Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Die Neue These (2018) First Impressions

These past few years have truly been a blessing for fans of both “old-school” anime and manga and space opera anime and manga in general. I plan to eventually go more into detail regarding this topic, but the short version is that I would have never imagined owning legit English translations of things like Captain Harlock and Queen Emeraldas in manga form, and novels and anime of the VERY sought after classic Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Granted, the original anime has yet to materialize over here despite being licensed – but I’ll go with the next best thing – an entirely new show streaming on numerous streaming sites. Today we will be looking at Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Die Neue These.

While a general synopsis of this show is very hard, I think I can boil it down to the chronicle of a war between three galactic superpowers that spans hundreds of years and involves billions of people. The first super-power was formed in 2801 and is dubbed The Galactic Federation. After power largely shifts from the Earth, a man named Rudolf von Goldenbaum, an ex-admiral turned dictatorial politician is elected to power, quickly makes himself Emperor Rudolf I, absolute monarch of the renamed Galactic Empire. Rudolf adopts extremist policies including the suppression of any opposition and the extermination of anyone perceived too weak, such as the disabled and those in poverty. So yeah, basically space Nazis.

Later on, the second power springs up – a group of serfs in the Altair star system manage to escape captivity and make “the Long March of 10,000 Light-Years” into the Sagittarius Arm to escape the Galactic Empire, which is located within the Orion Arm. These people set up the Free Planets Alliance, a democratic republic. Seeing these people as nothing more than traitors and rebels, the Empire vows to crush the FPA at all costs. Assuming a quick victory, The Empire suffers large losses and has to settle into a prolonged war.

The third realm is the Dominion of Phezzan, a planet-state with connections to Earth (now dubbed Terra). It technically remains a part of the Empire and pays tribute, but it also maintains a relationship with the Alliance. Providing the only link between the Empire and Alliance whilst simultaneously playing the two sides against one another makes Phezzan act like true war profiteers. so far, these guys have yet to show up in the first few episodes.

The first season of this show is just twelve episodes and seems to roughly cover the contents of the first novel (which I really need to finish reading one of these days). This has been a “second season” announced, but it will be comprised of three theatrical films that I assume will be the second book. Time will tell if this new production will achieve that sort of success that could warrant the sort of long-term commitment that eventually led to over 100 OVA episodes, but I really hope it does.

Perhaps one of the biggest differences between this show and the older OVA series, is that some of the theatricality of the dialogue has been removed for a much more subdued (realistic?) version. The example that sticks out to me the most is a scene in episode one where Commodore Reinhard is sitting on an ornate throne on the bridge of his flagship The Brünhild looking out of the observation window. This scene is basically in both versions, but first we’ll talk about the original. His longtime friend and military confidant, Kircheis, has entered the room to comment on his stargazing, to which Reinhard goes into a long, almost Shakespearean, aside about stars and how vast space is in comparison to man-made wars.

In this new version, however, Kircheis rolls and in and Reinhard comments on how tall he has gotten, to which Kircheis basically replies “cool story bro” – end scene. To me, This dramatically alters the character of Reinhard from a more romantic character to a dark brooding one ala Captain Harlock. It’s too early to tell if this is long-lasting or even a detriment to the narrative. One could argue that such flowery dialogue led the original show to coming off as pretentious at times, I personally like it as space operas of that era all tend to be that way.

There is also a tendency for Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Die Neue These to go into details of specific battle plans and tactics used far more than what was in the original show. In the original show, there were points where you were left to assume everyone was correct in their assertions that characters like Reinhard and Yang were tactical geniuses as most of the actual planning was glossed over. Here we have the exact opposite, in fact some battles are almost laboriously detailed with little maps being discussed and references to as yet to be unseen older battles. Honestly, I think the new show takes the edge, as these battles are far more like the ones in the books by description alone.

Honestly, this and the battle scenes are basically pornography to me – giant space battles set up like old school navel battles have always been a thing I love seeing in science fiction, and you can’t really get any more epic than two armies consisting hundreds of thousands of ships duking it out. These action scenes have immense gravitas due too how dynamic they have been realized and the budget that must have spent to do so.

One notable thing missing is the original score comprised largely of classical music, but this has been replaced with suitable original orchestral music that suits the show and gives it the vibe it needs. Although watching ships blow up to Gustav Mahler or Antonin Dvorak pieces is awesome, this original stuff is pretty good.  I can’t find too much about the new compositions, but they appear to be from famed Japanese composer Shin Hashimoto, aka Sin. He is well-known for his works for Takako Matsu, EXILE, Mika Nakashima, AAA, and LISA.

Perhaps one of my favorite things that these first episodes did was illustrated when Commodore Reinhard, in the first episode, comes up with a seemingly flawless battle plan, only to meet his match with Yang Wen-li in episode two. the way both episodes show the same period of time through the eyes of two opposing men was cool and I hope they do this more.

So far, This is a really solid adaptation of something that I assumed would get ruined in an effort to modernize everything. I know there are still fans that are mad about changed that have been happening, but honestly some would be mad at anything other than a shot-for-shot remake in the same art style which would be a waste of everyone’s time. What we have is a solid introduction to the show and really gets me pumped to finish it up. I plan to continue watching this for the next few weeks and give more thoughts as I go through. Hell, I might get back onto the 100 episode horse that is the original show as I’m pumped that this is getting made!

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Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

“I’m gonna be a pilot. Best in the galaxy.”

 

While I can’t say I’ve been one of the more loyal Star Wars fans over the years, (the prequels lost me for a bit) some of my fondest memories of my childhood include it. Then again, I can’t imagine too many “older millennials” not having some sort of deep cultural connection to it – whether loved or hated the ever-present looming of the franchise was always there. Cartoons (Muppet Babies), other films (Spaceballs), and even songs (Weird Al) constantly had references to a series of films that almost became bigger than film itself. In what was likely a very annoying event for my family, I once taped the trilogy off of a USA network cable marathon and watched it constantly – so much that I used to know the words to the Ewok song at the end of Jedi.

Seeing my fandom really blossoming, I remember at some point that my mother gave me a series of books called The Han Solo Adventures when I was young, I think she got them from a book club or something and passed them on to me, and I was hooked on the characters of Han and Chewie. I mean, I teared up at the end of Episode 7 due to a particular incident – er, the movie came out a million years ago, if you haven’t seen the spoiler I’m sorry. I nearly cried when Han Died. When a prequel film was announced I got really excited.

“It is a lawless time. Crime Syndicates compete for resources – food, medicine, and hyperfuel. On the shipbuilding planet of Corellia, the foul Lady Proxima forces runaways into a life of crime in exchange for shelter and protection. On these mean streets, a young man fights for survival, but yearns to fly among the stars…”

That is the opening crawl for Solo: A Star Wars Story, a film that fills in some of the gaps of the titular characters backstory. Ultimately, one can think of any of Han Solo’s questionable boasts in the previous films and wonder “I wonder what the Kessel Run is?”, “Has Chewie ever really ripped someone’s arms off?” or “Did he really win The Millennium Falcon from Lando ‘fair and square’?”

The film answers all of this without seeming too gratuitous about it, thankfully. Yeah a lot of things that seem really important to the character’s later motivations and personality seem to have all taken place in the span of only a few weeks or less, but the writers resisted things like shoe-horning Boba Fett or Darth Vader into the film, a fact that I was really happy about. Yeah there was another BIG cameo in there, but it was refreshing rather than cringey.

Harrison Ford has some mighty big space boots to fill, and I was perhaps the most skeptical of the casting of Alden Ehrenreich as Han. Rather than attempting to do a prolonged impersonation of Ford, Ehrenreich nails the personality and wise-cracks of the character in such a way that you could imagine him being a 20-year-old version of the same man. To compare this to the series’ often fan-imagined competitor – Star Trek, I feel that casting of young versions of characters was done FAR better here.

Donald Glover was amazing as he always is in his role as Lando Calrissian – a portrayal that actually added a lot to the character that casual fans that don’t want to read a library of books may be unaware of. I know some folks, as tradition with any film nowadays, were mad at the insinuation that Lando was Pan-sexual now in various interviews – once seeing the movie, I love how this was handled, and while not going into specifics he was not going around and having sex with anything he saw. In fact, it was one of the more touching relationships in the franchise.

Rounding out the main cast was Emilia Clarke as Qi’ra, Paul Bettany as Dryden, and Woody Harrelson as Beckett. I was actually surprised at how much I like Harrelson’s character as I wasn’t a big fan of him being cast as he’s far too recognizable and Star Wars has always stayed away from huge stars for the most part. Granted, he basically played the same character he often plays in many films such as Zombieland and The Hunger Games  – older guy that has seem some crap and mentors the younger main character. I’ll just chalk that up to his version of how Ice Cube always plays police officers or how Liam Neeson is perpetually given roles in thrillers that involve him saving his family. Honorable mentions go to other characters like Enfys Nest who meet the “cool character that folks will become obsessed with” mold like Boba Fett.

Perhaps my only real quibble with the film was the addition of a sub-plot concerning a droid character in Lando’s employ named L3-37 that is basically a parody/homage of various modern-day social justice movements. The character is often seen advocating for droid rights, as she has “malfunctioned” to such a degree that she sees injustices involving droids all around her when few others seem to care. We even see that many of the shadier characters in the galaxy enjoy droid cage-fighting as a spectator sport, a fact that enrages her.

While I’m not mad about this inclusion, I feel that this and the war profiteering plot in Episode 8 are a bit too “on the nose” and lack the subtlety that Star Wars usually has. I mean, Star Wars isn’t Handmaid’s Tale, it’s usually not a scathing rebuke of modern-day politics unless you consider that the bad guys are space Nazis essentially.

All-in all, I really liked this film – it captured the fun and spectacle of the non-‘anthology” films well, and made me remember how awesome Han and Chewie are. I’m hoping this does well enough that they make more, but who knows as it seems the film was released at a bad time and is slightly under-performing. Considering this was a film in which the original directors got fired and Ron Howard ha to “swoop in” and save the day on, I’d say they did a solid job.

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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Roadside Picnic (1972)

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I have recently been on a big Russian science fiction kick these past few months (We, Omon Ra, Night Watch etc), and discovered that this book inspired a video game I like, so I figured that I should pick it up. The game in question, “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl“, is not really a remake of this book, but after reading the story – it borrows many plot points. It’s weird to know how old this book is (1972) and to see how it predicted the way people would treat an exclusion zone that folks try to sneak into. Granted, Chernobyl was a huge nuclear disaster, and the incident that creates tension in this book is a low-key alien encounter.

It seems that, years prior, an alien invasion of some sort occurred. These aliens, thinking that we were basically ants to them, ignored us completely, left a bunch of trash everywhere, then simply left. A comparison is made that it was like a situation where humans have a Roadside Picnic and leave garbage everywhere – animals would be scared and confused, and have no idea what we left behind. Their trash, however, isn’t just regular trash, it’s so bad that the areas affected end up called “zones”. These areas exhibit strange and dangerous phenomena not understood by humans, and contain artifacts with inexplicable, seemingly supernatural properties. Of course, a huge black market pops up to take advantage and folks start making a career out of sneaking in and stealing this stuff.

I really enjoyed Roadside Picnic, but it wasn’t perfect. It seems so short and has a somewhat unsatisfying open-ended finale. One can surmise what happens at the end, but you never really know. If you want to read something a bit different, this is a decent quick read that keeps you on the edge of your seat.


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The White Mountains (The Tripods #1)

The White Mountains (The Tripods #1)

The Tripods first came to my attention a few years ago when I stumbled upon a picture of one of the titular crafts in some sort of memorabilia magazine; one that was full of garage model kits. As I recall, I had no idea that there was some sort of “sequel” to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, and wondered why I had never heard of it. I was, of course, mistaken as the concept of these three-legged walking crafts is merely inspired by those similar Martian crafts, and have no relation otherwise.

The Tripods was actually a series of “young adult” novels (way before they were a cultural phenomenon) penned by John Christopher in the late 1960’s to the early 1980’s. The series was a success and was eventually adapted into an awesome television show that I’ve seen the first season of. If this sounds fun, be sure to look for my reviews of that show on here. The production was a joint venture between the BBC and the Australian Seven network, and lasted two seasons. Sadly, a third season died before it went into production.

The White Mountains is immediately unsettling based solely on the realization that something is wrong. The book employs a great juxtaposition of little hints of lost technology and a primitive, medieval-ish, somewhat pastoral, setting. This sets up what I will be calling “The Reverse Shyamalan”- we have already seen the twist, something bad happened and this is a dystopian future – now let’s work backwards and find out why. Maybe it’s more like Memento? I’m sure I can figure out a better early 2000’s film reference to put here, but that’s beside the point.

Anyway…we know that something isn’t right: either these people are some sort of Anabaptist off-shoot that hates technology, or something bad has happened in the past. This is answered almost immediately as we meet the main characters on their way to a village celebration. It seems that Jack, a neighborhood boy, has reached the age at which everyone is considered an adult, and is to have his “capping ceremony”.

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Will (and later his cousin Henry) are disturbed by this practice as everyone that gets “capped” comes back different. Capped individuals seem to lose any sort of creativity, drive, and imagination that made them who they were. “Adults” become bland worker drones that want no other past time than work and sing the praise of their “masters”. These masters are of course gigantic three legged monstrosities called “Tripods” and the Capping Ceremony can be surmised as a way of them controlling humans. At this point we have no idea what these creatures are or what they want with the human race, but one can see that it isn’t good.

Will strikes up a conversation with an eccentric “vagrant” named Ozymandias that talks of a land of free men in the White Mountains, a land outside of the influence of the Tripods. Vagrants are those that are seen as harmless by the Tripods and regular capped townspeople, but are not allowed to mingle with everyone else. Usually it is accepted that these people were “driven mad” by the capping process and are better to be not spoken about. Will is amazed by what Ozymandias has to say, and plans to escape to the European mainland to find this utopia of freedom.

Then a whole lot of shenanigans ensue – a third character named Beanpole joins up, and grenades get hurled at stuff. I will let you read to find out the rest.

I was struck with how different this book is to the television series. First and foremost – Will and Henry almost hate each other. Even coming to blows a few times. The show also has a LOT of “fluff” padding the main part of the story. Honestly, the book flows better and is very tightly paced. This is ostensibly a young adult book or some equivalent thereof and can be read very quickly, if you enjoy science fiction I would greatly recommend it.


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Star Trek: Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay

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I have seen the Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever many times, and it’s definitely a great episode, but I had no idea what I was in for when I picked this up. I knew that Gene Roddenberry was notorious for altering many scripts that came across his desk – sometimes for the better sometimes for the worse (There is even a film called Chaos on the Bridge about this). What I had no idea about was the bad blood between Harlan Ellison and Roddenberry over the script for this story. It was deemed un-filmable, large portions were changed and entire characters were removed – all to make it more “Star Trek”. Granted, the episode went on to win a Hugo award, but I wonder what it could have been in its original form? Luckily thanks to IDW we have a graphic novel which adapts the second draft by Ellison, and in his own words “moved him to tears”.

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One of the main differences between the two versions of the story is the inclusion of an antagonist that is somewhat replaced by a drug addled Doctor McCoy (accidental of course) in the actual aired episode. Enter: Lieutenant Richard Beckwith, a drug dealer selling the illegal “Jewels of Sound”, kills Lieutenant LeBeque after he threatens to expose Beckwith’s activities to Kirk (selling drugs to people on away-missions). He storms the transporter array and goes to the planet where he later alters time. This one change already drastically changes the tone of the episode to a much darker story-line. I’m pretty sure censors would not have let that fly in 1966, but one never knows.

Another few shocking moments are racist overtones Spock has to deal with (everyone thinks he is Chinese) and a moment when Spock almost commits murder in desperation to “make things right”. Honestly this book contains enough new material for a full second part of this episode including a disturbing fate for our villain.

All in all, this is the superior version of this story and an amazing book for sci-fi fans and Star Trek fans alike.

Cyber City Oedo 808 (1990) OVA

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It wasn’t too long ago that most saw the science fiction sub-genre of “Cyberpunk” as a dying format. Yeah, The Matrix was a huge movie, but that was made almost fifteen years ago, and little else came of its popularity (aside from two somewhat questionable sequels). Pretty soon, things like 9/11 took all of the fun out of life, and anything that could possibly be seen as a commentary on the decay of society and runaway governments was a big “No-No”. In this climate. science fiction and fantasy media turned into escapist Hollywood CGI-fests and lost their subversive souls in the transition. We all watched endless reality shows and procedural police dramas all decade, wore stupid clothes, and listened to terrible music – man the “noughties” were awful! Their version of the future seemed to be that of excess and world domination through “democracy”. Too bad the bubble burst and we all came to our senses.

Let’s flash forward to today: People fear a global takeover by a prominent Asian country, a government agency has been caught hoarding tons of personal information on just about every one on earth, mega-corporations control world governments, and cyber-crime is on the rise around the world. If I didn’t know any better, people like William Gibson predicted the future and we didn’t even realize it! Every day, we edge closer and closer to the 1980’s view of the near future made flesh, largely due to societal and economic turmoil in the present. The one good thing coming out of this new cynical age is that our speculative fiction is cool again, and it seems cyberpunk media is coming back as a result. Fox has a new TV show called Almost Human that thrives on just about every trope the genre has ever laid out, there have been movies like Dredd, Elysium, and a new Ghost in the Shell series hitting the scene, and even Cyberpunk video games like Deus Ex hitting the shelves – Cyberpunk is back Baby!

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With all this new material out there, it’s fun to go back and watch one of the seminal Cyberpunk anime productions of the past – Cyber City Oedo 808. This show isn’t just a classic, it’s pretty damn influential for anime of the time, and one can see its fingerprints on just about everything that came after – even Ghost in the Shell. Today I feel like Cyber City Oedo 808 is becoming a forgotten gem, much like loads of other eighties anime, and people really need to get the word out on great classic shows.

Released as a three episode OVA way back in 1990, Cyber City Oedo 808 is just a tad longer than a feature film, so it’s not like a huge time investment is needed. One of the more endearing things about this show is that it reeks of late 80’s cheese. Everyone has big silly hair, garish clothing, one of them is essentially a cross-dresser, and the sounds of what could essentially be considered “hair metal” is everywhere.

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It’s the year 2808 and the booming megalopolis of Oedo (Tokyo of the future) is desperate to curb the rising tide of technology-based “cyber-crime”. The city’s governing body decides to follow the old adage of “it takes a thief to catch a thief” and brings in a group of criminals in a new initiative to take on the problem. Serving ridiculous 300+ year sentences for various crimes, Sengoku, Gogol and Benten are less than enthusiastic to be talking to their captors.

They end up being offered relief from their orbital penitentiary cells, but only if they take a deal from the Cyber Police. They are given a pathway to redemption in that each criminal brought to justice results in a shortened sentence, so theoretically they could attain freedom once again. In order to keep the trio in line, each reformed convict is outfitted with an explosive collar that would detonate if they do a poor job or try to escape their duties.

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For the purposes of this review, I actually watched this episode twice, once in the original Japanese (with what I assumed were fansubs), and a second time in English via the UK version. The reason I wanted to see the UK version is that it has an alternate musical track that is not present in either the American or Japanese releases, and to me it’s the superior version.

Manga UK hired a man named Rory McFarlane to compose a more intense soundtrack for their release, and to me the riff-laden guitar sound-scape is far more fitting to the setting than the original soundtrack. That’s not a jab at the original soundtrack by any means, but it just seems somewhat bland in comparison. The other gem from the English localization that stands out is the quality of the dubbing. I know this is a hot topic of debate for anime fans, but I base my opinions of dubs or subs on the actual quality of the product rather than the country of origin. Not all Japanese language tracks are God’s gift to mankind, and in fact I felt the script and voice acting was both more energetic, and fleshed out in the English Version.

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Speaking of the English dub, Cyber City Oedo is one of those anime titles from the early-mid 90’s that really stepped up its game with coarse language. I would even say that it’s basically hilarious in the way it weaves its vulgar tapestry. I enjoy the cursing because these characters are supposed to be anti-social former convicts, and let’s face it most people on the outskirts of society probably talk in a similar manner. Well….that, and it’s funny in a juvenile way, and in a similar vein to why Malcolm Tucker as played by Peter Capaldi is funny. Pardon my french here, but I wanted to showcase one of the most hysterical lines in the show just to get the point across as to why I loved it. This is from episode three:

“Get lost. You wouldn’t recognize a goddamn vampire if one jumped up and bit you on the end of your fucking dick. So just get off my back.”

The dialog is full of stuff like that, people swear even if it’s completely unnecessary to what they are saying. The whole thing reminds me of why I like the movie Shoot ‘Em Up starring Clive Owen. The movie is so unnatural, so over the the top that it becomes completely hilarious for all the right reasons.

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The English dub also does a great job of filling in quiet spots within the dialog. Sometimes there are long stretches of silence going on in the Japanese version, and the English dub fills this in with extra material. Even when a camera was silently panning off-screen in the original, the new version might include two characters conversing with dialog that acts as world building or character development dialog. I’m usually pretty critical of stuff like this considering I felt the “extra dialog” injected into Tekkaman Blade generally made the show cheesy and more childish, but here it really works. How else would we get a lecture from the Cyber Police liaison robot (Varsus) to Sengoku on his misuse of the word “fuck”? Outside of such a fun dub.

Cyber City Oedo 808 was directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, who happens to be one of my favorite 90’s anime directors. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, his works should. Kawajiri is the guy behind Wicked City, Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, Highlander, The Deadshot segment of Batman: Gotham Knight, and even Demon City Shinjuku. Don’t forget his name, because the material he directed was essentially what got me into anime back in the nineties. Don’t be surprised if most of my posts on here have something to do with his works! There is really no other director that captured the American Market like Kawajiri, and his films were staples of many Blockbuster video stores around the country. Granted this is generally because his shows are all pretty violent, full of action, and other things teenage boys thought were awesome back then.

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I mentioned the characters of Sengoku, Gogol and Benten earlier, but did not say much other than the fact that they are foul-mouthed former convicts. Sengoku is essentially the main character of the show, although each episode is a character piece where each one gets the spotlight. He’s your typical hot-headed badass that doesn’t take any sass from anyone. Whether it be his boss, the robot assigned to watch over him, or fellow teammates, Sengoku is usually snarking at somebody. In the English dub he is especially hot-headed but likable in a weird way.

Gogol is a huge intimating computer hacker with a red mohawk and scars all over his face. I was pleasantly surprised by his character, as one would assume he would be the one-dimensional brute of the team, but he’s really the brains of the operation. Benten is an androgynous martial arts master that fights using mono-filament wire and acts pretty sadistic towards people he is fighting. Of the three, Benten is the least likable simply because he comes across sort of creepy. He does end up fighting a vampire though, so there’s points there!

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My long-winded introduction was basically laying out Cyber City Oedo 808 as a classic Cyberpunk show, but one might wonder how much it has in common with notable literary cyberpunk stories. Cyberpunk, as a genre, deals with the conventions of post-humanism, technology running amok, and the collapse of society, or as a notable anonymous article once put it [cyberpunk is the story of] “high tech and low life.” The world of Oedo is a very dark one, and it seems to run in a similar manner to the universe of the 2000AD books that Judge Dredd eventually came from.

It’s hard to piece together the societal structure the series is based in, but one can see that it is presented as very high-tech, and yet VERY fascist. In the first OVA episode, for example, a man under pressure confesses to a murder that is responsible for a horrible crisis that Sengoku is attempting to unravel. This is enough for Hasegawa (their boss) to order Sengoku to kill the man there and then without so much as a trial. When Sengoku fails to do so he is reprimanded and his sentence is increased due to insubordination.

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Sengoku shares the sort of philosophical leaning that many cyberpunk heroes deal with. He seems to resent what the world has become, and especially the over-use of technology in Oedo. A notable scene from the Japanese version shows a little bit of dialog that really sums his stance up: “What a Joke…We built a monstrous city, then we put the computers in charge…we rely too much on you damn machines, don’t we, junkpile? ” The English edition is basically the same just with more “F-bombs”.

If you are a fan of cyberpunk and have yet to see Cyber City Oedo 808 do yourself a favor and take a trip over to YouTube and watch the UK versions of it. It may be old, and the dub is unintentionally hilarious, but this is definitely a style of anime that really isn’t done anymore. Robots, Cyborgs, and Vampires all rolled into one, it sounds like my idea of a great way to spend a snowed in winter day!

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Black Magic M-66 (1987) OVA

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Science fiction stories, and more specifically cyberpunk stories, are by far my favorite type of anime and manga; and one of the grandmasters of the genre would have to be Masamune Shirow. Not only did he unleash the beast that was the Ghost in the Shell franchise to our defenseless eyes, but also brought a helping of Dominion Tank Police, Gundress and even Appleseed. Rest assured, as this blog continues, I will be posting more of his stuff than you can handle.

So, what makes Shirow’s work stand out so much? Despite his foray into erotic pin-up art for the last decade or so, Shirow’s work was essentially the formula that most 80’sand 90’s cyberpunk anime followed. His productions were characterized by sexy leading ladies, philosophical plots, and a procedural police drama flavor. On top of all of this, Shirow is known for his highly detailed level of world building; this is seen most notably in his vehicles, mecha, firearms, and cybernetics.

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Before Ghost in The Shell or even Apleseed, Shirow penned a science fiction manga simply called Black Magic. Bandai eventually got the rights, and produced a short OVA (original video animation) based loosely on a small portion of the comic. Hiroyuki Kitakubo also co-directed this piece, and later went on to work on such films as Akira, Gundam: Char’s Counterattack, and Roujin Z usually as a key animator or storyboard director. So here we go – let’s look at Black Magic M-66, one of Shirow’s earliest works!

Black Magic M-66 is the story of a hard-as-nails and usually scantily-clad journalist named Sybil out for the scoop of her career. She learns about a crashed military transport and two lethal combat androids on-board. She assumes that the military is going to battle a “violent, armored thing on the road”, but little does she know, it’s worse. Perhaps because of the crash, or a fault in programming, these mechanical murderers get loose and set out to kill the granddaughter of their own creator. Sybil has a choice, if she wants her big payday, she better protect the girl from the bots.

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The plot essentially boils down to a prolonged chase scene that somewhat reminded me of the first Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator film. M-66 is like the Terminator and has been programmed to kill Ferris (Sarah Conner) who is only safe because she is being protected by Sybil (Kyle). Yeah, it lacks the time travel plot and other aspects, but the similarity is there. I wish that Black Magic M-66 could have been a tad longer, because the plot really gets rolling about 10-15 minutes into the movie, and rushed to the ending from then on. To me, It needs a bit more breathing room.

This video has a lot of what I like to call “the pervy side of Shirow”. I mentioned earlier, that Shirow basically exclusively produces erotic pin up art ever since he completed his manga Ghost in the Shell II: Man Machine Interface. People thinking that this career turn is a new thing, need to go back and watch Black Magic M-66. Not only is Sybil’s very first scene one where she is not wearing any clothes, but other characters seem to be border-line nudists as well. Ferris, The aforementioned granddaughter in question, walks around in what I can best describe as her underwear with shoes on for a good chunk of her early scenes.

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A special nod goes out to the way the android M-66s are designed and their “fighting style”. When they finally are spotted by the military and engaged, the inhuman,near animalistic way in which they move is almost unsettling. The “male” M-66, which meets a grizzly end by way of military might towards the beginning of the feature, is vaguely monkey like and sticks to the ground, whereas the “female” M-66 lumbers around shooting things with laser eyes and retracting knives as fingers. These monstrosities really bring this film into it’s own,and keep the whole thing full of “on the edge of your seat moments”.

Before I sat down to write this, I had never actually seen this anime for some reason. I think this boils down to the scarcity of the older Manga Entertainment DVD when I used to work at a retail store, and my unwillingness to spend large amounts of money on it. I believe the older DVD was released in 2001, and it wasn’t until a few months ago that a new company, Maiden Japan, re-released it minus any English dubbing. If in a pinch, I bet you could find it on any popular video sharing site, but I don’t condone that due to an actual American license, but whatever floats your boat.

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In conclusion, Black Magic M-66 is not as polished as later works from Masamune Shirow, but it still retains a lot of his trademark style. You have the procedural cop drama trope with the military guys, the mecha, the androids, and even the sexy female lead. All it’s missing is the philosophical treatment with the plot. If anything, it’s always fun to see where a director honed his chops.

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