On X-Men: Days of Future Past

My fellow comic book buddy, whom you might know as Muscle Milk, and I have differing perspectives on what makes a good movie. His focus: Did I have a good time? Did enough things explode? Was I constantly entertained? Was there a hot girl?

My focus tends to be: What did this say to me? Was it consistent? Did the characters develop through the course of the movie? Then, depending on the genre: was it funny enough? Was it dramatic enough? Did Godzilla eat enough people?

It’s the rare occasion when these two standards intersect on one movie – especially a comic book adaptation. I actually feel, though, that the latest X-Men entry didn’t fare too badly. Beware, because the following contains spoilers.

Admittedly, I am the first to say that I’m getting a little tired of all the Wolverine entries. Yes, he’s a cool tough guy and that’s always fun. But believe it or not, there are plenty of other cool butt kickers in the X-Men universe. Let’s try exploring some of them before Hugh Jackman gets too old and tired and then the whole X-Men franchise crumbles beneath his adamantium claws.

However, if we go back to the questions ahead:

Did I have a good time? Yes. The movie was pretty quick-paced and I felt it didn’t spend overly-long drawing out points that we already know and have ingrained in our collective cultural subconscious. We did not need to be re-introduced to the fact that Wolverine is a tough guy bad-ass. Just look at that haircut and facial hair! We know the Xavier-Magneto dynamic, so they didn’t re-tread that too much beyond what felt natural. And plus, Patrick Stewart is objectively wonderful. So there’s that.

Did enough things explode? Aka, was there enough action. Yes. Although, we were subjected to Wolverine bone-claws again. Ick. But I mean, watching the opening with the younger generation of X-Men, headed by Bobby, fight off the Sentinels was pretty awesome.

Was I constantly entertained? Yes. As mentioned, the movie kicks off with pretty great battles against the sentinels, demonstrating what a threat they are. We get some drama between young Charles and Eric. Mystique is actually pretty entertaining throughout – despite how I felt about her portrayal in the previous movie (they took the mystique out of her). It’s partially heist, partially action, all comic book. It’s definitely entertaining.

Did it have a hot girl? Take your pick. Jennifer Lawrence. Bingbing Fan (aka Blink aka the Asian chick with Portal powers). Even Famke Janssen made an appearance (of course).

Down to my criteria:

What did this say to me? There are a few areas to focus on. I really liked the treatment of Xavier, for example. What Prof. X said to his younger self was a thought to ponder on: young Charles wasn’t afraid of feeling other people’s emotions. He was afraid that it would make him confront his own. There’s a lot to be said of that even for we non-mutants. For example, are people with hurtful biases able to sympathize with those over whom they’re casting judgment? Or are they afraid to because once they do, it will cause them to confront themselves and their own wrong-doing? Would it cause their entire value system to collapse? How about focusing on Eric and Raven: are people born villains? Will changing events of their past keep them from pursuing a villainous future? And that ties right along with destiny, namely: will time always auto-correct its course so that no matter what “pebbles” are thrown into its stream, the current remains unchanged? (The movie says no).

“Was it consistent?” didn’t fare as well. By and large it’s pretty solid – especially for a summer blockbuster. But it’s afflicted by the same plot hole as pretty much every movie that ever uses time travel to fix a present-world problem: why, if you could transport a person back in time to any point in time, would you only give them a matter of days (or hours) to fix a huge, time-changing problem? Now, the reason from a story-telling stand-point is obvious. The movie needs tension to be exciting. But there’s not even some convenient deus ex-machina to explain why Wolverine was given so little time. They don’t really explain it at all – they comment as little as possible on it, in fact.

On to power problems, such as Blink’s. The Sentinels are shown to have adaptive power to compensate for the powers of the mutant they’re fighting, rendering them almost indestructible when fighting one mutant long enough. Blink alone seems to offer them an upper-hand: she opens portals left and right so that the Sentinels cannot anticipate who will attack them. For a brief moment of time, though, whoever is on the other side of a portal is vulnerable to attack. At one point, she’s not quick enough closing a portal and gets stabbed through the chest – the portal immediately closes and severs that portion of the Sentinel off. So… her portals can literally slice through Sentinels. While it’s awesome watching the portals being used by her teammates, wouldn’t it be more effective to open portals around the Sentinels and slice them in half?

Or Mystique’s powers. While Mystique traditionally has been an ass-kicker with the power to look like anyone, the movie implies that it’s more than just that: she adopts their traits on a biological level – it’s what gives the Sentinels their adaptive power. So wouldn’t that mean that while she looks like Wolverine, she’d heal like Wolverine? Look like Charles, become a telepath like Charles? While I’d have been satisfied if they’d explained that the Sentinel’s abilities come from scientists tweaking Mystique’s genetic code, the movie implies that it’s already inherent.

Then, of course, there’s Kitty Pryde. When, exactly, did she gain the power to send people’s minds through time to inhabit their past bodies? She’s not a telepath. She can’t do it to herself. And it’s not exactly molecular phasing.

From a story-telling perspective, they also had to retcon the past movies by making old Prof. Xavier give his spiel about how Raven was a cherished childhood friend – though if you watched the first trilogy, there’s no evidence of that. The Sentinels already had working prototypes in the 70s, but did not attack the X-Men until well over 40 years later. Magneto sends Wolverine back to help himself out – and yet young Eric has no interest in knowing how his future self would correct his… er… present past. Or the fact that a mutant killing some random scientist motivates the government to begin plans to exterminate mutants – but not a group of mutants breaking into and out of the Pentagon. Nor a mutant literally lifting a football stadium, encompassing the White House, and threatening to kill the president and his cabinet – the fact that Mystique saved him does little to fix the fact that something so tremendous happened. And Charles decides to trust Eric to go free, despite his willingness to kill friend and comrade. And somehow old Xavier is still in his own body… inexplicably. So consistency wasn’t DoFP’s strong suit – but it wasn’t so glaring that it detracted from my enjoyment.

If we move on to whether or not the characters develop, in this case I’d go back to yes – although Wolverine is still obsessed with Jean and there’s no mention of Mariko. But young Charles transforms dramatically, and Mystique is swayed by her old friend to become a hero to the president rather than villain – although her true allegiance doesn’t seem to be changed. In the end, Wolverine took up a lot of screen-time, but plot-wise, he was really a bystander (or perhaps prompter) in a story about Charles, Eric and Raven – which was welcomed.

And as for whether or not it fulfilled my expectations of the genre, it did. It had, as mentioned previously, explosions, cool fight scenes, excellent graphics, and an ounce of drama.

Overall, I’d give the movie 4/5 stars.

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Manga Review: Dawn of the Arcana (Volumes 1-12)

I used to spend every Saturday afternoon – or any evening/afternoon/day I had free, really – hanging out at Borders, sipping on some milk tea, and reading manga. It started with Sailor Moon, and other classics like Ranma 1/2, Rurouni Kenshin, Neon Genesis Evangelion, of course Dragon Ball Z, Trigun and loads of magic girl stories, like Ceres and Yu Watase’s other gem, Fushigi Yugi. It followed with the boon of manga that came later: several CLAMP works, Nana, and later, some sillier girly ones: Love Com, Monkey High, Otomen (hilarious!), and Skip Beat. But of late – and especially since Borders closed – I’ve felt like truly engaging manga were few and far between. It could be that I’m getting older. Or it could be that the American manga market is getting flooded with Twilight clones like Black Bird. Whatever the case, I turned to DC and Marvel to fill my animated reading needs though on a much sparser basis.

I picked up Toma Rei’s Dawn of the Arcana months ago – probably over a year ago – with low expectations. But I’ve just read volume twelve, and I have to say: it’s reminding me of the feelings – the anticipation and excitement – I had when I was a kid begging my parents to take my to Borders, where I was reading four-five different series at a time. Probably the last manga I felt this way about was Red River.

The Story

Centered on Princess Nakaba of Senan, she was born of an ignoble complexion for her land: red hair. True royalty in the region is viewed as having black hair. But her black-haired mother had run off with a commoner and thus she was born with a look that was not only disrespected, but relentlessly mocked and disgraced – to the point that she was hidden away from the land’s subjects for most of her life. Her only friend, Loki, is a member of another maligned group: the ajin, who are humanoids with animal traits that are enslaved and mistreated by humans.

Senan and its rival kingdom, Belquat, are nearly always in a state of war. To ease tensions, Nakaba is offered in marriage to Prince Caesar. In a classic tsundere style, Caesar initially is immature and taunts her, but the two soon fall in love. His father, the king of Belquat, though, fears the Arcana of Time – and it’s for that very reason that he wiped out her race, leaving her the lone survivor. Tension rises when he discovers her heritage.

Initially, it felt like standard fair to me. Girl marries jerk, eventually falls in love, but her best friends loves her and has always been kinder… she’s a princess… she’s super special because she’s just the most special person in the world… conflict, yadda yadda… obstacles to overcome………… you know the schtick. But Dawn of the Arcana has pushed expectations for me.

For example, Caesar and Nakaba, at this point, are only a prince and princess in Belquat – still under the rule of his antagonistic parents. Senan, on the other hand, is controlled by Nakaba’s cold and uncaring grandfather, and seems destined to be ruled by her spoiled bully of a cousin. Peace looks like a distant dream. But with each kingdom destroying villages of ajin and threatening destruction of the other, time is running short. The two become uncertain of whether they can wait for time to run its course. So they hatch a plan.

In a twist I never expected, Nakaba leaves Belquat – and by effect, Caesar – and returns home to Senan, where she remarries her cousin, the heir apparent, in a grab for power and with hopes of one day reuniting with Caesar. This was impressive to me because shojo manga so rarely has a girl that displays the strength needed to leave her love, by her own choice, indefinitely. And because of the limits of her power, she doesn’t know exactly when they will reunite. In many ways, it is Nakaba who leads Caesar along, hatching plans and somewhat dubious ones for a young girl, like a political (but of course it’s chaste) marriage, at that.

The story, to me, rates at a fair 5/5 – not in terms of this simplistic overview, but in the details Toma infuses.

The Characters

The protagonists are, of course: Nakaba, her eventual love Caesar, and her best friend/loyal protector/long-time admirer, the ajin Loki. The antagonists would be Caesar’s parents and a majority of Nakaba’s remaining family. The cast is also filled out by some fairly standard shojo characters: the willowy, princess-y girl who despite being everything Nakaba was expected to be is utterly sweet and her best friend; the jealous brother who wants to take the protagonist from her love interest due to spite more than love; the boy lolita; loyal-to-unnatural degrees servants.

What sets apart the cast, for me, are Nakaba’s true strength of mind, her willingness to step into moral grays, and her ability to deny her own wants in pursuit of her ideals. Her longing for true peace is such that she’s willing to sacrifice all else that is important to her. She’s willing to threaten lives to advance her goals. She’s willing to tread in the gray area that shoji manga all too often side-steps. And Toma really makes us see how gray her choices are, as opposed to some lesser manga who try to make minor offenses seems like major moral dilemmas.

The characters, weighed down by some pretty standard archetypes, are saved by the likability of Nakaba, and the balance made between the rest of the cast. I’ll give it a 4/5.

The Art

A bit simplistic, I do find it refreshingly nostalgic – a bit of a callback to the 90s style I grew up with. The people themselves are not superbly drawn, but Toma – or at least one of her assistants – is very good with clothing and scenery. Again, for a mainstream manga that I know probably has some serious deadlines to meet, I’ll give it a 4/5.

Overall

All in all, I’m hooked. It was slow going at first, and I mostly picked it up because the costumes were worth examining. But the story has really progressed in an engaging – even addicting arc. Overall, I’ll give it a solid 4.5/5 stars as a superb shojo manga.

Have you read this series? How do you feel?

Nerd Blasphemy: Why I Don’t Like Firefly

There are some things that nerds just enjoy. Robots, space ships, blasters that go “Pew pew!”, smart people talking over the heads of the “cool” and attractive – or better yet, being the cool and attractive – winning the girl/guy and saving the day. These are things that we just want to see in TV shows. Put all of them together and we will literally give you all of the money (but not literally because that would be just crazy). Firefly, Joss Whedon’s brain baby (yes, that Firefly, just to be sure), gives us a good portion of these. And I just. Don’t. Like it. I tried. And I can’t.

Disclaimer: I know that Firefly is over 10 years old, and the anime listed even older, so this argument has probably been dumped back and forth, but as another friend of mine just proclaimed his deep and abiding affection for this show, I want to lay out exactly why it strikes me as stale.

It’s not a terrible show, granted. The characters are good and the world is built nicely. But let’s put this all into perspective from my point of view. I’ve been watching anime since I was in… 2nd grade, when Dragon Ball Z was airing early Saturday morning. I’ve been watching giant robotic ships blast each other into oblivion near since I can remember. My 90s were filled with scenes like these:

vash spikemelfina

Now look at the scenes below. Any of them seem a little familiar?

Simon_Tam_Glasses

Notice the round, orange sunglasses.

mal-reynolds

The callback to the signature pose of our favorite anime space cowboy/ship captain/bounty hunter/does anything for a meal bad-ass with a mysterious and haunted back story.

river tam

…does this need any explaining?

So the homages to anime are obvious. What about the plot points?

-Several anime are more or less “episodic” like Firefly. Most of the series doesn’t cover a specific arc, but the arc is divided sparsely between episodes before coming to a dramatic conclusion. See: Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, Outlaw Star.

-Features anti-heroes with a history as part of some kind of organized violence; men that are soulful and damaged who don’t trust easily but wouldn’t betray a crew mate. Clever in combat and tricky in dealings, even if not part of intelligentsia. Smugglers and bounty hunters with rascally charms just trying to get by. See: Spike Spiegel, Gene Starwind, Lupin III, Vash the Stampede.

-Shepherd Book – a minister formerly of a deadly profession. See: Nicholas D. Wolfwood.

-The “special”/”gifted” girl – usually one that has undergone some kind of experimentation – and an ongoing investigation into her background, i.e. what caused her to be special and pursued by enemies. River Tam was abducted for being so fantastically special that the government just had to have her as their uber special super-soldier. Melfina from Outlaw Star, the character whose pose River Tam borrowed in the picture above, is a special biosynthetic android created by scientists to find the Galactic Leyline. Both girls are hunted by various organizations but are protected by their ragtag crew mates because, as you might’ve guessed, they’re just so damned special. (An even even features River “becoming one with the ship.” While a prank, was this a purposeful allusion to her influences?).

Obviously, it’s not a carbon copy of any particular anime. The plot specifics differ completely and the characters themselves unique. Indeed, the settings differ: where Japanese media depict crime syndicates ruling the roost and weak governments unable to protect their citizens, American media like Firefly often depict a heavy-handed, oppressive government keeping the masses suppressed while “the little guy” squeaks by on petty crime, just trying to get by. Clearly cultural viewpoints have somewhat reversed the respective roles of government/organized crime, and the series reflect that.

I’m just saying that the elements are definitely there. Firefly feels inspired by the anime/manga mediums but is unable to fully convey the essence due to the constraints of its own medium. And considering what a nerd Joss Whedon is – what, a comic book writer and all – and the fact that he makes it a point to include Asian-inspired motifs – I would not be surprised at all if he’d watched anime or read manga himself. Or at least was aware of the space cowboy subgenre at the time of creating Firefly and used that as a launch point to create something that Western audiences haven’t given much of a chance.

In fact, his later project Dollhouse shares a lot of similarity with the fantastic and iconic Ghost in the ShellBuffy The Vampire Slayer, likewise treads in the magical girl genre (and though entirely different series, there’s something to be said for the immature, boy-crazed, popularity-seeking, blond Usagi/Sailor Moon growing into a butt-kicking, sacrifice-making heroine and the basically-fits-the-same-description Buffy Summers. Oh and the appearances of Dawn/Chibiusa. And exploring alternative sexualities through secondary characters).

It’s completely possible that Joss Whedon simply had all these good ideas on his own, independent of the boom of stories that happened to manga in Japan in the 90s. In fact, from what I’ve read, he lamented that the show was viewed merely as a “live-action anime.” But then damn: why would you make it so close?

Honestly, all the shots, the angles, the costume design, set aesthetic – all of it from the pilot onward just reminded me of my well-loved anime. Except that anime is drawn, so it doesn’t need to worry about budgetary constraints or technological limitations. If you want to show a pants-crappingly scary monster, draw one. If you want to show incredible maneuvering by a space ship, animate it. If you want your hero to have super-human fighting ability, well, ok! And so all the callbacks to anime that I noticed in this otherwise original series simply reminded me of all the things it was missing: action, visible and creative enemies, cool visuals. Instead we got Reevers, which until the movie were boring, faceless crews of ships with blood spattered on them – and dry-as-can-be Alliance military (although I enjoyed the plot linking the two).

It’s not that I can’t enjoy Firefly because I think it’s bad or anything. It’s just all-too-familiar when I had a decade of watching action-packed anime before Firefly ever made it on TV. As for fans’ claims that Firefly was… like… the most creative, original sci-fi basically in the history of ever, a lot of them don’t watch anime – because if they did, the themes would be instantly recognizable and familiar. In fact, by the time I got around to watching it, everything Western audiences felt was incredibly original to me felt tired and used. I don’t think anyone born and bred on manga/anime would find Firefly particularly groundbreaking – maybe just cool because it’s live action and Whedon-esque. And to fans that did watch Cowboy Bebop and like to claim that Firefly was “done better”, well – geez: I guess it’s just like how I like Chipotle better than Moe’s and probably always will. Chipotle introduced me to this style of food and set the standard for me. Chipotle also came first. And has better-seasoned chicken. Moe’s will therefore always play second fiddle, despite their provision of wonderful sweet tea and a salsa bar. I’m sure that people who tried Moe’s first might have a similar feeling, just like people who prefer Firefly and think that Cowboy Bebop‘s plot is “simplistic” can be excused for their poor taste due to a lack of proper culturing.

What do you think? Am I being fair to Firefly? Which side of the debate do you take?

How I Settled for Your Mother (Spoilers Ahead)

Back in high school, I had an awesome best friend. A lot of my friends thought we’d end up with each other, and I’m sure thoughts like that crossed both of our minds briefly. But we had different belief systems, life goals (and on the important stuff, to boot), and a completely different life trajectory. I couldn’t and wouldn’t ever have changed said trajectory for someone else, lest we both become disillusioned with the result. So we parted ways at the end of high school, and I eventually moved across the country and found a fuller love that didn’t require that extreme level of compromise. I love Justin – and he changed the way I view love. I know that I could never go back to an old flame for that very reason.

So when, like two or three episodes of How I Met Your Mother back, Ted finally let Robin go and we saw her float away like a balloon, I was ready. “Finally!” I thought, “A show that’s going to show life how it is! No more Ross-and-Rachel tropes! No more ping-pong! No more arresting or undoing of character development! This is it!” (Spoilers ahead) I knew that the mother would probably die from all the little hints that they laid out. I did. But with Robin and Barney finally getting married, I thought that they couldn’t leave Ted hanging that badly. So I thought maybe she was in the hospital, going up against steep odds with a potentially life-threatening procedure, and it would end with the two of them reunited or something. But nope… they spent nine years purportedly telling the story of how Ted met his soul mate, probably 45 minutes total showing us what purported soul mate is really like, one whole season building up to Robin and Barney’s wedding, and then it was all over within ten minutes. I mean all over. Robin and Barney got divorced within three years, the mother died, and then her children basically are just like, “Good thing mom died so that you can get back with your true soul mate Aunt Robin!”

A lot of fans, I guess, are happy that Ted and Robin ended up with each other. A lot of fans are pissed that the mother died. But this is what bothers me: you spend three or four seasons developing, say, Barney by having him realize that maybe he really can love only one woman at a time. He does these giant, grand gestures. He passes on his Bro ways. And then within minutes, that character development is chucked out the window and he reverts to the same guy we saw in the beginning. Oh, and then has a baby, and supposedly that’s going to change him. Hmph. We’ll see. Given that if nine years and a marriage to the only woman he ever really loved couldn’t at least make a dent in his Bro ways, maybe the thrill of a baby won’t last either. After all, there are plenty of invalid dads. Another character: we see Robin’s feelings for Barney are deep if not confusing to her, and she consistently picks Barney over Ted. She fed him a speech of her own feelings toward him for him to say to Nora, just so that he could be happy. She got over her trust reservations with him. Ted and all their friends were convinced of their compatibility/”meant-for-each-other-ness.” Ted accepted that he lost and was not right for Robin. And then all of that reverts, again, to basically square one of the first episode. She suddenly can’t compromise work for him. They struggle so long just to get married, but they can’t fight to stay married – not even for three measly years after NINE.

No one really learned or grew. And maybe that’s comforting to some viewers, because they’re still pining over that girl or boy that got away, and they want to think their life will give them everything they want. Because they don’t want to think about how letting go – really letting go – can help you to grow and become even happier in life. They want to be told that they don’t need to make changes because they’re great as they are now, and the universe will cater to their current status quo of awesomeness. But we’re living organisms. And living organisms change. We don’t always get it right the first time. The first time we think we’re in love, for example. Sometimes, we don’t even know what love is like. And rarely do we ever know who we’re going to marry until we meet that person randomly, in the middle of our life, and it changes everything.

If I had to sit through and listen about how my father had really been in love with someone else for twice the span of my entire life, and his entire relationship with my mom, I’d be pissed. And I’d be annoyed that my father was such a pansy that couldn’t let anything go.

I’m all for tragic endings. Sure, kill her off. Have Ted weep as he talks about it. Have his children console him in that, heck, they were born. And then have him tell them that you never see where life goes, and you never know who you’ll end up with, and maybe you don’t know that person now. But if you’re smart, and if you let go of the distractions, you’ll recognize that person when he/she enters your life, and you shouldn’t waste a second of it – especially not pining away after someone else who just was not as compatible.

That’s how I would end that story. Because I didn’t tune in to be bored to tears re-watching an over-used TV trope (will they? won’t they? Oh! Of course they will!). I tuned in to watch a story about a beloved mother of two children and how Ted’s entire life prepared him to meet her.

A Word on Habibi

Habibi by Craig Thompson is a stunning work that exhibits his talents in much the same manner as its predecessor, Blankets. Both are long (approaching 600 pages) and dense, but he has a truly poetic style that makes even intensely awkward/uncomfortable scenes (like his um… spilt man-juice in Blankets or childbirth in Habibi) a little more bearable. Still, story-wise I felt that Habibi fell a little flat.

The premise of Habibi focuses on a girl, Dodola, sold as a child bride, then later as a slave – who at the age of nine saves a three-year-old fellow slave and their attempts to survive in the desert.

Up until that point, Thompson had me. The near-mythological narrative coupled with the fantastic aesthetic held me captive. But as one bad decision by the main characters lead to another; as they are subjected to more and more forms of brutality in a modern world; as the uncomfortable situations amplify, I was eventually turned off of my initial infatuation. While I still really enjoyed the book and would rate it at 8/10, it did not live up to the hopes I had at the outset.

Probably my biggest issue is just the relationship between Dodola and Zam. It’s very strange to me that two people who regarded themselves (and indeed brought themselves up) as siblings or even mother/child would fall in love. The decision to sexualize such a relationship is not one that feels natural or organic. On the other hand, I do try to remind myself that Zam had not met any other women from the time he was three years old, until his separation from Dodola at the age of twelve. But it seems to suggest that love can morph between familial and amorous – for whether they are related by family lines or not, they are as much family as any other – which, as a sister and daughter, I find rather inconceivable (See: Westermarck Effect)

Another aspect that brings its rating down in my eyes is the portrayal of women. Dodola is subjected to sexual abuse both as a child and as an adult. While she is the protagonist and so obviously is the intended recipient of sympathy (as well as Zam), the scenes of rape are depicted so elegantly and even erotically, that the message (if any) may be lost in translation. They must have been conceived in condemnation, but they are relished in. She is exotified and her naked image, like her body in the book, sold as a commodity. Thompson clearly loves the female body, and he draws it beautifully, but beyond a certain point, it begins to feel like mere fan service, diminishing the poetic tone of the work.

Now this is a minor point, but one that eats at me a bit: the book maintains that full-figured women are coveted in this desert culture. That is realistic, as in many societies – especially those scarce of food – this is the case. We are told this in direct contrast, though, to Dodola, who is both drawn as a Western ideal and coveted for it: slim, to the point of angular pelvic bones thrusting out from her hips with visible ribs. While told that voluptuous women are the ideal, we are shown that the waifish body types of Western super-models are irresistible. Moreover, virtually all males (including transvestite eunuchs save for one notable exception who is pointedly feminine) are robust, large men with rolls upon rolls of fat. Men are free of the same object-status; they are free to be fat or thin or dwarfish, though none are really handsome. Although Dodola’s body is shown to all, when she asks to see the scars of a eunuch, he does so in privacy from the reader, creating an arbitrary gender divide between whose body needs to be on display and whose can be kept private.

Lastly, the end was a sad read, despite containing some reality. While the story as a whole is a larger-than life near-myth, the characters are still rendered powerless. I was rooting for them to destroy the dam that led to the social divide between the world’s inhabitants. Rather, they opt to save one child (while simultaneously and rather ironically supporting the child slavery system) and flee. There is no great no revolt, no call to the simple man to fight back. Just hopeless abdication and flight.

Back to our own game, though, a question for me: if I feel so strongly about the objectification of women in this work, why is there obvious fan service (in the form of Taya, Arinnel, and the other cases of cleavage you’ll likely see in The Lotus War) present in our game? What’s the difference?

I supposed it’s partly the recognition of our respective roles: The Lotus War is a game solely for entertainment purposes. While I strive for an engaging story and an artful (if cartoony) aesthetic, we make no attempts to elevate this beyond what it so admittedly is. If there’s fan service, it’s because the game overall is a piece of fluff for fans. While it touches on themes such as war, cultural guilt and racism, it’s not intended to change anyone’s mind or make condemnations. It’s intended to engage an audience.

Habibi, on the other hand, does take itself seriously. It tackles large themes and hopes to make statements about them, but does so with half the grace of the art the book contains. And I feel that when making a statement about something as sensitive as sexual abuse – especially when enacted against a child – grace is one thing that cannot be in short supply.

The Hobbit Films – A Review (or Rant)

Typically, you may notice, we try to shape this blog into really focusing on games, gaming, game creation, and our game, of course, in particular. While I have discussed other media, it’s often with the intent of bettering our storytelling. It’s hard to keep coming up with subjects to write about, though, so today I will answer a question from the ever-cool Otaku Judge: What do I think about The Hobbit movies, as a person whose read the books? My one-word answer to him in one of the below posts? Yuck. Let me expound, though.

A quick disclaimer: I did not see the first movie. I did not see it on principle. I did not see it on principle because I do not think this book should have been three movies. I was ready to accept two movies. But three? Really? For a book that’s half the size of any of the books from the LoTR trilogy? Three? I knew that it would’ve been inundated with bland filler material, and probably non-canon plots — and I was right.

Now, I understand that many of the elements they added are canonical Tolkein devices that they pulled from other tales of Middle Earth, such as the Brown Wizard. However, do they appear in The Hobbit, the work in question? Does a cooky old guy jump on a sleigh pulled by bunnies and lead ORCS (not goblins) on a wild… er… rabbit chase? No. No, he does not.

So I did not see the first movie, though Justin and my brothers (all of whom have read the book) did. And that was enough for me. I did, however, recently see the second movie. Here are my thoughts:

1) Let’s get this out of the way: I thought it was an adventurous movie. It had a lot of battles, it was fun though long, and has some truly likable characters. I really enjoy seeing Watson/Tim Canterbury play Bilbo (okay, okay, I know his name: Martin Freeman), I do like the characterizations of Fili and Kili, and Thorin has grown on me as the embodiment of what I imagined as a child. Benedict Cumberbatch, of course, does a superb job in his voice acting role as Smaug. And Orlando Bloom’s second role as Bard is a surprisingly good human (I’m just kidding – but has anyone else caught the resemblance?) By some accounts, I would think it’s a good movie had it not been so long while accomplishing so little.

2) They’re really reaching for tie-ins. For example, they changed the goblins pursuing the group into orcs, and have used that to introduce the Uruk-hai, who in Tolkein’s writing did not appear until the attack at Gondor in The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf is depicted as having an encounter with the Eye of Mordor/Sauron – which, again, did not occur in the book. And let’s not forget the whole Legolas/Tauriel/Kili thing. More on that in a moment, though. Suffice it to say, stretching out material for one movie into three has introduced several prolonged, superfluous story lines.

3) Okay, the love-triangle. W-T-F? There is no love-triangle in my edition of the adventure-fantasy novel. Maybe I should’ve gotten a smutty daytime television version instead? I like Tauriel, and the addition of her, and I believe there was room for her given that not every elf that appears in The Hobbit is named, or gender-defined, or even really commented on. So that’s fine. Given, also, that the King is Legolas’ father, I even accept his presence. However, I would have thought that Legolas really would’ve made a mere cameo, rather than some starring role as a romantic hero/other-man. And now, spoiler: in the novel, Kili dies. With that in mind, I just cannot anticipate how they will resolve this plot in a satisfying manner without further violating the source material. I understand that that thought may very well be the creator’s intention to keep engaged audiences who would’ve otherwise thought that they knew everything (such as myself), but honestly, it’s not engaging so much as it’s frustrating. Or infuriating. Or perhaps engaging, but not in such a way that I’m particularly motivated to see the next film. It’s engaging in that it gives me something to complain about. I’d be just as happy to wait until someone posts the whole synopsis on Wikipedia. Or on an angry WordPress rant.

From what I can theorize, either both Kili and Tauriel die, which would just be awful from a story-telling perspective given that the second movie spent SO long keeping the little sucker alive, or they both survive and Tauriel and Kili run off together or rule over Durin, displacing Dain as King Under the Mountain. In either case, if Kili dies for any reason other than in the service of Thorin or likewise if he survives while Fili and Thorin die, it detracts from Tolkein’s picture of loyalty unto family, with a special connection between maternal uncles/nephews. If he does die in the same manner, but Tauriel survives, it’s just a disappointing watch for all of the build-up.

4) What’s with Legolas’ dad, anyways? He moves like Voldo from Soul Caliber. I don’t really know why they remind me of each other, but it’s the way he kind of sways around. Or maybe he’s also sporting a purple thong and orange chaps.

5) I do like Bard’s larger story, the connection between him and the “man who missed his mark” but didn’t really. That part was good. In fact, I think it was superior over what was presented in the novel. There, I said it.

Overall, those are my current impressions. What about you guys? What did you think? Am I way off here or do you agree?

Learning from 5 Centimeters Per Second

I literally just came home from the bookstore after finishing 5 Centimeters Per Second in one sitting, needing to write a blog about it. Because I had high hopes for it. I really did. The art is beautiful. The opening arc tugs at the heart-strings. It made me shed some tears, I’ll be honest.

And then I got to the end.

(This blog will include spoilers, btw)

What was disappointing about it? Why will I avoid doing in my own stories? In The Lotus War, particularly?

The most obvious would be the heartbreak of an ending. I think it was trying to tell a story of first love and moving on from that. It… it failed at that. It seemed to me it told the story of true love and lacking the courage to hold onto that. What Takaki and Akari had was something that they carried with them for literally a decade – despite romantic advances from other people, despite a lack of communication, despite any distance apart they were. I’ve had puppy love. I’ve had crushes that lasted for five years – but it was never like 5 Centimeters presented it. Nothing was like that… except for the love that led me to my marriage. So for them not to end up together? That was really depressing.

It seems to me that if you were trying to tell a realistic story of moving on, you would show the main character (Takaki) growing out of the stage, and maybe finding closure. None is really presented. He lost the courage to keep talking to this love of his life, then lost the courage to reunite… even when she was right there in front of him. Arguably, it wasn’t a lack of courage, as much as the reassurance that she’d grown past him and was a fine, stable adult. But if even for a brief good-bye, or meaningful contact beyond a chance glimpse – I feel even that would add depth to the ending.

Another argument is that she walked away from him, and he was willing to accept that because he recognized her need to do so. I know you can love one person for a while, then fall in love with someone else when circumstances change, and have both be true and real. True love isn’t necessarily once-in-a-lifetime, but the manga neither comments on that directly, nor really demonstrates that through Akari, as we are never really given insight into her new love. It’s a leap of faith, blind and optimistic, but feeling unrealistic. Again – it lacks closure. Even if they’d talked so that he could hear this himself, and this helped him move on (a la 500 Days of Summer), I would likely have been an ardent fan. But this brought it out of the realm of realism and into the feel of coming purely from the author’s imagination.

The part that really put the nail in coffin? The story ended with a whole chapter devoted to a minor character. Say what, now?

So during the second story arc, the manga kind of derails off of Takaki and Akari to tell the story of Kanae, a girl who pines after Takaki in high school. There’s not much to her. There’s not much to her love of Takaki… and yet, for some reason, she gets the entire last chapter. I tell you in all earnestness, I could not care less for Kanae. I flipped through that whole last chapter just to see if the narrative end of Takaki and Akari was really the end (it was).

Before that, I felt like it was a perfect manga. Great art. Touching story. Realistic characters. Heartrending moments. And then Takaki lets Akari walk right by him and he just smiles and they never talk (presumably) again. Ugh.

So what can I learn about this in telling my own narrative?

Well the ever-obvious: do not end your story boring audiences about a minor character whom you barely spent any time developing. That’s obvious.

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Worry not, readers and hopefully eventual players: Lotus War will not end with this guy.

Really, though, The Lotus War is not a love story, per say. And it’s not like FF8, where Squall ends up with Rinoa because they’re soulmates and that’s how the writers want it. The Lotus War, of course, presents two different romantic options. It’s up to the player to choose. But what I learned from 5 Centimeters is that no matter who the player ends up choosing, if either, the characters need to have a well-developed arc.

Of course I knew that, but I saw just how delicately that needs to be balanced.

Whether Ren ends up with Taya or Arinnel, the heartbreak verses the satisfaction of the ending needs to balance. (And that’s good, because I do have a particular heartbreak in mind).

A bigger lesson, though, lies for Arinnel’s arc in particular. Like Kanae, Arinnel will be introduced a little later in the story than Taya. That might give the impression that Arinnel is secondary to Taya or that she’s the other woman or not as major, or whatever. That’s not the case at all. To not let it appear that way, though, I definitely need to make sure that Arinnel, her introduction, and her overall arc are completely well-developed.

What about you guys? What kinds of lessons have you learned by reading/watching/playing other works?

Working With RPG Maker…

Justin here, just thought I’d take a minute to explain a few things about RPG Maker VX Ace. Many of you out there you may be familiar with this program; you may even use it yourself. Others… “What the crap is RPG Maker?”

The title says it all: it’s a program specifically designed to build classic 2-D RPGs. RPG Maker has come a long way- no, a very long way over the years and has proven itself to be an incredibly powerful yet simple-to-use game-making program.

VX Ace runs on the Ruby engine. Though it’s setup for click-drag-drop formatting to make it super easy for beginners, you can completely edit the code or add additional sub-scripts to help shape or enhance the game. This, of course, can throw a monkey wrench into the process.

I myself am a hobbyist, though when I sit down and work at something, I do it to the full. No shortcuts, no blind eye to minor bugs or whatever just because I can’t figure it out atm or don’t necessarily feel like fixing it at that time. My approach and efforts into The Lotus War are similar to my approach when I make music: I tweak, tune, and obsess until it feels just right.

That being said here are a few things to know about VX Ace…

Stand alone, the program is awesome. It comes with plenty of resources to build all kinds of varying maps and styles. Right out of the box it gives you a preset model of a typical RPG game for items, weapons, spells, animations, battle-backgrounds etc…It even comes with plenty of music, and sound effects.

But as one can imagine with such a simple program at an affordable rate… things can start to become pretty common or even bland when everyone’s project looks the same as the person’s to the left and the right of you.

As stated in some of my previous posts, we used scripts and events to enhance the game with sexier character portraits, all custom drawing. But what really makes the game sort of pop for us is the use of external resources in addition to the standard ones. A big round of applause to Celianna for providing a good portion of these custom tiles. Of course in the commercial route (which we are considering) this starts to get expensive when you add up all of the costs of these extra added resources. Thankfully for hobbyists, many in the RPG Maker community provide scripts and graphics for the amazing low price of… free. Yay!

But like I said, I work at it until I feel it’s right. If I’m having fun then I can be confident that other people who play will too.

RPG Maker VX Ace, on the surface, can allow you to slap a game together in a few hours, a few months, or a few years. It really just depends on what you put into it. There is a bonanza of extra scripts and resources out there on the internet to help shape your game the way you want but it’s up to you to make it feel like your original work.

I highly recommend it to all who haven’t tried it.