Under the Dog (2016)

Just about three years ago I ran across a Kickstarter campaign that excited me quite a bit. A small company called Mentat Studios LLC had a vision – they wanted to produce an anime for anime fans around the world without the need for the industry standard production committees and TV networks butting in. It seems that there are a lot of industry types in Japan that are not fans of the current road that the anime market is going down e.g. visual novel anime projects and moe shows designed to sell merchandise and little else. Hiroaki Yura, the executive producer at the time, even went as far as to do a solid Reddit AMA that outlined the project’s vision:

“I hope UTD will give an example that the Japanese anime industry should really focus their attention globally, not just our tiny Japanese audience. Anime should be for the whole world, not just Japan. We don’t always want moe anime or a light novel based anime. I for one long to see anime like Akira.”

This was also the original trailer presented, none of this is in the movie, so it could be seen as a trailer of what could have been a later episode I suppose.

 

while the project did not make the five million dollars needed to make a full feature length film, it did make enough money for one 30 minute OVA episode. I really wish that it could have made more (although some issues the project had that I will talk about in a bit could have complicated it) because ideally Under the Dog was meant to be a TV series.

The staff consisted of Jiro Ishii, director Masahiro Ando, producer Hiroaki Yura, character designer Yūsuke Kozaki, and composer Kevin Penkin. Though the project was successfully funded, Creative Intelligence Arts and Kinema Citrus separated due to creative differences, and Kinema Citrus took full control. The split resulted in the replacement of some development staff, including Yura being replaced by Kōji Morimoto and Yoshirō Kataoka.

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This really worried me, because at the time the whole project seemed somewhat “up in the air” backer rewards started getting cancelled and rumors of creative differences were hitting message-boards. Now it’s early 2017 and I thankfully got my psychical Blu Ray disc to review – technically it was released last fall digitally, but I wanted to wait until I had the disk.

The Blu Ray itself is a bare-bones affair with basically just the film and a handful of special features including the above trailer and a few sound options.

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What we see in this episode is largely stand-alone, but like many 1980’s OVA episodes it’s full of stuff that would be awesome if further explained. There are characters, organizations, and other bits of world building that obviously had to be set aside to meet the running time, making this seem like a introduction to a show that will (likely) never exist. According to the original Kickstarter page, the overall plot is as such:

The story takes place within Neo Tokyo in the year 2025, five years after a severe terrorist attack at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Students possessing special abilities are forced into serving an elite anti-terrorist unit created by the United Nations, fighting against threats including other ability users. If these agents fail their mission, they will be killed along with their families, who have bombs planted within their heads. One member of this covert ops unit, a Swedish girl by the name of Anthea Kallenberg, seeks to find who she really is.

Not a whole lot of this actually makes much of an appearance in the actual movie, as the focus of fifteen minutes of it is built around two entirely other characters than Anthea. The OVA’s story underwent a massive reboot in February 2015, shortly after the staff shakeup and the removal of Creative Intelligence Arts from the project. This may be why the OVA’s story and feel is almost totally different from the trailer and the previously revealed plot elements (there is no mention of a terrorist attack on the 2020 Olympics in the final product, for example).

We find a young girl named Hana Togetsu who appears to be a member of some sort of clandestine organization and is referred to as a “Flower.” Flowers are forced to work under the United Nations to carry out assassinations of terrorists and other detriments to human society such as monsters called Pandoras. It’s implied that a failed mission results in imminent death for a Flower agent and her family, and considering the tension she appeared to have with her family at the beginning of the movie, it seems messed up. She has been planted (Flower! Planted! whoooaaa – I’ll get my coat…) into a school to shadow a boy that seems to have some sort of latent abilities that her organization is after. Too bad the US Military appears to run in Team America style to complicate things.

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On the technical side, everything looks pretty nice although not incredibly spectacular. I can only assume that the budget and staff change-ups meant that parts of this production were rushed. Some of the animation, especially some of the American soldiers is worse than other parts of the film, so they stand out as being somewhat off. This isn’t helped by English voice acting for these characters that isn’t the best. If anyone has been anime anime with half-English and half-Japanese dialog (Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad comes to mind), they usually end up like this since they use non-native speakers or untrained people that just happen to know English.

I really enjoyed the character designs for all of the principle characters, and would have loved to know about some of the other agents that we barely see. I found out by looking at the Anime News Network Encyclopedia entry for Yusuke Kozaki to see he has done a TON of stuff I enjoy like a DS game called Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, Fire EmblemNo More Heroes 1 and 2, and even Pokemon Go. I need to possibly read some of his manga works if I can find any that are translated.

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All-in-all Under the Dog is a solid enjoyable watch that could have really benefited from being a bit longer. it definitely reminded me more of old-school anime (which is what they were going for) in that it pulled no punches, was bloody as hell, and was made for people like me in mind. It’s basically a cross between Gunslinger Girl and Evangelion in many ways, and despite my few quibbles above I’d recommend checking it out if you can. OH! and if you’re there you can try to find my microscopic name in the end credits!

I am hopeful that we get to see Anthea’s story told as this was recently posted on the official Website for this project:

We are excited to announce that a new partnership for Under the Dog is established! We should be able to officially announce more details soon, but for now, we just would like to let our backers know that Under the Dog, which started out on Kickstarter, will now expand beyond crowdfunding!

This is all due to your support. We thank you again and again, and please look forward to seeing what comes out of our new partnership!

I’m still assuming we won’t see more as this was months ago, but I’ll be excited if this turns out false and we do get more.

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And in case you were wondering….

The phrase “under the dog” comes from GREAT3’s song “Under the Dog” with a line that says “Why don’t you sleep under the dog if you are so sad” for which the meaning is trying to convey (in translation) the definition we had placed on our KS page: “when one is in a situation so disagreeable that they would wish to rather be “under the dog,” a place of dishonor, misery, and filth, in order to escape their current state of affairs.” While the meaning for “underdog” can still apply to the situations the characters will find themselves in, the original meaning comes from very specific elements that are not necessarily tied to “underdog.”
–Kickstarter FAQ answer

 


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Vampire Hunter D: Raiser of Gales (1984)

Vampire Hunter D Volume 02: Raiser of Gales (Vampire Hunter D #2)

Recently, I was discussing a Kickstarter campaign to bring a new Vampire Hunter D comic to the masses with a co-worker, and mentioned that I had started to read the VHD novel series. They had no idea these books were out there and there was so much material, so we went to good old Mr. Wikipedia to look. 30+ total books WOW! and here I am at number 2…lol!! I have actually read the comic from the Kickstarter, so I will likely discuss it on here soon.

When we last left D, he had defeated Count Magnus Lee, and ventured into the wastelaands to look for more work. This chapter follows D on yet another adventure, this time in the snow-covered town of Tepes. The people of the village once cowered in fear beneath the shadow of a dreary castle once inhabited by a member of The Nobility (vampires). The Nobility moved on, or otherwise vanished from Tepes, and the castle sat empty with only its elaborate traps intact. One day four of the village children vanished, presumed to have ventured into the castle. Only three returned, with no memory of what happened or where they went, and one had gone completely mad. That was ten years ago. Now, in the year 12,090 A.D., vampires who can walk in the daylight have seemingly appeared, and many murders are taking place.

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This book is in some ways better and in some ways worse than the first one. I loved the fact that the majority of the book played out like a murder mystery with D acting as a goth Angela Lansbury, shaking down skeevy locals and fighting monsters at the the same time. Okay I guess that’s nothing like Angela Lansbury in Murder She Wrote, but you get the point. The book unfortunately falls into the tread of repeating a bit of the tropes in the last book – D goes to a town, Vampires are attacking town, D meets 17 year old brunette girl that falls in love with him, all the men in town get real rapey, D is a badass – the end. aside from this, there is a TON of character building for D and some more world building for the world of 12,090 AD.

If you like this series, and Gothic horror in general, check this out. Hideyuki Kikuchi does play around with the narrator of the story a bit, treating the voice as some omniscient deity that knows everything and can leap into the points of views of all of the characters at any time. It’s vaguely similar to how old school pulp writers used to write stories, and I know it can put people off of his writing style. If this isn’t an issue keep reading, and onward to book three!


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R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)(1921)

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I have wanted to read R.U.R ever since I did some research on classic science fiction and discovered that Capek is the first to popularize the word “robot” – something that has become a staple – perhaps a cliche of science fiction itself. The Robots in Rossum’s Universal Robots are not machines in the way we think of machines ie mechanical, clockwork, computer driven automatons, but a literal synthetic human. They are “machines in that they are created to work as factory equipment.

Here is an excerpt:

DOMAIN: (Solemnly) And then, Miss Glory, old Rossum wrote the
following day in his book: “Nature has found only one method of
organizing living matter. There is, however, another method more
simple, flexible, and rapid, which has not yet occurred to nature
at all. This second process by which life can be developed was
discovered by me today.” Imagine him, Miss Glory, writing those
wonderful words. Imagine him sitting over a test tube and thinking
how the whole tree of life would grow from it, how animals would
proceed from it, beginning with some sort of beetle and ending with man
himself. A man of different substance from ours. Miss Glory, that
was a tremendous moment.

HELENA: Go on, please.

DOMAIN: Now the thing was, how to get the life out of the test
tube and hasten development: to form organs, bones and nerves,
and so on: to find such substances as catalytics, enzymes, hormones,
and so forth, in short — you understand?

HELENA: I don’t know. Not much, I’m afraid.

DOMAIN: Never mind. You see, with the help of his tinctures he
could make whatever he wanted. He could have produced a Medusa with
the brain of a Socrates or a worm fifty yards long. But being without a
grain of humor, he took it into his head to make a normal vertebrate.
This artificial living matter of his had a raging thirst for life.
It didn’t mind being sewn up or mixed together. THAT, you’ll admit,
couldn’t be done with natural albumen. And that’s how he set about it

It seems that the unseen Older Rossum of the book’s title discovered a way to weave human tissue and create false humans, his family member (younger brother, son? it actually just says younger) takes this information and removes everything that makes a person human to create a perfect working class, you know without those pesky emotions. This obviously backfires and spells doom for humanity. It’s funny that that robot science fiction is so ingrained with the idea that “robots” would be our downfall, considering this was what happened in the literal first robot story.

Rossum’s Universal Robots is actually a three act stage play and is somewhat short, but it’s a fun read. The dialog is somewhat surreal and almost comedic, but I enjoyed it.


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Digital Devil Story: Goddess Reincarnation & Digital Devil Story 2: Warrior of the Demon City (1986-8)

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It’s no mystery that one of my favorite videogame franchises is the venerable “MegaTen” series, which is shorthand for Shin Megami Tensei and encompasses a “main series” and its spinoffs. The first entry in the series, Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, was released in 1987 on the Famicom (NES) and its success spawned the entire franchise that still has new games coming out yearly. Few people realize, however, that this entire franchise was originally a book by Aya Nishitani.

I’ve wanted to read the original novella that started the whole thing for quite a while, but the lack of an actual translated book and my desire not to read thousands of words on a computer screen kept me away until now. Apparently a fan translation has been circulating for a while, and Goodreads thankfully had a link directly to it. After a few clicks and a bit of formatting, I was all set. Side-note: I did see an old anime OVA based on this book years ago (check youtube for Megami Tensei OVA) but it’s pretty bad despite being largely true to the book.

Akemi Nakajima attends a prestigious school called Jusho High (the gifted class no less) and despite being a genius, is having trouble in his classes. He is distant, ignores his schoolwork, and has few friends. This all seems to stem from the bullying he deals with from day to day. The book opens with Nakajima fighting with a male and female classmate because he ignored her romantic advances and is some kind of lunatic and gets her boyfriend to beat Nakajima up. He is plagued by nightmares of ancient gods Izanagi and Izanami, the gods from the Japanese creation myth, roughly the equivalent to Adam and Eve in Christian culture.

Instead of being a mature adult, Nakajima uses his vast intelligence with computers and new found fascination with the occult to create a demon summoning program for his computer. He plans, with some success eventually, to get a demon to take revenge on his bullies and make him more prominent at school. What he doesn’t know is that he should never trust a demon and has his life thrown into utter chaos. It’s hard to pin Nakajima down as the “hero” of this story as he is basically a giant sociopath for about half the book. It isn’t until the presence of his love interest, a transfer student named Yumiko, that he stops being a total D-bag. I don’t mean benign either – his is directly responsible for rapes, murders, and brainwashing until he flips a total 180 to being a heroic lover this side of Shakespeare’s Romeo.

This weird characterization is one of my big issues with this book – yeah, I see all of the building blocks here that eventually became one of my favorite videogames of all time, but the characters seem one-dimensional and switch personalities half-way through the book. Perhaps this is the fault of the translation I have, or characterization was not the purpose of this story. To me, Mr. Nishitani excels at describing horrific gore and body horror, and the majority of his descriptive prose is there to make the reader’s stomach turn.


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Not much to say about book two that wasn’t posted up there.

When I read Digital Devil Story: Goddess Reincarnation I characterized it as a mediocre book with bland characters (or awful ones) that had amazing descriptions of body horror but not much else. Granted, it did sow the seeds of one of my favorite video game franchises of all time, but it was a shell of what I expected.

While this book is still slightly hokey, the main character, Nakajima, is written slightly less unlikable, so at least you can relate to him this time around. The secondary cast is decent and the villain is cool. Most notably, this chapter brings in tropes like a somewhat post-apocalyptic setting and a demon-fighting mechanic that proved so popular that even Pokemon ripped it off years later.

This was very much better than the first book. If I was still rating stuff on here (I don’t because that’s dumb) I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to give it more than an average score, but this might just be worth reading. I wish I could read part three, but as of 2017 there is yet to be any sort of English translation. It seems the guy thaat was doing it got a real job translating stuff and never went back. Maybe one day we’ll see it surface


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