Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Anime Boston 2013 Con Report

Overall, Anime Boston 2013 was a good experience. It’s generally the best anime con I attend, and this year was certainly the most fun I had at an anime con since Anime Boston 2012, if not quite the stellar experience I expected based on past years.
I’ll start with the bad. First and foremost is something that had nothing to do with the con, which is that I spent the weekend in a less-than-stellar mood. Part of this was general tiredness, part of it the fun of discovering that somebody in a random town in New Jersey was making hundreds of dollars of purchases with my debit card, and part of it was the surprising discomfort of attending an anime con while single, which I last did in 2001. The problem is that I was 20 then and am 32 now, but the cosplayers are all still 20, so I got to spend the weekend feeling like a dirty old man. Not that I did or want to do anything untoward, it’s just that noticing someone much too young for you is attractive is very different when you're single as opposed to when you’re in an exclusive and committed relationship. Or maybe that’s just me.
Anyway, another thing that wasn’t really the con’s fault, but in this case was entirely avoidable, was security. There was a bombing in Boston not long ago, and therefore we had to go through ridiculous Security Theater in the form of security guards searching the bags of every person who went into the convention center. This created a MASSIVE crush right outside the convention center around noon Saturday, because the main entrance is in a mall. There was basically a solid mass of people, most of them trying to enter the con but blocked by and blocking a small number of people trying to go in the opposite direction, and it’s a miracle no one was trampled. That crowd, which was created entirely by the security measures, was a lot more dangerous than a couple of terrorists who were already caught or killed. This year’s Anime Boston was no more likely to be bombed or shot up than last year’s—actually, it was less likely, because there were two fewer terrorists living in the city.
Crowd control in general was a bit of a problem. The panel rooms just aren’t big enough for the convention—every panel I participated in or attended was filled to capacity (with the exception of one panel in Hall D, which is the ginormous room I two-thirds filled for the Madoka panel last year), and I was turned away from several panels I wanted to see because the room was full. (And one panel I only got into by pretending to be a panelist, by prior arrangement with the real panelist.) Apparently guests were given priority for the larger rooms, which would make sense at most cons, but I’ve found AB has a more intellectually inclined, less (for lack of a better term) “fannish” audience. I strongly suspect Charles Dunbar is a bigger draw than Laura Landa. (Never heard of either of them? My point exactly—you’re going to go to the one with the more interesting panel topic, not the one with Guest next to their name.)
Now, the good: Great panels, as always. I go to conventions for the panels, and Anime Boston never disappoints. I’ve said many times that every con should look to AB to learn How Panels Are Done, and I stand by that. Highlights included:
Totally Subversive Toons: I only got to see a few minutes of this one, but what I saw was great. This panel is different every year, but always a blast. The TV Funhouse segment with Jesus and the original version of the “Birds of Prey” song from Batman: The Brave and the Bold were particularly entertaining.
Charles Dunbar: A highlight at any con. His panel on the artists and folklorists who preserved Japan’s Yokai culture, from 17th century encyclopedists to the creators of Pokemon, was particularly fascinating. I know little about Japanese history, and what I do know is mostly political and military history, so this panel was a real eye-opener about the cultural history. The “three worlds” concept—the material world, the spiritual world, and the hidden world that forms where the two overlap—was particularly interesting, given my fascination with Celtic myth and Faerie, which is essentially the same concept.
Beyond Pokemon: Despite living with Viga for half a decade, I’d never actually seen this panel of hers before! It was both entertaining and informative. I’d watched and played Pokemon quite a bit back in high school, and to a lesser extent since, and been aware that Digimon existed, but most of the other shows she talked about I’d never heard of. I’m not actually going to watch any of them now (although I do hope to get around to Shadow Star Narutaru eventually), but now at least I’ll have some idea what people are talking about if they mention them. (NB: This is the panel I pretended to be a panelist on, at Viga’s invitation. This consisted of me making snarky comments during the video clips, and shutting up during the informational segments.)
Cheer Up Emo Kid: A great panel on uplifting anime, either because they’re cheerful or sweet or energizing or just plain funny. I now need to watch Inferno Cop, and so do you. It’s like Adult Swim, if Adult Swim shows were funny!
Judge an Anime by Its Cover: A weird but entertaining panel by Rym and Scott of Geeknights (whom I find amusing panelists but insufferably smug when they podcast) in which they went through the upcoming anime of next season and discarded half of them entirely based on their promo images and capsule descriptions. Much of this was generally good advice (for example, never trust a work where half the premise involves made-up nouns, or one where a character’s boobs fill up forty percent of the frame in the promo image), and asked a question that pretty much sums up my view of where the industry lies right now: “Why is so much anime made by and for perverts?”
My Own Panels: Animes Miserables was virtually unchanged from last year except for one key factor, attendance. Last year we had half a dozen people, this year we were standing-room only, and the result was far more energy in the room, more and better questions, and a couple of grand singalongs. Plus I relish an opportunity to inflict Arm Joe on as many people as possible.
Latin Latin Madoka More Latin 2: Thermodynamic Boogaloo also came off great, with solid content and some good questions. And people really liked my choice of AMVs for the transitions—I got requests at panels later in the con to show the Homura version of the opening. The one downside was the slides themselves—I’m not very good at making visually interesting slides to begin with, and these were made in a hurry, so visually the panel was less than great. I can’t wait for Latin Latin Madoka More Latin 3: The Search for More Mami next year, when we can get it right.
Reading Too Much into AKB0048: This was a blast. We got to pull our usual trick on the audience, of fannishly playing up the show to rev them up, then hit them with the problematic elements (though we really should have added in something more on male gaze), and then just as they’re starting to question, point out the hidden depths (in this case, glorious use of pop-Jungianism). A good panel, but I think we should revise it before Connecticon.
Analyzing Anime: At long last! I’ve been doing Analyzing Anime 101 for years, and always wanted to do a 201. AB is the first con to let me do so, by giving me a two-hour block in which to present both. I spent the whole weekend nervous about it, but it went really well! It was the best-attended version of Analyzing Anime better—on a good day I typically get a dozen people, but this was a good 50, filling the small panel room. And people responded well to the second half—lots of good questions that showed I was getting people to think, which is the whole point. One audience member even asked about post-positivism, which made me downright gleeful. I love Anime Boston audiences.
I ended up not going to any events this year, nor did I go to the game room or any video screenings. In fact, now that I think about it, I basically did nothing but present or attend panels all convention, which as far as I’m concerned is proof of a great convention.
Overall, great con, and I will as always return next year.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Analyzing Anime 201 Notes

Been a while, huh? Sorry about that--maintaining a daily pony blog has left me with very little time or energy to write about other animation.

But nothing brings out the writing about animation bug like a con, and I'm at one right now. My favorite, in fact, Anime Boston. And that means it's time for one of those easy posts where I just put up notes from one of my panels.

So, here's Sunday afternoon's Analyzing Anime 201, the sequel to my Analyzing Anime 101 I posted notes for a couple of years ago.

Continuity and Canon: Continuity is the idea that a story represents a fictional "world" and provides a means of exploring it. Different views: Tolkien's "secondary creation." Whatsername's "gossip about imaginary people." Based on aesthetic of verisimilitude, but erases the text/author/reader relationship. Tends to be something fans care about more than writers are critics, precisely because it ignores the text itself and all the craft that goes into it. Canon originates from theology--the Christian canon is the set of books that make up the Bible, for instance. Expanded in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries to the idea of an "English canon"--a set of works that made up "English literature," such as Shakespeare, Milton, and so on. Thus came to mean "the set of books you could make references to and expect intelligent people to know what you're talking about." However, by the late twentieth century the idea of a single canon for the entire language has largely vanished; there's just too many books. You can pick any given work, and it's possible to be highly intelligent, well educated, and well-read without ever having read it. We can, however, talk about canon in terms of implied viewer. In that case, canon is the set of works a work implies its viewer should know. Madoka, for example, expects its viewer to recognize magical girl tropes in general, and Cardcaptor Sakura in particular. To a much lesser extent, it implies its reader should be familiar with basic ideas about the science of thermodynamics, Buddhism, and Goethe's Faust. All of these are thus part of the Madoka canon. Note that canon has nothing to do with continuity--you can talk about multiple works sharing a continuity. Another example: the Rebuild of Evangelion movies clearly expect the viewer to have seen the original Evangelion show, but it's still not clear whether or not the movies share continuity with the show--that is, whether they take place in the same world.

Genre: [madoka ending] If you didn’t know what show this was from, what genre would you think it was? How do you know? [madoka beginning] Yet this is from the same show. What genre does it feel like, and how do you know?

We live in a time when genres are extremely flexible and most works belong to more than one. What does genre mean in this day and age, then? One way to understand genre is by means of generic traits, but that runs into a problem because of how much overlap there is between genres. For example, it’s very hard to come up with a set of generic traits for magical girl shows that doesn’t end up including Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Another way to define genre is by using lines of descent and influence. In this model, a genre is understood by its influences and ancestors. In other words, looking at the ending, what older anime and stories do you see influencing Madoka? And looking at the beginning, what older anime and stories do you see influencing it? If you trace those back to certain ur-anime, seminal works that shaped entire genres around themselves, you can define its genres by the ancestral works.

Implied Author/Implied Viewer--Every work has creators. It’s tempting to try to use analysis of the work as a way to make statements about the author. For example, what do all the cross-shaped explosions and allusions to Christian or Jewish concepts (the number of the beast, Adam, Eve, and Lilith, the Sephiroth, Gaf, etc) say about its creator Hideaki Ano? [pause for answers] That was a trick question, because he didn’t put them in, Sakamoto did. All works have what is called an implied author. For a work with a single creator, the implied author can be viewed as a sort of persona the author takes on to write the story--for example, an author with strong political views may intentionally suppress those views in order to write a character who holds opposing views without turning them into a strawman. You can also view the implied author as the answer to the question “What kind of person would create this?” In collaborative works, like almost everything animated ever, the implied author is the imaginary writer-director-animator-actor who represents all of the real, individual writers, directors, animators, and so on. On the other side, the implied reader or implied viewer is the imaginary person the creators are making their work for, the answer to the question of “who would watch this.” It’s a very useful concept, because it allows you to talk meaningfully about the apparent intent behind a work even though the intent of another person is always entirely unknowable.

Signifier/Signified: For the rest of this panel we’re going to talk about postmodernism, but to get there we’re first going to have to talk about a core concept in modern analysis, the signifier-signified distinction. A symbol--which can be anything that stands in for something else, an image, a word, an idea--has two parts. The signified is the thing the symbol points to. For example, the signified for the word “rock” is a class of physical objects, rocks. The signifier is the symbol itself, in this case the sound “rocks.” The symbol is the combination of the two; change one and you change the symbol. So, “rock” is a different symbol when you’re talking about music, because even though it has the same signifier, it’s a different signified. Likewise, even though “stone” has the same signified as “rock,” it’s got a different signifier and is therefore a different symbol.

Two important things to keep in mind about symbols. First, the signifier and signified can be literally anything, as long as one stands for the object. A physical object can be a signifier for an abstract signified, such as a flag standing for a nation. A sound can stand for a sound--buzz, for example. A color can stand for an idea. A set of mathematical equations can stand for space and time. The possibilities are endless.

The second thing is that there is no necessary connection between the two. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, there is no goo you can add to a signifier that makes it into the signified. The flag is not “the country minus something.” The idea of a rock is not a rock stripped of something, and conversely, a rock is not matter wrapped around the idea of a rock. This is what I meant in the first hour about meaning being constructed--”meaning” is another word for the relationship between signifier and signified, and that relationship is entirely arbitrary. The map is not the territory,and there’s nothing you can do to the map to make it be the territory.

Postmodernism: Would normally be a much more advanced topic than can be done in a 201, but it’s so important to animation in general, and anime in particular, that I think we should try to do a basic version here. So, the basics: Modernism and postmodernism are both based on the signifier-signified distinction, the fact that meaning is constructed. Modernism largely attempts to reject significance, to see what art can do when you strip it of the requirement to mean anything, for example through absurdist drama or non-representational paintings. Postmodernism, on the  other hand, dives into the gap between signifier and signified and explores it. There are two definitions of postmodernism I really like; one’s mine and the other’s Philip Sandifer’s. Philip’s is “Taking signifiers out of their usual context and trusting them to work anyway.” Mine is “deliberately calling attention to the process by which meaning is constructed.”

 [Wing it from here]
I'll put up a video of the actual panel some time in the next few weeks.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Fifteen Best Anime Openings/Endings of All Time

If there's one thing I've learned from watching Internet review shows (and I watch FAR too many Internet review shows), it's that if you're stuck on content or the things you're working on are taking too long, that means it's time to do a Top 10 list.

I'm also a firm believer that anything worth doing is worth overdoing, so have a Top 15 instead.

Now, just to be clear, I'm using the word "best." That means "most good." Goodness is a value; by definition, any measure of how good something is is inherently going to be subjective. I love these openings, and I'm sharing them because I love them; if your particular favorite opening isn't on here, or you disagree with my order, that doesn't mean I'm saying you are wrong about your favorites, and it doesn't mean I'm wrong about mine. It is the nature of the beast; it's like getting upset because I love my significant other more than I love yours.

Also, I apologize in advance; some of these videos have slightly fuzzy quality, some have the lyrics subtitled in languages other than English or not subtitled at all, and so on. I grabbed what I could off YouTube; I own most of the series that had problems, so when I have time (next weekend, possibly) I may rip better-quality versions to replace them.

I do not own any of these videos and did not make any of these videos.

Number 15

Now, I specifically picked the English dub of this opening--one of four where I did not use the Japanese version, and I'm sure you can guess at least one of the others--because it is, quite simply, a more energetic and exciting song coupled with action-packed, cool-looking imagery. It is, in another words, the opening to the show Dragonball Z thinks it is: an action-packed science-fantasy adventure serial packed with epic action sequences and some of the most badass characters in history. The Japanese opening, on the other hand, is the opening to the show Dragonball Z actually is: a generic, brainless action-comedy that goes stupidly over the top, made worse by utterly horrendous pacing.

Ultimately, that's why this opening barely scrapes its way onto the list: it's a truly great opening, but it just doesn't fit the show. This is a fun, exciting, fast-paced opening, and to go from it to the twenty-third consecutive episode of Goku charging up to attack Frieza is a huge let-down.

Number 14

 Well, everyone who I didn't piss off with my criticism of Dragonball Z is now pissed at me for picking this opening. Purists are angry because this arc of Robotech is a horrible bastardization of Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, probably the best anime of its era, and Robotech fans are mad because I'm using the 2012 remastered version of the opening, which dares to look different from the show they remember.

I offer an olive branch to both: the original Macross opening would have been Number 16 if the list went that far, and the only reason I used this version of the Robotech opening and not the broadcast version is that it's available in higher quality.

Anyway, what makes this a truly great opening is mostly the music. Almost all anime openings are pop songs, so any exception to that rule is a breath of fresh air, and this is some really good science fiction-y music, similar to the Star Trek: The Next Generation theme but actually predating it by quite some time. The visuals are quite good too, with the fighter plane launching in what looks to be mostly a contemporary military action setting; then, as the fighter transforms into its mech mode, the opening transforms into a science fiction setting. Good stuff, and it fits the show well.

Number 13

This is all about the song. I freaking love this song; it's creepy, unsettling, and has a great beat. They even managed to use autotune well, which I didn't think was possible! Image-wise, it's pretty good, especially the beginning with the kaleidoscope and the flowers and, most importantly, the lamp with the butterfly. That image--a fragile, beautiful creature, drawn towards the light that will destroy it, but locked out by a cage--goes beyond intriguing and manages to be downright haunting.

Unfortunately, instead of sticking to its guns and depicting similarly haunting images, the opening instead shows all the main characters (with the notable exception of Keiichi, the only male character in the group) sad or in pain. It gives up on being the opening to a smart, highly original, and deeply creepy horror story and is instead the opening to a show about voyeuristically watching cute adolescent (and younger) girls suffer. Unfortunately, both of those are accurate descriptions of the brilliant but deeply problematic Higurashi no Naku Koro ni.

Fucking moe fans ruin everything.

Number 12

Weren't expecting a German dub, were you? The Japanese and English versions of the Sailor Moon opening are also brilliant, but for me the German just barely edges them out. Visually, it's pretty much the same as the Japanese opening, which is to say very good, with some surreal dreamscapes slightly reminiscent of Windsor McCay scattered amidst fairly standard Main Characters Posing and Zooming Around shots. What makes it stand out is the music, which discards the central theme shared by the Japanese and English openings in favor of a great techno beat coupled with surprisingly gentle vocals and piano.

That works really well with Sailor Moon's place in the history of the genre. Prior to Sailor Moon, most magical girl shows were about celebrating the traditional Japanese feminine virtues; with the exception of some of Go Nagai's work (which was years ahead of its time), most magical girls were gentle and sweet young adolescents who used magical powers based on their feminine virtue to overcome evil from a safe distance. That's all still present in Sailor Moon, and the piano and vocals reflect that. The brilliance of Sailor Moon, however, was to combine that formula with elements of the sentai genre (most familiar to Westerners by way of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers). In Sailor Moon, the traditional magical girl main character is part of a team of similarly-empowered girls, and they have to fight the monster's minions--often physically and hand-to-hand--before they can use their magic to save the day. This much-needed injection of physical action and energy revitalized a flagging genre and made Sailor Moon the template for a new subgenre, magical girl sentai teams, that continues to this day--and only the German version, with its driving techno beat underlying soft piano and vocals, does something similar with the opening.

Number 11

Fullmetal Alchemist is my favorite manga, and the anime based on it, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, is one of my favorite anime. However, taken on their own, none of the openings are particularly great. The first opening has a really good song, but it takes way too long to build up (if you only have a minute and a half, you can't wait until fifty seconds in to get going) and a couple of the images near the end (Scar sitting under the tree, Pinako on the porch) really don't fit the music at all. The second opening has an extremely generic song and, except for being the first time we get to see the Xingese characters in an opening, pretty boring visuals, too. Credit where credit is due, though: the shot of Wrath, sword in each hand, fending off Ling and both his retainers simultaneously is downright stunning. Too bad it doesn't fit the music at all.

The third opening is by far the worst, bordering on being actually a bad opening. The music is utterly wrong in every conceivable way; funk does not belong anywhere within a million miles of FMA. Visually, however, it's a tour de force; in particular, the transitions from shot to shot are among the smoothest and most natural I've seen in an opening. It doesn't feel like a clip show or a trailer the way most openings do, but rather like something intentionally produced as a work in itself. Unfortunately, the song just drags it down.

Finally, the fourth opening isn't the best, but it feels more mature than the others--the singer sounds like a grown-up, the tone of the song is a little bit more reflective, and the imagery is much more symbolically charged. I particularly like Ed and Al running through each other and turning respectively red and blue, and the two of them rising up the Tree of Life together followed by the glaring Eye of Truth just as they reach the top. (The opening succession of black, yellow, and red alchemy circles would have been brilliant if they'd just added in a white one as well, but more on that in a moment). After the song picks up and the action sequences kick in, we get a lot of great, short action scenes that fit well with the frenetic Day of the Eclipse arc that this opening corresponds to; the fight scenes with Pride are particularly brilliant.

But none of the openings are Top 15 material, so why are we talking about them at all? Basically, because I'm cheating. No one of these openings is truly great, but taken together they do something completely brilliant that even justifies that terrible, terrible third opening song. Consider them in sequence. The first opening song is a child in crisis, and visually it's dominated by images of disintegration and flame. The second opening is extremely generic and has a lot of pale, washed-out or monochrome images. The third opening is visually brilliant, but has a crippling flaw in its music. And the fourth opening is fully mature and more symbolically and spiritually resonant than the others.

Put another way, the sequence of openings is crisis/decomposition/burning, blankness/lack of identity/paleness, glowing-but-imperfect, and mature/spiritually awakened. Nigredo, albedo, citrinitas, rubedo: the stages of creating a Philosopher's Stone.

Well, I thought it was awesome.

Number 10

This is mostly here just for having a seriously awesome song, which is why it isn't any higher on the list. Visually, it introduces us to the cast of Fushigi Yuugi, shows a bit of action, pretty standard stuff. I really love the way it just exudes mystery in the first part of the song, fitting for a show called The Mysterious Play, and then Tamahome shows up and it's all action romance time. You have to admit, for 90s anime the animation is pretty fluid; I particularly like the part with Tamahome and Hotohori at about the one-minute mark.

Also, you should read Fushigi Yuugi Genbu Kaiden. It's like Fushigi Yuugi, only instead of being a wimpy moron who depends on her reverse harem to protect her, the Miaka-equivalent's immediate response to finding herself stranded in mytho-medieval China is to invent the naginata. Also the Tamahome-equivalent is magically transsexual. Fun stuff!

Number 9

I've only just started watching Vision of Escaflowne (yes, I know, I'm decades behind, but there's a LOT of animation out there to watch, and sometimes I have to do things like eat, or sleep, or go to work, or acknowledge the existence of friends and family...),  and I already know I freaking love this opening. It's just beautiful. The song is absolutely wonderful, one of the very few on this list I will happily listen to just for the sake of listening to it, and while I don't much care for the character designs in the show, the framing of the shots is perfect.

What I mean is that this is a very wistful song, and virtually every shot is a character alone in a wide space. Despite that, it's a hopeful song, too, and subtle relationships between successive shots (for example, having a character on the right side of the screen facing left, followed by a character on the left side of the screen facing right) create a feeling of connectedness, implying that all of these isolated individuals are meant to be together and will find one another. Nonetheless, the only characters we see interacting are fighting one another; this will not be an easy road.

Basically, the song and the visuals tell a story together, and it's a story compelling enough to make you want to stay and watch the show. That's everything a good opening should do.

Number 8

This is one of those ones that you just have to have on the list. I suspect I put it a bit lower than a lot of people would, but frankly, while a very, very good opening, it's not the best ever. It's not even the best opening of 1995-6; that first aired a month after Neon Genesis Evangelion ended (we'll get to it).

But it is still a very good opening. The song is iconic, and another one I can listen to outside of watching the show. Listening to the music and looking at the lyrics, it's an upbeat song exhorting a young man to come of age and ascend to heroism in a classic Campbell-style hero's journey, which goes well with the Qabbalistic imagery early in the opening, particularly the Tree of Life. As the song goes on, however, we see a lot of quick cuts between images of bloody violence, the three main women being sad when they're not reduced to sexualized one-dimensional monochrome sillhouettes, and a whole lot of contextless information flung at the viewer very fast.

In other words, the song is ironic and this opening is a deconstruction of the super robot genre as much as the show is. That's actually a pretty neat trick, to deconstruct an entire genre in what amounts to a ninety-second music video. Also, you might notice as we run down this list that I'm a sucker for shows that hide subtle spoilers in the opening credits, where they're invisible until you've watched the events spoiled. So, of course, I love the sly placement of a countdown timer starting just past the halfway point of the opening. Evangelion was thus always going to end apocalyptically; that was inevitable from the opening credits of the first episode.

Number 7

(Note: This video defaults to 480p even though it's available in 720p. I highly recommend you fullscreen the video or click the link to open it in YouTube so that you can watch it in the higher resolution, it makes a big difference.)

Another of my all-time favorite anime, Revolutionary Girl Utena is quite possibly the most symbolically dense, richly packed idea-feast in all of anime. (Yes, more than Evangelion. Much, much more than Evangelion.)

The opening is no different, bursting with yonic and phallic imagery, suggestive poses for Utena and Anthy interspersed with swordfights, showing them as dress-clad maidens (well, Anthy anyway) and knights on horseback. It's all about colliding gender roles, a sleeping prince who needs to be woken, the essentially wrong fairy tale fantasy (its wrongness is why the castle's upside-down) crumbling as Utena and Anthy rise... and yet at the end of it Utena is alone and asleep and Anthy has been replaced by a hollow space.

It's another of those openings that is absolutely chock-full of spoilers if you know how to read it right, but the only way to know how to read it is to watch the entire show. And it's one of those openings where I can and do listen to the song on its own; seeing Masami Okui perform it live was one of the surprise highlights of my 2012. And it's an opening where the visuals match up perfectly with the lyrics of the song, about pride and love and loss.

The only flaw in this otherwise brilliant opening isn't really a flaw in the opening itself, so much as a flaw in the show: the horses. The horseback-riding scene in the opening is awesome, and it's tragic that we get no such scene in the show. We get an equivalent with the whole "car" arc, but horses are always cooler than cars.

Still, a great opening to a great show, and we're only at number 7. Life is good.

Number 6

The only ending on the list, and the reason I included endings at all. I couldn't not put this in; the ending sequence of Puella Magi Madoka Magica is one of the great credit sequences of all time, anime or otherwise. There's a reason this is the film clip I use in my Analyzing Anime 101 panel.

Like many of my favorite openings, it's a subtle retelling of the story of one of my favorite anime. There's a code to all of it--the different positions of the figures around Madoka in the first part correspond to their roles in the story, as does the fact that only one of them moves. The brief transition from cold to hot colors just as Madoka starts running, the way the light fades and she becomes more and more isolated as she progresses... it all tracks brilliantly to the show, as does her fetal position in the eye of the mask at the end--a mask worn by the actor playing Mephistopheles in a German stage production of Faust in the early 1940s.

If you've seen the show, that's all deeply significant, a symbolic retelling (well, except the part about it being specifically a Nazi production of Faust; I have yet to encounter anyone able to put together a convincing theory about that); if you haven't, it's meaningless, but still interesting to watch. The song works exactly the same way; it's a great song, and it's likely that you'll be near the end of the series or even on your second or third viewing before you realize that it's specifically being sung about the protagonist by the deuteragonist.

Dark, distressing, and strangely energizing, this ending is the condensed essence of Madoka Magica, and that's a pretty awesome thing to be.

Number 5

Prepare for extensive mood whiplash in the next couple of videos, we're going to be all over the emotional map.

This is Phoenix, the magnum opus of Osamu Tezuka, the God of Manga, the primary creative influence through whom all modern Japanese comics and animation descend, and my fellow Carl Barks fanboy. (No, seriously. Look at the Good Duck Artist's work, and then look at Tezuka's. Heck, read some of the things Tezuka had to say about Disney and Barks. All manga is descended from Scrooge McDuck.)

While there are other anime openings I like better (four, to be precise), this is by far the most beautiful on this list. It's the only word to describe it. That orchestral score (courtesy of the Czech Symphony Orchestra) that blends Western and Eastern sounds is heartbreaking on its own, but combined with those visuals... the only word for it is "wow."

Just in the first thirty seconds we have something that is simultaneously an annular eclipse (that ancient symbol of celestial perfection, the sun-moon, the union of yin and yang), an egg, and an eye, before we realize it is the Cosmic Egg of myth, from which the stars erupt, until out of the chaotic fires of creation emerges the elegant figure of the Phoenix, and all of this then becomes the wheel of dharma--fate--shining down upon a statue of the Buddha.

In the rest of the opening, the Phoenix then flies through Buddha's eye into an ultramodern, borderline futuristic cityscape that gives way to an army of robots that become the dream of an ancient Japanese haniwa statuette (a symbol of death, and an implication that the proto-Shinto grave marker and the Buddhist idol are in some sense one and the same); soon after we are treated to the Pioneer plaque or something similar and young flowers growing, blooming, dying. An endless stream of animals march in the circle of life, and once again we return to the eclipse.

A perfect eternal circle that embraces past, present, and future; a song of life and death and rebirth; a unification of all cultures and ultimately all life; Phoenix.

Also, it's not a j-pop song and it doesn't show any of the characters (unless you count the Phoenix itself; I see it as closer to a plot device, personally). That's major originality points.

Number 4

I did warn you about the whiplash.

Why is this here? The song, mostly. Admit it: If you are less than 30 years old, and possibly even if you are older, the instant you heard the song you wanted to sing along. It's a damn catchy song, and in a fun, rather than ear-wormy, way.

Also, the first season of Pokemon is, unquestionably, the single most-improved English dub over the Japanese original of any anime, and the song is a huge part of that. (Most of the rest is Team Rocket.)

The other thing I like about this opening is that, while the human characters (especially Ash) do appear in it, the focus is undeniably on the Pokemon, many of which appear to have been selected at random rather than chosen for significance to the show. I mean, Dratini? Sandshrew? Not exactly big-name mons. The reason they're here is because this opening is all about celebrating the variety of Pokemon, the breadth of this world rather than its depth (which is good, because it has no depth to speak of). That's the essence of "Gotta catch 'em all"; Ash cannot and will not ever come anywhere close to catching 'em all--if I recall correctly, he peaks at less than twenty percent, and falls further behind with each new generation--but that's not what's important. What's important is seeing 'em all, and acknowledging that they exist.

But mostly I just like singing along. There's not many openings that can get me to do that.

Number 3

(Note: The small size messes up the annotations the person who made this video used to transcribe and translate the lyrics. Open in YouTube or fullscreen it if you want to read the lyrics.)

Like a lot of my favorites, this is another opening that serves as an encapsulation of its series, but it is more like Phoenix or Utena than the Madoka Magica example; it does not state the plot (even in a coded way) but presents the themes and characters of the show. In this case, we see people of all ages and all different walks of life happily laughing, apparently blissfully unaware of the doom that surrounds them or the way the world is racing toward destruction. That's... pretty much Paranoia Agent in a nutshell. The only other thing that would make it perfect is some clear indicator that this is a criticism of the viewer as much as the characters--and then it ends with Shonen Bat smacking the viewer over the head, so that's taken care of.

This is a brilliant song, too. Deeply weird and unsettling, but fun and energetic, rather than creepy. It's a wrong sort of fun, a fun that isn't quite going how its supposed to go, and thus fits well with the maniacally laughing characters and apocalyptic imagery.

The lyrics are great, too--utter nonsense about birds and sunlight and happiness. There's a mushroom cloud on the horizon, by the way, but the important thing is to be happy and enjoy life.

This opening is a work of genius, and Paranoia Agent is an even greater work of genius, arguably the greatest work of the sadly late Satoshi Kon, snatched from us at the peak of his skills and career by a blend of cancer, alternative medicine, and painful irony--if he'd only sought treatment that stood a chance of working instead of treatment that did nothing but felt good, he might have lived. Probably not, though; it was a nasty cancer.

Regardless, this is a brilliant opening. It's not at number one for a single reason: Irony. Specifically, the fact that it (like the rest of Paranoia Agent) is bitterly sarcastic, a hateful jibe at a society depicted as unsalvageable and not worth salvaging. It's not 1990 anymore; it's time to get over the fact that we were supposed to have a nuclear apocalypse by now, quit whining about how terrible everything is, roll up our sleeves and embrace and expand the good. I'm sick of irony; give me some sincerity.

Number 2

Surprise! No, it's not surprising that this is on the list. It's on everybody's list. Odds are pretty high that if you are the appropriate age and physical location to have watched late-night American television within a two-year radius of 2000, this is your favorite anime opening ever. I most definitely was, so it's actually pretty odd that this is "only" at second place on my list.

It's a great opening. The visuals--lots of sillhouetes, strong contrasts, people smoking, typing, firing guns--combine with the jazzy music to powerfully evoke the film noir aesthetic and era, but with spaceships. At first the visuals are straightforward, static geometric elements overlapping with moving images of characters and ships. However, as the song picks up, the images jazz it up with slow glides to one side of the screen (usually the right or bottom), and then the frame/figure binary erodes with a ship exhaust that becomes the frame of the next shot. (According to the series' creator quoted in the art book, this is a world where ships travel faster than light by moving between loops of film on the reel, instead of being forced to move frame-to-frame along the film. The opening is hardly the only place this binary is played with, is what I'm saying.)

Most of all, despite seeing them throughout the opening, its rigid, geometric framing prevents us from getting any sense of the context of the characters' movements, and thus the opening gives us basically no idea of who they are. It's almost like they are enigmas, constrained by their world to act in ways that do not reflect their inner natures--a major, albeit frequently subtle, theme of the show.

Number 1

So... I've done Cowboy Bebop. I've done Evangelion, Pokemon... what could possibly be left for first place? What opening claims my heart and owns my eternal allegiance as the greatest anime opening of all time?

I've already given you a clue, way back in Number 8: April 1996. Specifically, Friday, April 5, 1996, the first broadcast of this:

Yep. Slayers Next, the second season of the animated adaptation of Hajime Kanzaka's cute, fun, funny, but ultimately frothy light fantasy novels. And, as far as I'm concerned, it has the best opening of any anime ever.


First of all, the song. It's Megumi Hayashibara's best song, which is the rough j-pop equivalent of being the most athletic Olympian: it's not automatically equivalent to being the best in history, but it is automatically in the running. It's fun, energetic, adventurous, everything a good shonen theme should be, and it's pretty obviously being sung by Lina herself, given that Hayashibara voiced the character and how well the lyrics describe her motivations, which of course are also the motivations of every shonen main character ever: to grow, to unleash the power inside them, and to find their purpose.

That's what makes this the best anime opening ever, above far more original and, for lack of a better term, artistic openings like Phoenix, Paranoia Agent, or Cowboy Bebop. This is in many ways an ISO 9000 standard anime opening. Where other shows seek to redefine what an anime opening can be, and by so doing become less like an anime opening and more like some other, unnamed-yet-awesome thing, the Slayers Next opening hits all the standard notes of an anime opening and does them perfectly.

J-pop song sung by the female lead, who has a dual voice acting/singing career? Slayers Next has the best song by the best dual voice actress/j-pop idol.

Quick vignettes of the characters wandering the world or facing off with their enemies? Done, with some jokes worked in, like Lina pulling out some weird kabob-thing instead of a spell, Xellos doing his signature "That... is a secret" gesture just as the song mentions seeking for "the answer.

In-jokes for the fans and hidden spoilers? Luna, the best character never to appear outside of credit sequences. Also, the main villain shows up in the intro, but until episode 22 or so you won't notice him, and possibly not even after. We also get to see Lina casting Ragna Blade and the Sword of Light disappearing into darkness, both of which look like they're just symbolic until they happen in the show.

Evangelion-style mystical diagrams? A quick flash of a diagram from the Ars Goetia, which actually means something within the context of the show! Although you'd have to be a seriously hard-core fan to know that, even if you recognized the diagram.

Basically, this opening is a solid j-pop song with appealing images of the characters posing in a way that suggests their personalities and roles and hints at what the show is about. It's a bog-standard opening, but a bog-standard opening that no other bog-standard opening has ever surpassed. It is to anime openings what Chronotrigger is to JRPGs, and that 's a darn good place to stand.

Also, Lina has a realistic figure for someone in her late teens with a very active lifestyle. Let me reiterate: A female anime character has a realistic figure in a show intended for male viewers. And she's the main character, to boot! Okay, that's praise for the show, but it carries over into the opening, and it's rare enough to be awesome.

So that's my top picks. What are yours? Strenuously disagree with my opinions or justifications? Leave a comment, let me know, we'll have a conversation!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Disney Buys LucasArts

So the big news of the moment is that Disney has bought LucasArts, makers of classic games like Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion/Day of the Tentacle, and Full Throttle.

I've seen some people express concerns about this purchase, though they seem to be mostly focused on some other property Disney picked up in the deal. Apparently there's a movie studio attached to LucasArts? I dunno, it doesn't appear to have been involved with much of anything interesting.

Anyway, back to the important part of the story, there's a lot of potential here that I don't think people are seeing. Here's a short list of awesome things Disney could do with these properties:

  • Sell Monkey Island back to Ron Gilbert. He's already asked for it on Twitter, and a few people are kicking around the idea of a Kickstarter to buy the IP and fund a new game.
  • Give Monkey Island to the Epic Mickey team. I don't know whether the results would be good, mind you, but they would definitely be interesting.
  • Green and Purple Tentacle as recurring guest stars on Phineas and Ferb. I would never stop watching that.
  • A new Full Throttle cartoon from the makers of Gravity Falls.
  • A Maniac Mansion 3D CGI movie. Preferably Tim Burton directing, but there are other possibilities too.

Seriously, the ideas write themselves! There is no end to the awesome things that Disney could do with this IP they just picked up.

Or hey, I bet you could make a good movie set in the world of TIE Fighter! Just as long as they don't muck it up and add a bunch of Disney-fied crap like space wizards or heroic teddy bears or something.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Guest Post: Convention Bestiary: “That Guy- Actually Guy”

This post was written and sent to me by Charles Dunbar of Study of Anime, who is awesome. I, being significantly less awesome, then proceeded to sit on it for several months. Sorry!

That Guy isn’t a single entity or person, but rather an entire genus of congoer that is seemingly everywhere, and nowhere, at the same time. Owing to a very powerful camouflage that shields them most of the time, it isn’t until That Guy is upon you that you actually see/experience their attack. But fret not- most of These Guys can be easily dealt with.

 Today’s “That Guy” is kith and kin to Conversation Guy, but his method is a tad different. 

Identifying Features: None, which is how this one gets the drop on you. While there have been attempts to single out this particular type of congoer, most of them are either Conversation Guys or socially awkward Basement Dwellers. Actually Guy can mirror the above congoers, but likely will be unidentifiable until he springs into motion.

Habitat: Like Conversation Guy, Actually Guy makes his home in panel rooms, but will not hesitate to insert himself into random conversations in hallways or the Dealer’s Room, or anywhere really, that congoers congregate. 

Notable Behaviours: Again, like Conversation Guy, he will attempt to speak with you during panels. But that is where the resemblance ends. Actually Guy will often attempt to display his “superior” knowledge of the topic at hand by talking over the panelist, interrupting everything they say with an “actually...” followed by his own explanation of the topic at hand. Attempts to shut him down are either met with awkward silences, or with him repeating his “information” and occasionally expressing his disappointment that “he knows more about the topic than the panelist,” but never actually attempting to either host his own panel or contribute to constructive dialogue. Post-panel, they are often overheard to repeat their dissatisfaction loudly to anyone in the room or outside it before vanishing into the crowd without providing tips or helpful pointers. Many a novice panelist has decided to quit paneling because of Actually Guy, at which point he will move on to a different panel and repeat his tactics. 

Effective Countertactics: Few that actually work. Most of the time Actually Guy is also a Troll, and will relish any attempt to shut him down. Unless the complete room rises up against him (at which point he will often make snide remarks about the “ignorance” of the audience) or a staff member intercedes (again, making snide remarks about said staffer) there is no effective way to shut him down.

That said, any panelist well versed in debate will have a solid chance to strike back. It should also be noted that Actually Guy also possesses strong arrogance and a powerful ego, which fuels his motivations (which often lie in the realms of self-gratification through trolling inexperienced panelists and attendees). This will also cause him to make mistakes during the course of dialogue, which any skilled panelist can take advantage of. Puncturing holes in his arguments, or disproving them outright, can potentially turn off all future “contributions” to the panel.

Cautions: There are Actually Guys who actually DO mean well. These will often be less abrasive, and genuinely willing to assist the panelist after the panel with plugging up holes in the material. Normally they can be identified by responding to polite requests to save comments for the end, or even through observing methods of polite interjection (like raising a hand and waiting to be called on), followed closely by comments phrased as questions. These types of Actually Guys should be treated respectfully, because they might actually know more about the topic at hand, and are in the panel for perspective’s sake. 

It should also be noted that some Actually Guys have the potential to either turn hostile or become Panel Jackers. These must be dealt with swiftly, or the repercussions will be dire for all those involved. This subtype of Actually Guy is also far more likely to engage in conversation crashing than other types.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Brave Princesses, Avatars in Refrigerators, and the Trouble with Tomboys

So, I watched Brave last night, and the season finale of The Legend of Korra this morning. Both were pretty good (Korra was better), but both made me a little uncomfortable when I thought about them from a feminist perspective.

Here's the problem. The kyriarchy tells us that there are two gendered sets of virtues, and that masculine virtues are better than feminine virtues. For example:
  • Masculine: Strength, Courage, Honor, Determination, Combat Skills
  • Feminine: Compassion, Prudence, Negotiation, Calm, Emotional Intelligence, Domestic Skills
The kyriarchy wants us to believe that men are more inclined to have the masculine virtues, and that the more masculine virtue you have, the better a man you are, while women are more inclined to have the feminine virtues, and the more feminine virtue you have, the better a woman you are. This is a lie; virtue is virtue, variation within a gender is greater than the differences between genders, and there aren't two and only two genders, anyway.

The plot of Brave is, in large part, about exposing and rejecting this lie (within a nice safe distant-past-foreign-country-fantasy-world, so that we can pretend it's not a lie our culture tells, too). Merida has the "masculine" virtues in great measure--she's pretty much your classic generic-issue Spunky Tomboy Princess Cliche--while her mother Elinor is a font of "feminine" virtues. Of course Elinor is trying to stamp out Merida's tomboyishness and teach her feminine virtues, and Merida rebels, and so she runs to the Sea Bear Witch and makes an ill-advised bargain and yeah we've seen this movie before. But it's pretty!

And yeah, okay, kudos for exposing that half of the lie, but... ultimately, Merida very slightly for one moment adopts a couple of "feminine" virtues to resolve the main subplot, but the climax of the movie entails Elinor needing to take on and learn to appreciate "masculine" virtues in herself and her daughter, and the ending shows Elinor embracing and joining in Merida's wilderness romps. Which is fine and all, but it's still saying that the "masculine" virtues are better than the feminine virtues. It's not saying "Be yourself," it's saying "Be yourself as long as you display traditionally masculine virtues; if you have traditionally feminine virtues, change."

But the movie has a much bigger example of genderfail: Every single male character, without exception, is a violent, idiotic slob, and it is always up to women to reign them in. It's Sitcom Sexism, right down to the fat unkempt slob of a husband with the slim, perfectly groomed, conventionally beautiful wife. By Sitcom Sexism, I mean misogyny disguised as misandry--look at pretty much anything by Stephen Moffat or Seth MacFarlane for some great examples. Men are depicted as buffoons with no control over their lives and no capacity for self-consideration, either barbarians or henpecked wimps, while women are depicted as controlled and controlling, civilizing influences that bring order to masculine chaos through their negotiation skills, emotional intelligence, and outright manipulation. On the surface it seems to depict women as superior to men, but note what it adds up to: Men can do whatever they want, without consequences, because no one expects anything better of them, while women do all the work of maintaining relationships, homes, and in this case kingdoms, and get nothing for it, because they're expected to do it.


And then there's Korra. Korra has not lived up to the depth of characterization of its predecessor, because it has a lot less room to do so--twelve episodes to tell a complete story with a large cast, instead of the 60-plus of Avatar the Last Airbender. Korra herself is the only character who's had any real development, and she's... well, she's strong, courageous, moderately honorable, and an incredible fighter, and admittedly fairly compassionate toward allies and bystanders (but most definitely not enemies), but she clearly doesn't possess much in the way of "feminine" virtues. Her lack of emotional intelligence is even a major element in the two biggest subplots, the love triangle and her struggle to master airbending and the spiritual side of being the Avatar.

But there's two major differences from Brave in Korra's tomboyishness: First, no one ever presents her with a gendered notion of virtue. No one ever says, as they do to Merida, "Your behavior is acceptable for a boy, but you're a girl." Some people are trying to teach her the "feminine" virtues, but not because she's a girl; they are depicted as things everyone needs to learn. The second is that, because "masculine" and "feminine" virtues are not presented as opposites (because they're not--you can be both courageous and prudent, determined and capable of negotiation, and so on), she does not have to choose one set over the other and one set is not depicted as superior to the other. Instead, there aren't two sets--just a bunch of different virtues she needs to acquire.

The bigger problem in Korra is the Women in Refrigerators issue. For those unfamiliar, Women in Refrigerators is a term coined by comic-book writer Gail Simone to refer to the frequency with which female characters in superhero books are killed, maimed, or depowered. Among other things, Avatar and Korra are superhero stories; Korra is a legacy character, the Silver Age Flash to his Golden Age Flash (or perhaps more appropriately, the Renee Montoya to his Charlie Sage).

And what happens when we switch from a male hero to a female hero? The old villain's goal was world domination through genocide; the new villain's goal is stripping everyone of their superpowers.  And surprise surprise, Korra gets depowered. And then a man saves her. And then another man kills him. And then a third man gives her her powers back.



I'm inclined to be charitable to Korra. Yeah, the depowering thing is pretty fail-y, especially given that the skill used to depower her is also a specialty of the woman who fails to heal her, but because she didn't yet have one of her powers he wasn't able to take it. Reaching rock bottom enables her to tap her spiritual side and airbend, and then later it enables her to summon Aang to restore her bending.

More to the point, these are people who gave us Toph. And Katara, and even Azula in her own way. They've earned it.

Brave, on the other hand? It would take a lot of charity to get the taste of Sitcom Sexism out of my mouth, and frankly, Pixar hasn't earned it. Try again, guys.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Katsucon 2012: Analyzing Anime 101

I think I still owe some AUSA panels, and I will try to get to those soon. In the meantime, here is one from earlier this month at Katsucon 2012 in National Harbor, MD.

This was an experiment, blending panel and workshop elements. I think it was pretty successful, but needs more audience action at the beginning. Below is the first part; click to go to Youtube and you should get a playlist with all four parts.