Book Review: Ready Player One

Note: This article is very long, was not written using WordPress, and reads better in a traditional layout. While I have taken some time to reformat the work to suit this page, viewing the direct (sans-serified) copy of the original ODT file on Google Docs is recommended for the most comfortable reading.

On the way home from registering with a new dentist one afternoon, I passed through Hillsborough’s shopping district and thought I would chance at some cheap books in one of the charity shops there. The one I entered was selling books for a pound apiece, which is not bad at all assuming you like genre fiction and celebrity tell-alls which were most likely written by someone other than the person on the front cover. As I was browsing through the two-a-year romance novels and massed Rankins, I happened upon Bram Stoker’s Dracula, one of those classics I had not yet had the chance to read. It was a Wordsworth edition, from a time before they had started putting pictures of models in garish period costume on the front, one frilly elbow or a feathered tricorne poking out of the frame and into the matt black surround. A few minutes later I found Hyperion, a highly regarded science fiction novel by Dan Simmons, a sort of space opera version of the Canterbury Tales. I’d been meaning to widen my reading away from “literary” fiction out to genre stuff for a while, so that was an easy pound to spend also. Almost immediately after that, my eyes fell on what I would come to know as “the atrocity”. This was Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.

Before the Spielberg blockbuster there was a book, and in that book there are words. And oh, what words! “Imagine the WORLD AT STAKE,” the back cover implores me. Given the state of the world right now, and forever, it would take more effort, and possibly be more enjoyable for me to imagine something else. But an “EPIC STRUGGLE” to complete the “GREATEST QUEST in human history” is perhaps a little bit more enticing. So, who’s struggling epically to complete the greatest of quests? Why, it’s Wade Watts! Wade Watts is a pale pasty overweight nerd and ain’t that just so gosh darned relatable? Well, let’s hope so, the book really depends on you relating to this character on pretty much that basis alone, because fuck if he has any other qualities. Oh wait, I’m sorry, he’s good at video games. And he watches a lot of TV. But I’m getting ahead of myself, first we need some history so that we can properly establish who Wade Watts is. Both of his parents are dead, so he’s kind of like Batman. Batman is a comic book character who debuted in 1937, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger for Detective Comics. Is that information useful to you? Of course it is. Like Ernest Cline, when I namedrop something I have to give a brief paraphrase of the introductory paragraph of the relevant Wikipedia article so that people can know—though never as deeply as I—what I’m talking about, because I am possessed of very specialised knowledge and I can’t expect you, the average reader, to have heard of such obscure things, and I certainly don’t expect you to look them up because then I wouldn’t be able to pad this out to such a length that I might fool myself, and apparently a long list of others into believing that I have achieved something in writing it.

So, Wade Watts. He lives in a stack. A stack is a multi-level tower of scaffolding with caravan trailers on each level. These were implemented as an alternative to building high-density projects for poor people. Since his parents died he has been living with his aunt, whom he does not like, and her boyfriend, whom he likes even less. He has his escape in an inconspicuous van, within which there is a heater and a computer which he uses to connect to the OASIS, an MMO that combines Second Life style trade of virtual and real items for real money with more standard RPG mechanics in a vast virtual universe comprising thousands of planets, each of which has a particular theme or pays homage to a particular game, movie, or whatever else. In the virtual world you can attend school, access pretty much any book, TV show, film, game, music etc. that you want, and also visit planets full of dungeons and grind for levels, but the big news right now is that, in the wake of the death of James Halliday, creator of the OASIS, a contest has begun. Halliday, in a video called “Anorak’s Invitation”, reveals that he has placed three secret keys and three matching gates in the OASIS, and once these have been found and unlocked, any player to do so will have a chance to find the Easter egg. Upon finding the egg they will inherit the creator’s fortune of several hundred billion dollars, control of his company Gregarious Simulation Systems (GSS), and the OASIS itself.

The contest adds another layer to Wade’s refuge from the outside world. By day he is Wade3 at one of the generic high schools in the game. By night he is Parzival, gunter. Yes, gunter. As in “[eg]g [h]unter”. Don’t look at me, I didn’t make this shit up. The gunters are at war with the Sixers, employees of the “Oology Division” of Innovative Online Industries (IOI, which Cline helpfully informs us is pronounced “eye-oh-eye”…), a generic faceless megacorporation of evilness that uses underhanded tactics to try and solve the mystery so that they can turn the OASIS into an ad-ridden corporo-fascist hellhole that will make them a whole lot of money. Wade tells us that gunters call the Sixers “the Sux0rz. (Because they sucked.)”, and if that doesn’t blast your sides into orbit, hang on, because there’s still 340 pages to go and they just keep getting funnier and more charming. But don’t worry, I’m not going to provide a page by page running commentary, mainly because who has the time, but also because one of the things this book likes to do is repeat itself, if not literally repeating paragraphs wholesale then repeating the forms in which the action, such as it is, takes place.

Throughout the book, Wade—or, let’s be honest here, Ernest—just loves to list things, and especially he loves to list names of things. Take this passage for example:

    “When it came to my research, I never took any shortcuts. Over the past five years, I’d worked my way down the entire recommended gunter reading list. Douglas Adams. Kurt Vonnegut. Neal Stephenson. Richard K. Morgan. Stephen King. Orson Scott Card. Terry Pratchett. Terry Brooks. Bester, Bradbury, Haldeman, Heinlein, Tolkien, Vance, Gibson, Gaiman, Sterling, Moorcock, Scalzi, Zelazny. I read every novel by every single one of Halliday’s favourite authors.
    “And I didn’t stop there.”

He does not stop there.
Continue reading

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Game Journal: Sonic Generations (PC)

2011 was Sonic the Hedgehog’s 20th anniversary year. Sega decided that such an auspicious occasion deserved a special game celebrating the series and the many changes it had seen over its two decades. You might recall that Sega had previously tried to have a big Sonic bash for his 15th anniversary in 2006, and the result was nonsensical time travel, terrible physics based puzzles, scripted loop-de-loops with their own gravitational force completely divorced from rest of the world, speed boosters that sent you clipping through the level geometry to certain death, the worst load times this side of the ZX Spectrum, and possibly bestiality. Well, fortunately Sega learned their lesson, sort of, and decided to make a game that was not outlandishly horrible. They didn’t make a game that was especially good, but not being terrible is in itself something of a rarity for Sonic ever since the Mega Drive/Genesis era came to a close. When Sonic became a 3D model and learned how to talk, he lost a lot of what made him worth playing in the first place. Now, I should mention I used to watch Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog religiously. That was something I would get up early on weekday mornings to catch on Channel 4 before school. I would tape the episodes and watch them over and over. Loved that shit. Jaleel White is Sonic as far as I’m concerned, a nasal whiner with terrible one-liners who zips around Mobius, tweening nightmarishly all the while, on his way to prevent Robotnik (not “Eggman”!) from doing some bad shit. So it’s not that Sonic talks in general, more that Sonic doesn’t talk like Jaleel White. It’s just wrong.

I don’t think 3D Sonic games have ever played well. Sonic ’06 was an extremely buggy, half-finished mess, but the core of its gameplay came directly from Sonic Adventure. Most problems you can ascribe to one are also found in the other, ’06 was simply rushed to meet the deadline for an anniversary that shouldn’t ever really have been a thing. The camera in these games is terrible, shifting from one ungainly locked position to another, and it doesn’t seem to have improved one bit with successive games. Part of the problem is they want to capture the feel of classic Sonic, where levels are multi-path rollercoaster courses full of loops and springs and hazards, so in order to highlight this the camera has to twist around unpredictably to show you “hey look, it’s kind of the same!” And while I appreciate that they remind you that they haven’t forgotten what a Sonic level looks like, I just wish they wouldn’t do it while you’re actually trying to do something that requires even a little finesse. When the camera reorients itself, there’s that uncertainty reminiscent of the old-timey fixed-camera-with-tank-controls game as to whether up is still up. Sometimes up is up, sometimes it’s the “dive into the abyss” button. This camera weirdness aside, the standard chase camera is set up in such a way that Sonic cannot both go fast and be precise. As a compromise Sega introduced the homing attack, which basically lets you hit the jump button over and over to kill everything on screen. I guess it’s a fair trade-off, the skill required in old Sonic games is directly related to course memorisation, and since Sonic no longer has the spin dash but an instant meter-based boost, the enemies are really just clusters of boost gauge refill stations to help you continue to go fast. Still, these compromises are a prime example of Sonic failing to catch up to Mario in the transition to 3D.

In addition to other compensatory measures for going fast, there are sections where Sonic will automatically run at top speed so that you can focus on dodging obstacles, but it’s pretty inconsistent as to when and why this occurs. It’s even difficult to tell when you’re autorunning and when you have to hold up on the left stick to keep moving forward. As a general policy I held up at all times, but playing around and letting off at random points indicated to me that there isn’t any discernible rhyme or reason behind the triggering of an autorunning section. Sonic zips all over the place like a mad bastard to begin with, so the only real indication that you’re suddenly not controlling him is seeing a sharp corner coming up and discovering that steering no longer works. You have to use the left and right bumpers to switch lanes like some deranged fanboy’s Sonic-themed mod of Audiosurf. This works out fine until you hit a corner and suddenly discover that, no matter what lane you slide into, you’re going straight into the wall. To tackle this problem Sonic can turn into a ball and drift around corners, but in executing this manoeuvre his speed seems to drop off like he does when accidentally walking off a cliff, so you’re caught once again between the two stools of speed and precision that 3D Sonic titles have always tried and failed to sit on.

The game contains nine levels which are split into two acts each, one of which is for Classic Sonic, while the other is for Modern Sonic. The Classic Sonic levels, for the most part, feel like the old stuff redone in 2.5D, with the occasional 3D flourish to “bring the level to life”. I don’t find this particularly offensive, but for all the purported intent of celebrating the history of the franchise, it feels an awful lot like these sections are included to rhetorically ask the player “now, isn’t 3D much, much better than this?” Nowadays if you want “true” old-school Sonic, beyond the classic Mega Drive titles 2017’s Sonic Mania has got you covered, but for a good many years Generations and the abysmal Sonic 4 were the only major multi-platform Sonic releases that offered any sort of 2D Sonic gameplay. There are those who would say that Sonic was never good, a generally popular opinion along the lines of “Seinfeld was never funny”, and that’s fine, I’ve always liked the old Sonic games but never been a superfan. The cultish furry fandom is a total embarrassment, and the vore-inclined among them probably will try to eat you through the internet for saying such things, but I can hardly get energised about other people’s negative opinions of a cartoon character. What is clear, though, is that 2D Sonic for a long time was left to rot, and it took modders from the fan community to step in and show Sega how to do it right once more, but if Forces, a quasi-sequel to Generations, is anything to go by, Sega ain’t learned shit.

Another problem with Classic Sonic in this game is that his acts for levels from the 3D games are often bullshit. Consider City Escape, the “classic” Sonic Adventure 2 opener which sees Sonic running down a series of steep San Francisco-style tram-tracked hills while being pursued by a giant lorry that is practically as fast as he is. Classic Sonic doesn’t have his younger (older?) counterpart’s instantaneous boost move that makes the lorry easy to outrun, you have to stop and charge up a spin dash to get ahead, which can lead to being instantly killed if not timed perfectly. True to the classic rules, no amount of rings will save Sonic from being crushed, drowning, or falling into a bottomless pit, and that would be just dandy were it not for entire scripted sequences like this one. With no reliable way to keep ahead, I had to rely on sheer dumb luck to make it through the act. My favourite part of this sequence comes when you reach the bottom of the long stretch of hills. You have to climb an impossibly tall set of destructible, respawning scaffolds that the lorry drives into and destroys over and over, and—unless you happen to be very lucky in where you fall during this—it hits you as well, you basically just have to mash jump and hope for the best, which I don’t consider to be a fun or exciting challenge.

When you beat both acts of the first three levels, you unlock the challenges. Beat a challenge from each level to unlock the boss door keys which, naturally, unlock the first boss. This is repeated for the other two sets of three levels. Some of these challenges are just out and out ridiculous, and you can spend a lot of time navigating the novel but sometimes confusing level select menu just to find one that isn’t retarded. Among the special stage style “collect x number of rings and get to the goal” type challenges, there are some bafflingly weird one-offs. One that stands out in particular is the “Use Rouge the Bat’s Charms to Seduce Enemies” challenge. In it, Sonic spawns Rouge from the negaverse or whatever and she throws out hearts at robots, who are then distracted enough not to hold up their impenetrable shields so Sonic can bop them. Robots. I know it’s supposed to be a light-hearted silly thing but I just don’t understand the logic. Does Robotnik still put animals in his robots? As far as I can see they don’t pop out when you defeat their walking metal prisons. Even if he does, how in the fuck is a squirrel going to get turned on by an anthropomorphic bat? It doesn’t help that the unique concept is poorly implemented. Rather than an AoE kind of deal, Rouge’s hearts move in a cone shape which is locked to Sonic’s own orientation on the screen. Rouge turns as you turn, so the wild left stick controls make it thoroughly irritating, especially when you’re being timed. I kind of wish Sega would put their weight behind a Sonic game that is out and out Japan-weird, something impenetrably bizarre like Segare Ijiri but with Sonic, rather than weird in a “supposed to be funny but actually just kind of shitty” way. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, of course.

Although nine fully unique levels is more or less average for a Sonic game, there are only four bosses. Aside from the final boss, which is unique to Generations, these are taken from Sonic 2 and the two Sonic Adventure games. They’re okay. The first boss is the Death Egg Robot piloted by Robotnik, the last boss of a normal run of Sonic 2. The first phase is standard if somewhat muted. Wait for him to try to squash you, run underneath him, hop on his fragile bum, repeat. The second phase spices things up, and in my view does so for the worse. Robotnik does a ground pound attack that sends you flying into 2.5D perspective, navigating series of destructible respawning platforms with bombs and activators on them. You have to lure him into punching an active bomb so that he becomes dazed and you can run up his arm to hit him. The fight can be beaten very quickly, almost Emerald Hill Zone boss quickly, as soon as you have the pattern down. The second is Perfect Chaos from Sonic Adventure, a watery lizard thing that you boost into three times. I will say that as someone who doesn’t like Sonic Adventure at all, this fight was at least interesting in that the prelude to each hit is a different short obstacle course of progressive difficulty, although the third and final course is some serious bullshit with floating platforms that get in the way of your view from the camera’s fixed position. The third and final boss recreation is the Egg Dragoon, originally from Sonic Unleashed, a game which I have never played. Being a boss that I had never seen before, I was actually caught off guard by some moves like the wall jump sequence which can instantly crush Sonic if you aren’t fast enough, although on getting to the top, even with Tails (or whoever it is that talks to you) giving hints it isn’t very clear how you’re supposed to do what it tells you to do. The final boss is a bland Super Sonic team-up reminiscent of the truly awful final fight from Sonic ’06, so while it is technically not a recreation it might as well be. For these bosses, I was hoping to see alternative fights for Modern and Classic Sonic. It would have been interesting to see how the Death Egg Robot would be handled in full 3D, or how old-school Sonic would tackle Chaos. This is both in keeping with the theme of the game, and would have made for a much more impressive, varied approach.

In addition to the four main bosses, Generations features three “rival battles” with other ‘hogs from the series’ long and sordid history. The first of these is Metal Sonic from Sonic CD, a replica of the Stardust Speedway race, sort of. You wait for Metal Sonic to attack, then when he is vulnerable, you jump up and bop him. This is unfortunately the only rival battle using the 2D Sonic gameplay, the other two are (perhaps not purely coincidentally) absolute garbage. The rival battles are by far the most difficult (read: tedious) boss-type fights in the game. The second one features gruff-voiced edgemeister Shadow in a recreation of a fight from Sonic Adventure 2. You must gather energy cores in order to charge up, and then hit him with meteors that just happen to be lying on the road for some reason until he slows down enough for you to hit him. If you don’t hit all the meteors or they don’t all hit their target, the loop starts over, and you can spend upwards of ten minutes running around just trying to get in a single hit. But the third, appropriately, is by far the worst. Silver, the time travelling telekinetic twit from Sonic ’06, throws shit at you while you run around the apocalyptic nonsense future of Crisis City, you homing attack the shit and then homing attack into him. Hit him four or five times, then he creates a Katamari Damacy ball of death while dropping shit on you, one false move and you lose speed and are instantly crushed, boosting barely makes an impact on this because there’s something like a forced rubberbanding on the death ball to keep it in camera at all times. There are no rings to refill your boost gauge in this phase either, so however un-fun the earlier phases of the fight were, the finale is about as fun as having teeth drilled without anaesthetic, only to learn that the dentist drilled the wrong one and has to start over.

I can’t speak about the console versions of Generations, but the game is poorly optimised on Windows. Framerate drops at random intervals, audio stutter, and sometimes ridiculous loading times all provide unwelcome breaks from and intrusions upon the action which, while not exactly great, is at least action. My system is not going to win any awards for power and speed compared to the latest high-end tech, but it was built well after 2011 and can hold its own running many newer, more demanding games without these problems. I installed the game on an SSD, so there should have been little to no loading time, but it often felt like I was waiting around an inordinate amount of time for what the levels actually consist of. I would have liked to have seen seamless transitions between the action-oriented hub level and the actual gameplay stages, load times masked behind Sonic running out of the hub to the level proper. It would have been a slick way to handle the issue, and while I wouldn’t necessarily expect it from an indie title, Sega has more than enough money and expertise to make things like that work, but for some reason they forever choose not to, opting instead for extremely bland loading screens which kill the momentum that Sonic should be all about. Remember the awesome level transitions from Sonic 3? How unexpected was it when, reaching the end of Angel Island Zone Act 2, Knuckles destroys the bridge, plunging you into Hydrocity Zone? Consider furthermore that the events of that game lead on directly from the finale of Sonic 2. That’s the kind of follow-through, the kind of emphasis on kinetic action not just in a given level but between levels, that modern Sonic games should be striving to achieve.

While the levels themselves can often look quite nice, especially the recreations of the classic levels, the overall feeling is quite barebones, and there is a sense that some kind of rush, though nowhere near as terrible as that behind the production of Sonic ’06, was at play in the making of this game. In the hub world, this is partly an aesthetic choice. A mystical enemy called the Time Eater has sucked up nine stages from previous Sonic games, in addition to two Sonics and two Tailseseses, and trapped Sonic’s cast of jolly idiot friends in time. Everything has had the colour sucked out of it, which is a nice way to get around having to texture things, but even without that consideration, it seems like most of the efforts went into producing the levels proper, and everything else, from the cheesy, cheap-looking friend revival sequences, to the later boss fights, have the air of neglect about them. I don’t want to blame Sonic Team for this, their story seems to ever have been one of trying their best despite Sega flexing its corporate muscle at them. All things considered, Generations is not a bad game, but it isn’t good either. It is based on an idea that has promise, but one on which it fails to deliver. While individual levels can be good the first time around, the excitement factor rapidly diminishes on repeated attempts after sudden clumsy camera movements or unclear pathing send Sonic veering off the wrong way to certain death. Memorising where and when these and other problems arise can be a real chore, and the reward for beating a level, and indeed the game itself, is not recompense enough. Really what I’ve gained from playing through Sonic Generations is a desire to get the old Mega Drive up and running again and play the real classics of the franchise, hoping all the while that I have not been bathed during my time with this game in the blinding sunlight of nostalgia.

Chinese Girl Cartoons – One-Punch Man

Note: This anime is from 2015, based on a webcomic that has been running since 2009. While I have tried to avoid spoilers, do be careful if y’ain’t seen’t!

Having taken a break from anime for the past month or so since finishing Devilman Crybaby, I tried to find something completely different. This series, about a superhero who is just too powerful, and how boring it is to be perpetually unchallenged, seemed like the perfect getaway from gorefests of old and their newer incarnations. I was half-right in that assessment. The overall tone is comedic, deadpan absurdity and classical irony come together in a send up of chosen one stories we usually see in shonen series, but the execution is quite violent. In a world (yeah, I know, sorry) where kaiju rampage through major urban centres almost every day, Saitama, a man so strong that he can defeat any monster with a single punch, has become exceedingly bored with the superhero life. Yearning for the thrill of real challenge, he seeks out huge beasts, freaks of science, monsters from the depths of the ocean, extraterrestrials, whatever—if it’s big and scary, or even small and vaguely threatening, he will find out if they can withstand more than one of his punches. Saitama is always disappointed.

That set-up would become as boring for the viewer as it is for the titular hero quite quickly if it weren’t so funny. In the heat of battle, Saitama appears outwardly stoic, all business, but his internal monologue reveals that he is typically concerned with mundane things like discount deals at the supermarket, watering his cactus (not a metaphor), and generally eking out an existence in City Z, one of the many alphabetically named cities that make up the series’ setting. However, he soon becomes more concerned with the fact that, despite his prodigious power and his daily taking care of business, no one knows who he is. This is thanks to his sidekick Genos, a cyborg warrior he encounters in the second episode who is overwhelmed by Saitama’s abilities and begs to become his disciple. Genos tells him about the Hero Association, which registers and ranks heroes according to their abilities. It is also a kind of crisis council which dispenses heroic aid to disaster relief efforts and so forth. Saitama’s life as a registered hero is even more disappointing than it was when he was just a guy who punched evil things, but we at least are introduced to a wide range of characters, such as the perpetually underqualified Mumen Rider, maniacal ninja Sonic (no, not that Sonic), and a very large homosexual man whose name escapes me at this time.

The show is split between deadpan silliness and heavy action, and the animation, courtesy of Madhouse, is fantastic at turning on a dime at just the right moments. To say the comic timing is good would be an understatement, every joke lands just the way it needs to. I don’t know the source webcomic, but I have to imagine credit goes to author ONE, who also created Mob Psycho 100, for the brilliantly mundane sense of humour that permeates the show’s world. Everything looks and feels good as well. If a show is going to have every villain defeated with just one punch, Madhouse is determined to deliver some fantastic punches, yes sir. Whether it’s kaiju being splattered up the side of a skyscraper or a guy accidentally falling groin-first on Saitama’s upraised fist, this shit just pops with detail and pacing. Madhouse, as many will tell you, is one of the best studios around, in the past they have brought or helped to bring us such titles as Hellsing Ultimate, Cyber City Oedo 808 (what, it’s fun), Monster (!!!), several Satoshi Kon features, and many many others, so it would ordinarily be very worrying to hear that a planned second season of One-Punch Man is going to be produced by a different studio, J.C. Staff. Ordinarily worrying because not every studio has produced Slayers, Excel Saga, Azumanga Daioh (!!!), and Cat Soup. I feel like with J.C. Staff, while they may give us something different, the next season is in good hands both for action and for comedy.

Musically, One-Punch Man gets off to a rightly ridiculous start with the very silly light metal music of the OP that could very easily have been better suited to a modern Sonic (yes, that Sonic) game with just a step or two in the wrong direction (now now, don’t worry, your old nightmares of “His World” and “All Hail Shadow” are not going to return on hearing this opening theme). It is just over the top enough to the point where you can’t tell if it’s supposed to be serious or not, and then when you actually find out what the deal is with Saitama, you realise just how calculated a misdirection it was. Then again, and discounting the presently somewhat more muted propensity for Engrish in these things, ending with a line that at least sounds like “I wanna be inside your hero!”, I just don’t know. To top it all off, the song plays out over a sequence of Saitama punching various things that aren’t even in the show, including, I’m pretty sure, a titan from Attack on Titan. As far as anime openers go, this one is the bees knees! The music that plays in the show is pretty standard, unremarkable stuff, so forgive me for not talking at length about it. I mean, if you’ve heard a modern action anime soundtrack before, you’ve heard this one. Not bad, just instantly forgettable in every way.

I really, really like One-Punch Man. It has great comedy and action and the central character of Saitama is by turns relatable, astounding, and very, very funny. I think occasionally, especially as it becomes more arc-oriented with multi-episode stories in its latter half, the show flags slightly as the jokes fall by the wayside in deference to storytelling that isn’t really all that interesting. Once Saitama gets to work in these longer stories, however, everything falls right back into place, but part of the problem is that we might spend an episode or two waiting for him to get where he needs to be. I love the original DragonBall Z and all, and the stalling is nowhere near as bad here as it is there, but there is something of Goku’s return from King Kai’s place to the land of the living in these “Saitama runs very fast yet he is also very slow” episodes, and I feel like the show could benefit from being way pithier in the later episodes. Still, this season is foundational, and they had a lot of characters and organisations to establish over the course of just twelve episodes, so some Saitama-less slowness is to be expected. Despite the change in personnel, I’m really looking forward to the second season, and you should watch the first one right now!

 

Chinese Girl Cartoons – Devilman Crybaby

Well, here we are at last. Since this is a new anime, I should probably do a spoiler warning up front because that’s just polite. Having said that, if you’ve read the past few Devilman reviews you know most of the story already. Crybaby is a complete adaptation of the Go Nagai manga, but an “updated” one, taking place in the modern day and avoiding a lot of the goofier shit in the previous adaptations, though it adds some goofy shit of its own. It is a “gore and tits” anime, but perhaps not as leering as productions of that sort usually are. You could see it as a Tarantino style treatment of the classical elements of that genre, the hard edges are smoothed over with artifice and a vaguely anarchic sort of humour. It is a “cool” piece of animation, and in some ways its distaste for being uncool is what makes it not work as well as it could. It is often belligerently self-aware, but it also can’t decide between sincerity and irony, it seems to be uncomfortable with its source material and with itself, and compensates by donning a thick armour of bravado. Maybe this is appropriate to the themes of pubescent insecurity running throughout, but the creative team pulls the rug out from under itself probably a dozen times too many for that perspective to really bear scrutiny.

I don’t want to give the impression, though I probably have, that I think Crybaby is bad. On the contrary, it is a bit of a mess, but a very engaging one. I don’t think I have felt so compelled to keep watching something since JoJo, and while this is a fraction of the duration at ten episodes of twenty-five minutes apiece, it was the desire to see what would happen next that meant I usually let the next episode timer run down on Netflix, something I don’t often do. I know the story of Devilman well enough by now, but the show manages to be stylistically intriguing and unpredictable enough that even though I knew what was coming most of the time I wanted to see how those things would be handled. Of course it was interesting to see how, for example, this new series would present Jinmen or Sirene (that’s Shernu for all you shitdubbers out there)—and in fact Jinmen is treated very differently, the fight has greater emotional resonance for Akira because not only is his mother’s death mask trapped in the shell, Jinmen is actually possessing his father—but the main draw was just to see it do its thing away from all of that.

The art style is quite different from the source manga. That’s been a given among all the adaptations so far, but Crybaby makes a point of differentiating itself from its predecessors. Akira is drawn post-fusion as a supremely lanky brooding teenager with a chin of great magnitude, borrowing just a little from the original character designs for Violence Jack, where every man has a jaw that could be used to crack walnuts. A sort of slice-of-life approach is taken to making becoming a devilman analogous to going through puberty. In Nagai’s manga, fusion or possession is supposed to be representative of the draft, because the manga is anti-war. I was looking up the Go Nagai wiki to confirm some of this stuff and it turns out they know about as much as I do (and they write these things with even less certainty—I guess Nagai is just kind of vague about this stuff), so I guess it doesn’t matter. Anyway, yes, puberty. Akira transforms into a desirable(?) young man with a bulging crotch and an immense appetite, and every girl except Miki, who in the shitdubs of yore almost word for word says “I wish Akira would soap my tits”, seems to lust after him. It’s a strange nod to the harem genre that goes nowhere, but that seems to be the show’s bread and butter; lots of avenues explored with eyes only, rarely does an entire foot make it in. It’s a kind of eclecticism that can feel a little half-baked at times: Hiroyuki Imaishi on an off-day, an especially apt comparison given the show’s approach to sex, violence, and comedy.

While at its best the art direction delivers a kind of vibrant expressionism in which bold unnatural colours heighten drama, it can trip itself up and overwhelm the writing. The real underlying conflict of Crybaby may well be not Devilman vs. Satan but direction vs. script. Director Masaaki Yuasa is undoubtedly clever, but I feel like this cleverness is sometimes indulged for its own sake rather than out of any artistic necessity. Visually and tonally the show turns on a dime, and the contortionist aesthetics maybe needed reining in a little bit to maintain the pathos that the tragic elements of the story need in order to function properly. When the final scene rolls around, what should be an emotionally impactful conclusion comes off a little light because the show has simply played around too much. While it is a full adaptation of the Devilman story, I think it could have benefited from slowing down a little bit and adding more quiet character moments, especially between Akira and Ryo, so that the reveal of Ryo as Satan, and the tragedy of his betrayal, really hits home.

Having said that, the show does do a really good job of showing that Ryo, rather than just being a cold and unapologetic man of questionable ethics, is not quite human. There is something of the serial killer in his development, his recourse to violence against innocents as a child, for example. His back story as presented here is more in line with the manga than the old OVAs, where they didn’t get much past the first arc, but there are some significant changes. Instead of his father being possessed by a demon and going batshit crazy, this time around Ryo is a super-rich scientist whose colleague becomes possessed on a research expedition in South America. He also doesn’t ramble on about Dante, which I think we can all be thankful for. Satan’s awakening suggests that he was in fact placed on Earth as a human infant, there is no mention of parents or anything to suggest earthly ties, he simply came into physical existence at some point, and was befriended by Akira before being adopted (I guess) by the demon Psycho Jenny, an odd choice given that her human form is the least convincing of all.

Going back to bulging crotches for a moment, Crybaby is much more sex-oriented than its predecessors. Previously there was nudity, yes, but no actual sex. Here people just can’t stop banging. There’s dream sex, real sex, demon sex, gay sex, masturbation, rape, necrophilia, semen splatter, and enough bare (and typically bouncing) breasts to fill a decade’s worth of Playboys. I get the impression they tried to get some of Devilman Lady in there, which is pretty much devoted to ogling the main character and showing her in situations of sexual distress as much as possible. Lady, both in its manga and anime forms, also makes itself felt in the show’s featuring of sports and modelling as key plot points for Miki and several other characters. However, the show also avoids the overtly misogynist tone of Nagai’s work, and while women are killed, some quite graphically, there is no emphasis on their suffering over anyone else. Women are vulnerable insofar as everyone is, but there are several instances of women fighting back or being just as fucked up as the men, particularly after Ryo initiates the apocalypse by broadcasting heavily edited footage of the sabbath, which this time around is actually the street name for a Dionysian underground club scene popular among the Japanese youth.

Also popular among the Japanese youth, apparently, is rapping. There is a lot of rapping, which is used to deliver commentary on the state of the world as the series progresses. This comes courtesy of a street gang, which initially looks to be the new version of the thugs who bully Akira in the manga, but eventually its members befriend Miki and gain Akira’s trust. While they are generally presented as good guys, the writing does a nice job of making them individually varied. At least one member never speaks, and he later joins with the mob that assaults the Makimura house during the apocalypse, having previously tried to shoot Akira when seeing the broadcast of the sabbath footage. The “leaders” of the gang are the most honourable and courageous, sacrificing themselves to try and save Miki, which as we know doesn’t go so well. Unlike Amon: Apocalypse of Devilman, Akira is not consumed by Amon when he discovers Miki’s corpse and instead retains his humanity through all his struggles and loss. While he loses the final battle with Satan, he teaches Satan a lesson about love, albeit one which is tragically too late to prevent the end of the world.

It’s unclear after the world is shown made anew if this will lead to Violence Jack or to Devilman Lady, both of which are presented as two alternative futures for the recreated world. Jack is supposed to be the reincarnation of Akira in a world where Ryo made himself an impotent slave to the Slum King (the reincarnation of the demon Xenon/Zennon) as penance for killing Akira, but then in Shin Violence Jack Slum King himself is shown to be Akira, or… something? I think this whole “review Devilman things” thing has imbued me with a morbid fascination for Go Nagai because I’ve started reading Violence Jack in earnest. Devilman Lady is basically “what if Akira was a woman who got raped a lot and Ryo was a woman also?” and I don’t really understand what the point of it is. In any case, given that the final shot of Earth starting anew is presented as a definitive conclusion, it seems like we won’t be getting Violence Jack Crybaby. And what a mercy that is.

I think Crybaby is good but flawed. It has an exciting visual style, but this frequently overwhelms plot and character and the show feels somewhat unbalanced as a result. The central relationship between Akira and Ryo is portrayed decently overall, but the emphasis on style can leave a bad taste in the mouth as the resolution of their conflict feels a little synthetic and taken at a glance rather than in depth. The show ultimately undermines itself because it’s too busy trying to be cool when it should be serious, and while Nagai is hardly the best manga writer out there, his story and the Akira/Ryo relationship is one that is tragic and does have pathos, which the show fails to fully capture. However, I don’t think this makes Crybaby not worth watching. Despite the problems I have with it, what prevails is the charm of a work that gets slightly out of hand in deference to a powerful and outspoken creative vision. It’s eminently watchable, easily the best adaptation of Devilman yet made (and probably the last one we’ll see for a good while), and I feel confident in making a recommendation on that basis.

 

Chinese Girl Cartoons – Cyborg 009 vs. Devilman

As I’ve said several times in recent anime reviews, I really don’t know very much about Devilman. Naturally, the best thing to do when you don’t know much about something is to seek out a crossover between it and something you’ve never even heard of. Based on what little I now know, Cyborg 009 vs. Devilman seems like the weirdest team-up I can think of. Okay, maybe not quite, Azumanga Daioh vs. Berserk is probably weirder. But that isn’t real. I really hope that isn’t real. I am definitely not searching for it right now. No sirree. Anyway, as far as I can tell this is a spin-off that doesn’t really have much to do with the original manga of either Cyborg 009 or Devilman. At the same time, it is supposedly quite accurate to both series in terms of lore and characterisation, so that’s something.

Cyborg 009 is a cyborg, and there are other cyborgs with zero-zero numbers, some of whom fight for good alongside him, while the others fight for Black Ghost, which is some kind of evil science organisation somewhere between the bad guys from Escaflowne and Dr Gero from DragonBall. Black Ghost is in league with the demon Atun, who is in fact manipulating them into providing him with a super-powered cyborg host so that he can get swole and—who’d’a’ thunk it—fight Amon. Demons really, really want to fight Amon, remember. Since I’ve been doing the whole “review by synopsis” thing for Devilman related media so far, I thought I’d avoid that this time, partly because I think it’s kind of a lazy way to pad a review, partly because twice (or thrice, if you go by individual media covered) in a row is enough, and also because this OVA came out quite recently by comparison. With that being the case, that’s about as much plot as I’ll give away here.

Compared to what I’ve been looking at lately, this is obviously a clear improvement in terms of animation and overall presentation. The action is fluid and fast and varied, but it isn’t hyperkinetic, which seems to me to strike a good balance between newer and older styles. One of the things I really like about this OVA is that visually it seems to be comfortable handling the worlds of both of its source series. Cyborg 009‘s vaguely chibi style is far less pronounced here than in the panels from the manga that I’ve seen, yet retains a kind of softness and doesn’t shy away from the unique and anatomically quite bizarre character designs therein. The noses on some of these fellas, hoo boy! And to contrast that with Devilman, whose demons are drawn very sharply, with an expressive and aggressive edge, not to mention the surprisingly high amount of gore retained from the source, and to have it actually work, is quite impressive. This is a crossover that understands when and when not to compromise the source materials for the sake of having the two properties gel.

While I don’t remember much of it—what a surprise, am I right?—the soundtrack is actually pretty good. It gets right in under the action and really does its duty. After the muffled “recorded on a TCM-150 from the public toilets across the street from a venue that was hosting a heavy metal concert” feel of Amon’s soundtrack, the really cleanly enunciated guitar riffs of the battle themes and the occasional light string orchestra cues are quite refreshing. I also really like the opening music for a change. It sounds very much like Japanese rock music without tripping over into naff J-pop, and has a kind of ’80s cartoon vibe. It seems to be that the OP is Cyborg 009‘s theme while the ED is Devilman‘s, and like the rest of the show these seem to do a good job capturing the different tones of the characters and their worlds. I also like the voice acting. I don’t know much of anything about Japanese voice acting technique, but compared to a lot anime the acting here feels somewhat restrained and down to earth. It’s also nice to see Ryo be cold and aloof instead of being ridiculous, for once he actually seems like a cool character.

Having said all of that, I don’t think Cyborg 009 vs. Devilman is anything special. While it is mostly a competently told story, at times—and especially towards the end—there are symptoms of “vague OVA syndrome” that creep in, bringing the overall enjoyability down a peg or two. Its action is definitely a step-up from previous Devilman animations, and looks also to be much better than the frankly atrocious looking cel-shaded 3D CG Cyborg 009 productions of recent years, but there is a very strongly felt lack of weight to its combat. Even with a retread of the Jinmen fight, presented with head-popping intact, even with big ol’ explosions and fisticuffs galore, none of the hits seems impactful. I wonder if this isn’t a compromise made to lighten Devilman up just a little that ended up not working out, or if maybe in fact the sound effects just aren’t as chunky as they could have been. For something with a lot of beatings, pummellings, shootings, burnings, explodings and more, there’s a decided lightness or floatiness to the action such that it can’t quite bear the weight its own content demands.

So, I would say that it is pretty good overall. It does a good job of introducing its two different worlds and explaining them without being blandly expository, and it has a feeling for the distinctive characters of both series without making their coming together awkward or disjointed. However, it is rather lightweight as an action piece, and doesn’t really deliver on its own promise in that regard. The final confrontation, however, does have a sort of apocalyptic feel and the ending is satisfying. With a few reservations, this an easy watch that I can recommend.

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.