Thursday, 19 July 2012

Review: Nazo no Kanojo X

Nazo no Kanojo X

“Ten out of ten for style, but minus several million for good thinking”
--Zaphod Beeblebrox

Solid character design and a charmingly cute romance are undercut by a bizarre fixation on an obscure fetish, leaving little behind but an uncomfortable feeling and a sticky mess after it.  Final Grade: C+

Can I get these characters, but in a good show?
    Character design in anime, since the advent of The Database, has been remarkably simple.  Just grab some common stock character builds, like a tsundere, a rich girl, a clumsy girl or a genki blockhead, (each of which comes with pre-packaged tropes to follow), toss in an uncommon one, like the earnest kouhei, to differentiate yourself, spend twelve episodes doing cute things, (at least two swimsuit episodes are required these days), and volia! you just made K-On a blockbuster.  Real, honest character building, using realistic, complete characters is both difficult and rare, and sadly doesn't sell as well.  Surprisingly, Nazo no Kanojo X does just that, and while it's not the greatest character development, it is still pretty good and it is miles ahead of similar shows in its genre.  The lion's share of this development goes to Urabe, whom they take great care in crafting a mysterious aura around.  Everything about her is veiled in secrecy: her past, her family, her feelings, and her unnatural physiology.  Like an onion, each layer of her that is peeled back only reveals more layers under the surface, more mysteries left unanswered.  This doesn't make anything easier for the male lead, who has to deal with this on top of all the other issues associated with an awkward teenage romance.  All too often, a romance culminates with the hero getting the girl, but few deal with what happens next.  Nazo no Kanojo X revels in exploring, navigating, and sometimes exploding the minefields that surround adolescent love.  The male lead does have a bad case of the otaku milquetoast-ism (a truly terrifying disease), but he avoids being a complete loser, and is a good vehicle for expressing all the uncertainty generated by Urabe's actions.  And if things weren't awkward enough between the two, an interloper inserts herself into the middle of the relationship.  Oka acts as a friend/mentor to Urabe, often giving relationship advice that backfires more times than not.  She has an important role in the story, existing to humanize Urabe, breaking her stoic shell and revealing that the female lead has just as little idea on how to be in a relationship as the male does.  Watching this socially inept duo stumble their way through romance is a beautiful thing, and this would have been a great show—if that was all that was to it.

Astarotte's Law
Astarotte's Law is a concept that I developed to describe why shows like this one always fall apart at the end.  Simply put, it means that shows with a gross/offensive premise will, despite clever writing or strong characters, will regress to a godawful show by the end of the run.  Basically, this is caused by the fact the author is not trying to write a good story, but rather to showcase his fetishes, and these fetishes will always take precedence over the rest of the story.  In the eponymous case, the first five episodes describe the touching redemption of a psychologically damaged girl, and are quite good, only to finish the show off with crude and ham-fisted sexualization, a return to the crude sexualization of the premise.  Nazo no Kanojo X also falls victim to the Law: despite how well designed the characters maybe, the story only exist to fulfill the fetish of the author, and the over-emphasis on that fetish damages the rest of the story.
    I'm not judging Girlfriend X on the basis of whether its fetish is horrible or disgusting—it is—but horrible and disgusting things do not themselves make a bad show.  It is how those things are used that matter.  In this show, the spit fetish (or spitish, as I dub it) is consider to be a good thing, a normal thing, a physical manifestation of an emotional bond, but they never truly are able to justify this position or explain it to the audience.  The spitish is treated as if it were unremarkable to want to devour another's saliva, which is hard to suspend disbelieve on.  And the while it is meant to be a chaste kind of kiss, it can not overcome the fact that it looks absolutely disgusting.   Think of spit or drool.  How would you describe it?  Sticky, bubbly, perhaps, thin, long, and stringy.  Now I don't know the right way to draw drool, but I know a wrong way-the way Nazo no Kanojo X did it.  A fingerfull of it isn't covered as much as capped, as if the finger was dipped in honey or molasses, viscous enough to be basically solid.  It doesn't look normal or natural, it looks sick and inhuman, like an encasing of snot, and the yellow tint it often has doesn't help anything.  There are a number of yellowish fluids that leave the human body, and you shouldn't consume any of them, unless you're Bear Grylls or something.  Not only that, but when Urabe gets excited, she tends to start vomiting drool, spreading buckets of this mutant liquid everywhere, in a display that would put the most iron-stomached man off his lunch. 
    But horrible animation isn't the worst sin of X's spitish, as it causes horrible writing as well.  The damage is particularly strong in the second half of the show.  There are great efforts to make drool drinking seem completely normal, despite all evidence to the contrary.  Especially awkward is the scene with the hero's old flame, as she not only laughs about his creepy stalker actions, she is quite interested in sharing her saliva with the dude, instead of being totally creeped out.  I am willing to accept some coincidence in the name of expediency, but these characters are so open-minded it is unbelievable.  Not only that, but the lines are dialogue in this scene are stilled and wooden (a clumsy Crunchyroll translation doesn't help matters, but not even Shakespeare could save this crap).  The bad dialogue continues in the older sister's tale, a pathetic attempt to tie the drool theme into her life story as well.  Here, instead of letting a story to grow naturally, they started with the conclusion and hammered events into place to support it, leaving behind a very wooden and unemotional waste of time. 
    But the worst thing about the spitish is that it undercuts the romance by introducing an external bond.  The couple doesn't get together because of love, but rather because of a vampiric dependency on Urabe's spittle.  Unless the hero is continually supplied with lysine drool, he'll slip into a coma and die.  While the bond is reversed from the normal girl on boy common to seinen shows, it is not any better and reinforces the ideal that love alone can not sustain a relationship, a physical dependency is needed as well.  This idea is harmful and offensive, and it neutralizes a lot of what was good with the romance.  The bond is also generally used as an excuse to bring the characters together, but in this case, they are already an item, so it is unnecessary.  The spit fetish, and its, shall I say, sadomasochistic aura, works at counter purposes to the innocent romance that is all that is good with this show.  One or the other has to win, and Astarotte's Law holds.
    The endgame of the show suffers, however, even when not dealing with spit.  The episodes with the old flame seemed to hold potential, but it quickly fell apart into unnecessary fanservice in its improbable climax.  But at least it follows a logical progression, unlike the episode telling the aforementioned sister's story (and did anyone find it creepy the way the hero stares lustfully at his sister's drool?).  And there is the whole idol magazine subplot that just disappears into thin air, but not before the hero makes an utter asshole out of himself. 

I can not help but to compare Nazo no Kanojo X to Iketeru Futari, as both deal with the courting of a mysterious and cold woman by a hapless man.  Spitish aside, Iketeru Futari succeeded because it focused wholly on the romance and made development its primary goal.  Nazo no Kanojo X lacks that focus, drifting through its romance while proselytizing its fetish.  The intriguing dream subplot never went anywhere, the characters never get past the holding hands point, and viewer never gets the feeling that this is made to last.  Unlike Iketeru Futari's stupidly aggressive lead, X's passiveness fails to generate any sympathy, and even minor transgressions cause irreversible harm to his character.  In the end, Girlfriend X over-emphasizes its spit fetish to the point of ridicule, and not even the strong romance can overcome that.

Plot: 4
Art: 6
Sound: 9
Characters: 8
Enjoyment: 5
Value: 5
    Watchablity: 5
    Re-watchablity: 2
    Historical: 8


Saturday, 23 June 2012

How to install Aegisub on to Ubuntu 12.04

The other day I decided to install Aegisub on to my new Linux build. The good news was there were Linux builds for Aegisub. The bad news was that they were only the source code. I've played around with Linux, but I've never installed something from source before. Well, there is a first time for everything, I thought, time to get cracking.
Two days later, it works! I decided to save everything I did, because there was no real Linux support for this program. I figured I might as well share how I got it working, in case there are any other enterprising Linux users out there that want to give it a try. Although, this isn't an authoritative guide. I typed these commands and it worked. I can't say why or how. And be forewarned, this is Linux, and as such, your results will vary.

This was a pretty much fresh build of Ubuntu, so I didn't have very many packages installed. These were the ones that I had to install first, although it took me several tries to find the right packages the first time around.

sudo aptitude install build-essential
This is a simple one, it installs the stuff necessary to build programs from source.
The first package I was missing was freetype. This left me confused, since I already did have freetype installed. And now it is time to be brutally honest. I am a Linux hobbyist, not a guru. I have no idea which of the following commands fixed the problem. I was just trying stuff until it worked. I believe it was the database update, but it I might have need a package first as well.
These are the commands I ran:
sudo aptitude install xlibmesa-glu-dev
sudo aptitude install libfont-freetype-perl
sudo aptitude install libtaoframework-freetype2.3-cil
sudo updatedb

I'm almost certain it wasn't the perl library, but who knows. If I wanted to, I get a fresh build and redo everything until I know what fixed it. But this was a pain enough as it was.

The next error was FontConfig. That was an easy one.
sudo aptitude install libfontconfig1-dev
sudo updatedb

The libfontconfig1-dev gets you the fontconfig.pc file, and the updatedb allows pkg-config to find it. The same follows for the next package, WxWidgets:

sudo aptitude install libwxgtk2.8-dev
sudo updatedb

Next you need to install intltool. Consider this a practice run for the main event, since in needs to be installed from source as well. You can get the tool from here:

But first, intltool has a dependence of its own:
sudo aptitude install libxml-parser-perl
then unzip and untar intltool, cd down into its directory, and then use these commands to install it:
sudo make
sudo make install
If configure results in any errors, you need to find which package it needs and install it as well. The xml-parser was all I needed for it, though.

Next came the fun part. Aegisub will install now, but it won't play videos. Despite the documation saying it uses ffmpeg, Aegisub really requires ffmpeg2.
sudo aptitude install ffmpeg
sudo aptitude install libffms2-dev
I'm pretty sure that ffms2 will install ffmpeg as well, but in case it doesn't, I included ffmpeg as well.
Finally, you want to see the subtitles on the video, right? Well, you'll need libass for that. Again, one of these packages made it work. Since I install them all at once, I don't know which one it was.
sudo aptitude install libass4
sudo aptitude install libassuan-dev
sudo aptitude install libassimp2
sudo aptitude install libass-dev

At this point everything was going peachy. I left for work, only to return to tragedy. Sound no longer worked on my box. First, my sound card showed up in the Sound GUI, but the test sounds didn't work. After attempts to restart the sound processes, I reboot the computer. When it came back, I had no sound and no sound card either. I spent a good three hours troubleshooting sound, reloading drivers, experimenting with stuff, but none of it worked. As I was getting ready to trash the build and start over from scratch, I found this guide:
The command sudo modprobe snd_hda_intel fixed it! I was quite happy, and went upstairs for awhile. When I returned, sound had stopped again. This time, I could hear some systems sounds, but not all of them. For example, using ubuntu-bug audio, I could hear the first test sounds, but not the second. Frustrated I left for a walk and when I returned, it had fixed itself without my input. Weird, huh? Anyway, sound is important, since for some reason OSS isn't working right with Aegisub, and that is the only one that gets installed by default. I'm using portaudio, and I'd recommend that to anyone else as well.
sudo aptitude install portaudio19-dev
This installs some portaudio files needed. I think. It might not be nessessary.
NOW, you are ready to install Aegisub. From the directory you zipped the files to:
./configure --with-portaudio
sudo make
sudo make install
This will take awhile. When configure is done, assuming no errors, it will display a list of settings. This is how mine looks:
Default Settings 
Video Provider: ffmpegsource
Audio Provider: ffmpegsource
Subtitle Provider: libass
Audio Player: alsa 

Scripting Engines
auto3 Lua: no (autodetected)
auto4 Lua: no (autodetected)
auto4 Perl: no (default)
auto4 Ruby: no (default) 

Audio Players
ALSA: yes (autodetected)
OpenAL: no (autodetected)
OSS: yes (autodetected)
PortAudio: yes
PulseAudio: yes (autodetected) 

A/V Providers
FFmpegSource: yes (autodetected)
Subtitle Providers:
libASS yes (autodetected) 

Misc Packages
Hunspell: no (autodetected)
universalchardet: yes (default) 

That is as far as I can take you. Good Luck!

Friday, 22 June 2012

Codex Hermetica, Chapter 4: Crystal Triangle

I'm not dead yet.  Just been really of busy of late, what with the rebellion and all.  No, seriously the bastards at work gave me 10 hour shifts and I'm not getting paid for anything over 40 hours, so I'm a little pissed.  Anyway, here is something way too long.

Codex Hermetica
Chapter 4: Crystal Triangle

I think this is getting needlessly messianic
--Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

You can tell a lot about a culture by how they portray themselves in their entertainment. For Americans, not only do they portray themselves as the heroes and leaders of the world, but they are the strongest and most powerful nation in the world. As much as Americans love an underdog, they can only portray themselves as such against an outside force, generally an alien invasion of some sort. American entertainment is truly devoid of the sort of despair that is found when a small nation is cornered between two larger rivals. But for most the world, that is the case.

In the sixties, England was a nation in decline, its Empire lost, its position as world power failing, and facing increasing irrelevance. What entertainment appeared? James Bond. For many second-rate powers, that can not compete on terms of physical strength alone, the idea of an agent holds great appeal. Maybe they can't save the world with their armies, but they still have agents that are a force to be reckoned with. In the last decade in anime, this 'agent' position has been increasingly been filled by Lupin III (ignoring the fact that he really is a Frenchman), although this is an incorrect reading of the character of the gentleman thief, or has Camus would call him, a 'dandy rebel'. But look back a handful of years, and you will find, in the action hero genre, a number of Japanese 'agents', that fight to save the world, often while fighting interference from both the Americans and the Russians. It is in this perspective that we meet, in the anime movie Crystal Triangle, the character of Professor Kamishiro, archeologist, mystic, and all-around badass.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Watching Xanadu -- Oniisama e...

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. –Albert Camus


Oniisama e is the best anime nobody has seen. It is a victim of its place in time, a long, slow paced series shoujo series that has almost zero marketability. First airing during 1991, it stands at high contrast to the mecha shows of the 1980s, and is a forerunner to the popular shoujo series that came existence later that decade. Its closest descendant is Utena, but it lacks the male crossover appeal of the sword fighting eponymous character. If it had aired ten years later in would probably be a well know classic, but without Oniisama e to pave the way, it is possible that the shoujo mainstays that followed after would never have existed at all.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Happy May Day!

Happy (belated) May Day!

Been a bit busy around here. I got a new computer, after which I decided to reconfigure my entire network and convert a box to Linux. It was sure a lot easier on paper than in practice, but it's mostly working now. And in case you were thinking that I was neglecting my more manly skills, yesterday I demonstrated my skills by changing a flat tire on the roadside. Like a bird displaying plumage, I used the event to put my abilities on display for an potential mates passing by. Sadly, this occurred on a little traveled county road, and the only people that passed by were males. But, on the bright side, it wasn't raining, which I understand is the traditional weather for fixing flat tires. After it was all said and done, I ended up spending a week's salary on new tires, so no more fun purchases for a while. Le Sigh.

And in honor of May Day, there is this.
From Urusei Yatsura, Episode 115

Friday, 20 April 2012

Codex Hermetica Chapter 3

Codex Hermetica
Chapter 3: Demon Hunter Makaryuudo

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
--John Keats

That is one of my favorite Keats sonnets. I quote it here to show an example of what I call “Efficiency of Information”, or the ability to convey emotion within a limited space. Any one can write a lot – hell, look at me. It is one thing to write without limit, it is quite another to be constrained, as Keats is within the bounds of a fourteen line sonnet. Or to quote Pascal, “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” In order to tell a compelling story in a such a short time requires this efficiency of information, an uncommon skill even in the best. It is especially rare in the anime directors and screenwriters of today. In today's market, most marginal properties get inflated into 12 episode series rather that the OVA release that they would get twenty years ago. Not only does this add to the current problem of oversaturation that plagues the modern industry, but it atrophies the skills needed to be efficient. Add in the moe boom of the past decade, which elevated character attributes over plot and writing, and you find good writing to be the exception, not the rule, in most modern anime. Lackluster writing skills and filler time has given rise to the dreaded 'info-dump', a noxious state where instead of depicting events, they characters merely tell the viewer, in monologues that last minutes. Take Freezing, please (No, seriously, take it far away from me). The first episode, the only I watched before dropping the series, spent a good two-thirds of the airtime filling in the main character who the characters are, what they are doing, and how the world works. Important information, yes, but show us, don't tell us. You find this manga, as well. As I was reading Kampfer, I discovered a text heavy page where the hero described in great detail how sweet and wonderful his love interest was. Not a total waste, but the story would have better served by showing us how wonderful she is, not by wasting my time listening to him tell me. However, given the dominance of database characters in certain segments of the fandom, the finer details of writing quality tend to be ignored. So with that, I will turn to a show from an older generation that still shows why efficiency of information matters: Demon Hunter Makaryuudo.

Demon Hunter Makaryuudo – Technical Specs:
Year Released: 1989
Running Time: 30m
AniDB rating (at time of writing): 6.25
ANN rating (at time of writing): 6.157
My rating: 7.7

The First Act
The weakest point of the story is the first minute, if you can believe that. The opening scene is a conversation between two off screen characters that makes little sense, until you've seen the entire OVA. The conversation lacks context, and really is a shitty way to kick a show off. But don't give up. Things quickly turn around. In contrast to the opener, the next scene has no spoken dialogue at all, but the atmosphere of the scene says it all for it. Inside a office room at the local school, we see haunting shapes of half-bird, half-woman monsters feasting on dead animals, being cared for by a woman whose very appearance screams “EVIL”. The atmosphere is dark and claustrophobic, with deep shadows cast everywhere. Particularly nice how the first harpy we see is introduced. Hidden in darkness, we see only the face, and think that it is just a girl, only to be rudely awakened when talons and wings come lurching out of the shadow. The use of shadows increases the unnaturalness of the monsters.

DHM wastes no time in introducing the human stars. After the villains are established, the scene switches to two students heading home in the rain. In only a few lines of dialogue, the viewer quickly can establish their relationship. They are friends, but not dating, although the girl has a crush on the dude. Now that is being efficient. As the two walk in the rain, something scurries by in the shadows. The duo is relieved when the shape reveals itself to be a woman's smiling face, only to turn to terror when a lightning strike illuminates the rest of the monster. The attack is brief, but how the harpies smile so while attacking is rather unnerving. Fortunately for our heroes, the assault is interrupted by the advent of the Demon Hunter, who makes quick work of the beasts. The scene is very effective—the powers and motivation of Yama, the Hunter are demonstrated, as well as the one-sided romance. Yama erases the memory of the human girl, Kaoru, but leaves Shou alone. Not only that, she hints at a shared past with him, and with a sad smile, tells him she still loves him, before disappearing into the fog. The act ends with a return to the evil lady's office, and adds some more motivation and explanation. The first act is not even five minutes long, but we know who the characters are, their relationships, attributes, and motivations. The story is set on firm foundations.

The Second Act
The second act is the 'normalization' of the characters. It is an exploration of the characters, which shows how evil the villainess really is, how good natured the hero really is, and the tortured nature of Yama. Again, there are good scenes without any dialogue. In an entirely to be expected scene, we see Yama, in human form, introduced as transfer student to Shou's class. In modern anime, you'd expect explosive reactions and lots of childish drama, but there is not a spoken word during this. The emotions are shown clearly on the face of the characters, nothing needs to be spoken.
After some classroom scenes, we return to the evil lady, who reinforces her evilness by calmly murdering three delinquents. And as a follow up act, she launches a psychic assault on our heroes as they are leaving school. The attack is easily repulsed by Yama, but as she quickly rushes into the evil lady's office, she falls into a trap.
This, my friends, is how you do a flashback. The trap set by the evil lady is a trap of the mind, designed to reveal Yama's secrets and past. Generally, flashbacks are a sign of weak writing, a tool for a writer to use when they can't adequately explain their character's motivation. And they only seem to happen when the plot calls for a piece of information that they writer has failed to prove so far. But by establishing this flashback as a sort of mental interrogation, we get an actual reason for it, and an added substring of mind rape throughout the scene. Act two is all about exploration, and here explore Yama's past. A lot of the information revealed is not particularly necessary, as it deals with events beyond the scope of the OVA, but it frames the character of Yama, and explains her love of Shou and the source of her bittersweet nature. The overall idea of DHM is that demons are infiltrating the human world, which causes imbalance, and threatens the foundation of both hell and heaven as well. This is a common idea in supernatural anime, and is the corner stone of other series like Enma-kun and Vampire Princess Miyu. A lot of DHM is rather standard, a by the book story—but one that is still executed very well. There isn't much that is groundbreaking here, but it is still a solid piece of work.

The Third Act
After a rather cute scene between Yama and Shou and his family, we return to the evil lady and begin the final battle. Again, the setup is rather standard—the evil lady captures Shou's friends and uses them as hostages. This act is a bit rushed, perhaps too much time was spent on exploration in the second act, but overall it is pretty good. We get another good example of show, don't tell, with the mind control snail shells, but I get ahead of myself.
The first fight is between Yama and the sub-boss snail boy. There are plenty of tentacles, if you're into that sort of thing, but the animation remains strong, even with all those arms flailing around the screen. There are some shortcuts taken, but it lightyears better than a lot of other examples I could name. The fight also provides some pretty good nightmare fuel, if a boy's face on a giant snail wasn't bad enough, this happens:
The boss fight is a fight by proxy, the evil lady controls the humans in an attempt to cause Yama to self-destruct. This stratagem worked, and she would have gotten away with it, if it weren't for those meddling kids Kaoru helping Shou resist the mind control. After overcoming this obstacle, the final boss appears, a huge, golden demon that only speaks though text displayed over the screen, oddly enough. I've seen characters use notepads instead of talking, but this isn't moe at all.

Actionwise, the final fight is a rather lacking. There are some nice scenes where we see only the characters' silhouettes against the clouds, but Yama dispatches him rather easily. The story ends with a quick wrap up loose ends, the evil lady suffers a truly hideous fate, and Shou and Yama agree to work together. Roll credits.

So what do I take away from DHM? First excellent use of Efficiency of Information. Scenes and characters convey information without talking about it first, and the sole flashback is interleaved into the story well. The atmosphere is expressive and used to great effect. And I am fascinated by the character of Shou. I can't think of another male lead quite like him. The only one that springs to mind is Yakumo from 3x3 Eyes, but he is much more protective than Shou is. Generally, characters in these stories are either complete losers or go the “I don't care if you are a demon with super-magic powers, I'm a man, and therefore I have to protect you in order to enforce traditional gender roles” route. There is a sense of equality with the characters. He defers to her in battle, and she defers to him in normal life. Maybe this is just due to the lack of screentime, but it is not something that I've seen before. Amazing, that even after 350 odd anime titles, I can still see things I've never seen before.

The Boxscore:
Plot: 8
Art: 8
Sound: 7
Character: 9
Enjoyment: 9
Value: 5
Overall: 7.7
Grade: B

Recommendation: It depends on how good your Japanese is. This was never licensed, of course, and there is only one English translation, done by the fansub group ARR. Their quality is subject to quite varied swings, and this is a low point on the pendulum. The translation is utterly horrible, and while there isn't much that is wrong, the text is stilted to the point of unreadable, and the failure to follow the basic rules of grammar don't help. I need to take and polish their subs to human readable at some point, but I just don't have the time. I mean, those eroge aren't going to play themselves. Anyway, the overall plot idea is nothing that new, and so it is not a loss if you never get to see this one. But if you do take the trouble to track this one down, you will find a clever and well executed story.

Side Note: This is supposedly based on a manga series, but I've been unable to find any information about it. That troubles me sometimes, enrages me, what knowledge might be lost in the turning of the Wheel, knowledge I need, knowledge that I have a right to. A RIGHT! Sorry, I was channeling my inner Moridin there. You know know what's bad? With thirteen books and thousands of pages, I was able to find that exact quote within minutes. In the middle ages, monks would train their minds to memorize large sections of the Bible. I'm like that, but with high fantasy.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Nazo no Kanojo X

Drool. I hate the word drool. It's so inelegant. I read a study once, that took people unfamiliar with various languages and read them assorted words. Even without understanding the language, most people attributed negative connotations to negative words. In short, negative words just sound bad. Drool just sounds bad. The 'dr' sound has a harshness to it, and there are no good words with a double 'o' in them. The very sound has sort of a primal trait to it, a throwback to barbarianism. I would prefer the term 'saliva', because it sounds better, and I used to listen to a band called 'Saliva' in high school, until I lost the CD. (For any kids out there, a 'CD' is a shiny disc that people used to use to listen to music. You would put the disc into a large box called a 'CD player', that would then play back the music. You had to take care while moving, since the slightest shock to the CD player would cause the disc to skip several seconds of the song. And I've gone way too far afield.)

Also, there is the bond. The best romance shows are the one that don't have an artificial bond between the characters. So why do so many shows have these then? Well, let us journey into the brain of the otaku. Your garden-variety otaku is completely lacking in self-confidence when it comes to the fairer sex. So characters based otaku have to have some sort of non-romantic bond that ties them together, so the romance can bloom. This is especially pronounced in incest and lolicon shows, where there bonds are family or dependence. This is very prevalent in male-oriented shows, as female romances tend to show more realistic romances. The former emphasizes dominance, the latter a meeting of equals. This show is a little weird in that the bond is in the opposite direction—the dude is totally dependent on the girl. But it still weakens the show.

And finally, this is a high risk, low reward show. Even if show manages to transcend the tangled thorns implied by its premise, it will always be held down by just how nasty that premise is. And the odds of that happening are very low. This is Astarotte's Law: No matter how much a show seems to improve over its premise, it is still devised by the same guy that made the premise, and as such, will regress to those levels before the end. In other words, this is show about drinking a girl's drool, and it will return to what you would expect of a show about drinking a girl's drool by the end of the run.

But you know what? I'm still going to watch it. There's just something about this show I like, despite its best efforts to repulse me.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Parity Breaking

Sports breeds an innate desire for overreactions. Perhaps this is inevitable, a product of a game where the smallest of margins separates victory from defeat. Regardless, we live in world where every loss is grounds for sacking the coach, and every poor performance is cause for playing the backup. Or the addition of a star will render a team invincible. While this is generally reserved for the talking heads on ESPN or call-ins to the local AM station, even the smartest and most rational fall victim to this curse. I present this article:
In it, Herr Klosterman proclaims a Kentucky victory will result in the death of College Basketball within a decade. Success is never guaranteed, and entropy will bring about the end of everything, but 10 years is far to short a time to kill a billion dollar industry. Even if in the end, this predictions will be realized.

Consider a three dimensional plane of hills and valleys. Now place a ball in the plane. The ball will roll around and eventually reach an equilibrium point and rest. It could stop in a local minimum and reach a stable equilibrium. Or it could stop on a plateau, creating an unstable equilibrium that could be upset with a light touch. A force is necessary to shift the ball away from any of positions. Now imagine the ball is the sport of basketball, and the plane is defined through the system of College Basketball, the rules, money, and corruption inherit within. What Calipari (An unfortunate name, as I am always reminded of Shakespeare's Caliban) coaches is at the local minimum, College Basketball run as a proto-pro league. Given the current system, this is inevitable. The only thing that has been preventing such a case is the forces of 'Tradition' and 'Respect for the Game', holding the ball above the local minimum. Unbound by that force, the ball will return to a natural rest. If not Calipari, some other coach would institute this at another school. The only way to prevent this is to change the system of College Basketball, an unlikely proposition, given the money involved.

But remember the overreaction I mentioned. Last year, with a mid-major in the final for the second year in a row, we had reached a new ear of parity, where the elite programs would no longer enjoy a significant talent advantage over small schools. Just one year later, parity is broken forever and five schools will dominate basketball for all eternity. How did that happen?

In short, College Basketball is dying, but it has been dying since before Magic and Bird met on a court in Utah, and will keep dying long into the future. And the system will eventually change, as it always does, a new era will be reached, and one day we will look back with fondness at Coach Calipari and say there was a man of tradition, so unlike the coaches of today, and it is too bad the game is not like it was back in those days.
All is flux, nothing is stationary.
There is nothing permanent except change.
Let us enjoy the present while it here, and let the future worry about itself. Besides,
The future will be better tomorrow.
Dan Quayle

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Codex Hermetica: Chapter 2

Codex Hermetica
Chapter 2: Elf 17

If there is one thing that Americans and Japanese share, it is an affinity for sport. Of course, baseball, “America's Pastime” is a bigger deal in the Pacific Rim than it is here, but it doesn't stop there – you can find manga and anime versions of every sport out there, even things that Americans ignore. I have heard rumours of the legendary curling manga, but I have yet to find proof of its existence. But, the one 'sport' that does surprise me is that of Pro Wrestling. I've always found Pro Wresting to profoundly stupid, a soap opera for men, rife with sexual tension and homoeroticism (not that there's anything wrong with that). Not only that, but the idea of a scripted sporting event is anathema to me; I watch sports precisely because anything can happen. Let me quote an exchange from the second episode of Galaxy Angel Z, one of my favorite franchises:
Normad: What a meaningless spectacle this is. That man thrown up against the ropes shouldn't bounce back that hard. It goes against the laws of physics..
Ranpha: What was that?!
Normad: I'm just wondering why, when one guy gets up on the corner post, his opponent comes right up to the landing spot...
Ranpha: I hope you understand the magnitude of what you just said!
In short, I much like Normad, fail to understand the draw of Pro Wrestling. But apparently, it has be present in Japan for a while. In an episode of Urusei Yatsura, Ataru watches some Pro Wrestling at dinner, so it's been around since at least the eighties. And there has been a merging of the ridiculous costumes and spectacle of Pro Wrestling with Japanese MMA (I recall a cosplaying fighter, but can't find the source right now). And so this brings me to an obscure little OVA, that opens with a mixture of Pro Wrestling and MMA – in space!

Monday, 19 March 2012

Review: Nisemonogatari

Wow. There were 52 March Madness games last week, and I watched at least some of all 52. And somehow found the time to repair, re-stain and re-finish one of the shelves I built myself. And finish up Nisemonogatari, and write a review of it. I also posted it on the AniDB, but here it is, in it's entirety.

Nisemonogatari: A Post-Mortem

People will be happy if they think what's in the museum is the authentic one. Delusions such as pictures and money don't have value. They're all illusions.
--Kyouka-sama, Kyouran Kazoku Nikki

What happens if you set out to tell a ‘fake’ story and succeed? Should a successful telling of fake story be rewarded? Well, let’s leave philosophical paradoxes aside, and discuss the truth: regardless of intent, Nisemonogatari is a weak story, and it is a disappointment. In short, this show fell flat. It failed to capture the magic of the first season, and spent too much time on character cameos and incest-ero and not enough actual story.

Before I start, I need to set the framework. I generally enjoy the work of Nisioisin. His style is somewhat esoteric, and he delights in wordplay and unusual diction, but I find these traits endearing. And I believe that Bakemonogatari is one of the best anime ever made. In my ‘Giant Spreadsheet of Doom’, there are 348 anime titles listed, in order of quality. Bakemonogatari is entry number 2. So when I discuss Nisemonogatari, keep in mind that I know full well what this franchise is capable of, and to what standards I am holding this show to.

The Good

Here is a case of when having too much of budget can be bad. The animation of Bakemonogatari was beset with Shaft’s usual budget crisises, and so a lot of the strange atmosphere and animation cuts where more forced than planned. However, somehow, they managed to turn this disadvantage around to Bake’s biggest strength, creating an eerily beautiful and surreal landscape and a truly unique animation style. In Nise, there is plenty of cash on hand, and therefore the animation is more polished, but it loses the sense of charm that original had. The animation is style very good – both fight scenes and landscapes retain the good parts of Bake, but there is no innovation, nothing new. And there the director fails to make good use of the Red Scene/Black Scene cuts as compared to the first season. It might be more shiny, but it is less filling.

When Nisioisin is on, he is on. The true greatness of Bake lay in its ability to weave an engaging story out of a simple conversation between two characters. Some of the best episodes of Bake are nothing more than Araragi trading sarcastic barbs with another character. These scenes return, and there are some notable ones, especially the opening episodes and every time Hachikuji appears. But they have a different feel to them than in Bake. In Bake, these scenes exist to provide information on the character, to define their personality or to advance a plot point. Here, they are more like slice-of-life comedy shorts, something that wouldn’t be out of place in Lucky Star or Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, but are for the most part pointless. Their only purpose is to satiate the fans of these characters, to give them some airtime to please the fanbois of the original. Often, they feel more like cameos, or that they were wedged into the story to sell more character products. It creates and odd situation. The original five girls have the best writing, but they don’t advance the story, and so all this good writing goes to waste.

The one other place where the writing shines is the endings of the two arcs. The final showdown with Kaiki is brilliantly anti-climatic, and is supremely well designed. And the closing episode again shows off Nisioisin’s command of the written word. It is not a typical anime ending, nor is it expected. But it is a perfect fit, to both the tone and style of the show. This is a fake story after all, and it is only fitting that it receives a fake ending as well.

Again, we have one of the best vocal casts out there at the peak of their game. Take everything I said about the first season and at it in here. And there is a new cast member, one Sakamoto Maaya as the voice actress for the loli vampire Shinobu. Shinobu is a demanding role, but she gives a commanding performance. There is little more to be said about the cast, this is perfection. On the music side, the OPs exceed the already high expectations set by the first season, but the ED is a letdown. I found it to be a poor fit for the tone of the show.

The Bad

There are eleven episodes of Nise. These eleven episodes contain about four episodes worth of plot, spread between them. The remainder is filler. Now, in Bake there was a lot of sitting around and talking, but that those scenes meant something. They developed a character, or advanced a plot. Nise's scenes, as I said before, are more like slice-of-life scenes. Not bad, in their own, but pointless in the greater scheme of things. And there was no moderation to it. In a low point for the franchise, there was an episode devoted to Araragi brushing his sister’s teeth. It was truly bizarre, lasted way too long, and failed to have any meaning. It seemed as an attempt to create a fetish out of thin air, and the only thing worse than a fake fetish is a fake meme. And this leads me to the next subject:

The Chemistry
Or complete lack of it. In Bake, the strong chemistry between the characters turned potential filler into engaging and important episodes. But in Nise, the chemistry between Araragi and his sisters is near zero. Part of this is bad design—the relationships between Araragi and the five girls are new and therefore need to be established, but the relationships between Araragi and his sisters is old, and therefore already established—but the viewer does not know of this relationship. They don’t need to build a relationship, it already exists, but this negates Bake’s greatest strength. And no chemistry is generated with the sisters within the content of the show. A lot of this is due the character of Araragi—he remains stern and protective of his sisters, while friendly and playful with the five girls. The result is that the interactions between Araragi and his sisters often feel forced, while the interactions between Araragi and the original five remain natural. A similar problem happens with Shinobu. Again, her relationship is already established, in the yet to be animated prequel. However, this problem is overcome, mostly due to the fact Araragi treats Shinobu like an equal, unlike his sisters. However, the focus of Nise is on the sisters, and the failure to generate chemistry undermines the foundation of the show.

The Ugly

Bake had its moments of ero, but they did not dominate the show, like they do in Nise. And the ero is not necessary to the show. It is pandering for the sake of pandering. And that is insulting. I like ero as much as the next man, but there needs to be moderation. Most of the filler I mentioned earlier consists of ero scenes. And the really irritating thing is that these scenes are unnecessary. Generally, ero scenes like this are the last refuge of a failing show that needs to make up viewership at any cost. Nise is guaranteed to sell at least 50k, so that can’t be the reason. The original Bake was a well written show with deliciously subversive eroticism. It deftly wielded the ero to enhance the story. Nise’s ero has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It substitutes ero for clever writing and style, and that never works well. It is lazy writing, and that is polar opposite of what a Nisioisin story should be.

A lot of the reason that the ero fails is that it is incest ero. Not only is it completely unrealistic, but it is pandering to the otaku core. It is cheap, and completely stupid. The problem is that any time invested in incest ero scenes is wasted, since there is no possibility of the characters actually following through. You could imagine Araragi ending up with any of the five girls, but the possibility of the one of the sisters is zero. Yet, in the course of eleven episodes he kisses both and strips both. This cheapens the show and cheapens the character of Araragi. This franchise is good enough not to prostitute itself like this. It was highly disappointing.

Nisioisin must have some weird haircutting fetish. In Bake, Nise, and Katana, there are four separate instances of girls getting their hair cut. Stop this foolishness. The longer the hair, the cuter the girl. It is a fundamental maxim.

The Conclusion
Nisioisin sets out to prove a philosophical point with Nisemonogatari. Can a fake be more valuable that the real thing? The answer is left to the viewer, but it is clear that Araragi has made his choice. But while he succeeds at proving his point, the overall this story is not as good as Bakemonogatari was. Nise is still a solid show. If this was an original show, if it was not a sequel, I probably would have rated it higher. But I know what this franchise is capable of, and this is a disappointment. I expect quality, and I got average. Not good enough.

In Bake, things are gained. Araragi works to restore the girls to where they want to be. In Nise, nothing is gained, only preserved. Araragi works to prevent loss. Bake ends with an increase over the starting point; Nise ends at the same point where the story started. This fundamental difference in design prevents Nise from matching Bake’s greatness. But it did itself no favors either, with its flawed chemistry and ero-incest filler. As a sequel, it is acceptable. But it could have been better. It should have been better.

Plot: B
Art: A-
Sound: A-
Character: B-
Enjoyment: B
Value: {
Watchability: B+
Re-Watchability: D+
Historical Value: A }

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Watching Xanadu -- Ano Natsu de Matteru 09

In any sporting competition, there is often a point where the outcome of the game hangs in the balance. Causal fans assume this occurs at the end of the game, but the truth is this point can occur at any moment of the game. It could be a relief pitcher getting a bases loaded strikeout in the 6th inning, or a falling-down tray with the shotclock expiring. In the best of games, these points can happen multiple times, as the pendulum of fate swings back and forth. An experienced eye can see these moments, as if time itself slows down. You can feel the forces of destiny swirling as the ball hangs in the air, your heart in your throat as you wait to see whom fate has favored. There is nothing like in this world. Perhaps the popularity of futbol is due to its ability to measure these moments – a goal being the very crystallization of the idea itself. In these games and matches at last forty or sixty or ninety minutes or nine innings, these moments only take up a handful of seconds. Ninety minutes of futbol can be decided in twenty seconds of play.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Watching Xanadu

Watching Xanadu is a sporadic, less detailed column that explores a single episode or subset of whatever I'm currently watching. Today, I want to talk about a show that it could be argued isn't even an anime at all, and is not one you'd expect me to watch at all.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

And Zoidberg

My favorite sport is baseball.  I love baseball because it is boring, and therefore I don't have to devote my full attention to it.  I can watch a baseball game and at the same time read a book, or write, or draw, or do a million other things, and not lose any enjoyment.  With basketball, it is just the opposite, the action is so fast I have to give it my full attention.  With American Armoured Wankball, the action is too sporadic (10 seconds of action followed by 40 seconds of overweight men standing around catching their breath) I often quickly lose interest.  With futbol, if I watch with full attention, nothing will happen, but as soon as I look away, the only goal of the match will be scored.  But baseball is a perfect fit for me.

So, since spring training is starting up, you would think that is what I would be watching.  Well, you'd be wrong.  March is the greatest month of sports (topped only by the World Cup, and that only comes every 4 years), and that is because of College Basketball.  College Basketball is so great because of the sheer emotion -- unlike ever other sport, in college you only get four years to compete.  If you fail to take advantage, it is the end.  You may never be in this position again.  Pain, hope, despairation, euphoria -- every shot, every play, is full of all these emotions.  There is nothing in this world that matches the drama of the occasion.  And so I devote an inordinate amount of time to basketball this month, to pay tribute to fullest expression of humanity that exists.

Anyway, I'm going to really busy of the next two weeks, because I try to catch as much of it as I can.  Here is what my computer looked like most of Saturday
And yes, that is Zoidberg in the top left corner.  College fans are the crazy, another reason why this is the great time of the year.  Now, I must leave, for there are more games to been seen.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Celphalization – A Fragment

One in four households in America consists of a single person, according to the Gray Lady (also, similar interview found at the Economist). I am one of them. At this point it is traditional to post the Forever Alone macro, but in all honestly, I enjoy solitude. I was reading up on the history behind the Asimov novel The Caves of Steel, in which humanity builds up cities to the point were they blot out the sky. Most men spend their entire lives without seeing the sun. Asimov, himself an agoraphobic, was surprised when a reader suggested that live without the sun would be intolerable. This story symbolizes the truth that we, as humans, unconsciously assume all others to be like us.
We live, as we dream – alone…
Joseph Conrad
I, too, often find it hard to understand why others enjoy the social life so. I am extremely uncomfortable in crowds (crowds being any number of people larger than five), and prefer to spend my free time at home. I am not anti-social or a misanthrope (well, not to a point of unbalance) but I just have a low tolerance for others. Even with close friends, spending more than a few hours with them begins to become a drag.

So reading this article really meant something to me. I found some kindred spirits, and it made me feel much better to learn how many people feel the same as me. I find there to be great advantages to be alone. I can spent my time the way I want to, I can do the things I want to do (and not do the things I don't want to do), and I don't need to concern myself with the sensibilities of others. For me, solitude is one of the greatest pleasures I can have.
I never found a companion so companionable as solitude.
And to this point, I do not seek companionship, since it would mean the subjugation of my will to another's. For most, this would be more than worth the price to avoid being alone. To me that is as bizarre as worshiping the sun.
Much like the lady in the article, I can not imagine trying to live with someone that wants to share their live with me. If I was to find companionship, it would need someone that enjoys isolation as much as myself. I would need someone that would be okay with only seeing me once or twice a day. In the few relationships I have had, this has always been the point were it falls apart. There is no way around it, I care for myself far more than I will ever care for another. And I will not change myself to meet society's standards.
So this means I will probably always be 'Forever Along'. But I am okay with this. Because the truth is that all men are alone. People will go to great lengths to feed the illusion that there is someone else out there that understands them, that will always be there for them. But we live as we dream. I just have been blessed (or cursed) with a greater clarity that most.
Alone, quite alone. You have no fear of that. And you know what that word means? Not only to be separate from all others but to have not even one friend.
-- I will take the risk, said Stephen
James Joyce
Celphalization posts are fragments of thought, unrefined ideas written with less rigor than other posts. Consider them to be like dirt in a oyster—maybe with time they will become a pearl, maybe not. When I was looking through some old college documents, I found a list of biology vocabulary words. The first on the list was 'Celphalization' – a trend resulting in well-developed head/brain/sense organs. I figured that this was a good as a name as any. 


Saturday, 25 February 2012

Codex Hermetica
Chapter 1: The Samurai

Welcome to the first of a (hopefully) regular installment: Codex Hermetica, where I will take a look at old and forgotten anime OVAs and movies. It is said that people die twice, once when they stop breathing and a second time when somebody says their name for the last time. When do anime titles die? I don't know, but I want to do what little I can to keep their memory alive. So in the Codex, I plan to write quasi-reviews of these series, and breathe some new life into these old bones. I strongly believe in the importance of history, and these are foundations that the modern industry was built on. It is only appropriate that someone pays homage to them. And for my first chapter, I shall write a little OVA called The Samurai.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The beginning is the most important part of the work.

You are reading this for the wrong reason. That is first sentence of the Dan Simmons' excellent novel Endymion, and it still resonates in my mind as strongly as the day I first read it. I was told, when just a wee lad, that the opening sentence was the most important part of a story, since it is here that the reader decides whether to keep reading or not. A great opener means your words shall live forever, and a poor one can result in a different kind of immortality. But this opener has always fascinated me. Its sheer denial of the reader, the antagonizing arrogance of the author, pulls at something primal in me. It offers the promise of answers, answers to questions that up to the moment I didn't even know that I had, but now consume me. Tell me, O Author, for what reason should I read this? It feels almost like an esoteric expression of faith, whose revelation would reveal something fundamental about me. Of course, this is not the case, but the memory stuck with me, the experience of reading a voice that said:
[F]or good or evil mine is the speech that cannot be silenced
Joseph Conrad
But I digress. For it is I that am wrong, for I am writing this for the wrong reason. Why do people write blogs? To make money? I am sure that The Google has plans to do this, although I won't see a penny. (Along with not seeing any of the ads either, I use both Adblock and noScript, and I'd advise everyone else to use them as well). Is it for fame? As a follower of Epicurus, I take the motto “lathe biosas” seriously, and have taken great pains to obscure my identity. Is it to proselytize? While some use blogs as a platform to spread their ideas, I could could not care less. While I believe that my philosophy would beneficial to most, I care little for the conversion of others, for:
I hold it to be the inalienable right of anyone to go to hell in his own way
Robert Frost

No I am writing this for sheer narcissistic reasons. I am writing this to practice writing, since given the current lack of Mephistopheles to sell my soul to in exchange of unholy writing ability I am forced to use old-fashion methods of improvement. I am writing this as a form of emotional catharsis. Like St. Augustine, I shall confess my sins to the world, although I am not a brave as he was. I am writing this because I have searched high and low to find a place that I had the content that I wanted to see, and failing to find it, decided to make my own. But most of all, I am writing this because I wanted to, and I make it a policy to never deny myself anything that I desire. So we come again full circle. You are reading this for the wrong reason, because you are reading this for yourself, and that is not what this is about. 

So, with that little bit of unpleasantness out of the way,
Please allow me to introduce myself
I'm a man of wealth and taste.
The Rolling Stones

My name is Paul Melanchthon, and this is my blog, Hic Vigilans Somniat. I am a philosopher, an artist, a theologian and poet, albeit not particularly good at any of those. But as Pratchett's Rincewind claims, talent only defines what you do, not what you are. In this blog, I shall write about whatever interests me, but there will probably be lots about Japanese cartoons, history, baseball, quantum mechanics, philosophy, punk rock and my various neuroses and psychoses. I promise to tell the Truth in everything that I write, if from a certain point of view. And as for the rest, then me quote in full what Montaigne wrote in the introduction to his Essays, as translated by Donald M. Frame:
This book was written in good faith, reader. It warns you from the outset that in it I have set myself no goal but a domestic and private one. I have had no thought of serving either you or my own glory. My powers are inadequate for such a purpose. I have dedicated it to the private convenience of my relatives and friends, so that when they have lost me (as soon they must), they may recover here some features of my habits and temperament, and by this means keep the knowledge they had of me more complete and alive.
If I had written to seek the world's favor, I should have bedecked myself better, and should present myself in a studied posture. I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray. My defects will here be read to the life, and also my natural form, as far as respect for the public has allowed. Had I been placed among those nations which are said to live still in the freedom of nature's first laws, I assure you I should very gladly portrayed myself here entire and wholly naked.
Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.