Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Comedy of the Situation

One thing most don't know about me is that I am a fan of sitcoms. This tends to surprise everyone who learns this since the form has a stigma as being completely worthless and lowly in the grand scheme of better television out there. Over the years sitcoms have been deconstructed, spat on, left for dead, and openly mocked, even as the televised landscape has degraded even further.

Now I'm not even certain anyone remembers them. But that's not the point.

So how can one like such a trashy thing as a sitcom? Well, I'll tell you, and maybe it will offer an additional perspective on why someone might enjoy this form that lasted half a century despite being hated more than pulp magazines, metal music, and violent video games combined. No, they weren't hated by the same people, but by those who considered themselves edgy or counter-cultural: they detested the medium. That's no exaggeration. They were that disliked. Most of the reason you hate sitcoms is because you were told to by television itself.

The reason I like sitcoms is because they are the only form of comedy on television that doesn't pretend to be high art, because it promises fluffy entertainment and delivers, and because it is the pure distillation of comedy in as tight a package as can be offered by the medium. In other words, there's a reason the form lasted so long besides the old canard of audiences being stupid spread by those who replaced them with worse shows.

Above all, sitcoms in their original intent were meant to attract the entire family from little Billy to Mom and Dad, and the family dog. They brought the family together.

Green Acres
They were made to unite and bring people together. This s why the "safe and soft comedy" insult thrown their way has never made any sense. Situation comedies were made to relate to everyone in the family at once which necessarily means it can't have explicit raunchy comedy or controversial topics. It's not a mystery why they did this, nor is it a limitation. They contain family friendly "light" writing to broaden appeal to the widest possible audience. They were made that way by design.

And yes, I am aware that sometimes they were not filmed before a live studio audience and had laugh tracks superimposed over them. I am also aware that many find the multi-camera format (which makes the show look like a stage-play) outdated. I understand the criticisms.

I am aware that sitcoms are not perfect, as are most of us who enjoy them. We know. Despite this they were successful for a reason and were the programs of choice on television for many years before the subversives declared them outdated and out of touch.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

So let us discuss when they lost their way. It was a long journey to tear down this genre from its family roots in exchange for lonely urbanites and split demographics, but it was a very successful one despite the failure. To this day the major networks consider lower ratings, smaller cultural impact, and divisive social messages their bread and butter. It was a long fall But at what point did it become like it is now?

The Andy Griffith Show
The most obvious reason for the death of the sitcom and family programming was the Rural Purge. Just like how ACT ended up killing the animation industry in the west the subversive nature of the Rural Purge was the first blow in attempting to shape a narrative that ended up fracturing audiences, demographics, and eventually the televised landscape itself. It was more sabotage by those who supposedly knew better, but clearly didn't.

For those who don't know, the title of the movement says it all. The Rural Purge was a move by rich city-dwelling television executives to create propaganda about the city and how great it is to attract more young people and get their advertising bucks. It didn't even roll out slowly like ACT or the PMRC did. It happened overnight.

In the early '70s all the highest rated shows were cancelled because of their setting and family friendly nature, in order to cobble together the image the networks preferred. It was deliberately aimed at deconstructing the past, degrading older viewers, and courting a higher quality of audience. They were going to shape the future.

And it was an abject failure.

Here is the supposed summary of why it was done via wikipedia:
"By the late 1960s, … many viewers, especially young ones, were rejecting [rural-themed] shows as irrelevant to modern times. Mayberry's total isolation from contemporary problems was part of its appeal, but more than a decade of media coverage of the civil rights movement had brought about a change in the popular image of the small Southern town. Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., was set on a U.S. Marine base between 1964 and 1969, but neither Gomer nor any of his fellow marines ever mentioned the war in Vietnam. CBS executives, afraid of losing the lucrative youth demographic, purged their schedule of hit shows that were drawing huge but older-skewing audiences."
But if this was true then why did ratings only decrease from the '70s on? Why were the highest rated shows (NOT critically acclaimed, the highest rated) up until the '00s still family centered shows? Why, when this project led to lack of success, did the networks never in 50 years ever have an Urban Purge?

This is the question nobody asks. Over 50 years and not a single book on the topic has ever been written. No articles online, either. Just like the ACT we lost something else due to busybodies and no one questions the reasons for it.

And now it's gone. Again.

Petticoat Junction
All those edgy sitcoms such as All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show you hear about as revolutionary never had the ratings of Green Acres or Petticoat Junction even at their best. And yet which ones do you hear about incessantly to this day? You never even see them in reruns because they don't get ratings now. There has never been a sitcom as popular as they were before the subversives took over, and that is simply reality.

But time marches on, perspectives get skewed, and the truth is lost. Even then, however, there was light shining in the cracks of this situation. Family shows stayed alive through it all.

My generation might have been the first since the rejection of those rural roots to actually get some of what the form was originally meant for. We were also the last.

I, like everyone in Generation Y, grew up with a sitcom block known as TGIF. In many ways this block both emphasizes the appeal of the form and shows why it eventually ended up dying by the next decade. It ran from 1989 to 2000, the twilight years of the sitcom and through Disney buying the network and tinkering with the project. In many ways it is the forebear for what is happening in the entertainment world now.

Perfect Strangers
TGIF began with an ABC executive named Jim Janicek back in the '80s. He remembered sitting around with his family watching The Wonderful World of Disney as a child and wanted to create a block like that for families again. Because there really weren't any. He worked through 1988 gaining support for his idea and eventually it led to TGIF ("Thank Goodness It's Funny") a play on the old saying of Thank God It's Friday.

Before then there really were no Friday blocks for television, and most shows left on that night were afterthoughts. But Janicek believed there was a family audience who just wanted to watch something together without having to compromise their ideals and beliefs for raunchier fair and just wanted to relax after a long week. Because believe it or not, that's what TV shows used to be for: unwinding.

It turns out that he was right. That audience was there waiting for just this moment. They'd probably been waiting since the Rural Purge, but nobody asked them what they wanted.

There were popular family shows before TGIF, such as Benson, Growing Pains, Diff'rent Strokes, Family Ties, Mr. Belvedere, Alf, and such, but they were all floating around without any sort of link to keep them grounded and were tossed in amidst adult fare. This was the first time they had all been brought to one concentrated space and allowed the audience to settle in for the long haul. And it was a huge success.

Depending on your age you might not remember this time period or know exactly why the block got popular when it did. I can tell you that the very first lineup is the perfect example as to why it was a hit with families.

When TGIF started it began with Full House, a show that has been on television in reruns for nearly 30 years, Family Matters, the one with Steve Urkel, Perfect Strangers, a show about a mismatched pair of cousins living in the city, and Just the Ten of Us, a spin off of Growing Pains about a large family. This first season was the base of the block and it would soon morph into an even bigger success as the '90s came in.

By 1993 the block solidified into what I think is the most well known and emphatic success of its original concept. Anchored by Family Matters, the modern day Brady Bunch update Step By Step, the distillation of youthful Gen Y with Boy Meets World, and hip urban comedy with Hanging with Mr. Cooper, it managed to hit every demographic and audience member you could think of, and this block lineup lasted until late 1996 when they began to fuss with it.

Nonetheless TGIF remained a Friday staple in the '90s.

During these years it was something to be able to talk with my parents, friends, acquaintances, church attendees, and grandparents and other family members about the same block even if just in passing. Everyone watched at least something from it and it made for some fun conversation pieces. It was a small thing, but it was still a connection to share.

In other words, the block did exactly what it had set out to do. It was a definite success by its own terms.

Family Matters
However, it was also at this point that the block began to lose its way. Starting with the addition of the Clueless TV series and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the block began to aim away from general audiences towards fads. This was in the '90s when the "Extreme teen" demographic was being relentlessly pursued and where the quirky individual triumphed over the family. TGIF tried a bunch of one off shows about hip teens as genies and angels as well as bringing over shows from other blocks that were flailing. They did anything other than put out more shows for the entire family.

By 2000 and the end of the block there was really nothing left of what made TGIF popular to begin with. Its cancellation was inevitable, especially considering the arising trends in the sitcom world.

For those unaware, in the late '90s a sitcom named Friends came out. At the same time reality TV hit big with a show named Survivor and the two ended up being the idols of the networks for years. In many ways they still are. What they did was choke the air out of the television landscape so that everything either became a reality show (or game show for a bit) or became a Friends clone with the same setup and pandering approach. What they successfully did was kill network television in the long run, and the family sitcom dead.

Friends was the epitome of the original subversive ideal of those who initiated the Rural Purge decades before. It's a show entirely about selfish young urbanites obsessed with sex and money aimed at a young audience who cared more about soap opera drama that propagandized for city life and the "new" over the old. Some people say Seinfeld was this, but it wasn't: Seinfeld was a parody of city life that never once endorsed it but regularly skewered the urban world and made fun of such a selfish and shallow existence. Friends endorsed the destruction, wholly, unironically, and unashamedly, and it ended up destroying the entire form.

Because it was so popular, every sitcom began to abandon families, kids, the elderly, and adults, for the gold ring of disposable adolescent money. They're still pandering to the same audience now. The television landscape in the late '90s on is a wasteland due to this.

Step By Step
After Friends salted the earth, sitcoms began their descent to irrelevance. The execs from back in the day achieved their goal and had no idea where to go next and it shows. Just think: what was the last traditional sitcom that you can think of after Friends went off the air?

There isn't any, is there? No, sitcoms were abandoned after their use had run out.

Then Arrested Development arrived with the now beyond tired single camera setup and the networks have been chasing that dragon of imaginary success ever since. Remember, Arrested Development was never a hit, and yet everyone has still tried to copy it incessantly for nearly two decades. Why would you deliberately chase something that never hit on with larger audiences when that is supposed to be your job? This is how much the medium had lost its way.

And reruns appear to bear this out. Friends reruns have never done that great compared to everything else. In comparison Full House, of all shows, has never been off the air since it started running in 1987. There is an audience gap here that has never fully been addressed.

Now, am I arguing sitcoms are on the level of high art that have been usurped by pretenders looking for its glorious crown? Hardly. What I'm arguing is that it's another medium that was usurped and replaced by those who wanted to use it as a weapon, and then destroyed.

I'm not going to pretend sitcoms have ever been a popular subject: I'm one of the few people I know that like them, for example. But they existed for a reason, until that reason was taken away. Now like so many other forms it has been left in tatters and worse for wear.

The Final Blow
ABC attempted to bring back TGIF multiple times in the years since but it has never stuck. The family audience left and fractured as shows became made for hyper focused demographics and even more channels popped up to fill in the void. Not to mention that in the age of streaming blocks are a dying breed when no one has to watch what everyone else is.

At the same time, post-2000 sitcoms are now entirely about what the subversives wanted in being hyper-political and "true to life" by ejecting escapism for social messaging and being divisive instead of trying to unite. Their quest for relevance has made them irrelevant. As I said there have been no post-Friends sitcoms that have reached success, and there never will be.

At least, not out from Hollywood.

But that doesn't mean we can't try. Just as those in the writing world have attempted to fill the void, so too can those who want to see a return of more pro-social family oriented programming do their part. With the decline of the old guard there are going to be people looking for replacements, and TV shows are going to eventually need it after backing themselves into a corner. Sooner of later someone will figure out how to crowdfund a decent family sitcom.

It's just a matter of time.

Reminder: This has never been off the air once in over 30 years.
Until then I suppose I can share with you that sitcoms are silly, lighthearted, and frothy, and that is why they worked. There is nothing wrong with that. You can find no shortage of old advertisements up to the '90s for the networks that all focused on people coming home from a hard day at work desperate to laugh and feel better for a few moments before they had to wake up and do it again. They were made this way for those people and they did their job.

There are whole subcultures on the internet devoted to the medium and many of them are normal people who enjoy having a good time after having a tough day. You can find no shortage of those into sitcoms. This is how they managed to last so long despite the ire of "serious" critics and the attempt at subversion. The most talked about ones aren't even the ones you might figure. Hint: the family sitcoms still get the bulk of discussion even today.

So the next time you catch a rerun of Family Matters and roll your eyes, just stop for a second and realize that the goofy, frothy, silliness you're watching brightened someone's day for at least half an hour. It has its purpose, and it succeeded at it. At one time that was the goal of all entertainment.

And that is enough for me.

Boy Meets World 

Friday, August 23, 2019

Repost: Ushio & Tora ~ Truth of the Superversive

NOTE: Due to many reasons I am unable to put out a new post this week. Please enjoy this repost from 2016 in the meanwhile.

Following up on my last anime post, I wanted to expand a bit on what I meant about a show based on a 25 year old manga being better than most of what is being put out now.

This might be very easy to misconstrue as an old man longing for the "good old days" who can't understand that things are different now, consarnit, we are a more evolved people and therefore the stories we see now are better because they are newer and therefore more true than those icky old things.

To the first point: Watch your mouth, kid. I ain't that old! To the second: Well, no. You're wrong. Not even a little wrong, you're so wrong that you wouldn't know right unless it sliced apart your cinderblock heart into tiny cubes to wake you from your lucid dream of "realism" and despair.

Stories are meant to be Superversive. To lift up. To brighten someone's day. To give them hope. To show them that the dark can be fought against and driven back. These are what stories used to be before the 20th century began to upturn that tradition which fully toppled the cart over in these early years of the 21st. Good is evil, bad is good, true is false, and . . . is it no wonder we're so messed up we have to take pills to sleep through the night?

But not everyone is sitting tight letting the darkness overtake the world any more than it already has.

The goal of the Superversive Movement has always been for those who refuse to take this lying down. We all have this inkling that things are not as they should be, we live in a broken world that will not be fixed, and stories are made to reflect this drive we have to live to brighter times and in a wider world. Not only to live to those dreams, but to show they exist at all. To prove they are real.

From Mrs. L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright's post on the blog:

"Why give a book like this to children to read? What are we trying to teach them? That life is difficult and meaningless? That sometimes its okay to kill something we love for a “good reason”? That life is pointless? That dreams and hopes are a sham? That no matter how you try, you cannot improve upon your circumstance, so it’s better not to even hope? (That was what The Pearl was about.)
What possible good is such a message doing our children?"

 She then goes on to end with this:

"This is what the Superversive Literary Movement is for—to whisper to the future Trisha’s, Don’s, and Andrea’s that miracles are possible. 
That hope is not a cheat. 
The goal of the Superversive is to bring hope, where there is no hope; to bring courage, where without courage, hope would never be manifested. 
The goal of the Superversive is to be light to a benighted world. 
The goal of the Superversive is:

To tell the truth.

Though a term invented by writer and master essayist Tom Simon, "Superversive" has taken a life of its own for those tired of all the pointless subversion pulling the world down into the muck with stories about nothing but pointless negativity and stories that poison the soul blacker and blacker. The world is not getting any better, but we don't have to sink with it.

I bring up Ushio & Tora as an example of a Superversive story, as it is indicative of a story that seeks to rise up. This does not mean author and artist, Kazuhiro Fujita, set out to make a story to highlight attributes like friendship, heroism, and the greatness of being good, just that those are the features that underpin his story. His is an action/adventure story, yet it manages to be more than that for telling truths we all know beneath its action-packed exterior.

Ushio & Tora is about a boy named Ushio Aotsuki who lives in a shrine run by his father, who is the priest of the place they live in as their home. Ushio is a normal rough-housing teenager who gets into arguments with his dad and his crush, and lives a relatively average life that he enjoys very much. He's just an average boy.

But his father tries to warn him of something else. He tells Ushio there are spirits and monsters in the world and he must take care to watch out for them, but Ushio, being a teenager, doesn't believe in things he can't see. He thinks his dad is full of it, and isn't afraid to tell him. This all changes one day when his dad has to head out on business and leaves Ushio to clean up the storehouse. Ushio begrudgingly complies, but stumbles upon an opening cellar to a basement he never knew about under his home.

He finds his way down into the basement and into the dark where he finds his whole world changed in an instant. There he meets a creature called a Youkai, a monster, colored like a tiger, who has been pinned to the rock of the basement for hundreds of years by a mystical spear called the Beast Spear which chooses its wielder and has not been removed since the Youkai was pinned there. His dad's stories were true after all.

Ushio removes the spear and is granted immense strength, speed, and agility, as the Beast Spear has chosen him to wield it for whatever duty he will have fulfill. Now since he has come in contact with supernatural, he can see spirits and monsters, and pledges that he will not let them hurt anyone. He quickly tames the formerly trapped Youkai and takes responsibility for letting him go by keeping watch that he does no evil.

He names this orange Youkai "Tora" and takes him in as the two fight among each other over who will eventually get to destroy the other. This pair forms an unlikely duo that is destined to save the world from a terrible evil.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The story begins as we get to know the characters through monster-of-the-week scenarios for the first six episodes before we finally learn that everything we have seen has a purpose. Events that didn't seem to mean much, come matter a lot in the long run, as do characters you wouldn't first think would have much prominence eventually have quite a bit.

Ushio's character is established as a good-hearted kid that never gives up, but unlike modern anime heroes like Naruto, he isn't just good-hearted, but determined to do what is right. He aspires to do what is right, not for personal glory or recognition.

Tora is shown to be a monster who doesn't care about anyone other than himself, but as he spends time with Ushio he begins to understand that being good isn't all that bad. Unlike most modern stories, he does believe there is good and evil and he is proud to be evil. But Ushio and those he meets on his journey begin to change him slowly but surely.

Around the seventh episode is where the main story begins and Ushio & Tora comes into its own. This is where Ushio and Tora head out on a journey that ends up shaping their destiny and those around them.

You see, there is black and white in Ushio & Tora, but that doesn't mean there aren't flawed individuals doing the right thing for wrong reasons, or those on the borderline before choosing one or the other. And when you meet the main villain, you will believe that there are only two choices and eventually we all have to make a choice as to whether we choose to be on the side of angels or demons.

One of the things I have always liked classic anime and manga, especially the shonen genre, is how the main characters never mope, never whine, and never give up. They have a resolution and they stick with it even in the face of impossible odds. The cliche for this genre is called "Hot-blooded shonen" for a reason.

Ushio and Tora have a complex relationship

But Ushio Aotsuki is on another level for most of these series. He believes in good as a force (an early episode where he saves a cursed soul and sends it to Heaven is particularly touching) and sacrifices everything he has in order to save even complete strangers. And what is it that makes Ushio so strong and powerful? Well, it isn't just the Beast Spear. The weapon might choose its wielder, but the real strength of Ushio is that he is at heart a fundamentally good kid who always gets up again even when he screws up.

It is this good heart that slowly changes Tora into thinking there might be more to humans than what he knows, and it is that strong moral compass that draws others to him. His strength and spear is not what makes him special, though it does reinforce his inner strength to match.

This is anime at its best. It's inspiring, hopeful, exciting, truthful, funny, and a blast to watch. It is why I ever got into anime and manga in the first place.

So why am I saying that most anime and manga are not like this anymore.

Well, because they're not.

Can you name the last anime that had a main character that wasn't starring:

A) An anti-hero who is treated as being "cool" despite having no redeeming qualities
B) A dimwit who does things for personal reasons and nothing else
C) A coward weakling boy that doesn't change one iota to become better
D) A busty (or very young) girl that has no definable personality besides how attractive she is

Whoever you might be thinking of to dispute this, I doubt the examples are very plentiful, especially over the last ten years. There are a few I can personally think of, such as Izuku Midoriya from My Hero Academia, and Osamu Mikumo from World Trigger, but they are fairly obviously in the minority. There are certainly not as many like Vash the Stampede, Kenshin Himura, or Ushio Aotsuki as there used to be.

And don't think I'm mocking "rogue" characters. Gene Starwind, Spike Spiegal, or Gungrave, might have been more on the anti-hero side, but they were never treated as infallible or always right about everything and they did have good underneath the muck. They were outliers even back when their shows came out.

But if you want to use those as counter-examples, Outlaw Star has the crew essentially meeting God in a machine. Cowboy Bebop's ending is a classic for a reason. Gungrave is about rejection of Ultimate Good and the dead end it leaves you in. Shows and manga like Gantz, Attack on Titan, or Tokyo Ghoul, do not aspire to even things like that. Though they are fine for what they are, they are not aspiring to anything above themselves like those classics did.

Ushio & Tora was written in 1990 and ended in 1996. The world is supposed to be a different place now than it was then, but you wouldn't know it from watching this anime made in 2015/16. The good that Ushio inspires in us is as real in 2016 as it was back in 1990. The conflicted nature of Tora to choose between what he was and what he could be hasn't dated a bit in over 25 years. The story's adamant refusal to say good and evil are a matter of perspective, and it's insistence that one choose a side or else one will be chosen for you, is timeless.

While flashy anime with edgy plots and super cool protagonists with angry backstories fill the mainstream airwaves and shelves in Japan to decreasing market shares, stories like Ushio & Tora still float to the top to show that what is true will never truly stay down no matter how much we want to look away from it or pretend it is irrelevant.

Just like Ushio's insistence on the good, Truth always wins in the end.

I hope you enjoyed that old nugget. If you like stories similar to the above, I have recently written a hero story of my own called Gemini Warrior. It is the story of two young men given powers and transported to a whole new world. You won't see anything like it coming out of Marvel or DC these days!

"And when the description says that this is a pulp superhero adventure, this is less the Shadow, and more Flash Gordon. We even have an evil emperor who has magic powers (come now, Ming could walk through fire, and the "science" was more magic than anything else), as well as other super powered lackeys to do his bidding. And much of the villains look like they utilize a combination of mad science and magic in order to wield unearthly forces at their command." ~ from author Declan Finn

Check it out here!

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Gemini Warrior is Here!

It's finally here!

I know it's been promised for a while now, but it's finally time to officially unveil my newest novel Gemini Warrior fresh from Silver Empire. Taking place in the Heroes Unleashed universe (featuring other authors such as Morgon Newquist's Heroes Fall and Kai Wai Cheah's Hollow City) my approach is a bit different than what you would usually see in the genre. It's not a typical superhero yarn: Gemini Warrior is a full blown adventure story.

It's been a long time coming, I know. Today I'm excited to show you what you've got in store with this one!

The official description is here:

A steady paycheck. A simple job. Absolutely no contact with another human being.
The night shift at a science lab sounds like the break Matthew White has been waiting for. A steady paycheck. A simple job. Absolutely no contact with another human being.
It’s perfect. 
But Matthew gets more than he bargained for when he accepts a different position with the company. A job that is highly paid – and highly bizarre. He is plunged into the terrible machinations of his new boss, Mrs. Stohl, and a sullen teenaged boy named Jason is along for the ride. The fact that Jason is practically his twin only makes it all creepier.

Dragged through a mirror into an alien dimension, Matthew is in way over his head. He should have known the job was too good to be true. To escape, Matthew and Jason must brave the wilds of this new universe and learn to control their new powers.
And hardest of all, Matthew must learn to be a hero. 
Will they escape Mrs. Stohl’s terrible plans for them? Can they make it home to their world, or will they be trapped in the mirror dimension forever? 

Not only are our heroes the recipients of new powers, but they find themselves stranded on a whole new alien world on a far off planet! Expect battles, monsters, and strange sights unlike any you've ever seen in this one.

When I was approached to do a project in this universe I wanted to do something completely off the wall. I wanted to do a story of two very different people with different powers who nonetheless look the same and need each other's abilities somehow. That was how I came up with the wannabe loner Matthew and the wannabe hero Jason who clash with each other and yet need the other to survive both due to their powers and due to their new location.

What you're dealing with is the separate journeys of two different people nonetheless tied together as if by fate. Where will they end up? Well, you'll just have to read it and find out!

I would also announce that every book is going to be very different from the last. So don't think you've seen everything with Gemini Warrior! There's still more to come.

This is only the first taste!

Once again, you can find Gemini Warrior here. Dive into the adventure, and enjoy!

Thursday, August 8, 2019

From Where the Sun Rises

At the time of this writing 2019 has been a good year for anime (with one tremendous black mark which anyone reading surely knows about) in regards to the material put out. It's been getting steadily better in Japan since 2015 and this year has been no slouch. It's been surprising, to be quite honest. If you're looking for something to watch on your television or monitor then you have no shortage of series to enjoy. Good times are here.

While I make no bones about enjoying classic anime that doesn't mean I can't enjoy the modern material. In fact, some of which is airing now will definitely go on to be known as classics down the road. I can bet on it. Some examples can be found in this post.

For today I'd like to share with you some of the highlights coming out of this year. There's a bit to go through and I've got a few I would like to highlight.

Of course it is important to note that we've barely started the third (out of four) season of the year. This means there are still series such as My Hero Academia which have not yet started which are sure to be huge. With that in mind one really doesn't have to stretch in order to find good shows to watch even without it. Options are crawling all over the place.

This means I will only cover the first half of the year here. I'll try to cover the rest around December instead of cramming everything in a mega mess of a post. With that in mind, let us begin.

First up is MAPPA's adaption of Osamu Tezuka's Dororo. This began airing in the winter season, which is usually the slowest season of the year (not the "worst", I should specify) where a few more measurably paced series tend to get the most focus since the explosive action packed shows don't begin until spring. But Dororo straddles the middle-ground between the extremes quite well creating a good action show with compelling drama along the way.

Dororo is the story of a baby whose body is stolen due to a pact his father made with a demon. He is supposed to be killed but ends up escaping and living a life without most of his body parts and much in the way of his senses as he grows to adulthood. Thankfully his adopted father builds him artificial limbs which allows him some semblance of normality and he can see and hear things despite his handicaps. Finally he learns that killing certain demons will give him back his body and allow him to become fully human again.

But will it?

In my opinion MAPPA might be the most underrated studio in Japan right now. They are composed of ex-Madhouse staff which means they know their way around dynamic direction and cool animation. They wrote an original ending to this series (Tezuka didn't really end the original properly) propping up the themes of forgiveness, friendship, and family, that almost makes you believe Tezuka was writing a series for Shonen Jump back in the day. But it can get pretty brutal at times despite this. However, the ending is worth it.

Suffice to say, Dororo is one of the highlights of this year. 24 episodes long and worth every minute (one episode with odd animation aside) I'm sure Tezuka would be proud.

Should you like romance the winter season also featured what might be the most enjoyable series in years with Kaguya-Sama: Love is War which is about two teenagers from an elite high school trying to get the other one to fall in love with them. It takes the on school comedy and romance genres in a balancing act that matches the central conflict with main leads quite perfectly.

While this would normally be an excuse to have two annoying characters be irritating for the space of half an hour it actually leads to very funny comedy and much character growth. Over 12 episodes you get to see how deeply our two leads might actually like each other, and how it might not be a game despite what they think.

At the same time the surrounding cast is just as interesting with their own issues and problems apart from the main pair. This is what makes me hope for a season 2 announcement in order to see more of them. Just like Saiki K or School Rumble much of the comedy comes from the relationships every character has with each other and their clashing and developing friendships and love lives. This series deserves more seasons if only for that.

But until then I can say this is a series worth watching and one of the best of 2019 so far.

And now for a few others. These are returning series with new seasons.

Mob Psycho 100 returned for its second season to continue where we left of last time. In case you missed it, this is a series about a teenager named Mob (a nickname) who is a psychic and learning what it means to be normal. If you've seen the first season animated by Bones and want to see more cray animation or just like the writer of One Punch Man's style then you've probably already seen it. If not then you're in for a treat. Here's hoping for another season to finish the story off.

Another one from this season was The Promised Neverland, animated by CloverWorks. This is a Shonen Jump series that doesn't feel like you would expect such a series would be. Orphans being raised as a giant group in an orphanage suddenly learn a secret about who they are and why they're there. That's when things get horrific and intense. If I said anymore I would spoil the reveal, but I can say this can be a dark series. However, it's not hopeless. Being Shonen Jump it refuses to be nihilistic and always finds a way to shine some light in the dark. I'm sure a second season will be out next year and I can say it will have a slightly different tone to this one. So if you want something unique then be sure to check it out.

Other series from the beginning of the year include yet more returning series as well. Karakuri Circus reached its conclusion after three seasons, Ace Attorney returned for a new season, the overlooked Hinomaru Sumo ran the second half of its season in winter, and JoJo's Bizarre Adventure's new season continued. The new City Hunter movie also released on top of all that.

This a remarkable amount of material considering where we were a decade ago. It doesn't mean everything is great, but there is much to choose from. Not to mention more manga and light novels getting complete adaptions than ever before when before many would leave us high and dry and unfinished.

Then there was the controversial Rising of the Shield Hero which also premiered in January. It managed to maintain a loyal audience despite the notoriety. However, it's yet another series to watch despite that. There was no shortage of things to watch.

And all that is just the first season of the year.

For spring there was a new season of One Punch Man with decidedly average animation. Of course Attack on Titan returned with ten more episodes, too. There was also a new adaption of Fruits Basket in an attempt to apparently make it closer to the original manga. My Hero Academia was delayed until October but that didn't mean there was nothing else to watch in its absence.

But the best series from the first half of the year, in my mind, was Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba animated by Ufotable and adapted from the Shonen Jump manga of the same name. This is a series about demons who prey on humans and the swordsmen who fight them off. What you get is plenty of action, emotional bits, and character growth, along with some of the best animation and music this year. The action genre was made for series such as this. If this isn't on everyone's best of the year list by December I will be disappointed.

Anyway, that is only the first half of the year. There are still series running this very season I haven't talked about yet because that would be jumping ahead of myself. Nonetheless, there is still much, much, more to cover beyond what I have.

I'd also like to mention at the same time as this is happening more classic anime is getting released over here every day. We just recently had an announcement that the entire City Hunter franchise was licensed by Discotek. At the same time we still have releases such as Megazone 23 (the Kickstarter is incoming!) and Voltes V in the future. I also believe the groundbreaking Giant Robo OVA is  meant to be out by this Christmas season.

The train just doesn't seem to stop rolling.

Considering how bad things were a decade ago with weak selection, one should keep in mind how much things have gotten better. It's not perfect, but you can't argue it hasn't improved. Things can change. There is still quality being made, and there is still much to see. And the future still has much more promise left.

So go have fun with it!

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Legendary Beasts, Giant Robots, Psychics, and Cyborgs ~ The Different Sides of Babel II

We've gone over how Japan's pulp history is a lot stronger connected together than those of us in the west. Nowhere does it show better than in Japan's biggest entertainment exports of anime, manga, and video games. Fun rules the roost, romance rules, and the magic of wonder remains the key ingredient. While bad trends might come and go, the cream still floats to the top and there are still products worth checking out from them to this day.

Can't say the same about Hollywood today.

However, if one were to read old Japanese pulp or manga from say, the 70s, you would be surprised to see how much they had in common with the west at the time. This continued into the late '90s before everything stagnated for us, but that's been covered before. What I want to point out is what was big in '70s pulp and how it bridged the gap.

This was the age of James Bond, Paul Kersey, and Dirty Harry, three different pulp archetypes that lived on strong for decades afterwards. The superspy, the hardened vigilante, and the last good cop, were the go-to characters to use in modern action stories. In Japan the same applied. Golgo 13, Cobra, and Mad Bull 34, among many others, were big and well loved. Not much diverted from this wheelhouse. But there were other series that tried things a slightly different way and met with just as big success.

One of my personal favorite franchises is known as Babel II. This is a shonen manga with a bit of a different twist from what was going on at the time. The original series ran from 1971-1973 for twelve volumes and was written by Mitsuteru Yokoyama, one of the major influences of Katsuhiro Otomo and Hirohiko Araki among many others.

If you don't know the name you might recognize his output. Yokoyama created Tetsujin 28 (Gigantor), Giant Robo, Sally the Witch, God Mars, and Akakage, some of the most important and influential manga series ever made. Babel II is up there with them and might be my favorite of his works.

Yokoyama was known for popularizing the hard-boiled style in manga. This means his heroes and villains don't tend to display their emotional struggles or make speeches about it, but stoically suffer whatever misfortune comes their way as they find a way to do what needs to be done. This makes his works have a quick pacing focused on external threats and a clear dividing line between good and evil. Babel II is a perfect example of this style.

Babel II is about a teenage boy named Koichi who learns that he is a descendant of an alien named Babel and is awakened to be his successor. The name should tell all: Babel was the one in charge of building the biblical Tower of Babel which crumbled because . . . it's the Tower of Babel. Everyone knows how that went. But there is a bit more behind the story which is where Yokoyama gets his set up from.

The tower was meant to be a transmitter as Babel crash-landed on Earth and was stranded, but he had no way of contacting home. Instead he becomes stranded here and becomes one of us. Babel, and his descendants, are imbued with psychic powers which grant tremendous strength as well as control over three mystical beasts of land, sea, and air. The first beast is Rodem, a black panther that can transform its inky shape into whatever it wants. Then there is Ropross, a giant pterodactyl-type creature that can fly anywhere. And lastly there is Poseidon, a giant robot that patrols the seas and is tougher than anything. But Babel puts these into hiding until his chosen successor is awakened and able to use them right.

Centuries and many descendants later Koichi emerges with the most potential. He is chosen to use the remains of the hidden Tower of Babel to either rule the world, or help it. This was a trend in '70s shonen where the protagonist can either choose to be good or evil without being pushed into one or the other, and they always end up choosing good as if it is the natural choice. This is summed up best in Mazinger Z's tagline of choosing to be God or the Devil. Because this is an adventure story meant to connect with the average male Koichi chooses to save the world and heads out into it on his journey to see how bad things might be out there. He soon meets up with a psychic named Yomi who offers to help him rule the world, or be destroyed. Babel II turns him down and that is where the story begins.

What follows is 12 volumes of a cat and mouse game between Babel II and Yomi over the fate of the world. Yomi might be a powerful psychic, but he also has secrets of his own, and an army of devious superspies, soldiers, cyborgs, and psychics at his beck and call. This means there is a lot of infiltration into hidden bases, supernatural battles, and strange new phenomena to investigate when Yomi vanishes from the scene.

In other words, it's action packed.

The series isn't perfect. Babel and Yomi's battles escalate three separate times to similar climaxes with similar results leading to bit of repetition in the plot at times. This was mostly because the series was unexpectedly popular and Yokoyama kept giving the audience more of what they asked for. It ran long for a series of its time. But it is easy to get over due to how exciting the series gets and remains throughout.

Unfortunately, it's never been licensed and no one has fully translated the series so it is pretty well unknown in the west. It's a shame, because Babel II is a classic and along with Mazinger Z is a series that should be in print over here. It should have a higher influence than it does in the west, but those are the breaks.

What is more well known over here is the OVA adaption by JC Staff from 1992. This was a four episode series that uses the manga as the basis for set up, but changes just about everything else. It's the most popular version of the story overseas, even though it's not the only one that exists.

There were multiple adaptions of Babel II over the years. Toei did a 39 episode adaption back in the '70s. A condensed 13 episode version was made in 2001, too. But somehow it is the original OVA that made the biggest splash over here when Streamline put it out back in the day. This might be because of how they changed the '70s pulp appeal of the original to an early '90s pulp appeal that anime enjoyed and how big the medium was beginning to get in the beginning of the decade.

This is apparent in the bits they changed from the manga.

First we are introduced to the existence of psychics and Yomi before Koichi even becomes Babel II. Koichi is given a choice to join his organization or die. Here he meets a girl named Juju who becomes his love interest and bridge between the normal world and the world of the psychics that steadily begins to muddy as Babel II learns of his own destiny.

The psychic battles are given more prominence in the OVA over the servants, normal soldiers, and cyborgs. Psychic powers were big in late 80s early 90s Japan because of Akira and the animators really wanted to show that off. This means the superspy stuff from the manga was ejected for more battles instead. But the change in focus works to make the story fit into four episodes.

The climax of the last episode is topped with a kiss before the two leads must go their separate ways for various reasons, but we are left to believe they will meet again. Contrasted with most OVAs from the time period or most western entertainment, this is unusual. Usually the ending is bittersweet at best or nihilistic at worst, but here the heroes win and the deal is sealed with a kiss. He might miss his girl, but he will see her again, and in the meantime it is time to rebuild what has been destroyed. The '90s edge didn't stain this series as much as you might expect. That might be because they respected the sort of thing Yokoyama created.

In fact, Babel II shows the difference between a lot of things that have changed since. The '70s manga was perfectly in line with both western and eastern tastes in storytelling from tropes and pure action. When contrasted with the '90s OVA it shows how much each of us has diverged since. The Japanese still had it. We lost it.

Just think: how many western stories from the '90s do you know that ends with the main character winning and kissing and getting the girl? How many end with the hero better for his victory without some kind of asterisk next to his win? How many '90s stories even have pure white hats as main characters and pure black hats as villains? By decade's end your list of examples will have been whittled away to a handful. By the '00s there would be none.

In the end, however, Babel II is an example of how such a basic premise can lead to such wildly different ideas and interpretations without having to be bland remakes or adaptions. Babel II is one of my favorite manga as well as being one of my favorite OVA series, both showing Yokoyama's ideas in such vastly different ways yet keeping the beating pulp heart alive and pumping at the same time. This happened because that tradition was preserved and still exists to this day.

We can learn from this, and I have learned a lot from Babel II.

Now please excuse me while I wait for Seven Seas to finally announce they have licensed the manga, hopefully with Mazinger Z at the same time. Maybe Discotek will license the original anime and the 2001 adaption at the same time? I can dream. Until then I suppose I'll just watch the OVA yet again.

That's fine with me, Babel II is a great experience no matter how one gets to see it.