Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Bloody Clown of Now

After several episodes where elements from the past reappear to save or enlighten the characters on Cowboy Bebop, a personification of the post modern future appears and attacks Spike. The show's effective experiment in horror is another way to portray its fundamental thematic conflict.

Session Twenty: Pierrot le Fou

The title comes from the 1965 Jean Luc Godard film and the only way to make sense of the title's use on Cowboy Bebop is to look at it in terms of a commentary on post modernism. Godard, as one of the leading figures of the French New Wave, directed many great, influential films in the 60s concerned with obtrusively subverting filmic conventions. Pierrot le Fou is a particularly striking example, its ostensible plot about a young man and woman becoming robbers on the run is constantly interrupted in ways that flaunt, dispel, or celebrate at an ironic distance the artificiality of cinema; abrupt breaks in the score, deliberate continuity errors, a woman who's inexplicable naked at a party, a musical number with the actors' voices recorded on location instead of in studio.

So what has this to do with the Mad Pierrot (Banjo Ginga), the seemingly indestructible flying clown who attacks Spike (Koichi Yamadera) for no apparent reason? The Mad Pierrot, or Tongpu (according to imdb this is a reference to a song by the Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra), kills to kill. He has no motivation; not to protect himself or anyone else, not to revenge, not for financial gain. He has no attachments and, like Heath Ledger's Joker, this is his most dangerous quality. But he's also a lot like Edward (Aoi Tada).

Tellingly, it's Edward who discovers that Tongpu does, indeed, have a past, though, crucially, it's not because she's curious, it's because Jet (Unsho Ishizuka) asks her to hack into the sealed ISSP files. Jet, the eldest member of the crew, is especially interested in the past and his strategy in response to Spike's problem is to investigate, to research. But he's no good with computers, at least he's not as good as Edward, so here we have reverence for the past and a post-modern avatar working hand in hand. And it seems often times Jet and Edward share a particular connexion related to the fact that they're such extreme opposites. Edward's lack of attachments gives her freedom, but she needs Jet's preoccupations to have motivation and context.

In Tongpu, the two extremes interact violently. Like Edward's father, another model of post-modernism, Tongpu easily beats Spike in their first encounter. The only reason Spike survives is because Tongpu catches sight of a cat, triggering a memory of the animal that watched as scientists experimented on him and manipulated his anatomy. Much as post-modernism, like a science, relies on a process that begins with observation before manipulation and reconfiguration of art, so the scientists have remade Tongpu's anatomy into a perfect killing machine. They free him from the bounds of a normal, mortal combatant, but, like many erring, brilliant scientists in Science Fiction, their lack of insight into their own motives proves to be their downfall as the directionless Tongpu turns on them.

Just as Edward, as a purer figure of post-modernism, is the one who can access Tongpu's past, it's the supremely post-modern, Disney-ish figures of Space Land that are responsible for Tongpu's ultimate downfall. A robotic giant in the shape of a dog wearing a sailor suit, an amalgamation of Pluto and Donald Duck, stomps him to death after Spike finally succeeds in reminding him of the reality of physical pain.

Unless I missed something, I think this is where Spike's martial arts technique, and general attitude, are presented as a response or potential solution to the conflict between chaotic change and persistence of the past. The Bruce Lee inspired "flow like water" technique has some of the advantage of a complete lack of attachment while also indicating an intimate connexion to the situation and environment. As the series draws closer to its conclusion, this solution is tested in several ways.


This entry is part of a series of entries I’m writing on Cowboy Bebop for its 20th anniversary. I’m reviewing each episode individually. My previous episode reviews can be found here:

Session One
Session Two
Session Three
Session Four
Session Five
Session Six
Session Seven
Session Eight
Session Nine
Session Ten
Session Eleven
Sessions Twelve and Thirteen
Session Fourteen
Session Fifteen
Session Sixteen
Session Seventeen
Session Eighteen
Session Nineteen

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Chibnall's Doctor

I've written about Doctor Who every Saturday for several years now. It's the day the show traditionally airs, after all, so it seemed appropriate. But I guess that changes next week (or technically the week after next) when the show moves to Sunday. A big part of the pitch this season is that everything's different--the day, the cast, the Doctor's sex, the composer, the directors. Everything's different except, of course, the new showrunner, Chris Chibnall. He's written several episodes of Doctor Who and its spin-off, Torchwood. So I thought it would be appropriate to rank all of Chibnall's Doctor Who episodes to-day. Maybe we'll get some idea of what we can expect in the upcoming season première.

4: "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship"

I liked this episode when I first saw it but found it too irritating to watch through the second time. Part of the problem was that in their last few episodes, the Eleventh Doctor's companions, Amy and Rory Pond, had well overstayed their welcome, a problem exacerbated by the intentionally broad zaniness of this premise. I remember this season was billed as more cinematic than previous seasons, something that seems to be a promise going in to nearly every season, including the one starting next week.

3: "The Power of Three"

Also suffering from Amy and Rory fatigue, this one drags us through their weirdly smug domestic life while they guilt trip the Doctor for hinting that maybe exploring all of time and space might be more fun than working in a hospital. This one also suffers for being the debut of Kate Stewart on the proper series, the inadequate, dull replacement for her father, the Brigadier. I wonder if this means Chibnall will be bringing her back, despite the promise that the new season will feature almost nothing from previous seasons?

2: "The Hungry Earth"/"Cold Blood"

I always like when the new series does a two-parter. One-off Episodes generally feel rushed and the nearly two hour format still feels like it's natural for a Doctor Who story. It's a shame the upcoming season is said to be all stand-alone episodes. "The Hungry Earth"/"Cold Blood" featured some of the best qualities of traditional Doctor Who stories--it established a group of new people handling a problem in an interesting, atmospheric situation into which the Doctor is an unknown interloper. It's also the first appearance of the Silurians on the new series; they're not quite as fun but they do provide the basic look for the much better Madame Vastra later on. I suppose we've seen the last of the "Paternoster Gang"? I hope not. There's always the Big Finish audios, I guess.

1: "42"

Chibnall's first and still best, in my opinion. A tight, self-contained Tenth Doctor episode that is a nice sequence of suspense in the small confines of a spacecraft. It was one of my favourite episodes of the Tenth Doctor's second season and its humbler goals work out a lot better than the comparative garishness of "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship". I hope we see more like this in the new season.

Friday, September 28, 2018

That Old Drawn Magic

As you might've guessed from yesterday's entry, the anime bug has bitten me again. I've been getting up earlier and I find, in addition to coffee, nothing gives me quite the necessary kick in the morning like the peppy opening theme of a new anime series. So here are a few other 2018 shows I've been watching lately:

Revue Starlight, 少女☆歌劇 レヴュー・スタァライト

A bit like a cross between Glee and Revolutionary Girl Utena, this Shonen series follows an ensemble of pretty teenage girls led by the initially clumsy and awkward Karen (Momoyo Koyama). There's a Slice of Life quality to the series but it has too much of a plot to belong to that genre of anime. It's set in a musical academy for teenage girls who train and compete in ballet and opera and where Karen one day finds a secret elevator. It leads to an underground arena in which ballet and opera are combined with sword fights presided over by a sentient giraffe whose catch phase is, "Understand?" Anyone familiar with Revolutionary Girl Utena will recognise the set-up but where the sword fights made a kind of sense in that classic series--Utena is an athletic girl who challenges the captain of the kendo team in the first episode--the introduction of swordplay in Revue Starlight is abrupt and the characters oddly don't seem to remark on it, at least not in the first three episodes that I've watched. The injection of surrealism with the giraffe among other things also doesn't sit as well with the show's average visual design in place of Utena's distinctive aesthetic. But there's a supporting character named Banana who makes me laugh, mostly because she's named Banana. Revue Starlight is available on HIDIVE.

A Place Further than the Universe 宇宙よりも遠い場所

This one is on most of the American "Best Anime of 2018" lists, usually at number one, with good reason. A Seinen series, A Place Beyond the Universe follows a group of teenage girls whose ambition is to go to Antarctica. No, it's not At the Mountains of Madness for school girls, sadly, at least it doesn't seem to be two episodes in, but it is produced by Madhouse and it has the top notch animation and design associated with that studio. Like a lot of high school anime series, it's unabashedly about nostalgia and its central protagonist, Mari (Inori Minase), has the kind of passion about experiencing her youth to the fullest that one suspects generally only comes from someone who's not young anymore. She's enthusiastic but shy about simple transgressions like skipping school. Then she meets Shirase (Kana Hanazawa) who has a burning desire to get to Antarctica because her mother, a scientist, disappeared there. The show's sweet and the characters, who endeared themselves to me very quickly, feel less like stock types than usual though there is still with some light fan service. The series is available on Crunchyroll.

How Not to Summon a Demon Lord 異世界魔王と召喚少女の奴隷魔術

Here's one you won't generally find on American lists. A Shonen and Isekai series that's very heavy on the S&M fan service, it follows a young man named Takuma (Masaaki Mizunaka) who gets sucked into the world of an MMORPG. Unlike Sword Art Online, all the people Takuma encounters are NPCs, it being an alternate version of the world where death is permanent, which means everyone is very low level. Takuma's character, named Diablo, is high level even by normal standards so a lot of the humour in the first couple episodes has to do with how easily he beats anyone who challenges him. He's brought to the world by two beautiful women: an Elf named Shera (Yu Serizawa) and a Cat Girl named Rem (Azumi Waki) (no relation to the Re:Zero character). They both wanted to enslave Diablo but because he wears an artefact that reflects spells it's the two women who instead have to wear slave collars. But, naturally, Takuma is too shy to take advantage of them, despite the fact that both very quickly want him to. A lot of the humour comes from the contrast between Takuma's intimacy allergic NEET personality and the worldly, mature persona of Diablo. The beginning of the first episode tells us how he was particularly cruel in Player versus Player situations in which he was challenged by couples who consider their relationship more important than level grinding. Now, wouldn't you know, it looks like he's going to have to admit he likes the two gorgeous women who are bound to him by magic, affection, and the attraction inherent in his godlike powers. Fantasy world problems. It's a softball, to be sure, but it's fun, some of its humour even reminding me of Slayers. The show's available on Crunchyroll.

Twitter Sonnet #1159

Internal blanks destroy the papers now.
A shredder baulks at taking plastic cups.
A filed drop returns the cooler chow.
The bev'rage range producer quickly sups.
A random voice averts approaching trains.
In florid names the paper clips present.
A chopping block repaired the sign of gains.
To dogged ink fatigue compels assent.
The reading eye is circled down the ink.
A trial takes the cycle off the bike.
Reforms became the glowing page's link.
A fleet of shoes conduct the person hike.
In mirror worlds reflections turn around.
The bristles up the mountain brush abound.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

No Need for Umbrellas

There's a sweet, enjoyable new anime series this year called After the Rain (恋は雨上がりのように) about a teenage waitress who has a crush on her 45 year-old boss. The animation and design are average but pretty enough and the story wisely avoids operatics. It contents itself with what turns out to be a pleasant, mild story about two very different people surprised to find they're dealing similar issues.

Akira (Sayumi Watabe) is a high school student and former track star. She's also a waitress and we learn she got the job after she'd met the manager when she was a customer. She'd been depressed and she'd been charmed when, using a magic trick, he made a tub of milk appear in his hand for her coffee.

This is Kondo (Hiroaki Hirata) who is comically oblivious to Akira's crush at first and is dumbfounded when he does find out about it. He doesn't seriously contemplate a relationship with the girl though the idea wouldn't be as taboo in Japan as it is in the west. High school girls falling for older men, even their teachers, is a concept that crops up in Japanese fiction. Fans of Rumiko Takahashi's great series Maison Ikkoku will remember the female lead, Kyoko, mourning death of her husband, an older man she met in high school.

But it's socially awkward enough that Akira is reluctant to confide in her best friend about it and Kondo spends more time worrying about how to handle the situation than exhibiting any attraction to Akira. As the series progresses, we find they're both repressing former passions; Akira stopped running track after an injury to her ankle and at one time Kondo aspired to be an author of fiction. He's still friends with a former schoolmate who's now a celebrity author.

Those looking for the kind of hyper romance promised by the show's theme song may be disappointed by the series. But it's a nice story that begins with an awkward friendship built on uncertain foundations and becomes a sort of gentle rumination on the human need and capacity for self-fulfilment. A side plot about Akira's friend is obviously there to manipulate the overall story in a certain way and the show's not one of the best anime series I've seen but I found it a perfectly decent diversion to watch one episode at a time while eating breakfast. The whole series is available in the U.S. on Amazon Prime.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Saul Gets the Job Done

Kim and Jimmy each did their separate things to save Huell in Monday's new Better Call Saul, resulting in an entertaining if somewhat implausible episode. Nacho's story continues to have nothing worth mentioning while Mike's was almost interesting. But, as usual, Saul is the reason for watching.

Spoilers after the screenshot

At what must be some considerable expense, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) buys a bunch of greeting cards, goes to Louisiana to ride around Huell's home town, and pays people on the bus to write heartfelt messages. Then he sets up a bunch of drop phones, brings in the student film crew, and sets up a phoney community web site for Huell. And miraculously it all works and fools the D.A.

Meanwhile, Kim (Rhea Seehorn) works her more credible magic, intimidating the D.A. with a group of assistants. Jimmy politely downplays his role but Kim knows its because of his shenanigans justice was served for Huell. And in a satisfying if somewhat cliche dramatic turn, the experience belays and reverses her drift away from him and we get one of those dramatic, sudden kisses, the kind I don't think we'll be seeing guys give on television again for a very long time.

Was it justice for Huell that turned Kim on, though? The danger? Or just the cool efficacy of it all? The episode ends with her surprising Jimmy by telling him she wants to do something like this again; I suspect it has something to do with the idea she shot down at the Mesa Verde conference in an earlier scene. This isn't completely out of the blue--obviously Kim has diverged a great deal from Jimmy at this point but there was a time when she played along with some minor cons at the beginning of season 2. Now she's in a much more respectable position so maybe the desire to rebel is even stronger.

At bottom, I think Kim is tempted by the idea of getting things done faster and better than anyone else, even if it means taking risks. That could be the ultimate lesson from her car accident.

In standard plot trajectory, if you're going to break up two characters, you make them seem to suddenly get fabulously back together first. So here's what I think's going to happen in the last two episodes, between some Mike and Nacho padding: Jimmy's going to try some kind of scheme to help with the Mesa Verde thing; it fails spectacularly; Kim takes all the blame so Jimmy can safely get his law licence back but then she walks away from him. She'll say something about how he's her addiction or he enables some addiction of hers--for reckless efficacy--and how, for her own mental health, she has to stay away from him. This finally turns Jimmy into Saul because the loss of Kim makes him decide there's no reason to hold onto his soul anymore.

I'm not sure if I want to be right nor not. We'll see.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Passing the Time and the Marriage

September's almost over but there's still time for a mildly diverting tryst with Brigitte Bardot in 1967's Two Weeks in September (À coeur joie). Never quite finding much to say beyond its basic premise and lacking chemistry between its stars, there's nonetheless a pleasant vibe to the meandering film with its cool, xylophone heavy score that would probably be quite nice to relax with after a few drinks.

Cecile (Bardot) is a model married to an older man named Philippe (Jean Rochefort). She's childishly dependant on his guidance and naively believes he wouldn't mind too much if she cheats on him. Her work requires her to spend some time in London and, despite her pleas, Philippe decides not to accompany her.

It's in London she unhesitatingly responds to flirtations from the young and handsome Vincent (Laurent Terzieff) who looks to me like a cross between Cillian Murphy and Willem Defoe.

So he wins on looks but as an actor Terzieff seems generally disconnected from his scenes while Bardot plays Cecile with such a generalised zest you get the impression the two end up together just because they happen to be standing next to each other.

A lot of time is spent on Cecile's photo shoots in the first half of the film which makes it feel like a behind the scenes documentary on Bardot's modelling career. In the second half, Cecille and Vincent hop into a car and spontaneously drive to Scotland where their car breaks down. Fortunately a conveniently fluent in French Scotsman, complete with a kilt, happens by and takes them to his ancestral castle.

There are some pretty shots of the nearby cliffs. I appreciated shots of Bardot gazing out at the sea cut with footage of birds hovering in the wind blasting the cliff face.

The idea is for us to see Cecile's dilemma as she finds Philippe isn't the only man in the world after all but the characters and relationships are never developed enough to explore any of the issues. It's mostly just pretty people hanging out in pretty places.

Twitter Sonnet #1158

An offered drink contains the walls and floor.
An amber space permits the ghosts of drakes.
A bottle took the fine constructed door.
A lattice weaves between the piled rakes.
Rotations spill the bath before the plug.
Rotundas top collective cases spent.
A brace of suits retire hardly snug.
Confetti graced the nervous, breathing vent.
Beside the speaking leaves the people pass.
The boulders under earth return to guts.
A piece of hill and mountain made a mass.
The ploughing stones en route created ruts.
The later oats resort to cakes and spice.
Ingredients were hidden, even rice.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Life in Old Ships Yet

After five episodes focusing on other crew members, Cowboy Bebop gets back to an episode built more around Spike that also the reveals more about his ship, the Swordfish. Some exciting and amusing space battles take place and once again an artefact from Earth's past plays a major role.

Session Nineteen: Wild Horses

Sadly, this is an artefact that dates the show; the NASA Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed five years after Cowboy Bebop originally aired. Those of us who watched the show before the disaster can remember just being amused that the ship Doohan (Takeshi Aono) has been retrofitting as a hobby is so old it's real.

Now it's bittersweet, of course, but this still a fine episode. Doohan, whose name is presumably an ode to James Doohan, the actor who played Scottie on Star Trek, is the one who gave Spike (Koichi Yamadera) his signature spacecraft, the Swordfish, and it's to Doohan Spike takes the ship to be overhauled in this episode. This is after he's stranded in the desert with the thing, out of fuel, a sequence that features some nice images of Spike smoking in the shadow of the fuselage.

We get some lovely details when Doohan's assistant, Miles (Yoku Shioya), presumably named for Miles Davis, takes Spike back to Doohan's hanger.

Meanwhile, Jet (Unsho Ishizuka) and Faye (Megumi Hayashibara) are trying to capture a group of starship pirates who use a computer virus to hijack ships. Much to the chagrin of the Bebop crew, they also fall prey to the virus; even the combined computer talents of Ed (Aoi Tada) and Ein are no match for it. This is where Spike comes in.

It's not unlike Luke turning off the targeting computer in Star Wars, really. There's a lot more to what happens in the climax of the episode but Spike essentially survives thanks to his manual manoeuvring and the assistance of Doohan's ancient craft. Now the past isn't just making itself more apparent, it's coming to the rescue. This episode also marks sort of a reappearance of Spike's martial arts philosophy. His technique, modelled on Bruce Lee's advice to flow like water, seems reflected in a line Spike memorably says in moments of crisis here; "Whatever happens, happens."


This entry is part of a series of entries I’m writing on Cowboy Bebop for its 20th anniversary. I’m reviewing each episode individually. My previous episode reviews can be found here:

Session One
Session Two
Session Three
Session Four
Session Five
Session Six
Session Seven
Session Eight
Session Nine
Session Ten
Session Eleven
Sessions Twelve and Thirteen
Session Fourteen
Session Fifteen
Session Sixteen
Session Seventeen
Session Eighteen

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Gods Over the City

Charles George Gordon was a British officer whose list of seemingly impossible exploits occurred all over the world. He earned the commendation of the Emperor of China for putting down a rebellion and the love of the people in the Sudan for disrupting the slave trade. It all makes the events of 1966's Khartoum seem preposterous but I was surprised to read later how much of it was true. That said, the film has a lot of faults, generally coming off as a poor man's Lawrence of Arabia with its overuse of process shots, clear evidence of poor research, and some improbable plot contrivances. But the cast is great, including Charlton Heston as Gordon and Laurence Olivier as his opponent, the Mahdi, and Ralph Richardson is perfectly cast as a somewhat idealised version of the British Prime Minister William Gladstone.

In this version of history, Gladstone is secretly a strong supporter of Gordon's. Why he should keep it a secret when the public and Queen Victoria are passionately on Gordon's side is put down to the Parliament not liking the cost of Gordon's plan to defend the Sudanese town Khartoum; the Siege of Khartoum is the central subject of the story.

There are some terrific battle sequences in the film, though far from the best I've seen. There are too many shots of guys clutching their chests and falling over theatrically and too many times where the camera is misplaced, as when the front line of the Mahdi's troops rush directly at the camera moving backwards--the men run with obvious restraint to avoid colliding with the thing. But the biggest problem is that the film's stars, Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier, clearly spent very little time on location. We almost never see the latter--and almost always on soundstages when we do--and the former is lamely inserted with process shots that are particularly obtrusive in a night battle.

The film has two scenes where Gordon and the Mahdi meet in the Mahdi's tent; both scenes are somewhat preposterous poetic license and the idea that Gordon can safely drop in on the Mahdi is ridiculous even as the film makes a point of having characters remark on how dangerous it is. But apparently Gordon and the Mahdi really did correspond and the idea of having Heston and Olivier share scenes must have been too good to pass up, especially since the relationship between the two men ends up being the best part of the film.

It turns out, each sees something in the other similar to himself; each believes himself a key figure in the service of God. To the point where the implications of Gordon's defeat are troubling even to the Mahdi. The film spends a lot of time building up Gordon the point where you start to wonder if it's all to flatter Charlton Heston but it pays off in the end, giving the viewer an idea of what it's like when people have so much spiritual investment in their belief in one man.

There's a lot of brown-face in the film, really more than there needs to be, though personally I don't mind when its obviously someone as singular as Laurence Olivier. But the dozens of white actors playing Sudanese men shows just how little the production was willing to work with the location. Meanwhile, Charlton Heston's English accent seems almost okay in some scenes and then is completely absent in others. But otherwise he's good in the role and the film has some great visuals shot in Ultra Panavision.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Getting the Doctor's Leadworth

I really can't say I'd mind ending up in the supposedly boring village featured in the 2010 Doctor Who episode "Amy's Choice". Filmed in a village called Skenfrith in Wales, plenty of beautiful location shots sell the place marvellously, albeit under the fictional name of Upper Leadworth. Watching it again, I was reminded how much the show's aesthetics were upgraded for the Eleventh Doctor era. The story, written by Men Behaving Badly creator Simon Nye, is a satisfying enough dream puzzle with an effective guest appearance from Toby Jones as the "Dream Lord".

Director Catherine Morshead provides a series of lovely shots of surrounding countryside before the reveal of pregnant Amy (Karen Gillan) who's suddenly the picture of traditional domesticity, stirring batter in a kitchen that looks like it came from a department store catalogue.

Sadly, she's married to Rory (Arthur Darvill) whose ponytail is mocked by everyone. Though I would say it's not the ponytail so much as that it's clearly part of a mullet.

He looks like a Saturday morning cartoon version of an 80s rock star. The Dream Lord taunts the three with the possibility that it's really the Doctor (Matt Smith) Amy prefers. Looking back, I find my feelings at the time that she ought to have chosen the Doctor over Rory were spot on. Rory was occasionally cute but, come on, it's the Doctor. Amy choosing to die for Rory may have been the first of the two expressing their love for each other by extreme, fatal means, I can't remember. But that's no way to build a relationship.

She'd have been better off with the Doctor but I can't share his disdain for Upper Leadworth. We should all be so lucky to settle down in that lovely little house with the flower beds and mossy stones. Even with the roving packs of elderly zombies with eye stalks in their mouths.

Not one of the show's more effective monsters but I can see them being pretty unnerving for small children watching.

Twitter Sonnet #1157

Collected leaves infuse the little sea.
In silhouettes success inscribes the page.
The painting shows a heavy cup of tea.
Beneath the ground the roots retrieved an age.
On paper, sheets of clouds convert the skies.
A ticking egg alerts the pan to cool.
A trusty oil cooks or say it fries.
The gen'ral dance completes the deathless duel.
An open book disclosed a glassy case.
In timeless march the figures cut the clay.
Resolving sight discerns a soil base.
The digging plant recused the rainy day.
In layers soot preserves the glossy street.
Correct adjustment lifts the office seat.