Attack on Titan (Season 1)

Posted in Watchings on April 15, 2014 by Z. M. Wilmot

I broke my cardinal rule of anime-watching to watch this show, as it came so highly-recommended. I normally refuse to watch subtitled shows, which many “real” fans of anime and manga will scoff at. Why do I refuse to watch subs? Because reading the subtitles focus my attention away from the visuals on the screen and because I don’t understand Japanese vocal tones and so the vocals add nothing for me. Both subs and dubs depend on the translation, and assuming the translations are equivalent, I will understand more and get more out of a dubbed show.

However, I was so interested in the premise of Attack on Titan that I lost patience in waiting for the dub and watched the entire show. Initially, I decided I didn’t like the show, as it focused on tactics rather than strategy and because the pacing of what I found interesting – the exploration of what titans are, what the walls are, and what the hell happened to the world – was excruciatingly slow compared to the time given to the characters and the action sequences. However, after mulling things over and playing Feng Lee’s Attack on Titan tribute game (which is amazing and free), I decided it was actually a really good anime, and even would include it in my top ten. I was just focusing on the wrong aspects of it, and I suspect that what I am really interested in will begin to be revealed soon, though at a slower pace than I might want.

What makes Attack on Titan a good show? Well, firstly, it has my two favorite openings of all time. Secondly, it has a fascinating premise that it actually explores: one day, around the year 700ish (I think), mysterious gigantic, sexless, deformed humanoids appeared and, out of not hunger but apparently bloodlust, began eating humans until they were almost wiped out. The survivors now hide behind three enormous walls, hemmed in by the titans outside. The show begins when the outer wall is breached by a sixty-meter high titan, which draws you in and gets your attention really quickly.

I don’t like all of the directions the show has taken the premise in (particularly the Titan Shifters; I dislike them as it makes the Titans less uncanny and frightening), but overall it’s been solid. The world creation is not incredibly detailed, but passable; I am not convinced that the economosociopolitical would work, but there’s a conspiracy hinted at here that might make it better. Still, I am drawn into the world of Attack on Titan, which is what really matters.

The characters are also all right. The main three – Eren, Mikasa, and Armin – are all lackluster cutouts, however. Eren is your standard young protagonist whose main talent is sheer willpower and charisma (in the vein of One Piece‘s Luffy and Fairy Tail‘s Natsu), who I don’t like and doesn’t develop. Armin is your standard weak, smart boy who undervalues himself and comes to realize his worth later (however, like Eren, in season 1 he didn’t develop much). Mikasa is your standard badass woman who is absolutely perfect and good at everything and fanatically devoted to Eren. She also hardly develops, save in her backstory a bit.

The secondary characters are where Attack on Titan really shines. Jean is the best-fleshed out character by far, but you see much more convincing characters in Petra and her companions, Mike Zacharius, Levi, Erwin, Hange Zoe, Dot Pixis, Keith Shadis, the Military Police chief (whose name eludes me), Sasha, and Connie. They were all much more believable and they developed a lot more than the main three. Of course, these secondary characters are only developed so that they can later die horrible deaths. More than anything else, this show really hits home emotionally; you grow to care about the characters, and then when they are taken away, you feel it. This show is an action anime at its heart, but it shows you the casualties of war and conflict. The deaths are not nameless faces or numbers; they are real people who suffer and then die.

The themes of loss and the horrors of war are the central themes of the show, I think, and they are very well done. That being said, the mystery reveals are slow-paced, and the focus is on the micro aspects of war and loss (tactics), rather than on the big picture (strategy), which I personally don’t find as compelling as others. I do think the show is overrated, but by by no means is it bad; it is really good. I will probably rewatch this when the dub comes out (and I will certainly watch Season 2), and when that happens, I strongly encourage everyone to watch this show!

Rapid Review: Elfen Lied, Deadman Wonderland, and Fullmetal Alchemist

Posted in Watchings on April 14, 2014 by Z. M. Wilmot

And I’m back again, with more reviews to catch up on! This time I am going to discuss three animes (I’ve been watching a lot of them as I do work) I’ve watched since my last post in early January on Code Geass: Elfen Lied, Deadman Wonderland, and Fullmetal Alchemist (not Brotherhood). I have grouped all of these together because I didn’t think they were particularly good or worth spending time on, and because the first two of these were very short (and FMA I had already seen part of and I’ve seen the 2009 remake, FMA: Brotherhood). So, here are my disorganized thoughts on the three:

Elfen Lied. This anime had been hyped to me a lot via the Internet and an anime-loving brother, and so I decided to give it a shot. The opening song, “Lilium,” is absolutely beautiful, and the imagery and symbolism in the accompanying visuals was very powerful. Other than the opening, however, I found nothing else that I liked, and nothing I found objectively good, either, though I’m sure people will disagree. I found it severely lacking in almost all areas, except animation and art; the background art was fantastic and the animation better than normal. The characters were all one-dimensional and really annoying; this is partly the fault of the short length of the show, but Baccano! had better character development for more than twice the cast of main characters and (before the three wrap-up episodes were released) the same amount of episodes. The audience pull/stock young male protagonist was really annoying and does nothing, and over the course of the show gathers a harem of women in the house he lives in, including the interesting character of Lucy. Lucy is a diclonius/superhuman with two personalities: a timid and naive young girl who can’t even speak Japanese, and a murderous escaped experiment who slaughters people with invisible arms called “vectors.” While she is interesting and her past explored, I did not find her compelling or convincing. The focus of the show is clearly on Lucy, and yet because they want to show her to develop empathy  in her relationship to the stock young male protagonist they don’t spend enough time actually exploring her. It was also clear that we were supposed to feel bad for Lucy’s terrible past, but other than the puppy scene, I felt nothing. I couldn’t connect to her at all, and none of the other characters were better.

The plot was also a mess, and made little to no sense. The background and exploration of the origins of the diclonii  was really interesting, but the exploration was so limited that it raised more questions than were answered. Again, I blame the show’s focus on characters, which it did a poor job of developing anyway. It took away from exploring more interesting plot points. All in all, the show felt extremely unfocused and half-thought out (and I’ve heard the manga is only a little better), and tried in vain to appeal to emotions. I didn’t take any lessons about discrimination, bullying, or morality from it. All that I remember was a mess of a show that made no sense with really weak characters. It tried to do too much in too few episodes, and so failed to do anything well. Except that opening.

Deadman Wonderland. I enjoyed this one a lot more than Elfen Lied, despite having even larger plotholes than the previous. The major difference was that, despite having only the same amount of episodes, I actually cared about most of the characters and they had much better backstories and more development. The one exception, though, was the main character Ganta, who was Shinji from Evangelion voiced by someone mimicking Jacuzzi Splot from Baccano! He was really annoying, but I could feel for him; after all, he was (rather absurdly) given a death sentence for single-handedly massacring all of his middle school classmates. Of course, he wasn’t just executed; no, he was sent to Deadman Wonderland, a prison where the death row inmates participate in games for a watching public in order to earn “candies” that act as an antidote for the poison constantly pumped into their blood.

Despite the problems with his accusation and sentencing, this was actually a really interesting premise with a lot of potential. There could have been a great deal of the exploration of public spectacle, the criminal justice system, privatization, and morality. Was there any of that? Sure, a little. But then the show moved on to the “real” purpose of the prison: supernatural bloodbenders (“deadmen,” hence the title) who fight each other for the amusement of secret rich donors, using their blood as weapons. But wait, there’s more! Behind this, the prison’s director is secretly using these deadmen, who are infected with a parasitic worm that lets them control their own blood, to create some sort of powerful thing and understand the “Wretched Egg.” But wait! All of this is also somehow related to a huge earthquake that destroyed Tokyo. What does this all mean? I don’t know! The show never explains it (the manga does, apparently).

Like Elfen Lied, then, Deadman Wonderland tries to do too much in only 12.5 (the half being an almost unrelated OVA) episodes. It opens up a lot of potential plot paths, and then fails to conclude them. The show doesn’t even have an ending (likely because a second season was intended). I think it would have been much better if it had stopped with the supernatural bit, and just left it as a screwed up prison and explored the themes around the privatization of justice. It had so much potential, but then lost it, I think (oh, and it had a really good opening too!).

Fullmetal Alchemist. I love Brotherhood, the 2009 remake that more closely followed the manga. It is one of my favorite animes of all time (I place it at about my sixth favorite overall). I actually became interested in Brotherhood by watching my brother watch some episodes from the middle of the original Fullmetal Alchemist, becoming intrigued, watching the first 10 episodes on my own, reading that Brotherhood was better, and then switching shows. I read about the ending to the original on the FMA wiki, and was reluctant to go back to it as I didn’t think it held a candle to Brotherhood‘s ending. And, surprisingly, I was right.

I went back to rewatch this because I felt guilty about having not finished the original, and initially I greatly enjoyed it. The original did a few things better than Brotherhood, namely in terms of the emotional impact of Hughes’ death, the atrocities of Shou Tucker, and the pacing of the first episodes (Brotherhood‘s first several episodes pretty much assume you’ve seen the original FMA). The actual writing was also very good, though not quite up to Brotherhood‘s level, and I enjoyed watching FMA up until the last few episodes. It was still a good anime, but not great. Why, you ask? Partly because I compare it to Brotherhood, and partly because it fails to create a convincing plot. Brotherhood‘s conspiracy involves a government taken in by promises of power manipulating its people for a dark purpose, and FMA‘s involves eight individuals who somehow control the entire country with no outside supporters. It doesn’t really seem “realistic” (ignoring the existence of alchemy and the fantasy setting). Furthermore, the ending of the original is one giant plothole, with a villain who doesn’t do much or have much motivation (admittedly, though, I hate parallel universe plots). All-in-all, up until the ending, it was good, but not great, and then the ending brought it down from good to alright.

Coming up soon are three more anime reviews: Steins;Gate, Cowboy Bebop, and Attack on Titan!

Stranger in a Strange Land

Posted in Readings on April 12, 2014 by Z. M. Wilmot

Hello, Internet! It’s been a while It turns out doctoral programs are a lot of work and a lot of stress. So, I’ve been neglecting my creative side a bit and my blog side a lot over the past… well, year. I’m going to start remedying that, however. I have a backlog of reviews to do, and then some new updates on WIP’s! No new WIP’s this time; I have vowed to finish everything I have started before I go onto anything new, and keep those plot bunnies in check! But for today, I want to turn your attention onto the subject of this review: Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

This was my second Heinlein book, after his teen/young adult Tunnel in the Sky, which I loved as a kid and recently reread only to find myself cringing at the writing (though the plot was wonderful and amazingly structured and complex). Stranger in a Strange Land, though, is most definitely not a children’s book. When I started reading it my father warned me about the orgies. I didn’t believe him. I should have.

For those of you who haven’t read much Heinlein, this book is not abnormal for him. Heinlein seems to have a strange fixation on human sexual practices, and loves exploring the violation of sexual taboos. He does have a point; as one of my professors has said on many an occasion, Western society is built around sexual repression. Heinlein breaks the walls of this repression and lets his raw sexuality come out. I bet you didn’t think you’d ever read that on a science fiction site.

In all seriousness, this book is about connections. Heinlein addresses several themes in this book; what it means to be human, what it means to die, the purpose of religion, and most centrally, what it means to love another. Heinlein throws out the idea of separation between romantic and any other type of love, and I think argues that all love is the same, and can be expressed in the same way. This expression of love is not only sex (in Heinlein fashion), but through what is called in the book the “sharing of water.”

The premise of the plot is simple: mankind sends an expedition to Mars. Everyone dies except one, who is raised by the Martians, who are a fantastically alien species ruled by their dead (it makes perfect sense in the book, I promise). When another expedition to Mars pops along, they bring this human, Mike, back to Earth, where he has to learn to be a human again. This is a fascinating way to examine how silly a lot of what we humans do really is, and Heinlein does this wonderfully for the first half of the book. Mike’s curious exploration of Earth and his naive acceptance of everything, including murder and death (remember, he was raised in Martians where the dead rule the living) is really well done and very powerful. Heinlein hit the nail on the head here.

All the while, of course, Mike is having a profound influence on those around him, who see his influence and wonder at the world, and begin to grok (this is where the term comes from; I interpret it as along the lines of “to understand deeply”) him. He becomes more human, and they become more Martian. This was also a good touch, though at first I thought that Heinlein was going to push human thought as superior. Boy, was I wrong.

I found second half of the book  lacking, but others may disagree. Mike eventually comes to accept what he is and rejects both pure Martianism and pure Humanism in favor of his own combination. However, he does not stop at the halfway point of both; I would argue that he retains much more of his Martian learning, and indeed the point of the book is ultimately that he had an enormous transformative effect on Earth through the religion he found and through the real “miracles” he is able to perform. I was not a huge fan of Mike being able to actually have almost magical powers, as I felt it weakened the symbolic power Mike had, but I was willing to accept it. I was willing to accept Heinlein’s critique of religions as trying and failing to grasp at some universal truth; hell, that’s what I believe in a sense.

What made me dislike the second half of the book was Heinlein’s exploration of sexuality. This is not because I’m an enormous prude. I rather enjoyed his early explorations of sexuality and the symbolism humans attach to it in the beginning. I enjoyed his exploring it as a connection between people, and his trying to define what it means to be connected to others. However, his exploration of sexuality I found incredibly misogynistic. I don’t think it was just me, either. At one point, a woman mentions that “9 out of 10″ times, a woman wants to be raped. I did a quadruple-take at this and had to re-read it several times. Then I kept reading, and learned that women liked to be objectified as sex objects. It was how all women expressed their sexuality. And all men expressed their sexuality by objectifying women. It was, as Mike noticed, how things should be.

This was a little hard for me to swallow. If you don’t believe that this was in the book, go back and read the scenes where Mike is traveling the country, and his nurse-friend (whose name eludes me at the time of writing) is working as a showgirl. It’s all there, and all very disturbing (the same misogyny is also present in Dr. Stinky, the Muslim pilot’s, relationship with his wife, as well as in the way Jubal Harshaw relates to his secretaries). Once the blatant misogyny came out, I noticed it everywhere. It truly tainted my perception of the book and of Heinlein himself. He didn’t ever question his misogyny once; it just came out and was portrayed as natural. I ultimately read the book as celebrating the objectification of women, though I doubt Heinlein saw it that way.

Furthermore, I didn’t know what to make of the scenes Heinlein wrote about angels talking in heaven. They confused me, added nothing to the plot or themes, and I think ultimately underlined the symbolism. The idea there, I think, was to show that religion is what we make it and that all of them have part of the truth, but it wasn’t done very effectively, I don’t think.

The book wasn’t a total loss, though. I truly enjoyed most of the first part; the interaction between two utterly alien cultures (and they truly are utterly alien; Heinlein did that very well) was brilliant, and his initial explorations of sex and love as connection were beautiful. Then he ruined it with his misogynistic trumpeting and, I felt, lackluster ending.

Would I recommend this book? Yes and no. It is a classic of science fiction for a reason, and does make one think. If I was allowed, I would recommend the first half, and then tell you to stop. Because that would be bad form, though, I’ll just recommend you read it, but with a jug of salt.

 

Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion

Posted in Watchings on January 4, 2014 by Z. M. Wilmot

Well, in my spare time between writing (fiction) and writing (papers), I watched yet another anime: Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebelliob (and its second season R2). It came highly recommended by two of my three brothers, as well as practically the entire internet. The show is 50 episodes, and I watched most of them in a week, but it didn’t feel like 50 episodes. It was extremely fast-paced, and I had a lot of trouble stopping my daily dose. It was never boring, and always held my near universal attention (which is extremely rare for me, as someone who has trouble doing only one thing at once). It is definitely one of the best animes I have ever seen, and I is now one of my personal favorites.

It does not fall into the trap that some animes do – including my beloved Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood – of dragging fightscenes on endlessly. Fightscenes are usually quick – never more than an episode – and unlike animes in which the fight is focused on the martial skill of the combatants, in Code Geass the fight (more often in the show they are battles) is focused on the tactical and strategic abilities of the opposing commanders. This is not to say that martial skill is not present at all; the abilities of Suzaku Kururugi and Kallen Kozuki are emphasized frequently, and there are some elements of the anime mecha duel present in the show. However, while there are mechas in Code Geass (the “Knightmare Frames”), they are secondary to the masterful plot and colorful cast of characters the show provides. The characters are all likeable and able to draw you in, and the plot is complex and deep enough to keep you from moving while the show is on.

While Code Geass is ostensibly a mecha anime about a genius boy with a supernatural ability who leads a revolt against a tyrannical global superpower, it quickly becomes much more than that, and examines issues of racism, xenophobia, love, meaning, humanity, and sacrifice. Its most obvious theme is that of morality, as the show’s protagonist, Lelouch vi Britannia/Lamperouge, is definitely an antihero. He has many flaws and does terrible things, so that half the time you root for him happily and the other half you root for him but aren’t sure why. His imperfections make him the perfect antihero, and his opposite Suzaku Kururugi is the exact foil of Lelouch, and the two serve to point out the absurdities in each others’ views of morality, until everything comes together in what is really the perfect ending.

The one problem I had with the show was its explanation of the supernatural power of Geass , the Code, and the World of C. There was really no explanation, and that is still bothering me; the idea of the Code and Geass was expertly applied in the plot, but damn it, I want to know where it came from!

All in all, I would recommend Code Geass to anyone who wants to think about deep social and philosophical questions. The show combines mecha anime with highschool anime with fantasy anime with science fiction anime, so there is something there for everyone! Things to look out for in the show include Lelouch’s ingenious battle strategies, Lloyd (my favorite character by far) and Rakshata’s co-development of an elite Knightmare frame (Kallen’s Guren) indirectly, unwillingly, and from afar, and the fact that Lelouch does not win every contest! It was wonderful and refreshing to see a show in which the protagonist, going against incredibly odds, regularly loses! It made Lelouch a much more powerful and deep character.

Go watch it if you haven’t! Z. M. Wilmot commands you!

The Cabin in the Woods

Posted in Watchings on December 19, 2013 by Z. M. Wilmot

To celebrate my victory over my multivariate regression analysis statistics course, I allowed myself to watch a movie. Hearing that it had some Lovecraftian elements in it, I decided to take advantage of Netflix’s offering of The Cabin in the Woods. I am not yet sure if I regret watching it or not. It was certainly a very well-made movie, but I am not sure if I liked it personally. I have a very low tolerance for gore and on-screen, graphic violence – as well as too-intense suspense – and the film certainly had those things, even if a lot of the violence (especially near the end) was almost over-the-top CGI. I was busy being very squeamish during the latter half of the movie, which did not make me like it too much.

However, the film was a very well-thought out and filmed satire of classic horror/slasher films, that was itself horrific. I was expecting a lot from Joss Whedon, and he delivered. Apart from a few plot holes, the most glaring one being how the facility was created and maintained with less technology than is available now, as it presumably had to have been in the past, the movie was seamless. I found myself cheering for both sides as I watched it, due to Whedon’s ability to make you sympathize with any character he wants. He presented us with a lose-lose situation, in which you want both groups to survive, but in the end you know they can’t. As such, every time someone died, I was both saddened and happy, and it was a rather confusing emotional experience as a result (and I must say I loved Marty!).

The suspense was amazing, the monsters (the initial ones especially) terrifying, and the plot actually surprisingly complex and deep. I was on edge the entire movie, and not in vain; in true Joss Whedon style, everyone you ever cared about dies. And then some (sorry for the spoiler, but it had to be said). The ending was a little bit over the top (and who even put that cleanse button there? Who thought that was a good idea), but the mix of humor, cosmic horror (though it wasn’t nearly as Lovecraftian as I had hoped), fear, and examination of ethics made it for a very good movie, but not one I am sure I would recommend. If you can handle gore, then watch it, and if not, don’t; that’s my final piece of advice.

Ta-ta for now!

Domechild

Posted in Readings on December 16, 2013 by Z. M. Wilmot

I recently had the pleasure of reading the novel Domechild by Shiv Ramdas. A quick reading of the blurb would lead you to believe that you were going to read another dystopian science fiction novel, in which machines rule over mankind, which has become impotent and degenerate. The first pages reinforce this belief, and I had almost consigned it to that overused trope. But I read on, and then everything changed. It quickly became apparent that Domechild was not about machine-human relations in a dystopian future. The future Ramdas describes in the novel is certainly, by all definitions, dystopian, but it is fundamentally about human relations with each other.

After disabusing myself of the notion that Domechild was mostly about humans and machines (though there are certainly well-used elements of that), I began thinking of it more as social networks gone completely out of control, and Ramdas’ portrayal of life in the City neatly captured the paradox of hyper-connectivity’s close relationship with loneliness and isolation. Just when I had a fix on where I thought Ramdas was going with his book, he threw me a curveball and cast me into a whole other world, where more basic issues of what it means to be human and what it means to be decent came to the forefront. We left behind the world of the city and its titular dome and finally began to learn the truth – or at least some of it. While I could guess at a few elements of the truth through careful hints dropped by Ramdas throughout, I was still surprised and impressed by the complex plot unfolding before my eyes. Alas, this novel ends rather abruptly, and there had better be a sequel coming, because I need to find out what happens next!

Ramdas’ writing style is overall very smooth and often very witty, though I think another round or two of copy-editing would have helped some of the bumpy typos and grammar errors that disrupted the flow, more often than I would have liked. Through his excellent writing, Ramdad was able to craft not only a fascinating world, setting, and plot, but also memorable characters, each with their own unique voice, from Theo to Marcus to Colby and his squad to Father to Ollie to June and even to Vail and the Deacon. His characters are very well-developed and believable, and I was drawn in enough to care deeply about their fates.

My one complaint with Ramdas’ characterization is that of his main character and audience pull, Albert. Albert starts off questioning the system of the City, but is naturally too afraid to do anything about it, which sets the tone for the rest of the novel expertly and gets the plot moving quickly, rather than forcing the reader to wait around for him to develop. However, I am not sure Albert develops naturally either as a person or as a voice; he seems like a hollow vessel for the reader, but I am not sure it works entirely well in the novel. He seems to swing wildly from meekness to confidence, with no real way to tell which way he would go, and seems to gain everyone’s confidence awfully fast for someone they had just met. Something about him seemed off to me, and I found that he was actually the one character I was not particularly concerned for (though he was much more sympathetic at the start of the book than the end). Still, Albert’s flaws were not nearly enough to detract from the graceful prose, excellent characters, well-developed settings, and perfectly-paced plot of the rest of the novel, which I would recommend to anyone! So get out there and buy it from somewhere, like here on Amazon. Get reading!

Ta-ta for now!

Planetes

Posted in Watchings on November 25, 2013 by Z. M. Wilmot

In between working on Sundering Stars for NaNo and working on a plethora of papers for the end of my first graduate student semester, I managed to watch a short, little-known, 26-episode anime that seemed to have rave reviews. I mostly watched it while practicing my juggling, which is also coming along nicely. This anime was called Planetes, and it is the best anime I have ever seen, by far, topping even previous-favorite Baccano!

The show, whose name translates to “Wanderers,” is about space debris collectors in the near future. It is very hard science fiction – something unusual in an anime – and takes place in a very plausible future. It deals with complex philosophical and sociological themes, which is probably why I found it so compelling. It also deals with real, concrete problems of space development; namely, orbital debris and its impact on space travel. I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving anything away, but throughout its short, perfect-length 26-episode run, Planetes explores ides of existentialism, cosmic dread, political power relations, morality, terrorism, crime, oppression, monopolization, corporatism, love, friendship, science, and real space problems like radiation poisoning, space debris, lunar colonization in low gravity, being stranded alone in space, and psychological disorders. It is a wondrous work of art, and has beautiful animation as well. I strongly recommend it for anyone who loves science fiction. Watch the trailer here!

Ta-ta for now! Get watching!

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