Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Animated Thoughts: What I've been watching this season

As time marches on, I've been watching more and more Anime television series. Personally, I find that a lot of the stories are more engaging for people in my “middle-age” demographic. Fortunately though, we have been seeing an uptick in animated shows geared for the more mature viewer here in the States, mostly through streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime (see: Invincible, Critical Role, and Love, Death & Robots). However, I do still see us walking a long road before we witness Brad Bird’s view of animation fully realized in the American consciousness as it appears to have already done so in Japan. As Mr. Bird so eloquently said back in 2015: “Animation is an art form and it can do any genre”--including stories for the middle-aged crowd.

Hence, my watching a lot of Anime. Of course, Anime is not immune to the overuse of certain tropes, like “the harem/reverse harem”. And everyone chases trends. Here in the States, it’s been “superheroes” for quite a while. In Japan, "the overpowered protagonist who wakes up in an alternate world" continues to be all the rage. Now don't get me wrong, some of the shows with those tropes and trends can work and can work pretty well--see: Is it Wrong to try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? (both the Familia Myth and Sword Oratoria storylines), the Sword Art Online/Gun Gale Online series and movies, or the "Certain" series: A Certain Magical Index, A Certain Scientific Railgun, and A Certain Scientific Accelerator. But from time-to-time you do get the feeling of “been-there, done-that”.

More often than not, before every season starts I'll make a list of six or seven shows that I want to take a look at and see if they're worth following through to completion. My plan allows for viewing the first two (maybe three) episodes to see if they're worth my time and the list gets culled as the season progresses.

I have to say: this past season had some pretty solid entries into the market. I ended up paring my list down from around ten to five--though of those ten, there's two that I do plan on going back and finishing later this year.

The series on my 'must see' list ended up being: Train to the End of the World, HIGHSPEED Etoile, Kaiju No. 8, and BARTENDER Glass of God (all streamed on Crunchyroll) and Delicious in Dungeon (streamed on NetFlix). The two "honorable mentions" that I plan on finishing were A Sign of Affection and Obsolete--though both of those shows were from prior seasons, streamed on Crunchyroll and YouTube respectively.

Train to the End of the World. Now, you might think from the trailer that this is one of those stereotypical 'cute girls doing cute things' Anime. Well, you'd be wrong! From the opening sequences, this Anime takes a hard left turn into the surreal. The whole story follows four girls (and their dog) as they take a train from their home town all the way to Ikebukuro in order to find one of their missing friends. The catch here is that the entire world has gone crazy due to the implementation of "7G" wireless connectivity. But the girls are determined and hijinks ensue at every stop on the way. Now while the banter is entertaining, as is the trouble the girls find themselves in, it's the attention to facial expressions and body language, the "acting", that really makes the series work for me. No matter what challenges they face, they never cease to behave like teenage girls who are at that midpoint between childhood and maturity. And when faced with a bizarre landscape (which they'd been dealing with for two years by the time they decide to make their trek) that is filled with equally bizarre perils, over and over it's their friendship that carries them through to the end. It reminded me of the "Certain" series in that regard: kids that are thrust into an adult world, who have to solve more-or-less adult problems. But they solve those problems as you expect a child (or teenager) would, not in the manner that an adult would--even though they're trying their hardest to act mature at the time. All-in-all, I found it to be a fun, thoroughly quirky show. From the start, you never really doubted what would happen by the end of the last episode, but it was an enjoyable journey to take. Do be warned though, it does get a little silly and a little cheeky in some spots so I wouldn't let little kids watch it.

I don't like watching sports. Never have. Don't like playing them either, though I guess I can see the appeal of playing sports... kind of. But it holds no interest for me for various reasons not really relevant to this post. Now sports movies? Well those I find rather engaging. I thoroughly enjoyed the live-action car racing movie Gran Turismo (based upon the true story of a videogame/simulator and aspiring race car driver Jann Mardenborough)--enjoyed it so much I watched it twice. HIGHSPEED Etoile was another one of those entries. The initial premise was recycled: a ballerina who was sidelined by an injury gets involved in racing instead--same premise as in the Anime Rideback from back in 2009. The main characters from both series even have the same name. But this time it is racing in a future where a new power source allows race cars to propel themselves at a level of speed and skill never seen before. Other sci-fi tropes integrated into the show have a number of the race cars enhanced by AI as well as hologram announcers at the racetracks, a-la Vocaloids. This appears to be a 3d CGI animated show with 2d cel-shaded rendering. The character animation is pretty stiff but the racing sequences are very realistic--I mean, as realistic as they were in the live-action movie Speed Racer. Perhaps "well done" would be a better choice of words. What attracted me to this show is that Rin is not automatically good at the task she's presented with, unlike so many modern (boring) stories nowadays. No, Rin's performance behind the wheel evolves over time as it builds upon her athleticism and coordination from years of studying ballet. And while she does come off as a bit ditzy and clueless, as the show progresses, she grows as a character and loses her naivete. Some folks might not say that this is a "must watch" show, but it "is" another fun ride. If you liked the Emile Hirsch version of Speed Racer, you'll probably enjoy this series.

Kaiju No. 8 wasn't what I expected given that it was produced by Production IG, the powerhouse that brought us Ghost in the Shell. There ended up being a bit of zaniness in Kaiju No. 8 that I found a bit offputting. I went in expecting a serious look at a world beset by giant monsters hellbent on destruction and the people who stood in their way--including the para-military force that destroys them and most importantly, the crews of workers that have to clean up the aftermath (and carcasses) of the Kaiju. This show struck me as something that Studio Trigger would release as visually and performance-wise it had more in common with Kill la Kill or Gurren Lagaan than Ghost in the Shell. I almost stopped watching three episodes in, but stuck it out and Kaiju No.8 ended up being worth the time spent. This is a show with some great action sequences and the story ends up being one with a lot of heart as it follows a middle-aged Kaiju disposal worker in his attempts to live out his dream of becoming a member of the Anti-Kaiju Security Force. In the end, despite the show's occasional overexaggeration of Kafka Hibino's performance I found myself rooting for Kafka and looking forward to the second season.

Bartender Glass of God is one of those shows that is a slow burn. The pacing is relaxed yet there is an underlying tension to the story. The characters and their motivations are revealed across the series--much like watching a slow-motion video of a flower blooming. It's honestly a very meditative show to watch. The story follows Ryū Sasakura, a bartender who is on a quest to mix the "Glass of God"--meaning: that perfect drink for each of his customers. The conflict comes from a hotel owner who wants him to work at his high-end hotel instead of at the bar that where Ryū currently resides. And there are minor conflicts among the side characters that only serve to reveal more and more about Ryū's character and history. This show is a reboot from 2006's Bartender. I'm not sure if I like this series as much as the first one from 2006, but I would definitely say I like them both, just for different reasons.

Now Delicious in Dungeon is the show I've been waiting for. I've been following the manga ever since I discovered it during a break from watching (and reading) Isekai Shokudō--or in English: Restaurant to Another World. Setting aside the fact that Isekai Shokudō is on my "must see" list of Anime, I learned about Delicious in Dungeon (Japanese title: Dungeon Meishi) when I saw it on the bookshelf while looking for the latest manga and light novel translations of Restaurant to Another World. I tried it on for size, as it looked interesting, and I was not disappointed. The story follows a number of adventurers who are trying to rescue (resurrect) one of their friends who got eaten by a red dragon at the lower levels of this magical dungeon. But with little money to work with, they are faced with the prospect of never seeing their friend again or being forced to eat the monsters they kill in order to survive the expedition. Like what the trailer suggests, this show is nice and kooky. If you're into cooking shows and Dungeons & Dragons (as I am), you'll find this a fun romp--especially when you find yourself searching out a number of YouTubers who have made recipes similar to the ones in the show. A word of warning though: while this show is very fun and looks lighthearted, as the story progresses it does get pretty deep and mysterious. There's a lot of meat there, so if you're expecting something light and fluffy from beginning to end, you might want to look elsewhere. It's a 24 episode run on Netflix and, in my opinion, is well worth the time spent. I've watched both the English sub and English dub episodes several times. I can recommend both. And if you have a minute or two to spare, I highly recommend the original animated music video made by Bump of Chicken for the song Sleep Walking Orchestra, which was used for the show's opening title sequence.

Well, the season draws to a close and there's only one episode of Bartender Glass of God left for me to watch. Then once again I'll be pawing through lists of seasonal shows on Crunchyroll, Amazon Prime, Netflix, HBO Max, and Hulu as I look for those shows that not only pique my interest but hopefully become one of the rare gems that adorn my DVD collection.

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Sunday, June 30, 2024

Animated People: Erik Timmerman

Back in 1994, on the first day of classes that Fall quarter, Erik and Marla gathered us first-year grad students together in a room and went over what the program entailed and what the next three years would look like (back then it was a three-year M.F.A. program and R.I.T. was on the quarter system).

During his lecture, Erik made a statement that has stuck with me over the past thirty years:

"You can make a million dollar film with a $10 piece of software and you can make a $10 film with a million dollar piece of software."

Erik's lesson was short and sweet: it's not the equipment you use, it's the skill of the filmmaker that makes all the difference. Now that I'm teaching, I often see students getting hung up on what's the latest and greatest piece of animation software. And on the one hand, I think it's important to know what the studios are using, but that shouldn't stop one from making their film. It's easy to get caught up in the arms race of having to possess the latest computer, the newest camera, or the most recent software update--much to the detriment of improving ones skills as an animator and a storyteller.

Erik also placed a heavy premium on story. Back then, he told a number of us "it all begins with a story." I fondly remember the times when he would start lectures with phrases like "so there's this guy...". Years after his passing, Bill Landers (the Chief Engineer for R.I.T.'s College of Art and Design) had a plaque installed  in the Gannett Building to memorialize Erik and his contributions to both the Graduate Computer Animation program and the Scriptwriting program at R.I.T.

At a number of the school reunions in the past, I've had the opportunity to touch base with Bill and reminisce with him about our time with Erik. We both share a knowing smile when Erik's emphasis on the importance of story inevitably comes up in the conversation.

As I have watched a plethora of animated films over the years, and have made a couple myself, I'm often struck by the thought that no matter what genre the animation uses or what form the film takes, there's always a story there to be told.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Animated Thoughts: Art Comes in Many Forms, pt. 2

I had a rare weekend off so figured I'd take a day and feed my soul. Fortunately, there were opportunities here in-State. But rather than drive down to Detroit or over to Flint in order to appreciate an art museum (or two), this time I drove in the opposite direction to see what Grand Rapids had to offer. I was not disappointed.

First stop: the Frederik Meijer Gardens in order to see the butterflies before that particular exhibit ends for the season, then a little hiking around the grounds. Gotta get those steps in. However, before the other events, as I'm on the quest to find the perfect egg salad sandwich, I had to take a moment and fuel up at the cafeteria.

Not bad. About a 6 out of 10. A little too heavy on the greens.

Then, it was off to go hunting for some butterflies!

Next, I went hiking around the grounds to see the Japanese garden. 

It was still early in the season, but there were some flowers in full bloom.

And I spotted an escapee from the indoor butterfly exhibit.

"Fly, be free!"

I had plans to visit the John Ball Zoo and experience their Lantern Festival, but I really wanted to go there closer to sunset in order to get the full effect. Which left time to stop over at Max's South Seas Hideaway, a tiki bar in the heart of Grand Rapids.

The food and drinks are tasty. And while I'm not really into the "tiki bar" scene, Max's has some really beautiful artwork in what looks to me like the Midcentury Modern style, and that's what I go there to see.

After taking a bunch of photos (and finishing off the Pu Pu Platter), it was time to go walking again. Which meant a quick drive over to the John Ball Zoo. This was the first "lantern festival" I'd ever seen first hand and it was pretty impressive. The Zoo had timed entry in order to manage the flow of foot traffic, however once you got in, you could go around the Zoo as many times as you wanted. The exhibits themselves were arranged by environmental themes: prehistoric animals, undersea animals, insects, etc. Most were a set color and pattern, but some had undulating lights, some would move, and others had some interactivity built in such that if you stepped on a pressure plate, they would move or change color. They even had a flower that was hooked up to a smoke machine so when the kids stepped on it, it would blow a burst of "pollen" at them. And three times a day, they had a troupe of chinese acrobats doing traditional performances--like balancing acts or magic tricks. Fun stuff.

In looking at the displays, I enjoyed all the shapes and colors and forms of the "lanterns", but if I'm being honest, I would've loved to be a fly on the wall when they set up and tore down the displays just so I could see how they were done. I'm sure that a lot of it was basic LED lighting but the animatronics and the interactive components add a lot to the show. 

Art comes in many forms.

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