Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Anime Review: Hetalia

So today I'm going to be reviewing the anime Hetalia. The series began its life as a popular webcomic by Hidekaz Himaruya, but it didn't take long for it to receive an anime adaptation. The series is a lighthearted and humorous retelling of various world history events with the nations of the world anthropomorphized as humans. Originally the focus of the series was on the Axis Powers and their on-going struggle against the Allies. Hetalia has since moved beyond World War II and has focused on other historical events and nations.

Some of you probably think that this sounds kind of similar to Polandball. I suppose that's more or less true, but there's a couple of things you ought to keep in mind. First of all, Hetalia did come first, but it's hardly the first series to feature anthropomorphic nations. Second, and far more importantly, do not under any circumstance compare the two to each other. While there are fans of both Hetalia and Polandball, for the most part the fandoms tend not to play well together. All I'm saying is tread carefully when discussing Hetalia and Polandball in the same forum thread.

Now then, let's talk about the series itself. There really isn't any overarching plotline to speak of. Certain historical periods do tend to get more episodes than others, but overall the series is just as episodic as the webcomic that inspired it. Each episode clocks in at about five minutes if you count the intro and credits. So if you're short on time, or have a short attention span, then Hetalia should suit you quite well.

The characterization of the various nations are, in large part, based upon Japanese stereotypes of those nations. As a result we have Italy, rather than France, as the one who's cowardly and quick to surrender. It's all meant in good natured fun and isn't meant to be offensive or taken too seriously. Even Japan gets in on the fun, being portrayed as a shut-in who takes way too many pictures while on vacation. In fact most viewers tend to find the depiction of their home nations absolutely hilarious.

Hetalia may be a comedy series, but it does know how to be serious when the occasion calls for it. The most notable example of this episode that involves the American Revolution. Rather than a glorious struggle for independence it is portrayed as a tragic parting of ways between America and England. It packs even more of an impact when we see how England was like a big brother to America during America's younger days. Admittedly, the American Revolution episode was hyped to hell and back, which killed a bit of its impact. That being said, it still is easily one of the most powerful episodes of the whole series.

In general, though, Hetalia keeps things on the lighter side and tends to stay away from topics that are too serious or controversial. Himaruya has stated that this is why Mexico has yet to have an on-screen appearance. Curiously though, Cuba, who arguably would be more controversial, has appeared on a couple of occasions. Germany does feature prominently in the World War II segments, but he's never depicted as subscribing to Nazism and he isn't exactly fond of his boss Hitler.

The historical and cultural references are very well researched. Don't worry about missing out on any of the jokes or references. The anime has several text pop-ups that explain things in great detail, and the webcomic has little notes that also provide explanations. In fact, Hetalia's one of the best researched anime with regards to European History and history in general. If you're not careful you might just learn something new.

The gender balance of characters is skewed towards the male side. Himaruya admits that this is largely because he had trouble drawing female characters when he first started the webcomic. You might think this would hurt Hetalia's popularity with the female demographic, but you'd be quite wrong. As a matter of fact women make up the majority of Hetalia fans, and there's also a strong LGBT fan base.

Hetalia has proven to be the inspiration for a few other series over the years. The most prominent being the webcomic Scandinavia and the World. It's pretty similar to Hetalia, but the cast is more gender balanced and the stereotypes are ones Scandinavians hold. You can find Scandinavia and the World on Deviantart and it is worth checking out.

In other inspirations we have the webcomic Planetary Moe. It's basically Hetalia but with celestial bodies rather than nations. In fact, some of the character designs are similar to Hetalia designs. I've only recently found out about this one so I can't say much. I can say, from what little I've seen, it looks like a pretty good webcomic. It can also be found on Deviantart.

I thought that the English dub was quite excellent as well. I can't imagine anyone other than Todd Haberkorn as Italy or Eric Vale as America and Canada. Though Vic Mignogna, who was eventually cast as Greece, gave some very admirable auditions for Italy and America. J. Michael Tatum gave such a good performance as France that I almost didn't realize that it was him.

Seasons one and two of Hetalia are known as Hetalia: Axis Powers. Seasons three and four are called Hetalia: World Series. Season five is known as Hetalia: The Beautiful World, while season six has yet to be released stateside. There's also been a movie released called Hetalia: Paint it White. Several of the webcomics have been collected in manga format and are available for purchase.

Well there you have it. Hetalia: it's funny, it's educational and it's a whole lot of fun. It's a series that I enjoy quite a bit and I'm sure you will to. Well that does it for now. I've got a very special edition of The Audio File for next time, so that's something to look forward to. I will see you guys next time.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Anime Review: Full Metal Panic!

When it comes to alternate history in anime there are a few names which immediately make it to the top of the list. Code Geass is probably the one that most people will think of, but the anime we're looking at today is defiantly a close second. What is this anime you ask? Today we are going to be looking at Full Metal Panic!

Full Metal Panic! takes place in a world where Mikhail Gorbachev was assassinated before he could implement his any of his political reforms. As a result, the Soviet Union never collapsed and the Cold War continues to rage on into the 21st century. The other major change to history is that combat mecha known as Arm Slaves are now commonly used by militaries throughout the world. Tensions remain high between East and West, but the international anti-terrorism organization Mithril is doing its best to keep the world peaceful and oppose the forces of tyranny.

The series follows the adventures of Sgt. Sōsuke Sagara. He may only be sixteen years old, but he's one of the best soldiers Mithril has on hand. Sōsuke has been on many dangerous missions in the past, but he's about to be deployed on his most challenging mission ever: High School! Technology such as the Arm Slaves is only possible because of a group of people, known as The Whispered, who have psychic powers that given them access to Black Technology. Mithril has identified a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl named Kaname Chidori who they believe to be a Whispered.

There are plenty of unsavory organization who would want access to the Black Technology, so Mithril has assigned Sōsuke to guard Kaname. There's plenty of laughs as Sōsuke tries, and fails, to fit into the life of an average high school student. There's also plenty of action and suspense as Kaname gets drawn into Sōsuke's life with Mithril. It's funny, charming, action-packed and at times even touching. Now let's go in more detail about all of that.

Like I said before, next to Code GeassFull Metal Panic! is probably one of the best alternate history anime out there. History diverged closer the present day, so the worldbuilding is a bit less exotic compared to Code Geass. That having been said, there are plenty of alternate historical details. For example, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a success. China experienced a civil war during the 1990s and is divided into a democratic south and a communist north, with the Yangtze River servring as the border between the two. Hong Kong has been split between the two Chinas, a la Berlin. The Gulf War still happened, but a small scale nuclear missile was used against the American-led forces.

Okay, so now for the moment you've all been waiting for. Which series is better: Code Geass or Full Metal Panic? Speaking for myself, I found Full Metal Panic! to be the better of the two. The plot and character development of Full Metal Panic! are much more streamlined and consistent than Code Geass. It also does a much better job of balancing the comedy/slice of life aspects with the action/drama aspects; so neither side ever overwhelmed the other nor felt out of place. Don't get me wrong, Code Geass has a lot going for it, but the choppiness and disjointedness of its plot and pacing kept it from achieving its full potential in my eyes.

Now then, let's talk about Full Metal Panic's plot and character development. A lot of the comedy of the series comes from the fact that Sōsuke has pretty much no clue about civilian life, and all of the misunderstandings and misadventures that result from that. Well, that and all of the times Kaname losses her temper and slaps Sōsuke around. At the same time there's plenty of serious moments as well. A big part of Sōsuke's backstory is that he was an orphan child solider in Afghanistan until his was eight or eleven and was adopted by a Mithril general. Kaname herself is a bit of an outsider herself since she was raised in America for most of her childhood. There's also a throwaway line that indicates that she also lost her parents, which would explain why she appears to be living on her own. Sōsuke and Kaname start off as a bit of an odd couple, but they grow closer over the course of the series, and their relationship feels genuine.

In other characters we have Melissa Mao and Kurz Weber. Melissa is Sōsuke's commanding officer and Kurz is an ace sniper. They have a sort of surrogate older sibling relationship with Sōsuke. They constantly trying convince Sōsuke to loosen up and have fun, but they're also there to provide moral support and guidance when Sōsuke needs it.

Rounding out the main cast is Captain Teletha Testarossa, but everyone calls her Tessa. She's a cute, clumsy sixteen-year-old girl who also happens to be the captain of Mithril's flagship submarine the Tuatha De Danaan. All of this is possible because she's one of the Whispered and in fact helped design the Danaan. I'll admit, I really wasn't sure about Tessa when she was first introduced. As time went on, however, she grew on me and proved to be a solid character.

Besides being alternate history Full Metal Panic! is also a example of the Real Robot genre even more so than Code Geass. The Arms Slaves are large, but not excessively so. Mithril and American Arm Slaves tend to be sleek and aerodynamic, while Soviet Arm Slaves tend to be bulkier and turtle-like. On the whole it's all fairly realistic and grounded, with the exception of Sōsuke's Arm Slave which is known as the Arbalest. It comes equip with a device known as the Lambda Driver that can convert emotions into energy shields and blasts. The Arbalest also has a limited AI operating system. The reason only Sōsuke has an Arbalest was that its creator died before it could be replicated, and apparently didn't leave any notes or blueprints. It's also acknowledged in-universe that Arm Slaves are only possible thanks to the Black Technology of the Whispered.

That all having been said, I'm not sure about the structure of Mithril. We get to see that their military forces are more than capable of going toe-to-toe with the American and Soviet militaries; yet they appear to answer to nobody's authority but their own. America and NATO are close allies with Mithril, but it seems a bit odd that America wouldn't be concerned about an organization that could potentially match them militarily and can't be held accountable to any authority. Perhaps, Mithril has some connection to the United Nations? If so, the anime never provides any evidence of this.

Now let's talk about how Full Metal Panic! came to be. The most common basis for an anime is for it to be an adaption of a manga series. There are some series that are entirely original, such as Code Geass, but those tend to be somewhat rare. The second most common source for anime adaptions is light novels. Light novels are a bit tricky to describe since they don't really have a counterpart in the West. I can best describe them as a spiritual successor of sorts to the pulp novels and magazines. They're primary targeted at a young adult audience, though not exclusively. They get their name from their short length, use of simplified kanji compared to more literary novels and include illustrations interspersed throughout the text.

The Full Metal Panic! light novels are written by Shouji Gatou. There are twelve novels in total along with several short story collections. Only the first ten or so novels have received an English translation, though that sort of works out since the anime gets its plot from those five. The plot is mostly the same between the light novels and the anime, but there are a few differences. The biggest being that in the light novels Sōsuke is from Afghanistan, but in the anime he's from the fictional nation of Helmajistan. This is due to the events of the War on Terror causing the production team to think it might be in bad taste to have an Afghan main character. I've said Afghanistan up until this point because Helmajistan is Afghanistan in all but name.

The anime is divided into three seasons. The first season is forty-seven episodes long and is simply entitled Full Metal Panic! The second season is twelve episodes long and is entitled Full Metal PanicFumoffu. The third season is thirteen episodes long and is entitled Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid. In 2015 it was announced that a fourth season of Full Metal Panic! is in production and should be coming out in the near future.

The first season does a perfect job of balancing comedy and drama, but as for Fumoffu? It...has issues. Fumoffu discards most of the action with Mithril to focus on the wacky antics at Sōsuke and Kaname's school. In and of itself this isn't a bad premise, but the problem lies with the execution. By the end of season one Sōsuke and Kaname go through some major character development. Sōsuke learns to loosen up and fit in better, Kamane realizes she's been unnecessarily mean to Sōsuke and they both grow closer together. Come Fumoffu, however, they both become almost caricatures of their pre-character development selves. Sōsuke was so oblivious I found it astounding that he could figure out how to put on his pants. Kaname was such in hot-head in Fumoffu that she came across a borderline sociopath at times.

The first six episodes are divided into two eleven minutes halves, and the quality suffers as a result. Look, I love a good screwball slice-of-life anime as much as the next guy, but in the context of Full Metal Panic! it just feels out of place. Also, little tip for all you aspiring writers, personalities are not punchlines. Having said that, about halfway through the quality of the episodes noticeably improves. They run a single plot for the whole episode and there's actually some legitimately funny and touching moments. Fumoffu certainly isn't the worst anime I've ever seen, but it is incredibly awkward at times.

Thankfully, Second Raid is a welcomed return to form. This is because it is a direct sequel to the first season, whereas Fumoffu was primarily a filler season. If you can't handle the wackiness of Fumoffu you can skip ahead to Second Raid without really missing anything. Second Raid picks up the plot a few months after the events of season one and follows Sōsuke as he finds himself increasingly torn between his duty to Mithril and his life with Kaname. I won't give away the ending, but I though it neatly wrapped things up while leaving open the possibility of future installments.

Now let's talk about the voice acting. I gave me spiel about why I only focus on the English dubs in my Code Geass review, but I'll summarize the main points. I'm a very audio oriented person, so if I can't understand the audio it significantly diminishes my enjoyment of a show. Anyway, let's get back on track. I thought that Chris Patton did an excellent job voicing Sōsuke. He was excessively formal with being completely stoic. Likewise, Luci Christian gave a pitch perfect sweet and spicy performance as Kaname. Really, the the whole cast gave great performances.

There have a couple manga adaptions of Full Metal Panic! though their plots are slightly different. Full Metal Panic! also managed to capture Hollywood's attention. In 2009 there were talks about a live action movie that would have starred Zac Efron as Sōsuke. Yes, the guy from Disney's High School Musical trilogy. That might actually have worked out considering that Zac Efron is a huge fan of Full Metal Panic! and of anime and manga in general. On the other hand, live-action adaptations of anime tend to not go that well. Perhaps it's for the best that the live-action movie never got off the ground.

Well there you have it. Full Metal Panic! is funny, action-packed, charming and even touching. It's got high school antics and military science fiction adventure. It's got a little something for everyone all wrapped up in an alternate history setting. It's one of my favorite anime and I'm sure you'll love it as well. And with that I'm off to find more great anime to review and share with you guys. See you next time. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Anime Review: The Place Promised in Our Early Days

I've got a shorter anime movie review today for you, but it is reasonably sweet all the same.We're reviewing The Place Promised in Our Early Days.

It's set in a world where the Soviet Union has occupied almost all of the island of Hokkaido since 1973. The Soviet began construction on a mysterious tower after they secured Hokkaido, while the rest of Japan is backed by the United States. The movie follows three characters named Hiroki, Takuya and Sayuri. The three initially meet as teenagers and make a promise that one day they will fly to the mysterious tower. The movie then skips ahead three years as tensions grow high between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Takuya is a physicist who is working with the United Nations on a project to contact other universes. Hiroki is a student in Tokyo and has been greatly effected by Sayuri's disappearance and is doing everything he can to find her. Meanwhile, Sayuri has slipped into a coma and is being monitored for possible psychic abilities. As the world draws closer to World War III could she be the key that ties everything together?

Now that sounds like a pretty good set up with lots of alternate history possibilities. Well, we'll talk about that in a minute. For now let's talk about the alternate history itself. Unless the Soviet Union was feeling suicidal, 1973 is way too late for them to nab Hokkaido. At best you might see them getting it in an alternate World War II outcome, but even that's kind of dicey given how small the Soviet Pacific fleet was. I suppose the film makers were trying to draw parallels to the partition of Korea. Also, the tower appears to stretch miles into the atmosphere and can be seen from Tokyo. The technology to build something like that didn't exist in the 1970s, or even in the present day for that matter.

The Soviet Union is shown to have survived to the present day though that was a bit more believable. Also, though it's never mentioned, I would assume that Korea is united under communist rule in this world.

Okay, now for the big one. You know all of that alternate history I just told you about within the setting? Well it's not really the main focus of the plot. Don't get me wrong, it does factor into the plot and is involved with moving the the story forward, but it isn't front and center like in something like Code Geass. Also, you only find our certain details of the setting if you read the back of the box the DVD comes in. The primary focus of the plot is on Hiroki and Sayuri's relationship. So how does it do in that regard?

I'd say, all things considered, reasonably well. Their relationship builds slowly and steadily. There's no grand deceleration of love or love at first sight. It all feels very genuine and sincere. They, as well as Takuya, are just average people trying to live their lives even as the world inches closer to conflict. I guess that's kind of how history works for the average person on the street. There are events going on around us that shape the world we live in, and will live in, but we all go on with out lives as best as we can.

I'd also like to take a minute to talk about the soundtrack. It's filled with lots of classical music and violin pieces. It is beautiful, elegant and adds a lot of emotional depth to the movie. The artwork, especially the scenery and flying scenes, is quite good as well. It's very reminiscent of the film's of Hayao Miyazaki and there are a few instances that feel like visual references to those films. The voice acting, and here I'm referring to the English dub, was also quite excellent.

All things considered, I quite enjoyed this movie and I think you will too. It's beautiful, elegant and heartfelt. However, if you're going into it primarily for the alternate history aspect you might be a bit disappointed, so just be aware of that.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Anime Review: Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade

I can't think of any way to open this review so let's get right to it. Today we'll be taking a look at the anime movie Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade. It takes place in a world where Germany won the Battle of Stalingrad and conquered the Soviet Union. After that it wasn't long before all of Europe was under Germany's control. With Europe secured Germany began to turn its attention towards its former ally Japan. Despite a valiant effort Japan ultimately surrendered after Germany used atomic bombs. Shortly thereafter Japan was formally occupied by Germany.

Jin-Roh takes places during the 1960s. The Germans are beginning to pull out and Japan is finally getting some room to breathe. The Japanese government has instigated several rapid industrialization programs in order to boost their economy. Unfortunately, there's also quite a bit of social unrest as a result of these programs. Riots frequently breakout, socialist movements are getting worryingly popular and anti-government terrorists seem to get more numerous by the day. To restore law and order a special paramilitary police force known as the Kerberos Panzer Cops has been established.

The movie follows a member of the Panzer Cops named Kazuki Fuse. He's allways considered himself a loyal member of Kerberos, but he's shaken to his core after witnessing a young girl blow herself up during one of the riots. He finds himself increasingly drawn towards the girl's sister, Kei Amemiya. At the same time there's an ongoing investigation into a possible counterintelligence cell that has infiltrated the Panzer Cops. This cell is known by the name Jin-Roh.

Okay, before we go any further we need to talk about how this movie came to be. Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade is based upon the Kerberos Cycle manga by Mamoru Oshii, who also helped with the production of the movie. It's actually the third adaption of the Kerberos Cycle. There are two live-action movies, The Red Spectacles and Stray Dog, which came out before Jin-Roh. Chronologically, however, Jin-Roh comes first since it takes place in the 1960s while the live-action movies take place in the 1990s. Mamoru Oshii has also been involved with several classic anime films such as AKIRA and Ghost in the Shell. Now let's examine the alternate history itself.

Plausibility wise this movie is probably on the softer side. Nazi Germany never had any plans to expand into East Asia or to stab Japan in the back. Then there's the reason Japan fell to Germany: the atomic bomb. For multiple reasons Germany was nowhere near developing atomic bombs in our world, and they wouldn't be any closer in the world of Jin-Roh. On the flip side, the socioeconomic situation in post-occupation Japan is a bit more believable because it echoes the real world. We see several left-wing movements gaining popularity, particularly among the youth, just like in our world's Japan in the 1950s. The rapid industrialization and urbanization, along with all of the resulting problems, parallels South Korea during the 1960s and 1970s.

Now let's talk about the art style. Nine times out of ten if you watch an anime it's probably going to employ the standard anime art style. The technically term for this is Mukokuseki, which roughly translates as statelessness. This often employed to add visual diversity to a cast characters and make them easier to differentiate. Jin-Roh falls into the remaining one tenth that forgo Mukokuseki in favor of a more realistic art style. Personally, I tend to favor the typical anime look, but Jin-Roh's art style does make for an interesting change of pace.

This movie has really great atmosphere to it. It has a very gritty and cynical feel to it, and there's shades of grey all around. The terrorist may have legitimate grievances, but their violent and destructive methods aren't serving anyone. The Panzer Cops are certainly necessary to maintain order and protect the populous, but they have to resort to increasingly harsh measures to do so. At the end of the day nobody really looks that good, and there really aren't any easy answers. This is very much a movie steeped in cynicism, and if you're the kind of person who likes happy endings you might be disappointed.

There's a lot of wolf imagery throughout the movie. For example, the members of the Panzer Cops frequently get compared to wolves and their organization's flag features a wolf. The original version of Little Red Riding Hood also features prominently throughout the movie. If you're not familiar with that version, I won't give the ending away. I will, however, mention that in the original version there was no woodsman. The guns, uniforms and vehicles are all clearly German and very accurately depicted. This does make sense, given that Germany has only recently pulled out of Japan.

Overall I found this movie to be enjoyable, but there were a few minor flaws here and there. I felt like Fuse and Kei's relationship could have been developed just a bit more. The pacing of the movie also felt like it got a bit rushed towards the end. It's not really a flaw, but I do kind of wonder what happened to America in this world. Granted, the movie is focused on Japan, so that wouldn't be plot relevant, but I still wonder about how America fared.

The English language dub is absolutely top-notch, and the whole cast does a great job. The English dub was licensed by Bandai Entertainment, which closed its North American division a few years ago. Fortunately, Discotek Media was rescued the license and re-released Jin-Roh on DVD and Blu-ray.

Well there you have it. Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade is a dark and cynical alternate history political thriller. If you enjoy darker anime movies you won't want to miss this one. Well, time for me to find some more anime movies to review for you guys. I will see you all next time.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Anime Review: Code Geass

So I'd been meaning to do an anime review for a while now. I've been debating one which one to review first, and ultimately, I've decided to repost the first anime review I ever wrote for Alternate History Weekly Update before it shut down. That's right, today we're going to be review the alternate history anime Code Geass.

The back story is that America lost the Revolutionary War, but the British Isles were later conquered by Napoleon, as was pretty much all of Europe. The British royal family fled to their still loyal American colonies. In time they would rise from the ashes as the Holy Britannian Empire and would grow to span the entirety of the Americas. Britannia's two main rivals are the European Union, the federated descendant of Napoleon's empire, and the Chinese Federation, a union between China and India.

The series begins seven years after Japan was annexed by Britannia. Why was the notoriously resource poor Japan annexed by a foreign power? You see, in this world most power and energy is derived from a highly reactive substance known as sakuradite and Japan is the Persian Gulf of sakuradite. The Britannian conquest of Japan was aided by the use of mobile suit mecha known as Knightmare Frames.

The series follows an exiled Britannian prince named Lelouch Lamperouge. He's been seeking revenge against Brittannia for the assassination of his mother and he wants to make the world a safer place for his disabled sister Nunally. Lelouch has all but given up hope of achieving any of this, but then he meets a mysterious girl named C.C. (pronounced see-two) who grants him the power of geass. Geass takes many forms, but for Lelouch it's the ability of command anyone he makes eye contact with to perform any action, but only once per person. Lelouch soon creates an identity for himself as the masked vigilante Zero and he quickly becomes an icon and leader of the Japanese resistance movement, who christen themselves The Black Knights.

Before long the events of the rebellion spread far beyond Japan and engulf the entire world. Lelouch is surrounded by enemies and potential allies, and then there's his childhood friend Suzaku Kururugi. Suzaku is an honorary Britannian of Japanese origin who has risen through the ranks of the military and hopes to reform the empire from within.

This series is probably one of the best alternate history anime out there. The alternate history is really central to the plot and setting rather than simply being used as a backdrop. There's several more details to the setting's history that you can find through various supplementary materials and a few quick online searches. Highlights include that the Ancient Britons successfully repelled the Roman invasion, sakuradite was first discovered under Stonehenge and Elizabeth I apparently had male heirs. It’s a very intriguing setting full of all kinds of possibilities.

Besides being an alternate history series Code Geass is also a member of the Real Robot genre. As best I understand it, Real Robot attempts to portray mecha and piloted robots in a more realist manner than something like, say, Pacific Rim. The Knightmares aren't overly large, they move using wheels, they have a few more fantastic features such as energy shields, but overall they're pretty well grounded.

One of the big themes that is present thought out the series is that those who fight wars must be willing to account for their consequences. The Black Knights are fighting for freedom against a monstrous oppressor, but they often find themselves making decisions that often bring unforeseen consequences. At the same time, thought Britannian society is incredibly racist and classist, as the series goes on we increasingly see that most average Britannians are decent enough people just trying to live their lives. Then there's the driving questions of what will really be better for the Japanese people in the long run. Should they attempt revolution and risk millions of innocent lives, or work for reform within the system, but potentially at the cost of their heritage and culture? In short, shades of grey all around.

The other really big theme throughout the series is of course racism and that plays in rather interestingly when it comes to the artwork. The character designs for the series were designed by the artist group CLAMP. In typical CLAMP style most of the characters have a very long-limbed and noodley look to them. Generally speaking, the Japanese characters will have black or brown hair, while the Britannians tend to have hair from every color of the rainbow. Interestingly though, Lelouch looks fairly Japanese, while Suzaku looks like he could pass as a pure-blooded Britannian. Give that racism is a fairly prominent theme throughout the series this may have been intentional.

Now, I know some of you might have some concerns about this next subject, so let's just get it out of the way now. Yes, there is fanservice in this series, but on the whole it's pretty evenhanded. Female characters tend to be incredibly buxom, male characters get more than a few shirtless scenes and characters of both genders get shots lingering on their rear ends. There's also the odd scene of brief nudity here and there, but it's nothing beyond PG-13 level.

While we're on the subject of touchy issues, let's talk about the voice acting. I'm going to focus on the English dub of the series here. Now, I'm more than aware that to some anime fans this is considered heresy, but I get more out of something when I hear it. I also don't hold any ill will towards those of you who prefer subtitles, I just ask for mutual respect here. Okay, now let's talk about some voice acting that really stood out.

I thought that Johnny Young Bosch brought a lot of emotion a depth to his performance as Lelouch. Likewise, Yuri Lowenthal did an equally good job voicing Suzaku. Though having first encountered Yuri as the voice of Ben Tennyson in Ben 10: Alien Force, it did cause some of Suzaku's lines to come across as unintentionally humorous or otherwise hard to take seriously. On the whole I'd say that all of the voice actors did really great jobs voicing their characters.

Now, Code Geass may be a really great series, but it's not without its flaws. One of the biggest issues I had was the way the plot tended to switch between the ongoing rebellion and the high school antics going on with the student council at Lelouch and Suzaku's boarding school. The first few episodes did a pretty good job of striking a balance, but as the series progresses the student council bits began to feel increasingly forced and didn't contribute much to the plot. At times it almost felt like I was watching two completely different series that somehow got mashed together.

Then there's the fact that many of the Britannians have oddly French sounding names. This is particularly jarring when you consider that the European Union is Britannia's sworn enemy. China and India merging into a single nation is apparently something of a common trope in Japanese alternate history and science fiction, but it still comes across as kind of random. I also find it kind of odd that, despite being incredibly racist and classist, Brittannia seems oddly progressive when it comes to women's rights and accepts homosexuality.

We also don't get to see the European Union as much as we get to see Britannia and the Chinese Federation. There is a series set in between seasons one and two, however, known as Code Geass: Akito the Exiled. It is set in the European Union, though it has yet to be released in America.

As far as the second season goes, it certainly had its good points, but in many ways it felt even more disjointed than the first season. It seemed to go more and more off the rails, and by the time the ending came...well, I wouldn't want to spoil that. In large part this can be blamed on executive meddling with the production. The first season wound up being much more popular than anticipated, so the crew were forced to make alteration to the plot to allow for more new fans to watch the show. Code Geass is very continuity heavy, so I can kind of see where they were coming from, but I find myself questioning if it was really all for the best in the end.

Despite some iffy elements, overall Code Geass is a pretty good anime, but where would you go if you wanted to watch it? This is an especially pressing issue given that Bandai Entertainment, which was responsible for the English dub, shut down its North American division. Have no fear, FUNimation Entertainment has rescued the license for Code Geass and several other Bandai properties.

They have yet to rerelease the series, but you can find the original Bandai DVDs on Amazons for relatively descent prices. Season one is known as Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion, while season two is known as Code Geass: R2. FUNimation also has the license for Code Geass: Akito the Exiled, so hopefully we'll see a dub of it someday. There's also several manga adaptations, but none of them are particularly faithful to the anime.

Well there you have it. Code Geass may not be the greatest anime I've ever seen, but it's still a pretty good show. Hey, if you're looking for one of the best alternate history anime out there, you can't beat Code Geass. I'm hoping to share some more anime with you guys in the near future. I hope to see you then. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Book Review: The Ear, The Eye and The Arm by Nancy Farmer

Today, we’re going to take a look at one of the most famous young adult speculative fiction books that’s set in Africa…and written by a white woman. To be fair though, Nancy Farmer did live in Mozambique and Zimbabwe for seventeen years. Today we will be reviewing The Ear, The Eye and The Arm by Nancy Farmer.

The book is set in Harare, Zimbabwe in the year 2194. Zimbabwe has grown into a first world economy and is a major player on the world stage. It has had some trouble with gangs, but that’s mostly behind it now thanks to the work of General Amadeus Matsika. The General’s three children Tendai, Rita and Kuda have spent almost their whole lives on the grounds of their family’s fortified mansion. One day they decide to sneak out to earn their scout badge for exploration, but it isn’t long before the children are kidnapped.

In order to find the children General Matsika hires a trio of mutant deceives named Ear, Eye and Arm. Ear has super-hearing, Eye has super-sight and Arm has telekinesis that allows him to feel the emotions of other people. Together the three detectives must make their way across the futuristic city of Harare and find the Matsika children before time runs out.

It’s very rare to see science fiction novels that are set in Africa. Granted, that’s starting to change thanks to the growing prominence of Nigerian science fiction writers. For the moment, though, African based science fiction still remains something a rare bird. So it was a pleasant surprise for me to have found this novel. The history, traditional culture and mythology of Zimbabwe all play major parts in the plot. It’s all very well researched and you’ll probably wind up learning a lot about all three of the above mentioned.

The world building in this book is absolutely top-notch. You really get a sense that 22nd century Zimbabwe is a land where ancient traditions exist side-by-side with futuristic technologies such as robots and flying cars. Zimbabwe seems to have experienced something of a cultural renaissance. For example, the primary religion of 22nd century Zimbabwe is based around the traditional gods and spirits. One thing I found interesting was that the characters only remembered English as having been used in the colonial days of Zimbabwe. That and certain other details seem to suggest that the English-speaking world has fallen from prominence. It would seem that the 22nd century is a world turned on its head.

The novel is primarily a coming of age story for Tendai and his siblings. However, all of the major characters experience growth and development to some extent. Even seemingly minor characters experience change and there is an epilogue at the end of the book that lets us know how they’re all doing. The book is evenly split between the adventures of the Matsika children and the investigation of the three detectives. So even those of you not normally into YA might find something to enjoy in this novel.

One thing I founds interesting was that all of the places the Matsika kids went to could be viewed as metaphors for the various points in Zimbabwe’s history. In that regard, you could almost consider this book an unconventional time travel story of sorts. Harare, from the vibrant Mbare Musika marketplace to the Mile-High MacIlwaine hotel, represents 22nd century Zimbabwe and the hope for the future. Dead Man’s Vlei, a garbage dump the size of a small town, could represent present day Zimbabwe. The English suburb of Borrowdale and the reservation of Resthaven seem to be stand-ins for colonial and pre-colonial Zimbabwe respectively.

While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about Resthaven. It’s a sovereign nation where its inhabitants keep the ways of pre-colonial Africa…including all of the unpleasant aspects. As a result, while Resthaven is an Edenic paradise for men it tends to be a rather unpleasant place for women. In many ways Resthaven could be seen as a caution against those who romanticize the past and advocate preserving cultures for the sake of preserving cultures. The fact that the people of Resthaven hardly ever leave it and only have the vaguest notions of the outside world suggest that it might have cultist undertones.

Now let’s talk about race and ethnicity. Almost all of the characters are either black or brown, and you can count the white characters on one hand. Even the white characters somewhat count since you tend not to see White Africans in books too much besides maybe South Africa. One thing I found interesting about the race relations in the book was how most of the white characters typically occupied the ethnic labor jobs. Guess it goes back to the world of The Ear, The Eye and The Arm being something of a mirror image of the present day.

For the most part this is a science fiction novel. There are a few instances where the characters debate if spirits are involved, but it’s left fairly ambiguous. That is, until the end of the novel when things are pushed firmly into science fantasy territory. In terms of scientific accuracy, I’d say that most of the advances in technology are fairly realistic for 200 years in the future. About the only bit that was off was the explanation for Ear, Eye and Arm’s powers. They grew up in a village near a nuclear power plant and were born mutated as a result. To be fair, it is mentioned that they were the exception rather than the rule for their village’s mutant population.

It’s mentioned that certain diseases, such as chickenpox, have been eliminated. I’d let that slide, but it’s shown that such diseases still exist in Resthaven. I know it’s to underscore the moral of not being blind to the ills of the past, but given that there is a very limited amount of travel out of Resthaven, it creates a major health risk. However, this is a minor issue and overall the science aspects stand strong.

Now for a minor note about book covers.  The Ear, The Eye and the Arm has had multiple covers over the years.  I picked the one on top, which is a more recent cover, because I kind of like it the most.  That having been said, I’m also a big fan of this cover as well.

For those of you who enjoy audiobooks there is a version narrated by George Guidall. George is a well-loved narrator of audiobooks, but initially wasn’t sure if he’d be able to pull it off. Turns out that my fears were misplaced. George has a considerable vocal range and has narrated other great audiobooks such as Eric Flint’s 1632 series, American Gods by Neil Gaiman and The Epic of Gilgamesh. Suffice it to say he does an outstanding job here as well. There is a slight hiss to the audio, but it’s isn’t that distracting, and you’ll hardly notice it.

The Ear, The Eye and The Arm has won the Newbery Honor and the Hal Clement Award. That second one is a part of the Golden Duck Awards. Also, don’t worry, I promise that no dogs are harmed in the advancement of this book’s plot.

Well there you have it. The Ear, The Eye and The Arm combines traditional African culture with science fiction technology for one unforgettable experience. If you’re looking for science fiction in a non-Western setting, or just good young adult science fiction generally, it can’t be beat.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Book Review: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

It has occurred to me that I haven’t really reviewed anything recently where I outright hated something or didn’t have at least a little something nice to say. That ends with this post. I’m about to review a book that is by far one of the worst books I’ve read in quite some time. The book is Shadow and Bone, book one of the Grisha trilogy, by Leigh Bardugo.

The story is set in a fantasy version of 18th Century Russia known as Ravka. It follows an orphan girl named Alina Starkov. While traveling across the Unsea, a realm of darkness that divides Ravka in half, she discovers that she has the ability to summon light. Before long Alina is whisked away to train with a group powerful wizards known as Grisha. However, it isn’t long before Alina finds herself in the middle of a tangled web of intrigue that could determine the future of Ravka.

Let me start off by saying that it is very rarely that I find myself the lone voice of dissent in a sea of praise. Indeed, this book has received several glowing reviews, including from other fantasy authors such as Cynda Williams Chima and Rick Riordan. I initially found out about this book when Rick gave it a recommendation in his list of books he’d recently read. The cover had such a nice design and the map was, well, how about if I show you?

I mean, just look at that map! It’s made by the same artist who did the illustrations for Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series. At that point I was pretty much sold, but looks can be deceiving, as I found out the hard way. There were many times I wanted to quit the book, but I was determined to make it all the way through in hopes that there might be some redeeming diamond in the rough. Alas, there was none, but let’s look at this book in more detail.

We’ll start with the characters, and specifically with the protagonist Alina Starkov. Ms. Starkov is, without any competition, one of the most annoying characters I have encountered in some time. The book is told from her point of view, and very much to the book’s detriment because of this. Alina frequently whines about how unworthy she is, and how she isn’t pretty even though everyone tells her otherwise, and how she’s doesn’t deserve the affections of her many suitors. By frequently I of course mean pretty much every other thing she says is whiny and incredibly irritating. Let’s see here, a character who has great power, is incredibly beautiful, loved by everyone and yet has a severe inferiority complex. Two words: Mary Sue. Also, in proper Russian her name ought to have been Starkova, but that’s hardly the only Russian language error in this book.

Now, some of you might think I’m being a bit harsh here. I mean Alina has had a somewhat rough life before the Grisha showed up. Well let’s compare Alina to some more positive heroines such as Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Annabeth Chase from Percy Jackson and the Olympians and Amy Martin from Across the Universe. All three of these fine ladies have gone through considerable hardships in their lives, and they do take time out to deal with their feelings of doubt and sadness. However, what sets them apart from Alina is that they don’t wallow in their doubt and sadness nor do they allow it to define who they are.

Now let’s talk about the other characters. We’ve got Mal, whom Alina is constantly swooning over and is a childhood friend. His primary personality trait is being Alina’s perfect boyfriend and…well, that’s basically all there is to him. The other significant man in Alina’s life is The Darkling, the shadowy leader of the Grisha. I can best describe him as a more bluntly abusive version of Edward Cullen from Twilight. He’s dark, dangerous and slightly rape-y, but Alina is oh so attracted to him. For that matter, thought this book is often billed as Harry Potter in 18th Century Russia, it’s really much more like Twilight in 18th Century Russia.

There were plenty of minor characters throughout the book. Most notably were the workers at the palace of the Grisha. They all have magical abilities, but not enough to earn a place among the Grisha. On the whole I find them to be much more interesting than the main characters, and I often found myself wondering why this book wasn’t about them. I should point out that there is an audio version of this book narrated by Lauren Fortgang. She tries her best with the narration, she really does, but unfortunately it just isn’t enough to save this book its terrible writing. I actually kind-of wish I’d bought the physical book just so I could have something to throw against the wall in frustration.

Now let’s talk about the worldbuilding. Ravka is very much a serial numbers filed off version of 18th Century Russia. Now, I’m not opposed to fantasy cultures being based recognizably on real world counterparts, but there should be at least some difference. For example, the primary religion of Ravka is based around the worship of saints and angels, rather like the Russian Orthodox Church. The citizens of Ravka wear kaftans and drink tea from samovars, and there’s a scene where a character gets drunk on kvass…which is known as children’s beer due to its low alcohol level. Even the geography parallels real world Russia. To the north we have Scandinavian sounding Fierda, to the south we have Chinese analog Shu Han and to the west we have the frozen wilderness of Tsibeya as the Siberia stand-in. Also, apparently Shu Han eats their Grisha while Fierda burn theirs. Yeah, the one Asian-esque nation is full of cannibals. Again, let’s look at someone who did it better. Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon is set in a world model off of the Middle East during the Golden Age of Islam, but it isn’t an exact carbon copy of that time and place, and there are enough difference to keep things interesting, unlike with this book

What really irks me about this book is how it failed to utilize a potentially interesting premise. I’ve seen interviews with Leigh Bardugo she’ll talk about all the little details she planned out for the book, like how the magic of the Grisha’s is really more like a science. Unfortunately, it seems Ms. Bardugo forgot to include these details in the book. Based on everything she’s said in these interviews it’s clear that Leigh has both potential and passion as a writer, but I feel she significantly dialed it all back and severely dumbed this book down. Now, some of you might suggest that the series gets better with future books. The reason that doesn’t hold is that you must capture the reader’s attention and interest by the end of the first book. If you fail to do so then we have a problem and they aren’t going to pick up any more books from the series.

Also, there’s the issue if the book’s moral. It’s revealed that Alina could have gotten into Grisha school way earlier, but she’s been intentionally suppressing her powers to stay with Mal. Combined with her total obsession with Mal, despite him having the personality of a wet cardboard box, this put a really bad taste in my mouth. It felt like the moral of the story was something along the lines of “Throw away your talents, and anything that makes you special or unique, to get your man because that’s what’s really important in life.” That is an absolutely horrible message to be sending to teenage girls, and one I sincerely hope Ms. Barugo didn’t intend to send.

Yet despite the numerous flaws with this novel it’s received a nearly ceaseless shower of praise. Professional authors call this book original and refer to its main character as strong and even as a role model. I find myself wondering if these other reviewers were reading a different book than I was. There’s even talk of a potential movie adaption to be produced by one of the producers of the Harry Potter movies. If this does come to pass I very much hope that considerable liberties are taken with the source material. Don’t ask me how any of this can possibly be; your guess is as good as mine.

In summary, and to paraphrase the late Rodger Ebert, I hated, hated, hated, absolutely hated this book. I hated almost everything about it. Hey, if nothing else I’ve proved that I know how to write a negative review. Don’t bother wasting your time with this stinker.

Well, that about does it for this review. I’ll return next time, perhaps with something a bit more positive