robot anime I love was all I could ask for. At the time, the film under-performed at the US box office, which made the prospect of a sequel fairly unlikely, but against the odds (OSCAR AWARD-WINNING DIRECTOR) Guillermo Del Toro managed to produce an update in Pacific Rim Uprising.

Taking place ten years after the original film, Pacific Rim Uprising focuses on Jake Pentecost, son of the deceased hero Stacker Pentecost from the first movie. A prodigal son, Jake appears to be a scoundrel in every way his father was a shining example of humanity, but a chance encounter with a mechanically gifted young girl named Amara Namani leads Jake on the path to redemption. Originally kicked out of the military despite his skill for piloting the titanic Jaegers that helped defend humanity from the vicious Kaiju all those years ago, he reluctantly returns to fight and train a new generation of fighters.

I have not seen the first film since I originally watched it in theaters, so my memories of it going into the sequel are faint. That being said, the general impression I got from Uprising is that it’s simply a superior film in most respects, and especially in terms of being a piece of giant-robot fiction. The action is snappier and more stylish, with plenty of robot fighting to satisfy genre fans. The acting is much more fluid and natural, thanks in large part to John Boyega’s performance as Jake Pentecost being amazing compared to the wooden performance of Charlie Hunnam as Part 1’s protagonist Raleigh Becket. The characters are developed just enough to get a sense of their characters and their personal development without slowing down the pace of the film or its emphasis on combat (see Girls und Panzer der Film for a similar example). In a way, the film feels a little more “cartoonish,” like it’s really trying to bring more Mazinger Z into its world, but the sincerity of the performances also makes it feel more serious as well.

A lot of the film takes place on a Chinese military base, and both mainland Chinese and Taiwanese characters have a much greater presence in Pacific Rim Uprising compared to its predecessor. I believe this has to do with the great success China had in bolstering the first film’s box office success. The US might not have been so keen on super robots, but it looks like Asia took to them like young boys to combination sequences.

Pacific Rim Uprising is worth watching for any mecha fan, and it doesn’t even require seeing the first film to really get it. As excellent as I think the film is, however, I feel a bit hesitant recommending it to skeptics. What makes the film work is how it embraces the tropes and the feel of giant robot shows and movies, because sincere fondness for that type of storytelling is what holds the film up and provides the structure by which viewers can delve deep into the fast-paced and emotional world it presents. On the flip-side, an open mind can do wonders, and Pacific Rim: Uprising will likely be rewarding to those willing to extend their hand first.

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Girls Going Somewhere: A Place Further Than the Universe

2018 isn’t even half over, but I think A Place Further Than the Universe might just be the best anime of the year.

The series centers on Japanese high school girl Kobuchizawa Shirase and her quest to travel to Antarctica to fulfill a life-long wish. Mocked at school for her absurd dream, she’s more than willing to say, “screw the haters,” but a few other girls are drawn to Shirase’s ambitious spirit, and join her to see if they can accomplish the seemingly impossible.

One of the more enduring anime and manga recipes is “girls doing X.” Girls in a band. Girls going camping. Girls in art school. Girls driving tanks for sport in an alternate-history Earth. The activities can be mundane or out-of-this-world, but the combination of cute female characters and some kind of fun or quirky activity is a reliable formula. Where the genre (if you can call it that) begins to differ is the degree to which there is any forward momentum. Those that are more slice-of-life tend to revel in a kind of cathartic stasis of the everyday, such as Aria. In contrast, many sports or competition series, such as Sound! Euphonium make forward progression toward a goal. A Place Further Than the Universe takes the best of both worlds, while grounding itself in a refreshingly realistic depiction of friendship, human interaction, and emotional complexity.

The fact that the goal is Antarctica makes it seem as if the series might just remain about wistfully hoping that they can get there “someday.” But thenm Shirase and the other girls are shown working towards it, step by step, enjoying themselves along the way. As they accomplish each task ahead of them, no matter how big or small, the impossible gradually feels more and more within arm’s reach. Yet A Place Further than the Universe isn’t just about heading towards a goal, and it’s not even just about “the journey being more important than the destination,” as the cliche goes. The genuine sense of friendship and camaraderie that’s built up between them feels like it could sustain an entire series by itself. It’s as if zooming in on an individual episode feels like a small, self-sustaining universe of daily life. But when you zoom out, the full picture comes into focus and it’s just so immensely satisfying.

A Place Further than the Universe charges ahead but also takes time to enjoy the view. A simple and direct story full of complex characters and other moving parts, the detours and the “main quest” are all filled with life. It’s fun, moving, inspiring, and relaxing all at the same time—as complete an experience as one can hope.

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Approaching “Isle of Dogs” as an Asian-American Anime Fan

Wes Anderson’s Japanese cinema-inspired stop-motion film Isle of Dogs has been the subject of controversy. Accused of racism (or at the very least racial insensitivity) towards Japan and Asian cultures in general, the movie comes at a time when Hollywood has made numerous missteps in their handling of Asian-themed works, such as the casting of non-Asian Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell. As an Asian-American, I initially came out of the film without feeling offended or bothered by its contents and dressing. I still do not believe it to be a nasty film, but as I’ve reflected on my experience with Isle of Dogs by way of my long history as an Asian amd an anime fan, as well as the criticisms others have written, I find that the core issue isn’t so much racism in the “hatred or marginalization of a people” variety. Instead, it’s that the exoticization of Japan in the film can leave Asian viewers feeling we’re being othered, that we’re not the “intended audience.”

As an anime fan for the past two decades, I’ve seen both the anime being produced and my own experience with them change. When I first got into it, anime was something very foreign, very different, very exotic. Compared to the cartoons I was familiar with, it did seem like a new world, made all the better by the fact that I, as an American living in the US, was not its assumed audience. While the anime industry is increasingly aware of the global market (see the whole “Cool Japan” push by the country’s government), some of that “otherness” persists, reflecting the 99% ethnically Japanese population of Japan.

For example, in many anime set outside of Japan, the main character is often still Japanese, or at least half-Japanese—as if to assure the target audience that there is a relatable point. The spacefaring Macross franchise, now decades old, reflects this tendency in its many protagonists’ names—Ichijou Hikaru, Isamu Alva Dyson, Nekki Basara, Kudou Shin, Saotome Alto, and Hayate Immelman. So when the American exchange student Tracy Walker showed up, I saw her in the same light as those Macross characters, even if she isn’t the protagonist. While I don’t agree with the notion that she’s a “white savior” character, but rather an awkward yet well-meaning character with a bit of a self-righteous savior complex, I registered her in my mind as that American audience stand-in character. However, thinking about that moment was when it clicked for me: if she’s supposed to stand in for the American viewer who’s stepping into this film ostensibly about Japan, what does her presentation say to Asian-Americans watching it? One potential interpretation: Asian-Americans are second-class Americans in the theater.

That’s not the message that Isle of Dogs communicated to me, and I think that the lack of Asian actors playing the dogs themselves isn’t too big a deal, but I can definitely see why the film’s presentation can make Asians like myself feel like strangers in our own home. By extension, I can see why non-Asians could be sensitive to what they’re seeing as affronts of cultural appropriation. The film’s decision to leave the Japanese untranslated (outside of a literal interpreter character summarizing what some of the characters say on occasion) didn’t affect me too greatly; I’m fluent in Japanese. But the decision to not subtitle them means that direct engagement with those characters is lost for the assumed audience, and for non-Japanese-fluent Asian viewers, it can potentially create a greater sense of alienation. Again, for me as an anime fan, something like “Megasaki City” isn’t offensive because it doesn’t sound too far off from “Tokyo-3” (the 3’s pronounced “three” like in English) from Neon Genesis Evangelion, but the film is rife with imagery and symbols that might end up feeling less like loving homages and more like snarky plundering if the Asian-American audience already feels like they’re being told to “stand over there.”

I’m not familiar with Wes Anderson films, so I can’t speak to his auteur style. I’m also not an expert on Kurosawa Akira, so I have only a vague sense of how Anderson references him and other Japanese filmmakers. At most I’m very familiar with Miyazaki Hayao. Within this limited personal context, my feeling is that Anderson through Isle of Dogs tries to exoticize not Japan, Japanese culture, or Japanese people, but rather the feeling of wonder and difference that he got from Japanese film and filmmakers. One of his core staff members, Nomura Kunichi, was apparently brought on specifically to help with authenticity and treating Japanese culture with respect.

Because those films are so associated with foreign interpretations and expectations of Japan, however, drawing from those sources so readily while unabashedly acknowledging them through the Japanese setting of Isle of Dogs can make audiences, such as Asian-Americans who have to deal with the challenges of being Asian-American, bristle with suspicion. Bringing up the question of cultural appropriation is important, and I think the film itself has enough teeth (no pun intended) to stand up to the doubts and concerns, but those questions should not be ignored or assumed to “not really matter.”

 

Ensemblers Assemble: Hashikko Ensemble Chapter 2

It’s the second chapter (and the first regular-sized chapter) of Shimoku’s new manga!

Summary

Kimura Jin wants members for his ensemble club, and he’s asking the quiet yet unusually deep-voiced Fujiyoshi Akira to join. Akira’s reluctant, but Jin has a proposition: if he can help Akira speak more loudly, Akira will join the club. Akira tentatively agrees.

But while Jin calls it an ensemble “club,” it’s more of an “appreciation society” at the moment—the distinction being that a group only gets club status if it has five or more members and an advisor. Jin’s first choice for advisor, Takano-sensei, refuses because she’s more of a violin specialist than a vocal one.

Jin’s also not the only one trying to get a club off the ground, as a friendly (?) rival in Hachida Shinji, who has dreams of forming a “mountain castle club.” Shinji is skeptical of Akira’s chances of speaking at a normal level, to which Jin replies that Akira’s body will understand.

As the three continue to talk/argue, they run into the Class 5 teacher, Kitano-sensei, who’s lecturing a blond delinquent-looking student named Orihara. Unbeknown to Kitano, Orihara is actually wearing noise-canceling earphones. Jin pulls out of Orihara’s ears to have a listen, prompting Orihara to start swinging at Jin, which then causes Akira to instinctively yell out. His voice is so deep and resonates so much that it astounds everyone. Jin’s first thought: Akira has “singer’s formant,” i.e. the ability to sing both loudly and clearly, which usually only comes with musical training.

Story in Motion

So now we’ve established the initial goal, and it’s the classic “getting enough club members” story—a tried and true trope that I don’t mind one bit.

If things go as typically expected, Orihara is on track to becoming a member. I have to wonder what his for might be, both character-wise and voice-wiser. Hachida Shinji is a potential member as well. Maybe they’ll pull the “combined club” trick, a la Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai with its “eastern magic and napping society.”

Shinji

As an aside, the idea of a club dedicated to studying mountain castles is tremendous, and I hope Shinji gets his wish.

I also think Kitano-sensei will be their advisor, but that might just be wishful thinking. Her brief appearance has already made me a fan. She’s adorable!

Another character I think is going to make a splash is a female classmate named Hakamada. In this chapter, Jin asks her what music she’s listening to, and something about the way she’s framed says to me that she’ll be significant somehow.

Jin is a Character

The way that Akira ends up yelling out plays perfectly into Jin’s notion that he’ll understand what to do “with his body”—as in almost by instinct. But is Jin actually the calculating type? He sure doesn’t seem that way. And yet, he’s also the one who offered Akira exactly what he wants.

Jin might look like a typical anime otaku, but he really is a music otaku through and through. He carries around a device to measure the number of Hertz in people’s voices and appears to have both a technical and intrinsic understanding of singing. What’s more, he hears an anime song and thinks “Ghibli? Disney? Eva?” as opposed to something more hardcore.

Jin’s vocal range really is absurd. It was established in the first chapter, but here he basically shows that he can cover most of the guy parts (as well as some girl parts) and only really needs Jin for the deepest registers.

By the way, Akira is actually a bass, not a baritone! I madea mistake in my description last review. Chalk that up to me having no real music knowledge.

Singer’s Formant

Speaking of being a total newbie when it comes to music, I’m still not entirely sure I understand Singer’s Formant. As far as I can tell, certain sounds don’t carry as well, so singers train to be able to project loudly and clearly over even orchestras in large spaces. Correct me if I’m wrong!

I also found this video, which might help explain things better.

Songs

If you’re wondering what that “anime” song is that Jin is asking about at the beginning, it’s. “Trancing Pulse” by Triad Primus from The iDOLM@STER Cinderella Girls.

Final Thoughts

Actually, a lot of teachers are introduced quickly in this episode and they all seem full of personality. I’m looking forward to seeing which ones become more prominent as the manga progresses.

Until next time!

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Imaginative, Inspiring: Next Door Spy

This review is part of coverage for the 2018 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Danish animated film Next Door Spy by director Karla von Bengston is a cute story of growing up and fighting to have the confidence to believe in oneself and one’s passions. Couched in a “kid in new town” setting with a splash of film noir, Next Door Spy is consistently witty and inspiring.

Next Door Spy follows the appropriately named Agatha Christine (AC for short), a girl with a love of mysteries who’s constantly playing detective to her mother’s reluctance. Her family has just recently moved to a new town in Denmark for a fresh start, but while AC sees it as the perfect opportunity to scope out new crimes, her mom (a police officer) just wants AC to be a little more “normal.” When AC learns that a local grocery has been a victim of shoplifting, she gets to work—and her prime suspect is an aloof skater boy.

The film is mostly down to earth, but is inter-spliced with black and white noir renditions of AC acting out her detective dreams. It’s an entertaining juxtaposition particularly because AC’s true love for investigation is on display. Her cherished PI’s hat and coat, along with her various makeshift gadgets, are just the right degree of “obtainable fantasy” that can inspire kids to do more yet still feel like movie magic. The mystery and non-mystery elements weave together cohesively to make all of the characters, even the adults, feel relatable.

Next Door Spy succeeds as a family film because it’s great for adults and older children looking back and younger children looking forward. Just about everyone can benefit from having a bit of AC in them.

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Really Funny, Really Real: The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales

This review is part of coverage for the 2018 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

As much as fans of animation might sometimes want cartoons to be treated as merely humorous entertainment for children, there’s something downright impressive with a work that works as kids’ comedy and sticks the landing. Benjamin Renner and Patrick Imbert’s The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales succeeds so well that to talk about it as a “funny cartoon” seems inadequate—yet it’s the perfect description.

Broken up into three segments, The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales is an anthology centered around a farm and the Looney Tunes-style animals that inhabit it. The first segment sees a pig, along with his well-meaning but incompetent duck and rabbit friends, try to deliver a human baby to her parents. The second features the ironically titular “big bad fox,” who ends up having to raise the very chicks he’s trying to eat. The third is a Christmas special, where pig, duck, and rabbit try to fill in for Santa Claus and deliver presents to the world. All of them are loosely connected, presented as if all the animals are performing a stage play for the audience for comedic effect.

What makes The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales work so well is that the humor is very much a part of the narrative, giving the jokes a proper sense of continuity. In many other cartoons, humor consists of a series of jokes (sometimes references, sometimes not) that come one right after another. If they’re too reliant on single punchlines or winks and nods, the whole thing starts to feel less like an experience and more a joke-delivery system. But the film sets up, executes, and nails both its major and minor gags, even throwing in some sensibly heart-warming moments in the process. Contributing to the levity of the entire experience is the art style of the film, with varying widths in the line work and a bright palette that looks as much picture-book as it does comic strip.

My favorite segment is The Big Bad Fox, and I assume that the creators thought the same if they decided to feature it in the title. There’s a constant turning of expectations centered around the fox’s relationship to his “children,” and the sight of three adorable little chicks fully believing they’re apex predators never stopped being entertaining. It’s sort of like if the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons featuring the chickenhawk were taken up a notch and then given a bigger heart.

After the film’s screening, the creator Benjamin Renner was interviewed. He described the origins of the film as comics he used to draw for his family as Christmas and birthday presents, often about how the animals lost the “real” presents along the way. While answering the audience’s questions (all from kids), my big takeaway is that Renner provides a strong example of how the ideas and inspirations of one’s childhood can still thrive and inspire in adult, professional life.

Faithfulness Without Adherence: White Fang (2018)

This review is part of coverage for the 2018 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

The winding story of a wild wolf-dog that endures multiple hardships and discovers civilization, Jack London’s White Fang is a vivid and compelling adventure practically made for film. But adapting London is a challenge in this age, given his starkly racist views—they may not have been prevalent in this particular novel, but they still permeate his legacy. Director Alexandre Espigare’s 2018 White Fang is a visually rich 3DCG-animated feature-length interpretation aims for a spiritually faithful yet more sensitive version of London’s narrative to notable effect.

I want to be clear that I did not go into the film with a clear memory of the novel or any previous adaptations, and at first sought to enjoy it strictly as a children’s animated movie. In that respect, it succeeds. The animation, resembling somewhere between an oil painting and wood carvings, is consistently beautiful. Any visual hiccups are fairly minor and do not detract from the overall presentation. The subject matter is prone to violence, but the violence is given context and is presented respectfully without glorifying carnage.

But when looking back at the original novel and comparing, it’s clear that this film takes great pains to update the narrative to emphasize the positive aspects of cultural exchange without making it a one-way street. White Fang’s time in the wild with its mother shows a strong familial bond that does not fade away as it does in London’s book. Human characters are shown in all lights, but it is largely kindness and good will that stay with White Fang. At the same time, White Fang does not “progress” from “savage” to “civilized,” but harnesses aspects of both his origins in the wild and his experience with other species in order to survive.

Overall, the 2018 White Fang is a smart and respectful update to the original that adapts to the times. It’s more culturally considerate, with a message that soundly goes against the modernist/enlightenment push that can be interpreted from the novel. Yet it’s still a thrilling and moving narrative that embraces the awe and terror of nature and humankind alike, never faltering as a classic story.