Thursday, 31 January 2019

Better Tomorrow from a Brighter Past ~ A Review of "Zillion"

In a strange twist this is the first proper anime review I have ever done here. I've made many posts about anime and where it has been, what it is doing, and where it's going, but nothing about a specific series and looking at its strengths and weaknesses and how it stacks up. Considering the amount of reviews I've done it wouldn't be fair to keep that up, so that will change here. Today I want to look at the '80s cult favorite anime series Zillion from 1987/88 and just recently re-released by Funimation on Bluray/DVD/Digital packaging.

Zillion was first created as a laser tag game in Japan in the mid-80s which rolled over into a TV anime series produced by Tatsunoko (and is the first production by popular animation studio Production I.G.) along with two Master System video games made by Sega. Each of these are highly regarded to this day. The franchise wasn't around very long, mostly being locked to peak anime year 1987, yet it is stillooked at with a high degree of respect in Japan due to the sheer amount of quality it put out in such a short time.

Zillion's reputation overseas is very weird in that none of it come from the complete 31 episode (and OVA special) run of the anime or the video games made by Sega. Its popularity stems from a mere five dubbed episodes released on VHS by Streamline during the original anime boom of the early 90s and two separate music videos featuring clips each by Michael and Janet Jackson ("Scream") and Del the Funky Homosapien ("Cyberpunks") and that is more or less it when it comes to Zillion.

The show never got a full release, not even the unofficiasub community would touch it despite being a prime candidate for the job, licencors like Discotek never went near it, and the Master System being Sega's least known system in North America meant the games would never be popular, either. So outside of older anime fans who were around in a very specific time and place, Zillion was very much unknown and remained that way until, well, now.

But before we go further, it needs to be told what the series is about.

Zillion takes place in the year 2387 on a distant planet named Maris after man has colonized the stars. The Noza Empire has declared war on humanity and hopes to take the planet from them for their own needs. Three mysterious artifacts (rumored to be from God) were reconstituted into guns by the human military which have extra firepower against their enemies despite the fact they are not reproduce-able. They are given to a team of three: J.J., Champ, and Apple, who form a special group called the White Nuts that are used for special missions against the Noza. This series follows their fight against the alien menace.

The Opening

It should be said upfront that Zillion is an unapologetic action show. Every episode involves the White Nuts either involved in or assaulted by some Noza plot and they have to use their skills to fight back and win

The series is episodic and every episode follows the traditional western three act structure method of storytelling with a finale that leaves the problem solved and the heroes just that much closer to overalvictory. Aside from one two-part episode (labeled as such) in the middle of the series and the finale Zillion tells a complete story in each of its 31 episodes which all manage to simultaneously develop characters without having to rely on constant origin stories or hopeless misery. This is a bright series without any nihilism at all.

But it is also not a Star Trek Utopian fantasy. One extremely well directed episode has a Cyberpunk/Noir vibe where people are killed and one of the main characters fights through the dark city to show why he was chosen to wield his Zillion in the first place. The night ends as he reclaims his weapon and slays the evil at the very end. Another features a character who dies helping our mains achieve their goal of stopping a Noza plot as a true soldier sacrificing himself so they can win. Yet another has an ally die after a successful Noza attack. War, murder, and crime, still exist even 400 years later on another planet, even against an alien force, and all our problems between each other are still the same as ever. Just as they always will be. Zillion is a sort of look at the future pulpsters would have dug back in the day.

At the same time, technology has progressed and we've learned some new tricks to deal with the wilds of the untamed universe. The hardware here is impressive and very useful without feelng like blatant product placement. It all works to the benefit of the story.

The characters also match what you would hope to find in such a series. J.J. is the hotblooded skirt-chaser, Champ is the cool-headed tough guy, and Apple is the caring and stern mediator between them. All three mesh together very well and rub off on the others in different ways as a good group dynamic should. They're heroes, and ones you want to follow, and ones you want to win when their backs are against the wall.

To be honest, Zillion itself is very much a pulp series with the same inspirations every early anime had. It is action-based storytelling within a clear moral framework of good and evil, where the men are men and the women are women, duels between rivals occur and are expected, heroics are rewarded and are done without a second thought, and motorcycles transform into fighting mecha that can fly. Excitement is the name of the game and so is the good and just.

They don't make them like Zillion anymore.

Each episode is an adventure with crisp animation that is quite honestly above most TV anime and near OVA levels at times, fast paced and dynamic direction, and some of the catchiest '80s synth rock music you will hear. This is the sort of anime that was expected before the '00s. When I say that they don't make them like this anymore, I mean it. Zillion does everything a great anime should do, and does it expertly.

As someone who never saw the series (due to the aforementioned above reasons) I was intrigued when I saw that Funimation had licensed it for release. Most likely because it had never gotten any sort of proper shot overseas before. Speculation was that it was included as part of a deal with Speed Racer and that is how Funimation ended up with it, but they sure didn't slack on the packaging or the formatting. I picked this up because amazon was offering a cheap preorder price and got the series and OVA, on 4 Bluray discs, 5 DVDs, and a digital copy, all in one normabox. And I have to say it was a steal.

I don't have a 1080p TV so I can't tell you exactly the difference in the transfer on Bluray, except that Funimation did a good job on encoding and subtitles. Everything is clear, understandable, and there are no artifacts or compression problems that I've noticed. The sound is also mixed well. The menus and packaging are right out of the Sega Master System: I would have posted said box here except none of the pictures online show off how good it looks in person.

The Second Ending Theme

Be wary of reviews for this series, especially from "respected" anime sites. I say this because they are reviewing it as being a nostalgic piece (which it can't really be) or for not being a subversive slog like most modern SF anime. There are those tempted to shoot Zillion down for being "dated" or for being shallow or harboring unacceptable attitudes, just as was done to the pulps it takes inspiration from. I have read at least one professional review that declared this an average series at best with nothing exceptional going for it. They say Zillion is a relic of another time and is best left in the dust as we move to a more progressive and enlightened anime era where things are far beyond simple, fun, and good, action series.

But they are wrong, and wrong in many ways.

There are no series like Zillion anymore, that is true. This is what makes it even more valuable as a discussion piece and makes it far from generic. Anime is in such a confused, disposable, and outright degenerate, state right now that it is easy to forget what it was like at its commercial peak. But even for its time Zillion embodies a pulp ethos and excitement for its content that wasn't common. Nor did most TV anime at the time look this good so much of the time or have such consistency. Had this come out last year for the first time it would stillook and sound impressive, even if its content would have turned certain kings and queens of fandom off.

The 1980s were a positive time for Japan and there is a level of optimism and hope in an action series like Zillion that is no longer seen. You cannot emphasize how much fun the series has at such a constant rate. Zillion feels like it was made to tell a story and not made because it was an anime to dish out to otaku awaiting the next big thing. It was made for normal people, and that might be where much of the criticism comes from.

Other than complaining about "datedness" or other such nonsense, there is nothing to complain about here. Zillion is the sort of thing that got anime popular overseas in the first place.

The series exemplifies the dead art of cell animation, with popping effects and a level of sharp direction that wasn't seen much outside of movies at the time. The characters are not stock tropes, but actual characters with personalities that never get obnoxious or one dimensional. The music doesn't sound like the same goofy Casio keyboard notes ripped out of a sitcom like anime does now but as the type you would hear on the radio or at a concert. The character designs are typical of '80s anime in that they don't look like 500 other shows, but is clearly original to this series. All this sets it apart from not only its own era, but the current one.

Zillion isn't like anything currently being made, and the reason for it is that nothing like it can be. Not in an industry more focused on selling body pillows to a small percent of their shrinking audience, and not in one that has lost the freewheeling spirit and hope of its better days. It represents a better era, and it embarrasses what is being made now.

If that makes it generic then I hate to see what this decade willook like in the rear-view mirror 30 years from now. That is, if the industry isn't dead by then.

All that aside, this is the key point: Zillion is not generic, and looking around now it makes that charge less true than every before.

My final impression of Zillion is one that doesn't surprise me as much as what I've been noticing over the past few years. What appeared to be easy and simple to make: an action show with a heart, a brain, and morals, is increasingly revealing itself to be much harder to construct than what was originally thought. What looks simple is actually very much not. Tight direction, solid character development, high octane action, desperate stakes and situations, three act structure, and high quality animation, packed in less than a half hour running time is not an easy task. But it sure looks easy here.

If you don't believe me then be sure to point out any television series in the last few years that can do it outside a minority example. However, they used to be more common than you think, and it was at a time when people hadn't walked away from television altogether, retreated to their basements, and gave up on life.

In that respect, Zillion is a classic. It is an example of a piece of art that neatly packages an entire era in time into a single place and it is an era when its medium and genre of choice was at its peak, on top of it. That isn't anything to scoff at, but neither is the show itself.

On the other hand, Zillion is just plain quality from top to bottom. As someone who did not see it when it came out, and has never played the games, I have no nostalgic attraction to this property. But I had a blast with every episode, and I highly enjoyed experiencing it for the first time. It turns out my blind buy was justified, and I discovered a bit more about how anime has lost its way and garnered a reputation far away from where it could be. The industry should have followed after Zillion more and less after a subversion in the mid-90s that overturned everything it did well which ended up cratering the medium into the subversive hole it's been stuck in ever since.

But I digress.

I suppose I don't need to tell you that Zillion comes highly recommended by me, even to those who hate anime due to what they believe it be because of its recent state. Zillion is what anime used to be: normal. This is a classic action show that you would get much enjoyment and inspiration out of regardless of who you are or your thoughts on it being animated. There is a general appealing nature to this that doesn't really exist anymore in anime, and that's a shame. We could use more series like it, and more to take inspiration from what it does so well.

As it is, I can only sum it up as thus: Zillion is a deserved classic. It is one of the best things recently licensed and put out on the market. Don't skip it!

The First Ending Theme

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Signal Boost ~ "Combat Frame XSeed" by Brian Niemeier

Find it Here!

Coming straight out of the pits of January is this new new novel, series, and universe, by writer Brian Niemeier. For those who have ever read one of his books (or have read my reviews of them) they would know that he follows an old school method of adventure writing in that Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror, are all the same and he feels free enough to decide whichever to use whenever it benefits his story.

This is one of the reasons I had hired him to help me edit my story in StoryHack #3, but I digress: this post isn't about me.

The author of the Soul Cycle Saga has returned with a brand new baby. I reviewed the first three books in the series, and still have the last to go, but suffice to say that you won't read anything else like it. This time he has turned his attention to a giant robots of the Japanese variety.

This is Combat Frame XSeed:

"The future is over.

"Civilization on Earth has collapsed. Oligarchs have established a new order in manmade space colonies at the Earth-Moon LaGrange points.

"A group of powerful colonies form the Systems Overterrestrial Coalition to re-civilize the earth, but grounders view the colonists as hostile meddlers. The Coalition counters the rising violence with giant manned robots called combat frames.

"The independent L3 colonies denounce the war on Earth. In response, Coalition Security Director Sanzen takes L3 leader Josef Friedlander's wife and daughter hostage. Amid the tense standoff, Friedlander's son Sieg launches an unsanctioned rescue mission to L1's Byzantium colony."

If that reminds you of an early 80s mecha anime then you are on the right track. Mr. Niemeier's goal with this series is to catch that spark of action-packed drama and political intrigue and bring it to a medium that has long since been running on fumes and subversion. Even if you've read a book on mecha before, you certainly haven't read one like this.

Don't pass it by because this is only the first in a new ongoing series, and one in a new movement of mecha by writers such as Rawle Nyanzi and Bradford Walker. The scene will soon be flooded with new stories so you might consider getting in on the ground floor now. This is only the beginning.

I will return later in the week with a normal post. For now simply enjoy this reminder that there are still authors out there trying to do something for their audience other than preach to them. Imagination has no limits, so why settle for less?

It's bound to be a great time.

Armored Trooper Votoms

Thursday, 24 January 2019

"I'll Follow You to the Depths of Hell"~ Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba 3 Volume Review

It's that time of year where I rave about a manga series that should be more popular than it is. Last time it was Psyren, and this time it is Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. The reason I chose this one is because it is on the cusp of breaking out. It is also one of my favorites of the currently running series out of Japan.

Of course, I already reviewed volume 1, but there is far more to talk about beyond that. I wanted to wait a little while between officiareleases to give this series the focus it deserves, but I can wait no longer. There's quite a bit to go over since these three volume build the world and lead up to the first longer story arc in the series. Essentially, with volume 4 you learn everything you'll need to know going forward about our main characters and the conflict they are embroiled in.

This is a review of volume 2, 3 and 4 of Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, a series that, outside of My Hero Academia, is the best thing currently running in Weekly Shonen Jump. Viz waited a bit longer than I would have liked to license it and give it an official push, but they are bumping up the release schedule to make up for it with one every other month.

On top of that, Ufotable, the studio behind all those different Fate/Zero anime series will be making an animated show for this starting in April 2019. That's right, it begins next season. You can see a trailer for it here which, coincidentally enough, covers much of what happens in the first four volumes.

The smooth animation and visceral direction is picture perfect. This is far beyond what the likes of Naruto, Bleach, or even One Piece, got when they received anime. Jump is putting all they can into this one.

In other words, this series is either destined to take off big very soon or is liable to get totally overlooked and overshadowed by the also great My Hero Academia. I want it to be the former so I will try to be honest with why I think so highly of this series. This one deserves every push it can get.

As far as shonen action series, Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba hits all the marks and avoids the pitfalls so common with the worst of the genre. I'll explain that side more later, but first I want to start with the story.

In volume 1 we met Tanjiro Kamado as his family was slaughtered by demons with only his sister, Nezuko, surviving. However, instead of dying she was transformed into a demon. Somehow she managed to hold her mindless rage in check and the demon hunter present spared her life. He sends Tanjiro on a quest to become a hunter himself to find the cure for his sister. Along the way he learns more about the demons than he thought possible.

Volume 2 continues where volume 1 started showing how Tanjiro became a demon hunter and how he learned their sword techniques. After his first few missions he finally faces down the one who created all these demons in the first place, a man named Muzan, in a crowded street. Chaos very quickly ensues. These demons are a bit more complicated in their origins and what they can and can't do, and Tanjiro receives a hint as to how he can possibly turn his sister Nezuko human again. All he needs is the blood of a higher level demon.

To do that, he needs to become one of the best demon hunters out there. But that isn't going to be easy. All the demons he has fought so far are low level.

Volume 3 finishes off the previous story, but also finally gets into the meat of why this series is so good. With this volume we meet two new characters and enter a story arc inside a haunted mansion with a demon that twists and turns the rooms with seeming randomness. Volume 4 wraps the arc up, but the whole thing ramps up the horror, tension, and action, from the earlier chapters. The series hits its stride here.

In this arc, three demon hunters and a group of children become trapped in a mansion where drum beats shift the rooms around and a group of demons await inside and wait to feast on them. It is here that two more hunters are properly introduced to the story and we learn their personalities and what it is they can do.

The first new character (also on volume 3's cover) is Zenitsu Agatsuma, another member of the Demon Corps. Tanjiro is now a part of. Zenitsu is a strange addition to the series, ostensibly being comedic relief, though he does also act very cowardly. But he has a hidden side to him that comes out when his back is up against the wall and it is time to act. He is different from Tanjiro in that he has no reason to be in the Demon Corps. and doesn't really have any tragic backstory. At first glance he appears to be fodder that will either die and be forgotten or exists to show the audience how much the main character has progressed. But one thing that separates him from most coward characters, and gets me to like him far more than I would otherwise, is that the way he deals with his cowardice.

This is difficult to explain, but most such characters are used as the butt of jokes and are usually the weakest characters in any action series. This is for good reason. Shonen doesn't have much respect for selfish people or those with weak wills, and God bless them for it. However, Zenitsu's craven nature is a bit different than a coward. He whines, complains, thinks up excuses, and will do anything to avoid fighting demons . . . until he has to do it.

Zenitsu acts selfish, but he still helps anyone who asks, fights despite his fear, and is a pretty good guy that happens to have weak nerves. All he wants is to find a wife, settle down, and have a family that he can be of use to. He just doesn't want to die before it happens! And he can't quite settle down as long as demons threaten the peace, can he?

The way he contrasts with Tanjiro and the second new character adds a good dynamic to the series we didn't have until now. It's honestly not one I've seen in many action series, period. Most demon hunters go after demons because of personal reasons or because they just hate evil that much. Zenitsu doesn't have the composure, talent, or build for this line of work, and yet he does it anyway. Though there is a hidden piece of him that does, but that is for another time.

As far as coward characters in Shonen go, I think Zenitsu is one of the best. A warrior who fights past he nerves to become the warrior he needs to be. The readers must agree too, because he was ranked the second most popular character in the series in Japan in the character popularity poll. He definitely helps elevate the manga and brings it up to the potential seen back in the first chapter. I'm eager to see where he will end up as the series goes.

The other new character is the demon hunter with the boar head sitting atop his shoulders: Inosuke Haibara. He's not actually a boar-man, just a swordsman who wears one instead of a shirt. He's really that simple and straightforward. And boy is this series better for having him in it.

Inosuke is the hothead of the group, always doing before thinking, but his sense for battle is definitely the best of the three and he knows how to fight. He has no problem killing any enemy that gets in his way, and longs to be at the top of the food chain. Why? Because that's all he knows. At least, for now.

Raised wild in the mountains as an orphan, Inosuke is completely tactless and ignorant of the modern world and is without any semblance of sociability. He's tenacious and one step short of being a reckless fool and dead. He behaves like a rabid animal who lives for the sole purpose of slaying bigger enemies and washing himself in the blood of said foes. What else is there in life?

As you can tell, Inosuke is not a subtle person in any way. He's simpleminded and without any semblance of complexity or depth to his characterization. He's also one of the best characters in the manga for it.

But it's when the three of them get together that the manga really shines. Each of the trio (and Nezuko) offers something different to the group and a different dynamic to each of the others among them. They all give each other something they don't already have and can't get from anyone else. This s a group that meshes and does it well. I'd go more into it, but that's just ahead in the story to come.

The entire story of Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba is about good versus evil and those involved in the conflict. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. As simple as I make this sound, few action series get this balance right these days.

Where most shonen (and modern action stories) fail in this is in how they fail to establish stakes and character goals and how they need to tie in to each other. This is how you gain investment: we want the main character to succeed and the villain to fail because they are opposites and the hero's goal is the better of the two. Without that duality you have no power.

One of the worst things One Piece and Naruto did to shonen is to inspire so many up and comers to turn their protagonists into flat, simpleminded, and shallow, characters due to their goals. They're no longer characters but shonen protagonists to hit a checkbox.

Naruto wants to be the Hokage of his village so that people (who bullied and hate him) will acknowledge him. Why does he need this? Purely selfish reasons. The character then spends most of the series being a screw-up idiot who can't do anything right and who we're meant to laugh at. His enemies are frequently generic bad guys who have no real reason to do what they are doing except that otherwise Naruto would have no one to fight. Not that it is bad on its own, but the villain has no direct tie to Naruto or what he's trying to accomplish thereby making the conflict weak. This leads to many arcs and chapters centered on things other than what the central premise is supposed to be about with no movement towards the overarching goal and repeatedly reminding the audience that the main character is stupid. Not to say the writer didn't have good moments with the character in the story, but I could never really get behind Naruto as a protagonist because his goal is weak and selfish, as is he, and his enemies had little to nothing to do with him achieving it.

It worked well enough for Naruto, despite it's many warts, but its influence led to many worse and overwhelmingly generic series in its wake. You know the stereotypical loud shonen protagonist who is an idiot that eats a lot and has innate sense of justice only because he is designated the main character? That didn't exist before that late '90s when Naruto and One Piece made it popular. The closest you can find before then is Dragon Ball, which was a comedy and was not meant as a serious action series with a defined goal until nearly halfway through its run.

That influence persisted in the genre for over a decade. For most of the '00s shonen was stuck in that rut. Aside from Death Note (where the protagonist is the villain) and a handful of series like Psyren you won't find too many outside this archetype. It ended up making shonen nothing but loud noises and flashy battles with nothing to show for it by the end. They successfully neutered the genre.

The '10s began to change this with series like World Trigger and My Hero Academia giving the main hero a brain and goals that tie directly with their antagonists and fight scenes that have blood. By "blood", I mean grit, purpose, and depth, beyond the surface level of two dudes punching each other in the face. Gore is not required for that. But these series made shonen great again.

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba has all of that. Tanjiro is a good guy thrown into a bad situation. He lost everything he ever had, and can never have it back. But he can save one piece of it--his sister. And he can prevent others from suffering the same fate. To achieve these goals he has to slay every demon he can find and take it to the top where evil runs amok. Maybe someday everyone else can have some peace, even if he never will. This is a hero.

That's the sort of person I want to follow through their adventures, and his is an enemy I want to see him slay. What he does on the way there has just been made far more intriguing in how it ties to the rest. All that comes from having weight to the goals.

This is what I mean by avoiding the pitfalls so common in modern action and shonen. Whether it's a pulp story from 1933, a movie from 1986, or a manga from 2018, I only require a few things. Blood, investment, and dynamics. Have those and I will be there. This series manages all that and then some.

Whatever happens next in the story, I hope the author can reach a wider audience with it. She has done a great job with this one. It gets even better from here.