Friday, 31 March 2017

Writing Ramble: Making the Most of a Second Draft

Since I happen (for reasons best not discussed!) to have an unused article lying about, and since it's a while since I posted anything on the actual business of writing, I figured I might as well share this here.  It's on a subject I hopefully know a bit about: after a dozen or so novels and novellas and a hundred and some short stories, I've seen my share of second drafts - and picked up a thing or two about what you can and can't expect to achieve with them.

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For most writers, the first draft is the most fun: that's where the ideas come out, where the characters are born, where the wild sentences are spun.  The first draft is the raw joy of creation; everything after that can feel like nitpicking.  But, as you dig deeper into the craft, you may find that - for all the giddy thrills of a first draft - it's the second that turns work you're excited but a little embarrassed by into fiction you're eager to show off.  For every writer that gets a story mostly right on the first attempt, there are a hundred who need to come back after time away before they can really draw out its virtues.

So here are a few areas where you might find your perspective is that bit clearer the second time around...

Precision
One of the advantages of writing in a language as gloriously messy as English is that you're never confined to saying something only one way; the flip side is that it's easy to get away with conveying an approximation of what you mean.  More than ever here, you need your reader head on over your writer one, and this is something most people will find difficult without the emotional distance a redraft provides: you've the chance to back off and question whether what you said is what you meant.  That character, that scene, do they come across just as you imagined?  Does that dialogue convey the information you need it to?  Are those descriptive passages full of insightful details or are they flabby and rambling?  If the words you chose are being vague or flavourless then here's the chance to replace them.
Subtlety       
Conversely, you're not always obliged to spell out every small detail; in fiction, less is often more.  And another question better suited to a second draft than a first is whether you've said too much.  Again, bring out that reader head, and ask yourself, have points that only needed to be made once been made half a dozen times?  Do you feel patronized?  Are there aspects of your characters you wanted to imply without necessarily stating outright?  It's often a good idea to be verbose in a first draft, when you're trying to ensure that no vital information gets missed; that doesn't mean you can't roll back some of that exposition now that you have the chance.
Concision
In a first draft, it's all too easy to devote the same attention to every detail, to establish single scene characters with the same loving attention you've devoted to your protagonists or to detail every inch of a room your characters see for all of ten seconds.  The second time around, it's easier to ask: is the level of detail proportionate to the significance of the material?  And is it enriching your story or sucking away momentum?  Ultimately, the question here is whether individual elements - be they words, sentences or whole paragraphs - are adding to rather than subtracting from the story.  Viewed that way, decisions that seem merciless on a first glance can look awfully necessary on a second.
Rhythm
The pace of an action scene shouldn't be the pace of a leisurely conversation between two old friends, which in turn shouldn't be the pace of a description of a country garden.  While rhythm is tough to impose in a first draft, it's easy to identify in a second.  You may find, too, that you spot it (or its lack) more readily by reading from a printout than a screen, or in a reduced font, so that it's easier to judge how those blocks of text are fitting together.  But, ultimately, the question you're asking is the same however you approach it: do all my sentences and paragraphs look the same, or are they adapting to the story they're telling?
Variety          
There are almost always synonyms for any given word of phrase, but when you're in first draft mode, your natural inclination may be to use the same handful of words time and again.  This is hard to avoid, and isn't even easy to spot on a second draft.  One trick is to use your word processor's find function: if in doubt, run a search, and if the word you suspect you might be overusing crops up twice on ever page then you are, indeed, overusing it.  And if that sounds like pointless effort then the way to look at this is that, rather than obeying an arbitrary rule, you're exploiting an opportunity to squeeze in more richness and detail: every time you reintroduce a character or an object and every time you return to an idea, you have a chance to reveal some fresh aspect, and that means taking advantage of fresh words.
Brevity
However to the point you try and be in your first draft, cutting out the waste is infinitely easier in the second: for that matter, few things will teach you as much about the craft as trying to cut ten or twenty or fifty percent of your word count without infringing on the sense.  Which, really, is the crucial point, and why brevity is better sought in a second draft: you can cut a great many things, but the one that has to survive is meaning.  If you can't strip out another word without turning a sentence into nonsense then you've definitely trimmed enough; if you could rewrite a sentence with half the words and it will say precisely the same thing then you're not even close.
Richness
Nevertheless, there are definitely times when your language needs to be lovelier than others.  In a first draft, you often have to be workmanlike just to reach the end; in a second, it can be clearer where letting in a little poetry will serve some actual purpose.  This is one of the trickiest things to spot yourself, and one of the main reasons why giving yourself a good long gap between drafts is crucial.  The time to come back is however long it takes for you to stop being in love with the language itself and to consider what function it's serving: sure, that description of a sunset is lovely, but does it belong in the middle of a helicopter chase?  And, to return to the point, if you can go a couple of pages without any sense of physical space or of what characters look like, or if scenes that should have emotional heft feel flat and lifeless, then those are the points when you can let yourself loose with the pretty words.
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One last thought: it's entirely okay to work through as many drafts as you need to, at whatever speed feels right.  That said, a draft will go better if you have a sense of what you're trying to achieve; you may find, for example, that hunting for typos is a job you need to separate out from spotting continuity errors.  And you may also find that it helps to have a checklist like the above to remind you precisely what you're looking for, or even to treat each point in its own mini-draft.  Perhaps the hardest lesson here is that there's no one-size-fits-all solution to editing. and getting it right requires at least a little understanding of the particular ways in which your unique brain works.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 22

By part twenty-two and my eighty-fifth to eighty-eighth reviews here, it's fair to say that I'm starting to see a few trends.  It's easy to glorify pre-twentieth century anime and to remember only the high points, but the truth is that the bulk of this stuff was commercialized and derivative.  I suppose in part, then, the appeal becomes the fact that even the least releases have a degree of charm that you couldn't hope to find in, say, similarly cash-grabby low budget American movies of the period.  It's one of the definite virtues of hand drawn animation; a degree of energy and genuine artistry always seems to sneak through the cracks.

All of which is a long-winded way of admitting that it's a bit of a crap selection this time around, and even the relative high points are both sequels to arguably better works.  So let's not expect too much from Sakura Wars: The Radiant Gorgeous Blooming Cherry Blossoms, The E.Y.E.S of Mars, Legend of Lemnear and Project A-Ko: Love and Rockets...

Sakura Wars: The Radiant Gorgeous Blooming Cherry Blossoms, 1999, dir: Susumu Kudo

It's safe to say that if you were a devotee of the games they were based on, these Sakura Wars OVAs would be about the best thing ever.  They're clearly made with a great deal of affection, and this time around, there's a particular effort made to give each character time in the limelight: in fact, the first four episodes are character-centric vignettes and the last two, which shift to nominal protagonist Sakura herself, are the only ones with much in the way of continuity.

For the non-fan, on the face of things, that makes this a  less appealing prospect: certainly it's hard to see what pleasure anyone who came to this second OVA with no foreknowledge would derive.  It makes zero attempt to reintroduce its cast or its concept, or to do most any of the things you'd expect a show about women piloting clunky robot armour to battle demons while posing as musical theatre actresses would do.

No, I tell a lie: there's a fair bit of the musical theatre side of things on offer.  However, we see more of the adorable, steam-powered mechs that the characters supposedly pilot in the opening credits sequence than we do in the entirety of the six episodes combined.  This may sound like I'm exaggerating, but I'm not: at no point do our heroines armour up.  And this is truly baffling; I spent three full hours waiting for a battle sequence that never arrived.  In fact, the whole thing is pretty action-light; as with the first OVA, but even more so, the onus is very much on comedy and drama.

What we have, then, is a show made for fans who want to hang out more with these very likable characters - and that's actually okay.  None of the episodes are actively bad, and at least half are pretty damn good for what they are.  Elsewhere, the changes in animation are a fascinating example of what the passage of two years did for anime at the end of the twentieth century, for better and worse: it's slick and there's some well-used CG, but the colours incline towards the garish and the characters have a tendency to wander off model, particularly in the somewhat cheaper-looking middle episodes.  At least the music continues to be great, and my love for the Sakura Wars theme is undying.

Having said little that's terribly positive, I should probably conclude by pointing out that I really like the Sakura Wars franchise.  Two decades on, these almost entirely female-led franchises still feel a little revolutionary in the West, in a way that's really depressing if you think about it too much - and this second OVA doubles down on that thematically, as Sakura wonders whether she mightn't prefer a normal life to hanging about with her kooky girlfriends and battling to defend Tokyo, and comes to the only sensible conclusion.  To that I'd add that about the only way to buy this OVA is in the box set that includes the first one, making for a combined five hours of Sakura Wars goodness.  That's five imperfect hours, for sure, but there are good reasons this franchise picked up such a devoted following: it's pleasant and funny and charming, and that combination is rarer than it should be.

The E.Y.E.S of Mars, 1993, Iku Suzuki

For some reason (and in retrospect, I have no idea why) I was quite hopeful for The E.Y.E.S of Mars.  In fact, it's probably indicative of the mindset behind this entire series of posts that I noted the fact that it's never been considered worthy of a DVD release and the only version you can find is a rip of the dubbed US VHS version and took that to mean "lost classic" rather than "sensibly buried rubbish."

Needless to say, I was wrong as wrong can be.  Yet E.Y.E.S of Mars begins - well, at least not terribly.  There are some vaguely exciting scenes of a space battle (which will seem less exciting when we watch them all over again later), and then we cut to a boy being chased through sewers by a man who appears to be a futuristic cop riding a giant eight-ball.  Somehow, the boy finds himself in a vast, presumably underground forest, before we cut to what appears to be an entirely unrelated narrative about a girl, Eve, whose education at a school for psychic children is being disrupted by the fact that she keeps having horrifying nightmares of conflagration and death.  At this point, the elements are at least interesting enough that you can fool yourself into ignoring the fact that nothing terribly interesting is being done with them.

Eventually, those two plot lines will converge, though not before we've had time to get thoroughly bored of the lifeless Eve and have largely forgotten about the boy, who we discover is called Dew, because presumably Adam was deemed too on the nose.  But really, would that dull characters with dull designs were the biggest problem here; would, even, that the largely mediocre animation or the muddled, lethargic storytelling were the worst of E.Y.E.S of Mars's sins.  It certainly seems those are the more prominent issues for about the first two thirds or so - and, up until then, it's watchable, if not what you could honestly call engaging.

Then the whole mess flies off the rails, and just keeps on going.  This should be quite spectacular, and, if I threw out a few ingredients, might certainly sound like it would be: Incoherent environmental messages!  Interplanetary soul travel!  Atlanteans!  Explosions!  Really, it takes quite the steady hand upon the tiller to keep such a hotchpotch from ever rising to the level of entertainingly silly.  For this alone, I commend Suzuki, who I'm glad to discover is still working today; somehow I feel like he deserved a lengthy career for participating in this nonsense.*

Anyway, as so often happens here, I'm wasting everyone's time, including my own: like I noted at the start, E.Y.E.S of Mars is basically unavailable now.  You can find it on Youtube and elsewhere if you really want to.  But you don't.  It takes a heck of a lot to muck up a pitch like (SPOILER ALERT!) "Psychic children on Mars escape environmental devastation by transmigrating their souls to Earth and kickstarting human evolution", but this film manages it, and then some.

Legend of Lemnear, 1989, dir: Kinji Yoshimoto

While I quite enjoyed Plastic Little, I'd hesitate to consider "from the creator and director of Plastic Little" to be a recommendation.  Yet here with are with Legend of Lemnear, a similarly short OVA release that sees those two talents combining for the first time.  And since the worlds of both manga writing and anime directing frequently involve finding grooves and sticking to them, we shouldn't be surprised to note a few similarities.  If you should happen to remember my review of Plastic Little, or know anything about it, you can probably guess at least one of them.

Yup, Legend of Lemnear features a whole lot of lovingly drawn breasts.

Whereas Plastic Little largely confined that to one scene, however, Legend of Lemnear devotes nearly an entire first act to the subject.  And since it, somehow, only has two acts, that's quite a big chunk of a forty-five minute running time.  In those twenty minutes or so, our nubile heroine Lemnear tracks down one of the folks responsible for murdering her family, only to fall into their clutches, at which point she receives a big chunk of plot exposition, her already scanty clothes fall off and a fair few people get stabbed.

Stabbing is the other thing that Legend of Lemnear is preoccupied with: there's a whole lot of blood spattered about, and the entire second act - that's to say, most of the film - consists of one long action sequence, which mostly involves Lemnear and some guy we briefly met in the opening scene battling the big bad.  At this point, the animation, which has been good enough before now, ratchets up a significant notch: it's clear that, semi-nudity aside, this is where the creators' attention and the bulk of the budget was focused.  And in fairness, it's a damn good action scene, all told, though one that suffers from the fact that we have no reason to care who wins and little understanding of the conflict.

If I had to compare Legend of Lemnear with anything, it would be 1981 animation "classic" Heavy Metal, and in particular the Taarna section, which by coincidence was the only part I didn't altogether hate.  Legend is better that Heavy Metal (most things are) but it has that same unblinking infatuation with sword and sorcery tropes, the same juvenile fixations with bloody violence and women's partially unclothed bodies, and even a similar-feeling soundtrack that fits the material not terribly well.  If you like those things (and I can't honestly claim to not like them, when they're delivered with a measure of artistry) then Legend of Lemnear is worth wasting forty-five minutes on.  And the same goes if you've a fondness for hand drawn animation; the half-the-film-long climax is rather stunning in places.  But to say anything nicer than that would definitely have required a middle act and some actual damn plot, and that we do not have.

Project A-Ko 2: Love & Robots, 1987-1989, dir: Yuji Moriyama

Some things don't need sequels, and some things really don't need sequels, and only now that I've watched the three sequels that were gathered up by Animazing under the subtitle of Love and Rockets do I realise that Project A-Ko was one of them.  I certainly enjoyed it, but I didn't get to the end thinking "Gee, I wonder where these characters and this intricate, fantastical milieu will go from here?"  If only because the characters were deliberately one note gags, and the universe a nonsensical pastiche of anime tropes.

Sadly, it would appear that the creators of Project A-Ko: Love & Robots were just itching to figure out what came next - and, in fairness to them, few sequels are this committed to picking up inconsequential plot threads and seeing just how far they can be taken.  The alien invaders from the first film, for example, are now actual characters, with hopes and dreams and at least the semblance of personalities.  And, hey, did you wonder how B-Ko managed to make all those amazing sci-fi gadgets?  Well, y'see, her father actually runs a weapons manufacturing company, and seems to be basically exploiting his daughter's psychosis for R&D purposes.  Oh, and if you were curious about the school teacher with the incongruously green hair, she gets an episode devoted to her too.

The thing is, Project A-Ko worked for precisely the opposite of the reason that all of this relies on.  Its core concept was simple and silly: A-Ko and C-Ko are friends, B-Ko loves C-Ko and is jealous of A-Ko, therefore they fight a lot, and then aliens invade because why not?  And the real joke at the heart of all that is that C-Ko is so dreadful that she makes you want to claw your face off, so of course it's absurd that anyone should be fighting over her, rather than, say, shoving her into a well.

Of course, the other reason that Project A-Ko worked was because it looked pretty splendid, and it doesn't help matters that none of the three episodes gathered here are on a par; Wikipedia swears blind that they were all theatrical releases, but they look much more like OVAs.  Parts one and three remain solid, despite clear signs of skimping: reused animation, lingering static shots, that sort of thing.  Part two, however, is downright ropy, which is perhaps appropriate given that its subject matter is the most misconceived: do we really need to see A-Ko and B-Ko battling over a guy?  At least he has the hots for C-Ko rather than either of them, which feels right for this twisted universe.

And, having said nothing nice about Project A-Ko: Love & Robots, I have to admit that it's really not that bad.  Unnecessary, yes, and misconceived, but that's not the same thing; other than the somewhat cheaper-looking animation, this is probably about the best anyone could have asked for.  I just wasn't in the mood for the first two parts, and found them more shrill than amusing.  But by the time number three rolled around, I was feeling more congenial; these articles would never have got anywhere near twenty-two entries if I didn't have a soft spot for goofy anime humour, and there's no end of that on offer here.  Hardly indispensable then, and not worth bothering with unless you've seen and enjoyed the original, but probably just about worth wasting time and money on if you have.

-oOo-

That turned out a bit more negative than I intended.  And I even liked Sakura Wars.  Heck, I guess I liked Project A-Ko: Love and Rockets, too, though that apparently didn't translate into having anything nice to say.

And who knows what next time will offer?  I have some stuff on the shelf that promises to be amazing, yet for some reason I keep not watching it.  And I have M.D. Geist, which is so universally despised that I find myself itching to see what all the fuss is about.  Let's hope my better instincts win out for once - he types, knowing they probably won't.



[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20, Part 21, Part 23Part 24Part 25]


* Oddly, just before this, Suzuki directed the second Ranma 1/2 movie, which, despite its own fair share of faults, I had quite positive feelings about.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

10 Reasons You Should be Submitting to Digital Fiction Publishing

Anyone who's been paying any attention to my work over the last couple of years will notice that I've become rather attached to Canadian small press Digital Fiction Publishing: Digital salvaged my collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories last year after Spectral Press went belly up, and the back end of 2016 saw the release of The Black River Chronicles: Level One, which I co-created with DFP head honcho Mike Wills; a sequel will be arriving before the year is out.  On top of that, I've lost track of just how many Digital anthologies I've been in.  (I mean, not because it's that many, just because my memory's rubbish.  But it's definitely more than a few.)

Obviously I consider Digital worth sending my work to; I wouldn't keep doing it otherwise.  And, in the wake of a bit of terrifically good news from them, I thought now might be the time to explain why, and to list some reasons that all genre writers should be jumping at the opportunity to push work their way.

1) They Pay For Reprint Rights
A cent a word, to be exact, which seems to be about the market rate - though the actual deal is rather better than that, as we'll come to in a minute.  But, right here, let's just acknowledge that there are very few markets that even accept reprints, let alone who trade in them exclusively.
2) Their Terms Are (More Than) Reasonable
Having been in since the beginning, I've seen a few iterations of the DFP contract, and it's only got better for writers with each version.  You don't often see a publisher bending over this far backwards to be honest and fair.
3) They Make Your Work Feel Special
There's a fair chance your story will be released as a baby e-book all of its own, as well as part of an anthology, and these are reliably gorgeous, as the examples scattered about hopefully illustrate.  Failing that, DFP is now edging into hardback releases, which are looking downright stunning.
4) They Publish Good Books
I'm a little biased on this front, for various reasons, but Digital have been putting out some very good product since the beginning.  I'm up to date with nearly all of the DFP collections I've had stories in, and I've definitely enjoyed the bulk of what I've read.  (The one novel I've found time for, Terry Madden's Three Wells of the Sea, was terrific too.) 
5) I'm Slush-Reading For Them
Okay, so maybe not a reason to submit as such, but if you send in a story for the Digital fantasy imprint once it reopens, or for the currently open Hic Sunt Dracones anthology of dragon stories, then there's a fair chance I'll be reading it.  And, if it's really good, I'll most likely recommend it for publication.
6) They Have Fast Response Times
Like, really fast for fantasy submissions, because I'm too obsessive-compulsive to let subs sit for long.  But averages across the various imprints range from a couple of weeks to at worst a couple of months, which is pretty damn good in my experience.
7) Their Books Get Attention
First Contact, for example, the original Digital Fiction Publishing collection, is up to fifty-seven reviews on Amazon US; I've been in a fair few anthologies, and not many get that kind of notice.  But then, that's at least in part because...
8) They Promote
 Right from the beginning, Digital has been pushing its books hard, with copious amounts of both time and money.  So if your works ends up in one of them, the odds are good that people will actually get to read it. 
9) They Pay Royalties
Nearly last up, the biggie, and the reason I decided to put this article together in the first place: have work published by Digital and you'll get a share in the profits from every single
  Digital book.  Once those shares exceed your initial payment, you get more money - and keep getting more money.  I know this because I just got my first royalty payment, and it was for a solid chunk of cash.  As far as I can tell, this basically makes Digital a co-op, and how marvelously insane is the notion of a co-op publisher?  If the list consisted of this one reason alone then that should be enough.
10) I don't have a point 10
Though I'm sure I could think of one if I really tried.  Um.  Their website is really shiny?  But, okay, not a reason to submit, as such.  Okay, how's this?  Digital even have the decency to pay their slush-readers, so the more submissions, the more money I make, and just maybe if you and I run into each other I'll have sufficient pennies saved up to buy you a drink.
Or, more likely, I'll buy more nineties anime to review here on the blog.  So hey, win, win.
So, look, Digital is open right now for that Hic Sunt Dracones anthology I mentioned, as well as for a second volume of horror stories by female authors, Killing it Softly 2.  You can find the guidelines for both of those here.  And most likely the regular fantasy, horror, science-fiction and flash fiction imprints will be opening for submissions soon.  Keep an eye out!

Friday, 10 March 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 21

Would you believe me if I said that, here in part 21 of all places, we've arrived at my favourite nineties anime movie of all time?  Well, you shouldn't, but that's only because Princess Mononoke and Ghost in the Shell exist in the world.  Of my new discoveries since I began these posts, well, on those terms, I'm telling the truth.

As an exciting game, you could try and figure out which one it is out of Sakura Wars: The Gorgeous Blooming Cherry Blossoms OVA, Angel's Egg, Revolutionary Girl Utena and Armageddon.

Hint: it's not Armageddon.

Sakura Wars: The Gorgeous Blooming Cherry Blossoms, 1997, dir: Takaki Ishiyama

It's easy to forget when talking about how rubbish video game adaptations are, and comparing the likes of Assassin's Creed and the Resident Evil movies, that anime has been doing game tie-ins for three decades now, and sometimes even gets it right.  And, frankly, the medium has an enormous advantage: the leap is much narrower from game to animation than from game to live action.  For that reason, there are actually anime game adaptations out there that are well-considered and add to the properties they represent, rather than miring them in leaden plotting and lousy special effects.

Few video game franchises are more beloved than the Sakura Wars series, though you probably wouldn't know that if you're not Japanese; over there, they single-handedly saved Sega's fortunes.  The original game was an unusually plot-heavy and character-driven turn based strategy affair, with a gloriously absurd premise: in an alternate, steampunk-inspired early twentieth century Japan, a multinational group of female mech pilots known as the Imperial Assault Force: Flower Division (who all have suitably flower-based names) operate under the cover of being a musical revue, protecting the people of Tokyo from demonic invasion with heavy armour and cool powers while keeping their spirits up with elaborate musical numbers.

This, of course, is so perfectly suited to nineties anime that not adapting it would have been tantamount to madness.  And lo and behold, there are plenty of ways in which Sakura Wars absolutely works.  Though none of them, it has to be said, relate to the plot, because to all intends and purposes there isn't one.  In fact, the actual degree of plotlessness is startling, and even when things appear that look like plot threads, they generally head nowhere.  In the second episode, for example, a big deal is made of the fact that one of the characters goes AWOL to avenge their father's death.  This is never alluded to again, and by episode four, they're back as though nothing happened.  Or for that matter, there's the climatic battle, where the biggest concern is whether the cast will return from fighting in time for their performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Presumably, all this is tying into the game in ways I can't possibly understand, what with it being unavailable in the West and on an extinct format and everything.  But such issues bothered me less than perhaps they should have.  Sakura Wars is so likable in its goofiness, in its fun, one-note characters and its rambling uneventfulness, that I was happy just to hang out in its company.  It helps that the animation is top notch, as befits a property Sega was hugely invested in; it's notable that, while the mech stuff looks perfectly great, the real standout shots tend to be character moments, and often those revolving around lead Sakura.  Also, the opening theme is one of the best things ever (if maddeningly similar to classic sixties harangue against consensual sex, "Lady Willpower".)  In fact, all the music, which I assume was largely taken from the game, is pretty splendid.

All of which leaves me in a difficult position not uncommon to these articles: I really did enjoy Sakura Wars and I'm looking forward to watching it again - if only for that theme tune!  But I'd be lying if I said that was the same thing as it being objectively good.  Let us say only that, in so much as it works, it works as a hang-out anime, and so long as that's what you're expecting, you'll find it a particularly charming example of the concept.

Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie, 1999, dir: Kunihiko Ikuhara

I try not to throw around the word masterpiece lightly, and it's certainly not one I've had much cause to haul out in this trawl through the highs and frequent lows of nineties anime: I've watched some great stuff, and a lot of fun stuff, but that's hardly the same thing.  Anyway, I mention this solely so that you know I'm serious when I say that Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie is a goddamn masterpiece.

You might reasonably ask, at this point, why - if it's half as good as I'm suggesting - it's not better known.  And on the face of things, the answer's straightforward: this is one of those films, common in the world of anime, that aim to condense the plot of a lengthy series (39 episodes, in this case) into a feature-length running time, and there are those who claim you can't hope to follow the film without having seen the series.  This is nonsense, though not for the reason you might think: the fact is, you can't hope to follow the film full stop.  At least, not on a first viewing, and probably not on a second either, though things do start to come a little into focus at that point.

All of which is to say, Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie is weird as all get out.

But, no, weird is a rubbish word, and certainly doesn't do justice to the pyschosexual fever dream on offer here.  Let's try a different one, then: confrontational.  Within ten minutes, having introduced its gender-defying heroine Utena, its physics-defying academy setting, and a plot that appears to involve students dueling over the sexual favours of the mysterious Rose Bride, who may or may not possess the power to revolutionize the world, Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie has thrown so much dizzying, florid imagery and so many disconcerting notions at the screen that it's all but impossible to catch a breath.  On my first watch, I gave up at that ten minute point and determined to come back when I felt less frazzled.  On my second, I pressed on, and was amply rewarded.  On a rewatch, I stumbled again at the precise same point, and realised: the film's first genuinely abrasive scene is like a membrane.  The only way to pass is to surrender to what director Ikuhara is up to here, no matter what.

And, of course, you should.  Because Ikuhara's game is certainly weird, and certainly confrontational, but it's also thrilling and brave.  I could point you to the animation, which is exquisite, and rapturous in its unceasingly imaginative imagery; I could go on about the music, both stunning in its own right and incorporated with rare perfection.  I could mention the climax, which is the absolute definition of love-it-or-hate-it, but, for my money, maybe the most unadulteratedly wonderful twenty minutes the medium has yet to produce.  I could say how what underpins all this surface gloss is a tale that dares to go to places rarely touched upon, in anime or elsewhere, and then handles its difficult themes with both rawness and sensitivity.  I could easily write a post this long on a plot full of layers upon layers, that unfolds like the roses that feature so heavily in Revolutionary Girl Utena's imagery.  I could say all of that, and would, and largely just did, but really ... we're up to part twenty-one of these posts, and this is the first time I've unconditionally called something a masterpiece.  Shouldn't that be enough?

Angel's Egg, 1985, dir: Mamoru Oshii

At the very least, I can promise you've never seen anything like Angel's Egg.  Really, it's hard to believe how such a film ever came into existence: after all, in 1985, Oshii was far from the anime legend he would become, post the Patlabor movies and particularly after Ghost in the Shell.  At the time, he had an OVA called Dallos under his belt and a great deal of TV work, as well as the highly-regarded second Urusei Yatsura spin-off movie.  It's anyone's guess what in that CV inspired someone to trust him with what must surely have been a respectable sum of money to make...

And already we run into problems, because once you get past the basics, describing just what Oshii was allowed to make is no easy task.  It's a film - though at 71 minutes, a short one by non-anime standards.  It's fantastical, and possibly science-fiction, though in a sense that feels like a stretch.  It uses traditional animation techniques to represent images that are broadly realistic in form, if frequently surrealistic in intent.  It has two protagonists: a girl who leads a ritualistic scavenger's existence to protect the large egg she carries, generally within her dress, as though it were her unborn child; and a man who may or may not be a soldier, carries a cruciform object that might be a weapon, and who earns the girl's trust only to - apparently - betray it.

That gets us a little way, but it's also as far as talking about bare bones plot will help.  Other than a few isolated incidents, including bookends featuring a travelling globe full of inanimate figures and, at one point, scenes of fishermen who try unsuccessfully to harpoon the shadows of giant, intangible fish, what I've described above covers the entirety of what narrative Angel's Egg possesses.  All the dialogue together probably adds up to less than five minutes, and the only speech of any length is a retelling of the story of Noah's ark, except in this version the dove doesn't return and the flood never subsides.  Given the frequent images of water, the massive skeleton of a bird we see in a crucial-feeling scene, and the fetal baby birds we meet in another, this is presumably significant.

Look online for an interpretation of Angel's Egg and you'll find a fair few; read five and you'll be stuck with five different theories.  The closest thing to a consensus appears to be that the film involves Oshii working through his difficult break with Christian belief: the egg the girl carries represents her faith, which the man destroys, thrusting her into crisis.  And maybe that's sort of it, though I'm not convinced; it feels awfully on the nose and fails to account for a lot.  At any rate, Angel's Egg is one of those works that leaves you with the impression that maybe one more watch would reveal its deeper mysteries.  With all those water images, and the frequent scenes of very little happening, and the general obtuseness, I found myself reminded often of Tarkovsky's Stalker - and you don't generally go into pre-twentieth century anime expecting to be reminded of Tarkovsky.

What else can one say?  As befits an Oshii work, Angel's Egg looks terrific: I haven't much sympathy with Yoshitaka Amano's character designs, but the animation, backgrounds and sheer imagery are stunning.  And again, this being Oshii, the discordant score is both nerve-jangling and haunting.  But does that make Angel's Egg any good?  This is animation first and foremost as art, and even if you're basically sympathetic to what it's doing, that's no guarantee you'll find yourself on its wavelength or sympathetic to its nebulous goals.  For me, I was frustrated that it seemed to work only on levels of allegory and metaphor; its "actual" plot is basically a series of non-events.  And the copies on YouTube are so rubbish that a lot of the background detail is obscured, which is fatal for something so packed with meaning; to my knowledge, the film was never legally released in English, which is maddening.  I neither wholly loved nor hated Angel's Egg, but I'd certainly like to watch - or rather, perhaps, experience - it again.

Armageddon, 1996, dir: Hyunse Lee

In the spirit of honestly, I should admit that I'd had a bit to drink when I watched Armageddon, and that makes it highly likely that I'm giving it more credit than it deserves: this is, after all, another release from Manga Entertainment's disreputable Collection range, and one that's so universally reviled that it doesn't even appear to warrant a Wikipedia page.  The likelihood of it being anything close to good is, clearly, vanishingly slender.

Let's try for safer ground then: I enjoyed Armageddon a lot more than I was expecting to, and indeed a lot more than I've enjoyed most of the Collection.  It's dumb and impossible to take seriously, but it's also fun, and sort of ambitious: its plot at least flirts with big sci-fi ideas, even if it doesn't wholly know what to do with most of them.  Four billion years ago, an ancient civilization fed up with how big and empty the universe is seeded life on two worlds, and left sentient computers to guard over them.  Cut to the present and one race, manipulated by its guardian artificial intelligence, has come to to the opposite conclusion, that the universe is quite populace enough with just them, thank you very much.  Fortunately Earth's guardian has an - unnecessarily convoluted - trick up its sleeve: a superhuman named the Delta Boy, which involves one unsuspecting Korean teenage boy getting a significant power upgrade.

That's really only about a third of the overall plot: frankly, from thereon my memory gets a bit flaky.  Something about a massive killer robot and a hidden, time-travelling subspecies of humans and spaceships and monster sharks and a giant brain and a gravely silly romantic subplot that seemed terribly important until it wasn't.  It's quite possible that Armageddon errs towards incoherence because Manga were up to their usual tricks - there appears to have once been a longer cut available, and this has all the hallmarks of an OVA re-edited to look like a film - except for one thing: by Collection standards, this one is startlingly respectful.  The dub is genuinely solid, the script is far from being the usual travesty, and the print is really rather nice, with an abundance of rich, bright colours.  Really, Armageddon is quite a good-looking piece of work all round: the animation is solid and frequently showy.  I read somewhere that this was among the first anime movies to be made fully in Korea by Koreans, and it certainly has that air: shots are often rather better than they need to be, and there's even some judicious use of CG, which has aged better than most late-nineties CG that pops up in anime.

Look, I'm not trying to oversell Armageddon: its silly, juvenile fluff.  But there's fluff that's contemptuous and derivative and there's fluff that's made with clear affection and at least tries to offer something out of the ordinary, and if you have a fondness for old anime and a few pints in you, there's much to be said for the latter.  Find a copy cheap, go in with suitably low expectations and maybe spend a day in the pub beforehand and you might just be pleasantly surprised.

-oOo-

Boy, Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie, huh?  I already want to watch it again.  And, you know, twenty-one posts and a staggering eighty-four films and / or OVAs in, these discoveries are still exciting.  And while Angel Egg doesn't succeed on the same level, I'm awfully glad I got to see it, finally, having been an Oshii fan for so many years.  Meanwhile, I already seem to have committed to tracking down the entire Sakura Wars franchise (in fairness, the movie looks amazing!)

And, you know, then there was Armageddon, which probably I'm going to rewatch sober one of these days and regret the hell out of recommending.  But hey, them's the breaks.



[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19, Part 20Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25]