Chinese Girl Cartoons – Amon: Apocalypse of Devilman

Apparently this is a series I’m doing now? Sure, why not. Amon is the third Devilman OVA, released in 2000. While it is usually grouped together with The Birth and The Demon Bird, really it is its own thing. Not only is it adapting a completely different arc of the manga, it is done in a much different style. Unfortunately I couldn’t find an English dub, so I had to suffer instead through a really bad fansub made with what appears to be Windows Movie Maker that you can find on YouTube. I later discovered another, official sub, which I skipped through to confirm certain things, but it would be fair to say that plot is not really a big deal here. Dubs and subs aside, Amon is probably the weirdest of the Devilman stuff I’ve seen so far. One the one hand it is extremely violent and graphic, seeming to take a kind of Violence Jack level of glee in such things as child murder; on the other hand it is surprisingly tame, cutting away from things that are pretty much standard fare, like decapitation or limb severance and generic mass carnage, and lingering on stuff like Devilman ripping a demon’s breasts off and eating them. I suspect this has something to do with budgetary concerns, but even so, this addition to the series, if it can be called a series, seems much more leeringly exploitative and far less subtle than its predecessors, while also being quite squeamish, somehow. Yes, that’s right, I am saying that Amon in the original Japanese is less subtle than “let’s take a swing at the motherfuckers!”, and you might think that impossible, but with Amon the sky really is the limit in terms of bullshit.

The first scene of Amon consists of what looks like a paedophile chasing a small child down an alley. In fact, it’s a demon chasing a small child down an alley. In fact, it’s a demon chasing a small child who is also a Devilman down an alley. Say whaaaaaat? That’s right, you heard right, there’s more than one now, for some reason, and they come in all shapes and sizes! The little Devilman is in fact luring the demon into a trap, for lying in wait is yet another Devilman, an adult female who pulls down her top and exposes her breasts, which are cannons that shoot acid… or something. Yeah, I’ve got nothing. While at first it seems like acid breast milk will win the day, the unfortunate truth is that these Devilmen ain’t really cut out for the big time, and Akira Fudo has to come to their rescue. After punching it and bouncing it all around the alley like some daftly Lovecraftian game of NBA Street, he disposes of the demon by sucking it into his fist. The life of a Devilman is always intense.

As the Devilmen emerge from the alley victorious, who should appear on a giant TV screen that dominates the city skyline but our old buddy Ryo, who tells people that they have to be extremely wary of demonic presences in their midst. After showing footage of Devilman’s birth that he somehow shot with multiple cameras and edited really tightly, which also contains the breast eating shot I mentioned earlier, the people, already paranoid owing to the increase in frequency of attacks carried out by demons in human form, start to riot. Akira tells his fellow Devilmen to go round up the Devilman army, which apparently is a thing, while he goes to check on his girlfriend Miki. Unfortunately, an angry fire-and-pitchforks type mob show up at her house, murder and dismember her child brother, and then kill her too before torching her house. I can only imagine seeing this for the first time knowing even less about Devilman than I already do and not having a fucking clue what is happening or who any of these people are. Miki definitely gets the short straw in this series. In the first OVA she’s around for a few minutes before Ryo shows up and tells her to fuck off; in the second she’s basically demon bait who spends most of her time naked and unconscious; here she’s just straight up murdered ten minutes in, and then a little later she’s murdered again in one of Akira’s nightmares.

Unable to cope with the grief, when a demonic battalion shows up to fight him Akira loses his shit and Amon—the demon he originally fused with in the halcyon days of 1987—takes over, physically manifesting from Akira’s body, while his host’s consciousness now becomes dormant within him. Now Amon, for reasons I’m not entirely clear on, basically wants to kill everything. Demon, human, it doesn’t matter, he will try to kill it, and probably eat it too. To that end he turns from massacring demons to eating the child Devilman we saw earlier, and in this moment the whole weirdness of this OVA’s approach to gore and the extreme is encapsulated. The camera shows limbs and some unidentified fleshy thing (I don’t really want to know what it’s supposed to be) falling on the floor in a pool of blood at Amon’s feet, but when it cuts up to show the actual feasting, were it not for the blood and missing body parts it would appear oddly wholesome, for the action in itself just looks like Amon is trying to tickle the child with his teeth. Also, the people drawing this thing apparently couldn’t decide if the child still has their legs or not, so they disappear and reappear in various shots.

After that mighty pleasant sequence, the tone makes a sudden shift into what I would loosely define as “DragonBall Z on meth”. Amon and Selos, the leader of the demonic forces, duel each other in the abandoned city. Selos is dispatched easily, so Amon goes to confront Satan, who it turns out is a really handsome glitter boy twink with golden wings, and he’s just kind of hanging out atop an abandoned building. After an honest to God, good old fashioned kamehameha beam fight between Amon and a weird thing that is a head with legs, Satan commands Akira to awaken inside Amon, and what I think happens is they have one of those metaphorical contests of brutality that is really all in the mind. Akira transforms into Devilman, but Amon gets the upper hand very quickly, tearing Devilman’s wings off and pounding him into the dirt. When all seems lost, visions of Miki from beyond the grave—or beyond the pyre, I guess—spur Devilman to rise and fight once more. He defeats Amon easily, because it’s not just Akira Fudo, it’s all the friends he made along the away. That’s right, the power of friendship wins the day! Akira falls to Earth, and the adult female Devilman finds him in a Devilman shaped crater. Some time later, there are explosions, and Akira walks past Ryo, who I think is supposed to be Satan? Cue ill-fitting rock music. The end.

This is a real fucking weird one. I don’t really know how to describe it. Like I said earlier, I think there is a seriously bizarre approach to violence, some of it is extremely graphic, while some of it is obscured or even cut out completely. I can understand that time and budgetary constraints will necessitate these choices, but I’d rather watch Devilman brutally massacre an angry mob that just murdered his adoptive family than watch him rip someone’s tits off and eat them, demon or not—call me crazy! The surreal-ish horror of the older OVAs is completely gone, it’s more an action movie with some occasionally nasty gore in it. And the action itself isn’t really all that good, whether its the selectively squeamish gore, or the lack of impact behind punches and whatever else, helped not at all by the crappy nothing of a soundtrack. Say what you will about the quality of its predecessors—I certainly have—but they had something more to them than this. So newer is not always better, and I think that even with all the faults the previous OVAs have, this is by far the worst Devilman type thing I have seen so far. Still better than Violence Jack.


Short Music Reviews: Boulez’s Berg and Salonen’s Mahler

In a lot of ways it’s just right that I should listen to and think about these two composers together. Though outwardly their styles may seem worlds apart, it is the truth that both of them blurred the lines between romanticism and modernism in ways more similar than you might think, and certainly very different to those of the Brahmsian Schoenberg. Berg, whose works included arrangements of Strauss II waltzes, and the Kabarett melodrama of Lulu, might have been the most spiritually Viennese of the Second Viennese School, and his love of Mahler’s music is plain to see in works like the Violin Concerto. Mahler was of course a spiritual father to the SVS as a whole, but Berg seemed to wear that most profoundly in his music, and believed that Mahler’s Sixth was “the only Sixth, despite the Pastoral.”


Berg – Kammerkonzert + Op. 5 & 1 (Boulez, EIC, Barenboim, Zukerman, Pay) [1978]

Berg’s Kammerkonzert is a towering work of not only the Second Viennese School but also the chamber music repertoire of the 20th century. In many ways, with its “scherzoso” movement, thematic unity and tripartite structure, the piece is the closest any of the major players in the SVS came to writing a traditional symphony in their modernist output. That it’s scored for such an unusual instrumentation and bursting out of late-romantic convention with modern invention, albeit not to the astonishing degree achieved in the Violin Concerto, only reinforces the case for Berg as successor to Mahler. As is expected of Boulez, the performance is utterly devoted to the music, avoiding all self-serving flash and allowing the wild score to sound out in full richness. Fine if unremarkable readings of the Op. 1 and 5 with Mr Fine-if-Unremarkable himself, Daniel Barenboim, round out the disc, which, like what little else we have of this composer’s music, serves as a grim reminder that here was one of the most brilliant musical minds of his generation, lost like his colleague Webern to tragedy long before his time was due.


Mahler – Symphony No. 9 (Salonen, Philharmonia Orchestra) [2010]

I have said before that many conductors like to make a wet handkerchief of Mahler’s music—well, the Ninth may just be the greatest victim of all. After all, who could resist those swooning strings and the grandiose brass climaxes? It turns out that Salonen is one who can, turning in a light, balanced, and fresh feeling take on this often overdone work. But “resist” is the wrong word. This is full-tilt Mahler, just without the imprinting it is so often smothered with.

Salonen takes the marking “Andante comodo” literally, and turns in a first movement of a little under 26 minutes, a little faster than Barbirolli. This is probably closer to what Mahler had in mind than the near or even over 30 minute renditions we often hear. Also like Barbirolli, Salonen stresses balance across the four movements, with the closing Adagio being near enough even in length with the first. The fast inner movements are brisk, and the third movement’s “interior moments” may seem to pass you by, but in its way this is appropriate to the sarcastic nature of the movement, and it’s only in the finale that that theme comes back to hit you in the face with full force.

The recording quality is excellent and lets you right into the orchestra, which plays with cleanness and enunciation. Like Boulez’s Chicago Ninth, there is nothing in the music that fails to make it out into the air. Though it is faster and less affected than a recording like Bernstein’s, it is never rushed or devoid of impact. While I guess you could say it doesn’t reach the highs that more excessive or old school approaches can yield, for the sound quality, excellence of playing, and the conductor’s light and easy touch, this may well be the best introduction to the Ninth on record.

Chinese Girl Cartoons – Devilman OVAs (1987-1990)

Everyone’s talking about Devilman Crybaby. Not me, I only watch old garbage. This is yet another outing for Violence Jack. No, really. Let’s see, how to explain this… Well, I don’t actually know anything about Go Nagai’s fictional universe and I don’t really want to, but it’s something like Akira Fudo who fuses with the demon Amon to become Devilman is reborn as Violence Jack who is one third of Devilman or something and the other two parts of him are birds. That either sounds stupider than it is or doesn’t sound nearly stupid enough. Anyway, in the late ’80s (naturally) there were a couple of gory shitdub OVAs made of the Devilman saga and I thought I would check them out. I regret that decision, but since I went through with it I might as well get something vaguely redeeming out of it.

The Birth (1987)

Aptly titled, The Birth is about the birth of Devilman. A few million or whatever years before that happens, though, dinosaurs and fairies and crab monsters and weird plant things are at war with each other or something. Apparently some of them are possessed by demons, and we get what in the world of 1980’s anime shitdubs probably passed for an explanation of that a little later on, but for now let’s abruptly skip over to something else. In the present, some people go to a cave, and they die because there is a thing there. Spooky. After that we meet Akira Fudo, as yet not demonised, who is looking after rabbits. Some street punks kill the rabbits and beat Akira up. Now I know what you’re thinking, are these guys leather biker rapists? No, no they are not. Apparently Violence Jack’s world is what happens after Devilman kills or fails to kill Satan or something, and that’s when things really get bad, so these guys are a bit more tame—instead of chainsawing your head off while raping your girlfriend they just menace you with blunt objects and call you names. Okay, okay, yes, they kill animals, but they do that off-screen, which is basically the old school trash anime equivalent of being humane.

The first thing to note is that Akira, despite being a weakling, displays some kind of heroism in rescuing the third rabbit. While he does get the crap kicked out of him, he does indeed protect the rabbit, and the punks even admire his resolve on some level. This goes out the window pretty quickly when his buddy Ryo, who wears a cape for some reason and swears enough for a whole shipload of sailors, shows up out of nowhere. Thanks to the amazing English dub, Akira literally goes from a timid “oh no, who would do such a thing?” upon encountering the rabbits to growling “let’s take a swing at the motherfuckers!” when Ryo enlists him to fight demons, all in the space of about ten minutes. And they say kids grow up too fast these days! I’m skipping a bit of story here, though. Before the demons, we get a nice story with equally nice visuals about Ryo’s dad going insane and butchering the family dog before trying to kill Ryo and then setting himself on fire. Such is the power of demons, for Ryo’s dad was studying them and may have gotten, in a classic Lovecraftian kind of deal, just a little too close for his own good. At Ryo’s house, demons show up because his dad knew too much, and Ryo shows Akira a dead demon’s head, which Akira must put on his head in order to witness what basically amounts to the opening sequence but more detailed and even less intelligible.

With Akira thus fully convinced to take a swing at the motherfuckers, Ryo leads him to a nightclub that is for some reason inside his house and starts getting drunk and glassing dudes in the face. The point of this is to create a sabbath-like ritual of sex, intoxication, and blood, in order to attract demons. I will point out that earlier there were several demons inside his house, but I guess it doesn’t count unless you shout “fuckin’ hellfire!” and faceplant into a naked woman’s breasts. This is where things take a turn for the properly grotesque. Where Violence Jack is basically the Mad Max-style pulp/exploitation post-apocalypse taken to its logical extreme, revelling in dismemberment, rape, torture, and so forth, Devilman is a surreal phantasmagoria of body horror. While it would be a mistake to think of the OVA itself as anything other than Grade A trash, the sabbath sequence (at least before “I did it, I am Devilmaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!”, after which point it becomes high comedy) features legitimately impressive gruesomeness of a sort that might have amused someone like Dalí for the way it contorts and perverts natural forms. He died in 1989, so who knows, he could’ve seen it, maybe. Probably not but the idea is appealing, kind of, maybe? Guys?

The OVA ends with Akira holding an apparently dead Ryo in his arms and shouting “why God?!” over and over again. And, in a way, that kind of sums it up. As you’ll note I’ve written somewhat less about this one than the sequel, and that’s for a few reasons. First off, it’s pretty slow and most of the dialogue is only memorable because it’s so bad. Second of all, I saw this a few days ago, and now I’m giving my recollections. Thirdly, the sequel is much more fun to talk about.

The Demon Bird (1990)

Akira Fudo, no longer a fresh-faced youth but an angry man with fangs that no one seems to notice, is living with his lady friend (but not in that way) who was briefly (hey, the OVA forgot who she was and so did I) seen in The Birth before Ryo showed up to drive his swearing-powered car (someone give this idea to a wealthy entrepreneur who is not Elon Musk, stat!) to the demon mansion. No longer one to be bothered by street thugs, now he leaps tall buildings in a single bound! No really, he does, parkouring his way about Tokyo or wherever he’s supposed to be. He can also kind of Spider-Man his way up walls by thrusting his fingers into concrete because he’s just that tough. After receiving a strange phone call, he parkours over to a sewer tunnel where some bad shit is going down. Human skeletons and strange hallucinations and a woman laughing lead him to fall through a conveniently placed hole and into an abandoned subway station, where a floating skull talks to him with his mother’s voice, but I don’t know how he can tell, it sounds like the woman who voices the Dark Souls intro started smoking two packs of Bensons a day. Maybe his mother really did sound like that? Not that I expect any continuity between dubs here, and even if I did I probably wouldn’t go back and check.

Anyway, a lizard armadillo demon who speaks with a deep south American accent for some reason shows up with a bunch of pustule-ridden human faces. These are souls that the demon traps on its shell in order to enjoy their suffering. Regressing from Dark Souls to Demon’s Souls hahaha shut up. This demon’s name is Ginman? As in the spirit gin and, well, man? I’m sure the dub is screwing it up somehow, but I don’t really know. Also this is apparently the demon that got Parkoura’s parents because it was indeed his mother calling to him, her soul is trapped in Ginman’s shell. The horror in this section seems considerably lesser than that of the sabbath sequence of yore. It’s true that Ginman can withstand attacks on his shell, which means that more pain is suffered by the trapped souls, including potentially Mama Fudo, but somehow the overall tone and presentation feels more like a Saturday morning cartoon than anything. After telepathically showing him her own body being destroyed, however, it gives him the gumption to get that there demon dead in a pretty anticlimactic fight. Of course, it is only a quarter of the way through, so I don’t know why I’m surprised by this.

After a brief visit with the decidedly not dead Ryo in the hospital, Akira goes to the beach—or does he?! No. No he does not. In fact it’s a pretty cool dream sequence which captures more of the subject matter’s potential for surreal, almost ghost train kind of imagery. If this “series”, such as it is, has a strength, this is it. If it had just been an hour of this kind of weird stuff each way then, despite its considerably lower budget, this could have been among the best of its era. Alas, it ain’t. Now seems as good a time as any, mid-paragraph (we’re really freewheeling now, baby) to talk about just how weird the dub is. All the voice actors are clearly American, but the script seems to have been written in England. If you’ve never heard the phrase “I’m knackered” being spoken with an American accent, this is your chance! It’s bizarre, any minute I expect one of the demons to say “cor blimey, it’s Akira Fudo, ouwight me ol’ china” or “chuffin’ ‘ell lad tha’s buggered that one”. I don’t know if this is in fact some bizarre attempt to make it seem foreign to American audiences while still being in English somehow, but I’m glad they did it, it keeps you on your toes.

Now, you might be wondering, just who or what in the heck that title is referring to. At first I thought it might be about the Violence Jack bird, it isn’t about that, thankfully, but there is indeed a demon bird. Sort of. It’s actually a naked woman with some avian features, and I guess if the Saturday morning kids’ show theme is what we’re going with, she’s Devilman‘s Rita Repulsa. She brings down a couple of demons from a thunder storm, who has some kind of light-based power that allows him to appear in mirrors or something, and there’s another one who is water? Is this a JoJo ref- No. Stop that right now. This is where we get another action sequence, and it’s a pretty weird one. The demons assault the house, Akira’s lady friend Miki (finally remembered!) is almost drowned in the bathtub, and her parents are phased into the architecture. The dub makes it kind of difficult to tell who is who, but as far as I can tell Gelmar is in fact the mirror and water demon (any reflective surface will do, it seems), and the other one is some kind of almost-snail with teeth and tentacles that speaks through a reverb effect that makes it impossible to tell what it’s saying. Reverb Snail is dispatched first, and then Akira uses his hot hands to set a bedsheet on fire which causes the water portion of Gelmar’s body to evaporate. I don’t really understand how the house isn’t a burning wreck but whatever.

Anyway, Akira kills Gelmar, and then the bird lady, whose name, according to the dub, is Shernu (hey, you want me to do research? pay me), swoops down and takes him for a ride. After Ryo, who is telepathic somehow, takes his swear-powered car and heads for a tall building, from which he shoots Shernu with a sniper rifle that he has because he does, things take a turn for the worse. The ensuing battle is kind of a tonal mess, jumping from spectacular explosions and gore to bloodless slapfights and back again. Things get even sillier when Shernu chants for Satan’s help, and the ever helpful Prince of Darkness sends a rhino demon who speaks like he’s doing a voice over for a coffee commercial down to Earth. There follows a conversation about whether or not Shernu should fuse with the rhino, and for some reason this is supposed to be an emotional moment even though we’ve never seen one of them before, and the one we have spent time with has spent that time doing nothing but shout “I’ll tear you limb from limb!” over and over again while getting punched in the face. It turns out that the rhino has been in love with the bird lady “since the dawn of time”, and in its ham-fisted way that makes no sense this is about as close as we get in this whole sordid affair to a romance. Anyway, the noble rhino rips his own head off and Shernu inserts herself feet first into the gaping neck hole, so I guess this is the closest we get to a sex scene as well, and by golly it was consensual! The power of love proves strong, and Devilman in fact loses the fight. Of course none of this actually matters because Shernu was about to die anyway, and Ryo shows up to put some bandages on Akira so everything is okay. Even the credits don’t think this is important, they just unceremoniously start up over Ryo and Akira’s conversation, and the dub credits even black out half the screen so that the whole thing ends with the kind of incoherence with which it began.

So that’s Devilman. The better part of two hours of people swearing at each other and dying in horrible ways. Of the Go Nagai adaptations I have seen it’s definitely the best, but given that the others comprise the Violence Jack trilogy, I’m going to go ahead and say that in the grand scheme of things it’s not all that great. It has moments where cool things happen, but then either the original direction or the atrocious dubbing completely ruins the effect. Taken as action horror it’s too goofy to take seriously, taken as a so-bad-it’s-good trainwreck it’s nowhere near shitty enough and most of the dub just isn’t that funny. But it has its moments of imagination, and for that I can’t really say it’s bad, it’s just very poorly balanced in its tone, with characters that are whatever they need to be for a particular scene, their traits being served up like a Woolworths’ pick ‘n’ mix rather than in accordance with any kind of developmental logic. It’s too all over the place in terms of quality to be mediocre, but it probably averages out to around that level. In conclusion, I guess you could say Devilman is a thing that exists.

Listening 2018/05/11: Borodin, Ferneyhough, Beethoven, Bartók

I now have my good headphones back in working order, so it’s time to get some musicking going on. I didn’t actually go into this with a theme in mind, but it turns out that everything I’ve really listened to since quality audio was returned to me is a string quartet.

To begin with, I’d like to make a display of my ignorance by talking a little (very little) about listening to Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 for the first time today. Borodin is probably the finest of the Russian romantics, along with Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky he makes up the best of the Mighty Handful. While he is known to me for the opera Prince Igor, his two symphonies, and In the Steppes of Central Asia, he was most prolific as a composer of chamber music. Thinking about it now, it is strange to say I haven’t heard the quartet before, since so many of its themes, particularly of the third movement, were instantly familiar to me. Not being a fan of musical theatre, I feel like it’s a safe bet to say that I don’t know them from Kismet, but whatever. The music is sweet and lyrical, but in the finale you see how robustly contrapuntal Borodin can be, and in some ways, though it is in sonata form, the movement feels like a compact response to the Große Fuge. It’s a fun piece with rich themes and a gently lilting tension and release running throughout, some excellent gestural and contrapuntal writing on display.

Next, Ferneyhough’s string quartet Dum Transisset. I am not a huge fan of Ferneyhough. I think he composes the same way he speaks, that is to say “jargonistically”. His music can be interesting, but I feel very little when I listen to it. Listening to him speak about his work, it seems almost that he composes more for the gratification of the performer than for any audience save perhaps himself. This is fine, for to presume audience is condescension of the highest order; if you aren’t composing for yourself today you are wasting everyone’s time. Dum Transisset sounds pretty much what I expect Ferneyhough to sound like. Fragments play one after the other seemingly unconnected but for their proximity, occasionally a kind of sweetness will emerge, and there is much Webern and even a little Bartók lurking in there. The final movement is perhaps the most exciting, but Ferneyhough is too obsessed with superfluity to make a convincingly conclusive end statement. Maybe that’s the point? Maybe I don’t care? It’s an okay piece.

The Beethoven late quartets have held a special place for me since I first encountered them, and they are probably my favourite works by the composer. Today I am struck by the elegance and tenderness of the brilliant String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat major, Op. 127. It is not sweet music, Beethoven’s mature music is always possessed of a kind of violence, which is precisely why something like the Große Fuge seems never to age, even against the developments of our time it retains its vigour and freshness of spirit. No. 12 is the same way, even though it is a four movement quartet with adherence to classical structure. Beethoven layers the music with idiosyncrasies, and his characteristic method of constructing complicated movements out of simple ideas exists here in a very easily digested, time-flying sort of way. While among these formidable late quartets it might seem the least remarkable, the music is one of constant movement, the way sonata form is stifled in the first movement is arresting to the ear.

Bartók’s six quartets are regarded generally as the finest of the first half of the 20th century. I think that might be pushing things a little, but it’s hard for even the most curmudgeonly critic to deny their vitality and unique character. The fourth of six is the one I’ve been listening to the most, mainly because I love the aggressive, infernal dance of the final movement. But the rest of the quartet is full of invention, too. It is comprised exclusively of mysterious dissonant dances, breaking only for a slow central movement that is merely dissonant and mysterious. The flow of the quartet from the outset is dictated by jagged gestures hitting against each other in compact formal spaces, swirling and dizzying and claustrophobic. Yet, as is common with Bartók, this kind of violent writing comes out of the folk music of his native Hungary and Romania. As an ethnomusicologist he transcribed and arranged vast numbers of tunes from the peoples of those lands, and incorporated them and lessons learned from them into his original music, marking himself out as one of the foremost nationalist composers of his generation. This comes to a head in the finale, following the unique pizzicato-only fourth movement, thrusting and kicking its way through a brutal village dance until it collapses in on itself.

2018: A Batshit Odyssey – #2. Batman (1989)

What might be considered the first major cinematic outing for the caped crusader finds Michael Keaton behind the mask, and Tim Burton at the helm, both of whom had worked together the previous year on Beetlejuice. Tim Burton has made some weird movies, and most of them have not been weird in a good way, but there was a period in which he directed a solid stream of good films, and this is one of them. But going in, it’s worth accepting that you are going to get more Burton than Batman. Say what you will about Burton, like Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder after him, he has a particular vision and—whether you think it’s absolute pants or not—the sense of “auteurism” is strong in his take on Batman.

The film opens with the wonderful Danny Elfman theme, which I would characterise as “neo-Wagnerian”. Just listen to those opening harmonies and that orchestration, they could have been lifted straight out of Der Ring des Nibelungen. As they play on, dark textures and shadows unfurl across the screen to slowly reveal the Batman symbol. If there’s a better opening sequence to a Batman film, well buddy, I ain’t seen it. It perfectly prefaces the look, style, and mood of the film, highlighting the Gothic and expressionist sensibilities of Burton’s early work. Gotham City is presented as a rich amalgamation of Gothic and art deco architecture shot through with preternatural spiderwork of industrial pipes and catwalks—New York City as a cartoon labyrinth.

The story is fairly straightforward. Jack Napier is an unhinged gangster who is having a secret affair with his boss Carl Grissom’s daughter. It turns out to be not so secret, and for a multitude of obvious reasons Grissom plots to have Napier’s next job, clearing incriminating documents out of the Axis chemical plant, go horribly wrong, using Lieutenant Eckhardt, his inside man on the police force, to coordinate a raid on the plant with orders to shoot to kill. Commissioner Gordon is tipped-off about this at a party at Bruce Wayne’s mansion, and Bruce uses his surveillance system to eavesdrop on the conversation. As Batman, he takes off to face down Napier, who, during a shoot-out sequence—with hints of The Third Man—at the chemical plant, falls into a vat of chemicals, apparently dying. In fact, he survived the submersion but has been permanently disfigured and driven insane. With his faced fixed permanently into a grin by severe facial nerve damage, he becomes the Joker. When he kills Grissom and takes over his criminal empire, Joker positions himself to take on Batman, who has attained a status of myth both in the criminal underworld and in the mainstream media. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne becomes romantically involved with Vicki Vale, a photographer who has come to Gotham City to try and catch Batman on film, and must wrestle with keeping his dual identities separate, especially when Joker himself begins to develop a perverse interest in Vale.

Michael Keaton is not a square-jawed, buff dude, so his casting might seem a little odd in comparison both to the typical depiction of Bruce Wayne in the comics and what we’ve come to except from Hollywood action movie stars. Keaton plays Wayne as an unassuming, charming, and witty eccentric, his lack of imposing stature and physique makes it that much easier to believe his secret identity is secure, because Batman’s sculpted body armour makes him look much bigger. Even so, when as Batman he must rescue Vicki Vale from the Joker he is careful not to have her see him too close in good lighting. The identity issue is one he goes back and forth on as he gets closer to Vale, and while he thinks hard over the question of whether or not to tell her it is actually revealed to her quite unceremoniously, as Alfred allows her into the Batcave. It can be assumed that Bruce wanted this, or gave up and realised that it would be better to show her than tell her who he was, since his reaction is completely without surprise or worry when she arrives.

The film features an extremely theatrical Batman. He does a lot of impractical things for dramatic effect, for image’s sake, to lend himself a kind of supernatural mystique. Compared with later more “realistic” interpretations, it is pretty far out there in terms of how he acts and how people react to him. It’s very stage-y, and your willingness and ability to accept that realism is not what Burton is interested in will probably impact heavily on your overall feelings about the film. This is not super-genius ninja Batman who takes out a whole room full of thugs without them even seeing him. In some ways he’s more like Marvel’s “anti-Batman” Moon Knight, who makes sure the bad guys see him coming and who will gladly withstand being beaten half to death if it gets the job done. In a time before superhero films and TV shows started to get gritty, the hits Batman takes are fairly soft, and there isn’t much blood in the film, but he does find himself on a couple of occasions in real struggles with Joker’s henchmen. I think this works here mainly because Keaton is not a big beefy dude, he’s an average-sized dude, and he uses his gadgets and his wits to get the upper hand on opponents who are often physically stronger than he is. This Batman, to the consternation of a good many comic book fans, also appears to kill several people, although many times he ties people up or knocks them out. For me this is not an issue, but Batman is the quintessential hero in the comic books in that he never kills anyone, he believes in crime and punishment, and in redemption and rehabilitation. This Batman is less moral, it could be said, which might reflect on the darker portrayals of the character in comic books around the time the film was produced.

Opposite Keaton, Jack Nicholson is cast as the Joker. I almost don’t want to talk about it, because it is such a classic, ubiquitous performance, and the one to which I gravitated the most as a child. I was a ’90s kid, and I loved Batman. Batman: The Animated Series, the two Burton films, the ’60s Batman show, all were among my favourite things to watch. For me, the Joker is best in motion when played by two people: Jack Nicholson in live action and Mark Hamill in animation. Nicholson’s Joker is a mobster, sociopathic, highly intelligent, and completely off-the-rails following his emergence from a vat of deadly chemicals. He delights in theatrics, pranks that result in death and disfigurement, and symbolic displays of power. He revels in the grotesque, and has a perverse aesthetic sensibility in which mutilation and murder are artistic acts. It is an amusing touch, when Joker and his henchmen tear up an art gallery, for him to restrain his right-hand man from defacing a work by Francis Bacon. Nicholson had previously starred in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining, both of which saw him play at insanity. For the Joker, we see him combine the two, the pretend craziness of R.P. McMurphy, and the deep-seated homicidal psychopathy of Jack Torrance. Joker likes to play up to his audience whether he is intimidating a single person or luring thousands of people into a nerve gas attack, and he turns on a dime from clown to maniac and back again to terrorise them emotionally as he terrorises them physically. Like the figure of Batman itself, there is something mythic, almost fairytale-like in the way Nicholson carries himself in the film.

While Burton is often quoted as saying that he was never big into comic books, much is made of his endorsement of The Killing Joke, an Alan Moore one-shot that came out the previous year, and whose depiction of Batman and Joker has coloured pretty much everything since. Alan Moore himself, noted curmudgeon who enjoys shitting on mainstream comics whenever he gets the chance, said that it was “far too violent and sexualised a treatment for a simplistic comic book character like Batman and a regrettable misstep on my part”. But Moore’s insistence that Batman just doesn’t have the complexity as a character to handle that kind of material has fallen on deaf ears, generally speaking. In any case, for all that Burton apparently makes of Moore’s disowned work, it doesn’t actually seem to have imprinted on the film at all. The film has its moments of violence, but sex is pretty much out of the picture entirely, we know that Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale sleep together at some point, but it isn’t the point of their relationship, and there is no sex scene. The closest we get to on-screen sex is when, for a few seconds, Vale feigns being won over by the Joker’s warped affections in order to distract him while Batman moves in for an attack.

Burton’s love of classic horror cinema makes itself felt in several key scenes. When Joker’s plastic surgery treatment is concluded and he impatiently tears the bandages from his face to see himself in the mirror, we do not see his face, only his reaction, smashing the mirror and laughing hysterically. This recalls Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, but it is also tonally steeped in the dramatic expressionist style of the classic Universal monster movies of the 1930s. And as he leaves cast in shadow up a staircase he briefly reminds the viewer of Nosferatu. Eyes Without a Face is more literally referenced when Joker reveals the face of Grissom’s daughter from behind a mask, who has been disfigured with some kind of acid, something that may sit more uncomfortably than ever with today’s audiences. Oftentimes Gotham City seems to point in its outsized architecture to the warped cityscapes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The final confrontation with Joker atop a huge church tower that seems to stretch and shrink as the drama demands lends the impression of a “living city” that twists itself in response to the grandiose characters and their conflict. This again compounds the sense that Burton wants to deliver a mythic Batman, a Gotham where everything is not quite real, but real enough, an exaggerated artist’s impression that provides a stage broad and yielding enough to accommodate flights of fantasy.

Batman is my favourite superhero film. It is by no means perfect as a film, and certainly not as an attempt to bring Batman to life, but even now, shorn of nostalgia, it mostly holds up. There are one or two goofy effects, like the CGI parade balloon, or the weird animated composite shots looking down over the city, which neither look real nor appropriate to the somewhat unreal tone of the film, but these complaints don’t count for much against the fantastic visual design of Gotham City, and the excellent make-up, costumes, and practical effects. The score by Danny Elfman reinforces the distinctive look and pace of the film with its Wagnerian grandeur and brooding harmonic ambiguities. Keaton and Nicholson are brilliant and I could watch them all day. I’m not crazy about Kim Basinger as an actor, but Vale is a fun and likeable character, one notable issue with the portrayal—and this is not necessarily Basinger’s fault—being that she screams and faints and all that stereotypically womanly stuff despite supposedly being a hardened war photographer. It’s something that feels a little dated now since women have become more prominent and active in action movies, and especially superhero movies, in recent years, but even without all that taken into consideration it’s just not great writing. Warts and all, I love this film, and while I understand the many criticisms levelled against it, I just don’t give a damn.

Some Thoughts on “The Name of the Rose”

Umberto Eco’s first novel is my second Umberto Eco novel. Originally published in Italian as Il Nome della Rosa, it was Eco’s response to a request to write a short detective story for a small publisher. He had responded to the call for stories by saying that if he were to write a detective story it would be 500 pages long. His proposal was rejected on that basis, but he gradually came to work on it as an independent project. The book, which is indeed 500 pages long, mixes Eco’s love of the paranoia that leads people to believe in grand conspiracies, his deep knowledge of Mediaeval history, and his own innovation, in the form of the field of semiotics, into a rigorously researched historical fiction, which is a philosophical yet entertaining murder mystery.

The story is set in a Benedictine monastery in northern Italy in the year 1327. Pope John XXII clashes with Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV; debates rage over the poverty of Christ; mendicant monks are branded heretics; the spectre of Fra Dolcino looms over Italy; and a young Benedictine monk has just been found dead—an apparent suicide. William of Baskerville, a worldly Franciscan and former inquisitor from England, and his assistant, the Benedictine novice Adso of Melk, who also narrates the story, arrive at the monastery to take part in a debate on Christ’s poverty between the soon-to-arrive legations representing the Empire and the Church, but are soon tasked by the abbot into investigating the circumstances of the suicide.

In a nod, one of many, to Borges, one of Eco’s heroes, the book in fact begins with the discovery of Adso of Melk’s manuscript by an unnamed scholar, perhaps Eco himself. Eco was a noted bibliophile, and his collected library at the end of his life amounted to some 50,000 books, for him not a conquest or a boast, but a symbol of all the things he didn’t know. The book is written in that bibliophilic vein, and is in fact about books, specifically the quest for knowledge, and whether knowledge is to be attained or merely to be preserved. The librarian of the monastery presides over a labyrinthine library, with secret rooms and an esoteric indexing system. It is his job to retrieve books for the monks so that they may study them in the scriptorium, but more importantly, it is his job to refuse to do so. The monastery is as much in the business of keeping secrets as it is in the business of devotion to Christ, and the library labyrinth is its beating heart.

The secrecy surrounding the library and its contents is one of William of Baskerville’s most pressing obsessions during the investigation. With the coming of Matins each day at three in the morning, more monks are discovered dead, it is quickly established that all of them are linked to the library in peculiar ways. As the story progresses, it turns out that a lost work of Aristotle, the second book of the Poetics, which, since it really is lost, Eco takes some licence in imagining as a work extolling the virtues of laughter, seems to play an important part in linking the victims further. Does the Philosopher’s mythical lost work reside within the library? If it does, does it contain something so dangerous that someone might be driven to kill to keep its secrets? Is it just one of the many red herrings and side alleys, plots real or imaginary, lingering like the ghosts of dead monks in the Ossarium?

The concept of preservation vs. attainment of knowledge is perhaps the book’s central theme. Almost every episode of the story depicts this central conflict in one way or another. Jorge of Burgos believes that all necessary knowledge is contained in scripture, and that everything else is either superfluous or heretical. William is much more of the belief that books are to be read, and that knowledge can be found not just in the divine revelation of the Holy Bible, but in the writings of the Arabs, the Romans, the Greeks, and others. To that point, much is made of William’s use of reading glasses, possibly a defiant act, for did not God make it so that he would not be able to see text clearly enough with the naked eye? This is contrasted with Jorge, who has the novices read aloud to him, he is also a masterful preacher, as shown by his performance during one Compline service. For him it is enough, and perfectly so, that Christ could speak. All is oration, the spoken Word, in Jorge’s world.

Eco takes much inspiration for his characters and events from the real history of the time. Bernard Gui, who really was an inquisitor for John XXII, arrives at the monastery to investigate the murders, and in his piety drives confessions out of heretics who may not in fact have anything to do with the real crimes taking place. Meanwhile, Michael of Cesena, and Ubertino of Casale, two leaders of the Spirituals, the most strict followers of the rule of Saint Francis, take part in the debate on poverty, the Pope’s side of which Bernard Gui has also come to represent. With these examples I scratch the surface of a history I do not know, but one which Eco knew well from his academic studies, and which he researched further in preparation for writing the book itself. His grasp on the intellectual life of Mediaeval Europe is astounding, and the theological and political debates and their corollary plots form a rich backdrop against which the action takes place. There is also much made of technology of the era, William of Baskerville being a proponent of the “magic” of Roger Bacon, who was mentor to him.

Another source of inspiration is of course literature, and Eco delights as much in pulp as he does in “serious” fiction and philosophy. William and Adso bear much in common with Holmes and Watson, and Eco lays this out from the start, with Adso’s description of William’s physical features being very similar to Watson’s description of Holmes. William’s methods of deduction are also quite Holmesian, and rely on his extremely keen observational skills and logic to support what is, as he frequently admits, more or less educated guesswork. There is also something of Occam’s Razor in his approach to the investigation, and he does indeed cite William of Ockham, the originator of the concept, as a good friend. Elsewhere, Eco delights in referencing Borges. The character of Jorge of Burgos is a wise but intensely pious old monk, blind for half of his life, who takes a special interest in knowledge and is a central figure in the book’s dialectic between attainment and preservation. The library itself, and the many books found in the scriptorium, give Eco, through William, plenty of opportunities to show off his wide reading and knowledge of ancient manuscripts.

Though they are a Holmes and Watson, and though the official relationship between them is merely monastic, the young novice acting as assistant to the learned Franciscan, William and Adso also display something of a father-son bond, and often become teacher and student, mentor and protégé. Eco is often criticised for writing flat characters, and I suppose they are not the most richly defined in all of literature, but I feel that there is more to these two than a simple Doyle homage. But Doyle provides skeletons on which Eco can layer sinews and flesh. Maybe it ends up being a bit thin, but then maybe that fits the austere world of the monks and their ascetic, ritual-bound lifestyles. Entering the murders into that world and breaking up those lifestyles, shaking the certainty in which the monks have lived until then to its core, is how Eco bares that flesh.

Quite apart, however, from being a straight murder mystery, much of the book deals with debates on the nature of various things, and is as much at home discussing the writings of Aquinas or the philosophy of the Mediaeval Muslims as it is herbalism, the logic of navigating a labyrinth, and other things I don’t understand. It is as much a philosophical mystery as it is a pulpy whodunnit, as much a portrait of a time and place in history and theology as it is an excuse to indulge in a world of literature. One of the great things I have gained from this book, beyond an entertaining narrative, is an interest in learning about the history of the Holy Roman Empire, the Catholic church in Europe, and a reinforcement of my so far half-heartedly followed up on commitment to get to grips with philosophy.

I had a lot of fun with The Name of the Rose. Like Foucault’s Pendulum, which I read some years before, it presents riches which are open to you if you know how to access them, but the puzzles to which you don’t have the solutions are just as tantalising. This book is less grand and all-encompassing than its follow up, but it drinks deep of the literary and cultural history of Europe, and weaves an exciting mystery through it. Perhaps best of all, it has succeeded in interesting me in reading the real histories of these times and places. But still, there is something puzzling in how it has been so adoringly received since its first publication. On the one hand, with its Holmesian double act of William and Adso, and the compelling mystery that seems to insinuate itself into every part of the life of the monastery, I can see why it was such an international success; on the other hand it seems, with its theological debates and deep symbology, like it would be something far less palatable to the general public, who would enjoy the murder mystery were it not for the impossibility of disentangling it from the philosophical questions that drive it. It is a story of books, written for people who love books, and I am one of them.


2018: A Batshit Odyssey – #1. Batman (1966)

The 1960s. Vietnam, flower power, Beatlemania. The good old days, when 20th Century Fox was shoving Frank Gorshin’s prodigious green bulge in your face instead of terrible Spider-Man spin-offs. Yes, that’s right, a time before Warner Bros. executives got their greasy mitts on Batman and turned him into a series of gruff growlers, self-serious scientists, and quizzical quippers. A time when everything was labelled and everyone spoke in alliterative exclamations of exasperation. Unfortunately, during my soujourn into those heady cultural pastures of mid-century life I did not have my ballpoint banana ready to take notes, but here’s my recollection of a certain episode of Batmania that fell upon me all of a sudden in April of 2018.

To begin with, we get a SNATCHER-esque opening dedication, but rather than cyberpunks who fight against injustice every day of their lives, Batman is for crime fighters, escapists, and people who like weird things. It’s more inclusive, and, since it is 2018, I’m sure we can all get behind that. Also there’s a couple necking in an alleyway, which forewarns you of just how sexy this film is. Indeed, it is not long before so many male bulges, off-set at least a little by the permanently erect nipples of Lee Meriwether, are on screen at once that sometimes it can be hard, no pun intended, to know where to look! Somehow, even this is not as gay as the way Batman looks at Superman during their Dawn of Justice when the former tries to run over the latter.

What I particularly love about our introduction to Batman and Robin in this film, and indeed the film itself, is that almost everything takes place in broad daylight. Bruce Wayne happily steps out for a night on the town with Miss Kitka (a barely disguised Catwoman) as an unwitting part of a plot to lure Batman to her secret hideout, but Batman himself likes the sun. There’s no sneaking around or hiding awkwardly in the corners of rooms in order to surprised the police for no apparent reason. In fact, Batman’s awkward relationship with the police is nowhere to be seen here, as he and Robin are officially recognised and deputised. He can fly around in the Bat-Copter and wave at people as he passes over head, the police even take their hats off as a sign of respect when they see him go by. It’s quite literally a night and day contrast from all or most non-comic book Bat Media that has come since.

The major plot thread involves a tetrapartite conspiracy between Penguin, Catwoman, Riddler, and Joker. Joker last because, contrary to modern Bat Cinema, he isn’t the main character. And no, Suicide Squad with its abysmal bit-part does not count! The wacky foursome have contrived to kidnap one Commodore Schmidlapp, an English sailor who says “pip pip”, because of course he does, and have ingeniously stored him in a replica boat (where he can catch up on his Dickens) so that they can steal his dehydration device. While this device is used to try and sneak a dehydrated army (five people) into the Batcave, the real plan is to dehydrate the leaders of nations in the United World Security Council and hold them to ransom. I guess the UN would not lend the film its official support, and it’s easy to see why given that the film depicts the Security Council as a bunch of self-important fools shouting over each other ad infinitum to little purpose, and the final joke of the film doubles down on that in the most glorious way. Batman has a surprising amount of topical humour about politics and international relations, and while none of it could be called incisive or biting, it obviously wasn’t supposed to be. High camp is high camp, this is a comedy in which everyone is a target, but no one is hurt.

Maybe even “comedy” is not an all-encompassing descriptor here. The dialogue might at times be more towards the nonsense of Edward Lear, which is not outwardly “funny” but rather “silly” in an endearing way. The performances, however, show a clear comic/straightman dynamic. Batman and Robin are broadly speaking straightmen, no pun intended, foils to the villains who are constantly goofing around and hamming it up. Adam West’s totally serious, news-anchor-esque delivery in the face of exploding sharks, bad Russian accents, Frank Gorshin’s bulge, Burgess Meredith’s waark-waark-waarking, not to mention Burt Ward’s exclamatory puns and other assorted insanities, provides much balance, and is made all the stronger in its balancing by the ridiculousness of the Batman costume itself. For people who know the original TV series, this will hardly come as a surprise, and on that front it’s pretty much business as usual, but unlike most TV shows making the transition to feature film, here’s one that didn’t sacrifice all the things that made it good in order to be “cinematic”.

When thinking of classic Batman villains, I at least would be hard pressed to come up with a more iconic group than Penguin, Catwoman, Riddler, and Joker. They aren’t necessarily those characters as you know them from more recent films, but they are delightful to watch as they prance, dance, slither, and waddle around with exaggerated bravura. Burgess Meredith growls and squawks, equal parts bird and sinister businessman, a cigarette holder dangling permanently from snarling lips as he pumps green knockout gas from an umbrella. Catwoman plays both seductive and silly, and is perhaps the funniest of the four, because she is at once the most outwardly normal and the most insane. Lee Meriwether only played the role this one time, but she did it brilliantly. Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, bulge aside, seems at times like some kind of proto-Kramer; the way he delivers his monologue as he plots how to defeat Batman once and for all (this involves catapulting Batman into an exploding octopus) reminded me so much of Kramer in episode 78 of Seinfeld, “The Marine Biologist”, when he talks about his plans to go out to the beach and hit golf balls into the ocean.

Last, and perhaps even least, Cesar Romero’s Joker has surprisingly little to do. I think this is mainly a temporal thing. My history might be wrong, but since Alan Moore’s one-shot The Killing Joke was blown out of all proportion it seems that we’ve come to think of the Joker as Costello to Batman’s Abbott, an inseparable duo, diametrically opposed, who, underneath it all, might be more similar than they think. It’s a classic set-up, and it’s easy to see why it’s so popular—well, maybe it won’t be any longer thanks to Jared Leto’s er… questionable interpretation—but I wonder if back in the golden or silver age this wasn’t a bit less the case. Knowing his performances for the TV series, maybe he doesn’t need to be so prominent anyway, simply because let loose he could well overshadow the others. He’s also a lot more fun than some of the more recent interpretations, even just seeing his well-trimmed moustache peeking through his make-up is funny.

Adding to performance and plot, Nelson Riddle’s score carries the action on a sonic bed of surf rock, lounge jazz, surf rock, orchestral swoons, and more surf rock. From the very beginning the music helps bring you into the film’s heightened camp version of the mid-’60s and underlines with knowing winks the silliness of the script and the performances it calls for. Taken all together, it’s a really fun film. It knows it’s silly, and it revels in it. I’m not sure I would call great comedy, but it’s a very entertaining piece—certainly more so than Batman’s two most recent outings, by turns ludicrous, dire, insulting, and bland—and a great place to commence my adventure through the Bat Annals of Bat History. That does it for this edition of the Batshit Odyssey. Tune in next week, same Bat Time, same Bat Channel, when we’ll check in with 1989’s Batman.

Minor Update: No Music Posts for at Least Two Weeks

For the past week or so I have been working with an old set of cheap headphones, but these themselves have now given up the ghost. While I still have audio, I don’t have anything sufficient for composing or for proper listening to music. I can’t afford to order replacement parts for either of my good pairs of headphones until I get paid in a couple of weeks’ time. So the title is somewhat misleading: it will probably be closer to three weeks until normal working can be resumed.

Chinese Girl Cartoons – B: The Beginning

Occupying the awkward territory between gritty police procedural and daytime soap opera, B: The Beginning is the story of people who live in a country that is basically Italy but with a different name, where everyone speaks Japanese and has a supremely dumb name. Also there are homoerotic glam rock sadomasochists popping ampoules of what appears to be either piss or really nasty light beer in a zeppelin. When the RIS (it stands for something, I just forgot what it is, promise!) find themselves at a loss as to how to deal with a mysterious serial killer who only targets criminals, who else but disgraced genius detective Keith Kazama Flick (yep!) has to be brought back to active duty to advise. Flick, who is basically Sherlock Holmes but with worse people skills, quickly establishes connections between the killer in this case and those encountered in cases he has worked on in the past, and becomes personally involved, much to the consternation of the police force. Put it all together and shake it up and you end up with whatever the hell this is.

Well, that’s a little misleading. B is not weird, nor is it particularly original. It’s an anime conspiracy thriller that moves from police procedural to detective noir to total fantasy. But it does what it does with a certain panache. At its best, it reminded me of some creepy-as-shit moments from Big O and Monster, both of which I guess I would call better anime noir, but not being as good as those is hardly a harsh criticism. At least, it’s not harsh coming from me, because I love both of those series. B‘s downfall, for me, is its main story being wrapped up in teenager bullshit. I get it, I first became interested in anime as a child, I wanted the angst, because that was me, but now that anime has branched out into telling more varied stories, where’s something for the rapidly aging young people who are facing 30 and looking for something a bit less “smoking cigarettes whilst hanging out with ruffians to spite my father whom I hate very much”?

It’s not so much that teenagers can’t be compelling, but these ones aren’t. In fact they’re pretty much all whiny brats with no insight as to why they’re like that. They’re just kind of angry and stupid. While it is easy to think all teenagers are like that, for those of us who do remember the awkwardness and the seemingly inexplicable moodiness, the cloudmass of boredom broken into by the brief sunshine of exploration and small illicit joys, we know that isn’t the case, that something far more interesting lurks. B doesn’t have time for that, quite literally. With 13 episodes at 25 minutes apiece, it has to deal with the competing demands on time of its manifold genre commitments, and I think overall the people in charge made the right choice of getting as much of the juicy detective work in there as possible. It’s by far the best part of the show, and yet I feel like with an extended duration there would have been ample time to offer some pathos to the supernatural kids and their supernatural kid conflicts. There’s a lot of brutality carried out by, near, or against them, but any psychological torment these characters may be experiencing seems like so much affectation when displayed, just like the extremely homoerotic way some of them carry on seems like typical anime “haha gay dudes are creepy” with little substance behind it. I mean, it seems that way because that’s what it is. I believe gays are as much a valid target for humour (or source of horror) as anyone is, but here it feels particularly thin and flimsy. I don’t see that there is a way to cut back on anything else in the show’s 13 episodes to expand on this, so even just a few more episodes to explore the psychological lives of certain characters would have helped greatly.

Part of the problem is that really, when you get down to it, there isn’t much to the supernatural element of the story. At the beginning of the series we are told that researchers unearthed what amounts to the DNA of a fallen race of godlike beings, and that a project was launched with the aim of engineering new life in the mould of those ancient super-powered humanoids. Now, without giving away any twists, you can probably guess that this is revealed to be either not the truth or somewhat less than the entire truth. It’s pretty basic, not enough time is spent looking at the specifics of what went on in the laboratories where this project was being worked on, but you have to wonder if giving it more time to explore these ideas wouldn’t have made for a worse show. There’s nothing worse than getting to the end of a mystery story and discovering that there was actually nothing to it. The best mysteries, at least in my view, are the ones that provide revelations containing keys to the understanding that the real mystery, the “supermystery”, is one so vast and impossible that you could never hope to even begin to solve it. Gravity’s Rainbow, Twin Peaks, the better episodes of The X-Files (or how about that unfilmed Thomas Ligotti script?), you go in thinking the bigger picture can in the end be parsed into something simpler, some unifying summary, but it can’t, not because it doesn’t make sense or the writers were just throwing things together for appearance’s sake, but because it contains, or fails to contain a world. B is half-hearted as a mystery in the sense that what it contains is fragments of a world, the broader picture is missing. As it stands, for the 13 episode run I would have cut all the back story about ancient gods and whatnot and presented a stripped down murder mystery that hints towards the supernatural but in such a way that those elements could easily just be imagined, the psychological weathering of the characters being just as much a factor in what is seen and understood as the facts of the case themselves.

In its presentation, B fares about average. Visuals and animation are perfectly fine, what you’d expect from a 13 episode series. Perhaps the best of its visual information is its character design. Everyone has a distinctive face and body type. At least, that’s true within the confines of the show itself, there are clearly some clichés being drawn upon for certain of the supernatural homo murder dudes, some of which can transform, and upon doing so bear an amusing if slight resemblance to Baoh‘s Ikuroo in alien cat form. But that aside, it does among the supporting cast make characters who just aren’t important enough to be lavished with good screen time easy to recognise. It’s a great misfortune that the villains aren’t so well treated, they all have this neon glam thing going on, but most of them barely have any lines and are quickly disposed of, by the time you’ve heard their names once or twice they might as well be alien cat dinner. Sure, maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention, I’ll own up if that’s the case, but I do feel like so much of what doesn’t work is attributable to time constraints and trying to pack too much in.

Hey, at last it’s one of my classic short, dismissive anime review paragraphs: the music is so forgettable I barely even remembered there was music. Oops, not quite. It is notable in that it doesn’t have a 90 second intro with naff J-pop all over it, rather what sounds like halo drum and solfège, and that in itself is quite nice. The end theme, though, you bet your arse it’s crappy anime music. I think I will have “SAAAHM DAY AHHLLL BE GAWWWWN TUH SAAAHM WEHHH WEE BEEELAWWWN” playing in my head, lingering quite uninvited like a drunken party guest who can barely walk, let alone find the door, for some months to come. In fact it may be with me for life, a grim shadow of late youth reminding me in old age as I near sweet death that I used to waste time watching anime and writing about it. Is B: The Beginning a waste of time? For me, no. I quite enjoyed most of it, its flimsiest and silliest moments, while they intrude upon and drag down what could have been a pretty damn good serial killer story, can be quite funny, if unintentionally so, and at its best it offers a compelling if not exactly sturdy mystery with its more richly defined characters helming the action, and can do equal parts creepy and funny with good timing and pacing and atmosphere. Despite strong reservations, worth a watch.

The World Unbuilt – Music

Almost entirely—and I’m not even sure “almost” is valid—in this series I have talked about writing. Stories, characters, factions, histories, poems, plays, screeds, scriptures, cosmologies: writing. Writing is an act of composition, putting together words so that they hopefully communicate something of interest to someone, or at least to myself. It is the bulk of the work I completed for the project, but there is also the composition of the music to talk about. Since I began working on the music last, it seemed appropriate that I should save it for last to talk about in this series. Yes folks, sadly our time upon Eadran is at an end. At least it is if I’m not forgetting something really important. If I am forgetting something really important, by the time I remember I might have lost all interest. So it goes. Well, let’s get on with it.

To begin with, it is important to make a distinction between absolute music and functional music. Absolute music is commonly defined, pretty much in accordance with Beethoven’s conception of it, as music which lacks reference to anything extramusical—that is, anything outside of itself. If I write a piece of music with the aim of illustrating, however intangibly, a scene, what I have created is not absolute but programmatic music. For me personally, the distinction is meaningless, because there is no piece of music that can depict, for example, a picnic—and if you absolutely have to create a picnic scene, that’s what a canvas and paints are for, or a camera and props and actors. It’s fair enough, however, to say that music can translate certain extramusical things into musical terms. Action, for example, in a totally abstract sense, can be mirrored in movement via rhythm, in complexity by size of instrumentation, and in vigour by dynamics. Stravinsky’s ballet score Petrushka uses these elements to create an ebullience which mirrors the Shrovetide Fair, the setting of the ballet proper. But without the choreography, without scenic titles like “The Shrovetide Fair” or “Petrushka’s Room” we must confront the music entirely as music, and we cannot glean any scenic information from music alone, except perhaps by recourse to matching it against other musics we have heard, perhaps from a film or another ballet, used to accompany particular scenes. It is impossible to actually listen “clean”—to listen without any reference point whatsoever—since by the time we are mentally developed enough to properly listen to a piece of music we have lived long enough to become culturally acclimated, we are positioned at the centre of a network of references that is constantly reinforcing itself with each new experience, and certainly the composer of Petrushka was as well. For this reason I deny programmatic music entirely, and say that instead the distinction should be between the absolute and the functional.

Functional music is any music designed primarily to be used as opposed to listened to. It is meant to be heard in a context made up of it and probably several other media. Cinema is a perfect example. Most films are made up of image, action, spoken word, and music. The music is rarely if ever the focus, but one of several things that operate in tandem to support and convey the focus, which is usually a narrative depicting a process of change. This is also the case for games, although not necessarily in the same way. Games typically place the onus on the player, they will not continue without the player’s input. I mean, yes, the player can put the controller down and let their avatar get hit in the face over and over until their hitpoints are depleted to zero, but that’s hardly “continuing” now is it? In order for the game to progress to its conclusion, the player cannot be absent from or an inactive part of the process. This is simple generally, but means many different things specifically. In a platformer, the player’s job is to navigate their avatar around physical obstacle courses while knocking out enemies, usually but not always without getting hit in the process. In an RPG that is also true, but the means of doing it are much different. Most platformers don’t have dynamic attribute systems. There may be multiple playable characters, and they may in turn be differentiated not just cosmetically but in terms of how far they can jump or the kinds of attacks they can perform. In RPGs, the player is not only responsible for getting the avatar from one place to the next, but also for changing them over time, through the acquisition of points which can be spent to increase attributes, making them stronger, or faster, or more resilient, or whatever. This becomes more complicated by sub-genre, but going into that will only get us off-topic.

You might think all of this unnecessary and verbose for an article on in-game music, but I promise you I am getting to the point. The main thing to take away from the previous paragraph is that the kind of control, thus the frame of mind the player needs to be in, are different for platformers and RPGs. Platformers tend to be fast paced, control is always direct, typically consisting of directional input plus two, sometimes three buttons for jumping and attacking. RPGs are much more complex, and play at a slower pace. The player is tasked with using menus to manage equipment loadouts, determining how best to spend points to build their avatar and possibly other characters, and the action may even, as in the case of a good many classic JRPGs, consist of the player selecting combat manoeuvres from menus also. Two modes of play, two frames of mind, before all else the composer has the fundamental consideration of what the player is supposed to be doing, how they are supposed to be doing it, and to what end.

The game I was working on was an ARPG, that is an action RPG. ARPGs meld fast paced gameplay with equipment and attribute management, generally with the aim of increasing the complexity of play and thus the demand on the player’s range of skills. As I said in the Introduction, the game was initially to take place in quite a small area. There would be a city, and underneath that city there would be a series of connected dungeons. While the city would largely be a place of respite for the player, eventually they would have to not only attack the encroaching hordes in their bases, but to defend the surface itself from invasion. Little by little this became less and less of a priority, as the game’s scope expanded beyond the city walls and out to the surrounding countryside, eventually reaching other cities. By the time I was in a position to really think about the music, I had to contend with issues of category beyond those outlined above.

Since the game’s action would be split between the city and the countryside, I got the idea to write two separate soundtracks. The city music, I decided, would be in-universe, a musical counterpart to the books of lore. This half of the music would be divided into seven sets, one for each city, each of which I aimed to get to around twenty minutes in duration. These sets would be differentiated from one another in sound by style and by instrumentation. Larger cities would have bigger instrumentations, smaller cities perhaps just solo instruments. By this model, Arch Thorian dominated with an ensemble derived from Frescobaldi’s ensemble Canzone, with viola and cello standing in for viol and bass viol, trumpet and trombone for sackbuts, a bassoon, a harpsichord, a pipe organ, a lute, and even drums—this last my own addition—while Luctaris and Oleand had but a harpsichord and a squeezebox respectively. Unsympathetic as I was to the notion that I should write “ambient orchestral” in the manner of some parts of Jeremy Soule’s Elder Scrolls soundtracks, it was nonetheless what my boss had asked me to do, so I thought that a less busy music which nonetheless sought to avoid banality would at least be a reasonable choice to accompany countryside exploration. But I would not only create something softer and less imposing, I would tie a city’s music to the music of its surrounding land by motif. The vastness of space between cities could be compounded by large, soft, open chords whispering past the player’s ears like a wind on the plains, harmonies echoing city themes. In this way I developed a scheme for containing the world in purely musical terms. I had “translated” the action, as Stravinsky did for the Shrovetide Fair, undoubtedly with far less elegance, but done it nonetheless.

The music for the cities was not only differentiated by instrumentation but by period influence. I am by no means a music historian, but over the years I have picked up something of an ear for period styles, at least on a superficial level. This allowed me to go deeper into the embellishing of mood and atmosphere in each location. For the snowy, magical town of Tocane, which leads to the mysterious Tocanum Mountains, I chose a wind quintet (with the ever trusty cimbasso standing in for a French horn, which at the time I had no good library for) and wrote in a style inspired superficially by Mahler, particularly the smaller song cycles. On listening to this music, you might think it kind of excessive to have such forms appear in a game soundtrack. You might also be right. But like most things in life, the first time you do it, you don’t really know what you’re doing. My lack of fancy book learnin’ means that I tend to go in blind and bang my head against whatever hard surfaces I come up against until I get through. With a late Romantic/early Modern sound—and this is a marked change for the ear following the Baroque, Classical, and even folk themes heard elsewhere—I felt I had a dynamic tonality which could suggest both the environmental grandeur of the place and the mysterious magical elements of the town and its people, also hinting at what is to come out in the mountains themselves. When you pass through the gate to the mountains, you then have the shift to a full orchestra, which is mostly playing harmonies, nothing intensive, we’re away from people, the hustle and bustle of settled land, but we still hear the echoes out here, like a light in the distance of a dark sonic wilderness.

Going further still into the details of this distinction, the city music was always intended as in-universe music. That is, this music purports to have been composed and performed by people in the game’s world. It is something the people here listen to, dance to, drink to. From the earliest prototypes I was aiming for some kind of synthesis of European classical and folk inspirations, which I intended would reinforce this idea wordlessly to the player. I composed a few tavern dances which would play, appropriately enough, when the player entered a tavern. (I thought about maybe altering the instrumentation depending on which tavern the player happened to be in, but this seemed like an excessive thing that would only complicate organisation of the finished product.) I had intended to include among the books of lore at least one biography of a composer, and tie him to a piece or two from the music of this or that city, but by the time I was out of the project I hadn’t gotten around to it. At least one composer, the Izian Huldibane, is mentioned as being a friend of the playwright Pynchonius. I thought maybe following the latter’s faked death and exile the two might work together, a Molière and Lully but on friendlier terms, and without one vying for the King’s preferment to higher stations almost intentionally to the exclusion of the other. Alas, I do not think work one of Huldibane would ever be heard on the lips of a Thorian flautist, at least not at the time the game takes place, so whatever he wrote is sadly absent from the embryonic soundtrack. Yet I suppose Huldibane, if we take the Lully thing to heart, could have been like Lully’s near contemporary Froberger, whose harpsichord works inspired some of the Luctaris pieces.

Beyond the calmer scenes of the city, and the harmonic winds blowing across the wilder landscapes, there are of course many specific instances where a particular kind of music is called for. Because of the fast paced gameplay in dungeons and other hostile environments, we agreed early on that combat music for standard battles would not be a thing, otherwise the music would start-up for a few seconds while you dealt with a trash mob and then unceremoniously fade back to nothing, becoming probably rather irritating rather quickly. Instead, the dungeons would feature vaguely threatening “you may or may not be in combat so here’s something half way between an ominous ambience and a pulse” sort of music. Some games don’t feature any music in their dungeons. Dark Souls, which I wrote about back in February, has a fairly limited soundtrack. It’s probably for the best, since many enemies in that game have audible tells for which attack they are about to do, giving you a little window to think about how to react. One area where Dark Souls does bring the musical goods, and then some, is its boss music. The contrast between the musicless gauntlets you must run to reach the bosses and the orchestral and choral music that explodes into life when you traverse the white light makes for a much more imposing and often nail-biting fight. In terms of RPG boss themes, I was practically raised on Nobuo Uematsu’s work for Final Fantasy. Zeromus, Clash on the Big Bridge, the final section of Dancing Mad, JENOVA, One Winged Angel, and of course all the “generic” boss themes used for the less super duper big boys throughout the series. But Final Fantasy is distant worlds [author’s note: ha ha] away from what I was working with, and some years after my infatuation with it had waned, I came more to love the sound of a Mahlerian orchestra.

The song cycles, which I mentioned earlier as the inspiration for the Tocane music, are not Mahler’s most famous works. He is best known for a cycle of large symphonies which pushed orchestral writing and the Germanic tradition to new extremes. His most famous work might be Symphony No. 5, notable for its five movement structure grouped in three distinct parts, among many other things. The middle part is a grand scherzo. A scherzo is a lively piece, typically in triple meter (although there are examples to the contrary, like Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, the scherzo of which is in duple meter, or even quintuple meter, like the scherzo of Borodin’s unfinished Symphony No. 3) which was used by Beethoven to replace the then commonplace minuet. In Italian, “scherzo” means “joke”, and, following the usual structure of the Classical symphony, comes between the slow second movement and the finale, as a sort of breather. In Mahler’s symphonies the scherzo is elevated beyond a simple perfunctory role, and it is often as demanding and heavy as the movements surrounding it. Taking this as a basic premise, my thinking was that it would be possible and desirable to develop a cycle of “battle scherzi” which would add tension and a dance-like excitement to the boss battles. The character of the scherzo after Mahler is very expansive in its scope and range of moods, and can be tailored to suit, in a soundtrack, an equally expansive set of circumstances. Mahler’s themselves, being absolute music, are obviously not appropriate, they move in accordance with their own internal clock, and they cannot be rendered subservient to a principal action, so naturally the scherzi I wanted to write would have been quite different. I never got to write even one scherzo, but damn if I didn’t want to!

In writing the music I sought to both provide a traditional soundtrack and to expand the player’s means of experiencing the culture of the places they would visit. It was important to me that both aspects of my work, the writing and the composing, link up somehow to form something greater than themselves. Like the pretence towards historicity of language exhibit by the books of lore, I sought to use approximations of period styles from the European classical and folk traditions in order to create a sense of time and place and history that would in turn add weight to the setting. The prototypes I had amassed by the end of my time with the project did not quite reach what I wanted to achieve, but this varied from one thing to the next. The Tocane pieces were roughly what I wanted them to be, and only wanted for a little fine tuning and polish to be ready for use. The Luctaris harpsichord music, however, I had planned to rewrite whole pieces of because I was thoroughly unsatisfied. Hindsight is very powerful, but only valuable if you gain its lessons before it’s too late to act on their impetus. With the rate of progress on the project being what it was, our small team going like the clappers to make a dent in the total workload, I had ample time to think about what it was that I could do better. These pieces do present interesting character, however. Unlike some other cities’ soundtracks they aim to be more than pastiche, Luctaris is one city in which atmosphere becomes fantastical in its power, there is something like the feeling of dark magic in the air, an odd melancholy that cloaks the streets in a malaise fog. So the music is not just in keeping thematically, roughly speaking, with its counterparts in other parts of the world, but is on some level attempting to embody a kind of ennui. Consider “Luctarine Blues”, which switches between 3/4 and 4/4 as it stumbles through an unstable harmonic language—some kind of whacked-out baroque take on Satie, perhaps. It might even be true that in some way the lingering compositional mistakes in these pieces are part of what makes them appropriate for Luctaris, beyond their intentional character there is something in them that is broken.

The most fully realised batches of city music I cooked up, beside the Tocane quintet, were the solo lute pieces from Thadwyck and the solo accordion from Oleand. In both cases I feel like the compositions themselves are largely, but not uniformly, solid, amusing, and characterful. Still, there are some weaknesses. The “Loure” for example, which is not actually a loure, and the “Thadwyck Step” both are kind of mediocre in their material choices. In Oleand it is “Maister Juvenus Pacebellus Auscentis His Round” that is weakest, mainly because its ABA structure is in fact AA’A, the “B” being merely the A section transposed. I do like the main material, and especially the way the piece ends—it has a very conclusive flourish which flows naturally from the preceding section—but the sections lack contrast and do not make up a good structure. As part of this set, I was tasked, mainly as a joke, to write a piece based on the motif of Pachelbel’s famous Canon, but to do so without just recreating that piece. Writing that for the Oleand music, despite my initial reluctance, was one of the most fun things I did for the entire project. It also spurred me on to do a piece riffing on Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, which amuses me if no one else. As an aside, Cazazza Dan fans (I’ve been told they do exist) may notice that the B section of this last is the source of the accordion solo motif from “It’s Okay to Be a Lettuce”, the finale of Starlite Revue

In conclusion, while it may all sound good on paper, and even in the air (some of it at least), I think my work would have failed in practice. As far as I can tell, it was indeed a novel approach as I had hoped it would be, but novelty doesn’t count for much when efficiency is all. If I had come to it through an iterative process, then maybe, but it was practically the idea from the beginning. I wasn’t basing it on anything aside from my dislike for the way lore, culture, atmosphere, and “lived-in-ness” was handled in certain other games. While the writing, I think, is mostly solid and enjoyable, the music needed far more work to, well… work. In the spirit of this series, I am of course dealing entirely with the music as is, nothing added or taken away. When I say the music “would have failed in practice”, I mean it would have failed as it existed when my time on the project ended. Sure, I could go and clean things up and make them all nice and exactly how I would have wanted them to be in the final product, but that’s not the point. From the very beginning my aim with this series has been to document the world at the moment I stopped working on it. It’s a huge snapshot of a time and place that never quite existed, a potential moment crystallised, a world unbuilt. And by such cheesy ways do I bid it farewell.

The World Unbuilt Musical Supplement