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.