Sunday, 30 August 2015

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 6

Here we are at part 6, and I find myself increasingly running out of interesting things to say about nineties anime!  Which isn't the same as suggesting that my enthusiasm is waning - though perhaps it was, thinking about it, until a recent bolt from the blue reminded me of just how great some of the stuff being made at this point could be.  But that's material for the next part, (in which, excitingly I'm considering only including things that are actually some good!), so let's pretend I didn't say anything.

Mind-blowing classics aside for the moment then, that leaves us with a rather questionable bunch of misfits: Adventures With Iczer 3, Black Jack, Ghost Sweeper Mikami and Dragon Half...

Adventures With Iczer 3, 1990, dir: Toshihiro Hirano

I'm starting to think that it would be easier just to review these low-end Manga Video releases with tick boxes.  A misleadingly changed title to disguise something that's actually a sequel?  Check.  A story that makes no damn sense unless you've seen the original that Manga are trying to trick you into not knowing existed?  Check.  A plot that involves overcoming a different villain every episode?  Check.  A dub so catastrophically lazy that character names aren't even pronounced consistently?  Oh yes, big check to that.

What we have here, then, is the six episode OVA more commonly known as Iczer Reborn, a sequel to 1985's Fight!  Iczer One.  This is a significant fact, but not so much so that you can't follow along on the back of a couple of minutes's research.  Alternatively, ignoring the wider background entirely is a perfectly valid option and not one likely to affect your enjoyment all that much; it leaves the tale rather lacking in backstory and motivation, but since it mostly revolves around one-dimensional characters punching each other that's not a catastrophic loss.

I realise I'm not exactly selling Adventures With Iczer 3 here, and I'm not particularly trying to.  However it's perhaps not so bad as I'm making out either.  It's brisk and proficient, much like a lot of mid-budget animation from the period, and it has one thing going for it that, say, Casshan doesn't, which is that its protagonist is thoroughly charming.  Iczer 3 is, as far as I could judge, the sister (or perhaps clone) of the Iczer from the first series.  When the original is incapacitated in an opening battle with arch-baddie Neos Gold, the only one who can counter Neos Gold's plan - which pretty much begins and ends with conquering the Earth - is Iczer 3.  The significant flaw here being that Iczer three, superhuman powers aside, is basically a small child.

In theory this should only serve to make the whole thing unbearably irritating.  In practice, Iczer 3 the character adds a level of fun that really elevates the material.  I mean, just look at that cover; where everyone else is scowling, Iczer 3, there in the bottom left, actually looks happy.  Approaching the plot with the giddy excitement of a little kid turns what might be a slog into something unexpectedly engaging.  There were points where I found myself actually concerned for poor, small Iczer, who rarely seemed to know why she was fighting and kept trying to befriend her enemies; there's something unavoidably touching in watching an excitable kid getting beaten up on when they clearly just want to have fun.  It's not enough, mind you, to turn Adventures With Iczer 3 into any sort of a classic, but - combined with some intermittently fun design work and the generally solid animation - it does at least keep it on the right side of entertaining.

Black Jack, 1996, dir: Osamu Dezaki

You don't get a great deal of anime with hotshot surgeons as protagonists, nor do you get many that function primarily as medical thrillers, so if there's one thing Black Jack has going for it, it's that you've probably never seen anything quite like it.  And novelty certainly works in its favour, especially given how much nineties anime tends to pick over a relatively small handful of themes and tropes.  Throughout its first act, in fact, Black Jack has a pleasant air of mystery and it's not at all clear where it might be going.  We know that something is producing people with superhuman abilities, that these superhumans are becoming inexplicably ill, and it's not long before the titular mysterious freelance surgeon gets drawn into events, with the strong implication that there's far more going on than is obviously apparent.

However as the plot staggers onwards - and stagger it does, at a pace that feels increasingly leaden - it becomes apparent that, however interesting some of the ideas Black Jack is kicking about might be, they're leading to fairly familiar places, and by the time the ending rolls around it's hard to remember how novel the whole thing felt only an hour before.  I wanted to be enthusiastic about Black Jack, because it's certainly different, it appears to have a good reputation and full length anime features from this period are relatively hard to track down, but in practice it turns out to be kind of a mess.  Director Osamu Dezaki has a grab-bag of tricks that he seems to trot out entirely at random, and for each occasion that freezing the frame as a Manga-like panel or cutting to thermal vision (yes, really) actually benefits the film there are a dozen where it's purely distracting.  In general, he seems determined to made the worst decision in any given moment, and to be striving for some kind of future-noir aesthetic that would be a good fit for the material if only Dezaki had a better sense of what he was trying to achieve and would pack it in with the stylistic ticks.  Nothing he does can stop Black Jack being a good-looking movie, for the animation quality is well above par for its time, but he's more than capable of rendering a flawed plot not only less intelligible but rather dull and wearisome to boot.

Ghost Sweeper Mikami, 1994, dir: Atsutoshi Umezawa

Ghost Sweeper Mikami is the spin-off movie of a series by the same name, though "movie" is perhaps giving a grand impression that it can't entirely support; the running time comes to about an hour.  It follows - yes, a ghost sweeper (for which read exorcist) named - you guessed it! - Mikami, and her team of disparate weirdos, none of whom are introduced here in even the slightest way besides some brief bios on the DVD, but all of whom have few enough character traits each that they're easy to get a handle on.

It's moderately fun, it doesn't outstay its welcome and there are occasional elements that really land, but on the whole it's hard to pick out much about Ghost Sweeper Mikami that's particularly compelling.  I suspect that this suffered some for the fact that I recently saw Geobreeders, which has a not dissimilar concept, not dissimilar characters and a not dissimilar sense of humour, but is beyond question and in every way better.  Where that suffered from having an incomprehensible plot, Mikami has the opposite problem of not much plot at all, and I'd always rather the former than the latter.  Plus, while there's the occasional fun twist in its tale of Mikami and her gang facing off against an ancient big bad, the narrative offers little you won't have seen before.  Really its nothing besides a frame to hang jokes off, but on that note the film defeats itself by taking its non-story a little too seriously and devoting too much energy to it, when it would surely have been better to admit how paper-thin and silly it all is and go for flat out self-mockery.

For which, see...

Dragon Half, 1993, dir: Shin'ya Sadamitsu

Somehow, this nineties anime obsession of mine has managed to avoid much comedy, and I don't know if that was deliberate or accidental, but boy did I pay for it with Dragon Half.  I mean, if its plot - which follows the unfortunate teenage offspring of a dragon and a dragon-slayer whose relationship went south in major fashion and ended in somewhat violent marriage, and whose only dream in life is to attend a concert by her favourite pop-star, who also happens to be a dragon-slayer - had any possible hope for serious treatment then it certainly isn't the direction that the creators decided to take it in.

But let's face it, that's an insane concept right there, and Dragon Half couldn't take it less seriously if it tried.  And I mean that literally, because it's an important point: imagine the absolute silliest iteration of "half human, half dragon teenager is in love with pop star dragon-slayer" and I promise you, Dragon Half will be a whole ton more absurd.

This, as far as I'm concerned, is entirely in its favour.

What isn't is that the creators only managed to produce two episodes of an already unambitious four part OVA, which means that its decidedly short and the ending is no ending at all.  Not that I imagine for a moment that the actual ending would have been less ridiculous, but at least it might have offered some sort of closure.  I mean, fifty minutes with Mink, our titular dragon half, is enough to make you fall in love with her a little bit and kind of want things to work out for her, however unlikely that seems given the insanity of the world she lives in and the sheer number of people who decide they want to kill her over the course of a mere two episodes.

In short, this is a tricky one to sign off on.  On the one hand, there are people out there who will (and do) absolutely love it, and while I wouldn't go that far myself, I certainly enjoyed it a great deal.  On the other hand, if your sense of humour doesn't stretch to a certain level of wackiness then I can see this being absolutely tortuous.  That's typified by the animation itself, which I did adore.  It's not unusual in anime for characters to be substituted with less detailed, childlike versions of themselves for the purposes of comedy; however Dragon Half takes this hyper-deformation to a level beyond anything I've seen, with at least four different designs for its protagonist, ranging from the fairly realistic to the impossibly cute and silly, and it switches between them apparently for no other reason than that it can.  Perhaps it shouldn't have been, but frequently that alone was enough to get me laughing.

Oh, and I'd be remiss not to point out that the closing theme - credited to Ludwig van Beethoven, but he surely can't be blamed for the lyrics - is the most blissfully ridiculous thing you're ever likely to encounter.  And actually let's just admit here that I lied, I did love Dragon Half quite a bit, and you should probably just track down a copy right now.


It  occurs to me now that this was a rather rubbish selection.  The only thing I'd wholeheartedly recommend is Dragon Half, and even that's going to fall flat for anyone who doesn't enjoy profoundly silly humour.  Both Ghost Sweeper Mikami and Adventures With Iczer 3 land firmly in the "if you like nineties anime and see them cheap then you could do worse" category, which is about as half-hearted as a recommendation can get.  (Really, I'm not sure I'd even go that far with Ghost Sweeper Mikami.)  Whereas Black Jack I hated a little bit, but perhaps unfairly so, judging by the strong reviews it seems to get.

Ah well.  I'll definitely do better next time, if only because there's going to be one film in there that I unhesitatingly adored...

[Other posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 7, Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20]

Friday, 21 August 2015

Nine Worlds 2015, Part 2: The Not So Good

[You can find part 1, "The Very Good Indeed," here.]

So as I suggested in part one, I don't want to rail too much against this year's Nine Worlds because I had a great time there and overall I felt, as always, that it got the vast majority of things right.  And wouldn't it be nice to just focus on the good stuff for a change?  But I can't help thinking it would be worse to skip mentioning a few complaints, many of which other people were vocally making, than to keep quiet - if for no other reason than that I'd love to see Nine Worlds thriving ten years from now and small cracks have a way of growing into gaping chasms, or some such metaphor.

But let's start at the beginning.  For the first point at which I got concerned was a couple of months before the doors even opened, when I discovered that two of the panels I'd been confirmed for on the Comics track, one of which I was down to moderate, had been cancelled.  The reasons apparently came down to conflicts over scheduling and scuffling over space, and the result was some potentially great panels left on the cutting room floor.  I won't go into the other scheduling problems that followed, if only because the parties concerned were ultimately brilliant and lovely in getting them resolved, but suffice to say that there were problems and that they could surely have been avoided.

What seemed to be lacking was a level of coordination that crossed the boundaries of the different tracks, and that was also more or less what I took away from the event itself.  Nine Worlds, as its name implies, is an entity formed of many moving parts, and that's a huge portion of its charm - though one that always threatens to end up being plain chaotic.  However this was the first year when it felt like those parts were not only not moving in unison but were actually draining energy from each other.  There was, ultimately, too much content for the space, to the point where it seemed padded.  And some of that content was so sparse or ill-considered that, for me, it just didn't warrant its existence.  (Long-term readers will know what a hopeless film and Anime nerd I am, so when I say that there wasn't a thing on the Anime or film tracks that teased my interest even slightly, that surely should mean something.)

More aggravating than any of that, though, was the rate at which the better panel items filled to capacity, and that the organisers' solution was to suggest arriving well in advance.  From what I heard, for that to work might mean turning up fifteen to twenty minutes early, and really, who wants to spend their convention time like that?  Of all the available solutions - larger spaces, more versatile seating arrangements, duplicating content - pushing the problem onto the punter was surely not the best.  I remember making this exact same point last year and I really hoped they'd get it sorted out, so that the organizers chose to go in the opposite direction and just tell everyone to accept it is flat-out disappointing.

That and the oversight issue aside, however, I think it's fair to say that most of the remaining problems this year loop back to one inescapable point: Nine Worlds is too big for the Radisson Blu.  Even if that weren't the case, the Radisson is increasingly revealing itself to be an undeserving and rather crummy venue.  The weird floor layout left entire tracks stranded, there weren't enough of the large spaces that would have alleviated the seating issues I talked about above, and in general the closest the hotel staff came to acknowledging that there was a major international convention occurring within its walls was to be a bit surly about the whole thing.

Or in one particular case, very surly indeed!  I mentioned the bar in part one, but what I didn't clarify there was how the staff were deliberately omitting the con discount of 20% and then adding on a further 12.5% service charge for some of the most dismal service imaginable, or how they were selling drinks in smaller measures than advertised for the same already-preposterous prices, or how pointedly rude they got when any of their shenanigans were challenged in even the smallest way.  Or, for that matter, how they shut up shop altogether at one in the morning, which I struggle to believe is what was agreed with Nine Worlds.  As much as it feels like a petty thing to moan about in a universe of infinite possibility and suffering, a good bar is the heart of a good convention, and in this case it proved to be a worm-ridden, vitality-sapping heart.

Now all of those venue-related issues have been manageable for smaller conventions; I've enjoyed time spent at the Radisson in the past, and even managed to laugh at the conniving antics of those bar staff.  But for this year's Nine Worlds they were outright damaging, and I can't imagine a scenario where such problems won't get worse in years to come.  Let's not forget that even in its first year, Nine Worlds ambitiously straddled two different conference hotels.  Trying to cram more and more content into a smaller space is not a game you can hope to win, and if that was evident last year, it was really achingly obvious this time around.

With all of that said, let me reiterate that I still consider Nine Worlds the best UK convention going; there are many things it gets right that no one else is even trying to do, and for that it should be applauded at every available opportunity.  It's barely possible to believe that it's only three years old, when cons like Eastercon have been around for decades and can still deliver the kind of shoddy performance we saw earlier in the year.  In the grand scheme of things, these are pretty minor concerns I've picked up on; they didn't ruin my enjoyment and they probably wouldn't keep me from going again next year.

But they do need fixing, Nine Worlds, they really do.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Nine Worlds 2015, Part 1: The Very Good Indeed

I would say that of all the cons I've been to - and that's a rather high number, now - this year's Nine Worlds was, on average, the one I enjoyed the most.  And it occurs to me that, for once, I can say specifically why that was, rather than having to make up vague nonsense to cover the fact that I can't remember why I was having fun because the alcohol I was pouring into myself to help produce that fun killed off all of the relevant brain cells.  I think it's fair to say, in fact, that the hours I spent drinking in the company of friends both old and new, whilst tremendously entertaining, was for once not even my favourite waste of time.

(For this, I have to thank the main bar of the Radisson Blu and its combination of abominable service with the most hysterically absurd prices, but more on that in part 2.)

So if my abiding memories from Nine Worlds aren't of loitering in the bar then just what the hell did I get up to?  Well, a great deal of what went right can be laid at the feet of the Comics track and its human-whirlwind ringleader Hazel Robinson, who only ever seemed to be sitting down for long enough to moderate one of the most well-moderated panels I've ever been fortunate enough to be a part of.  From my point of view, the first of those - with Ed Fortune, Sally Jane Thompson and Alasdair Stuart - was on How to Break Into Comics, and given that I personally didn't feel like I had much of a clue how you'd achieve such a thing, it seemed to actually generate a ton of good advice.  Then on the Sunday I had what I'm just going to flat out declare to be my favourite panel of all time, The Humanitarian Element, with Roz Kaveney and Alasdair again.  The topic of humanitarianism in comics keyed in from Hazel's point of view to her day job working for the extraordinary Médecins Sans Frontières and from mine primarily because of the post-apocalyptic superhero novel I began writing a mere couple of weeks ago, and in a world where panel topics seem to get recycled ad tedium and beyond it was extraordinarily refreshing to be discussing a topic that felt genuinely fresh and meaningful.  (Even if we did go off on some deeply silly tangents; Hazel's attempts to summarize the Avengers vs X-Men crossover from a couple of years back still makes me chuckle.)

While that was mostly it for my official involvement with the Comics track, it did lead into the weekend's other great time sink.  Having made vague promises to help out with a boardgaming night that Hazel had planned for the Friday evening, I'd optimistically lugged along a copy of Galaxy Trucker, and was surprised when not only did I manage to persuade people to play it with me, I succeeded in explaining the rules not too terribly and it wound up being a pretty classic game.  (Everything went brutally wrong in the final round, which if you know Galaxy Trucker at all you'll understand is absolutely the best thing that can happen.)

Thus it was that when, on the Saturday, I turned up for one of the few program items I was really eager to go to and found it full, it occurred to me that for once I had an option other than drifting over to the bar.  And thus it was that I spent almost the entire rest of the day playing board games (in this case Splendor and King of Tokyo) with a variety of very friendly strangers.  I don't know that anything sums up why I like Nine Worlds so much as the fact that there was a large, well-organised space set aside for that and a comfortable enough environment that it was really easy to get games going.  Seriously, it's easy to ignore how special a thing that it is, but it couldn't work without a ton of thought and effort - and for that, Nine Worlds organisers, I salute you.

That takes us, more or less, back to the Sunday, when I just about managed to drag myself in in time for an early meeting of the Super-Relaxed Fantasy Club, only to pick up the handouts for my Monsterclass that afternoon and discover that they hadn't been stapled together.  Cue a little bit of panic on my part, (I wanted people to treasure these things for years to come, and what madman treasures an unstapled handout?) which eventually drew in half the staff of Nine Worlds, quickly descended into low comedy - the stapler was locked in a room which no one had the key to, but was also empty of staples, those being kept by an entirely different bunch of people, and I'm not even making this up - and ended with me wandering into another hotel and asking if I could borrow a stapler from them.  (They were really nice about it.)  Anyway, the running about burned off some of my nervous energy over the prospect of delivering my first ever workshop, and though my stress levels started to climb again over the fact that a scheduling clash meant that I basically had to run there from the Humanitarianism panel, I managed to make it just in time.

Lo and behold, it seemed to go quite well.  My biggest worries were that no one would turn up or that those who did would expect me to do all the talking*, and neither of those things happened even slightly.  The room was filled to capacity with, I think, twelve people, and everyone was eager enough to get involved that it ended us as much more of a discussion than a lecture, which was precisely what I'd hoped for.  That aside, to get such an intelligent, thoughtful group was more than I'd dared expect, and made an hour and a half fly by.  (It was supposed to be an hour, and the fact that we overran massively without anyone showing signs of boredom seemed to me a mark of success.)  With the proviso that there's not a whole hell of a lot you can teach people about the nuts and bolts of short story writing in an hour and a half, I felt like I got a few good points in - not to mention, of course, supplying some beautifully stapled handouts.

There were other highlights, but they were less directly Nine Worlds related.  It was a pleasure to have lunch on the Sunday with my editor Lee Harris, and getting dive-bombed by a barn owl in the early hours of Sunday morning was a pleasant shock; who knew they had nature at Heathrow?  For that matter, I suppose that the other reason I had a slightly better time than I've had in the past was precisely because I was looking after myself that bit better.  I didn't waste too much time nursing hangovers, I ate relatively proper meals, and I went to bed ... well, at three o'clock on the Sunday morning, but even that's not terrible by my standards.  It also helped that I was staying in a much nicer place then I normally manage, the Heathrow Hilton, which meant that what sleep I had was actually pretty good sleep.

And that, I think, about sums up the good stuff, which it should be obvious by this point was clearly in the vast majority.  Still, it wasn't the whole story, and since this wouldn't be a David Tallerman con write-up if I didn't grouse at least a little, what say we meet back here in a couple of days time so I can do just that?  At the very least, I can guarantee more vitriol aimed at those accursed bar staff...

* Actually, my biggest worry was that I'd realise I wasn't wearing any trousers and that the group would consist entirely of my primary school teachers dressed as the great dictators of history, but fortunately that one was always going to be an outside risk.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Going Gothic

It occurred to me recently that I can trace my desire to write short genre fiction pretty clearly back to a certain time in my youth, and that in fact I can go further than that: I can pin it down to the two books that introduced me to just what short fantasy and science-fiction stories could accomplish and how awe-inspiring that could be.  They were anthologies by the now apparently long-defunct Chancellor Press, who used to have a thing for knocking out cheap but rather brilliant editions of classic work: these two books in particular had the imaginative titles of The SF Collection and Great Tales of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  And only recently, as I was hunting around for some strong opening paragraphs to share at my Nine Worlds short fiction-writing workshop, did I realise just how terrific those books were, and how much they'd lit the fuse on my passion for genre stories.  Looking back, I suspect there was a part of me, even then, that longed to see my name in a book like that, in the company of all those awesomely talented individuals.

Cut to the present, when I discovered that Flame Tree Publishing, (who seem to be doing not dissimilar things to Chancellor Press, though in infinitely classier fashion), had opened submissions for three anthologies that would mix classic fiction with more modern work, in outrageously sexy deluxe hardcover editions.  Needless to say, I went for it, though without much hope of getting in, and I suppose also needless to say since I'm blogging about it, I did in fact manage to land a story in one of them.  That particular story was one of my all-time favourites, (and yeah, I know I shouldn't have favourites, but what can you do?  I bet even people with loads of kids do the same), Jenny's Sick, as originally published in Lightspeed back in December of 2010.

Anyway, we're now mere weeks from publication, and here's what those puppies are going to look like:
Now I guess what I'm trying to say, in typically roundabout fashion, is that this is pretty much a dream come true.  These are just extravagantly beautiful books; I mean, if you want to get an idea of how gorgeous they are in the flesh - um, the paper-flesh - no, wait, that sounds worse - then you can read about it here.  But as much as that's a big deal, (and this is, after all, the first time I've had anything out in hardcover), it isn't the big deal, and it certainly isn't what got me thinking about those old Chancellor Press books.  No, that was more to do with some of the names I'm going to be in there with.  Like I said, all three editions have a mix of classic and more recent work, and those classic stories - well, there's a few people in there I'd heard of, let's put it that way.  Like, in the case of the Science Fiction volume, oh say, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Or H. Rider Haggard.  Or Jack London.  Or Jules goddamn Verne.*

So ... beautiful book, amazing company, possibly the story of mine that I'm most proud of.  Yup, this is pretty much the short story sale to end all short story sales.  Wait, no, I shouldn't say that, that makes it sound like I'm never going to sell anything again ever.  Or that I'm going to die.  Fortunately I just did - sell another story that is, not die - but even if I hadn't, this would have been a hell of a note to end on.  As it is, I'm just thrilled to be a part of something that would have made the teenage book-geek me go weak at the knees, and maybe think that growing up to be a writer might not be the absolutely worst idea in the world...

* I'm reliably formed that this is how Jules Verne used to introduce himself.  Jules Verne was kind of a hardass.