Shinkaiwatch 2010!

29 November, 2010 § Leave a comment

Makoto Shinkai, of “5 Centimers Per Second” fame, has just released the trailer for his next film, “Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below.” (remember to change the quality to something approaching HD)

This is a guy who really dislikes being compared to Hayao Miyazaki, of Studio Ghibli fame. I can’t possibly see why. And hopefully they’ll do something about that rather wordy title.

Nope, definitely not Kiki and Jiji from "Kiki's Delivery Service." Not at all. Oh whatever, this is just gorgeous!

OK, time to stop being snarky. I can’t wait for this! It’s set to be released in May 2011 in Japan, so hopefully we get it in the States soon after. Shinkai’s a singular talent who needs a wider audience besides the hardcore otaku websites I visited while researching this film.

If you get a chance to see this film next year, remember to bring the tissues: Shinkai’s works are all very sad, and this one doesn’t seem to be any different. The sparse plot details I could find say the film is about a young girl who goes on a journey to say goodbye to someone. Factor in Shinkai’s usual lush visuals and gorgeous music and you’ll be sure to bawl like a baby at some point in the film. Maybe even the whole time.

Out of Sight

18 November, 2010 § Leave a comment

A friend just pointed me to this fantastic Taiwanese animated short, “Out of Sight.”

It’s a wonderful film! Very cute, and with a very sweet depiction of the little girl’s blindness. We’re “blinded” ourselves after she crawls underneath the fence into the pitch black street, and from there on we experience the world as she does. It isn’t dark or scary or sad; instead, it’s a magical and imaginative place.

Just watch it! And who the hell would steal from a blind girl anyways?

5 Centimeters Per Second

14 November, 2010 § 2 Comments

Not much to say about this one. Here are some gorgeous images from a pretty incredible anime-ted film, “5 Centimeters Per Second.” I highly recommend it – it’s a coming of age romance of rare, unforced emotional depth, and it sports a killer piano-based soundtrack to boot.

"5 Centimeters" has been christened "cloud porn." Believe it. (Enjoy this free wallpaper/ PRODUCTION STILL.)

There’s a case to be made for the realism of the visuals here. The film’s style is so realistic it actually loops itself to become fantastical, simply because real life can’t be this gorgeous. There is a beyond-obsessive attention to detail in every scene, from the creased notes the characters scribble to each other to individual cell phone crystals being animated for a closeup that lasts maybe three seconds. If it exists, it’s animated.

I assume this would be "convenience store porn" then?

If only the last five minutes didn’t have that terribly out of place J-pop song playing over them… I guess this film had to have a flaw somewhere, besides its brief runtime (it barely crosses the hour mark). But still. If you’re in the mood for an emotionally involving animated film, look no further. It doesn’t get much prettier than this.

Movement in Western and Japanese Comics, or, “There Is No Future Tense in Japanese”

3 November, 2010 § 1 Comment

I’ve been trying to put it into words lately.

I’ve always had trouble with reading manga – I found its pacing too fast and alienating, besides the whole “reading right to left” thing. So I started to read a manga about manga and the culture around it: “Genshiken,” or “The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture.”

Ohno in her happy place.

What do I think of it? It’s fantastic. It reads sort of like “Freaks and Geeks” about anime/manga/video game fans (“otaku”) without the overt teen drama, and much more funny. While reading it, I thought of why I’ve been averse to reading manga for so long. It took me a while to pin down, but I think I’ve solved it: there is simply a profound cultural difference to Western readers in the way manga handles movement.

I haven’t brushed up on my comics theory in a while (meaning I haven’t read Scott McCloud’s indispensable “Understanding Comics” in a while), but important visual movement happens in and in between comic panels. The West and Japan differ wildly in their handling of this movement. Remember: this is all very generalized, so don’t get too mad when you think of examples to the contrary.

Western comics favor visible movement. Humor, especially in this form, is heavily dependent on comic timing. Take this example from Meredith Gran’s fantastic webcomic “Octopus Pie.”

Click the image for a better view, sorry about the tiling.

This is a GREAT example of movement’s importance in Western comics: we see our hero Eve slip off the roof of a building and fall through the bottom of the panel into the tub of water. Not only is there a lot of movement throughout the first panel, but that movement directly leads into the second panel, and punningly so. It’s gloriously fourth wall breaking, but it also seems natural and just exaggerated enough to be funny.

Japanese comics favor detail and implied movement. Manga panels are intricate, with many strong lines and little touches that liven up backgrounds and character designs. Panels are also relatively big, and I would guess that there are less average panels per page in manga than in Western comics. Because of these large panels, the artist has more room for detail. They also have less room to indicate movement within a panel. (Reminder: read right-to-left!)

Madarame, de facto leader of the Genshiken, explains and demonstrates manga's emphasis on detail. (NERD ALERT: Madarame's squinted eyes are the kana for "hehe." He's quite snide.)

This is why movement is rarely detailed in the panels of manga. Movement is even downplayed when transitioning panel-to-panel. Take the page I took the above panel of Madarame and Tanaka from:

Notice how the movement between panels is not necessarily linear. There is also little indication of movement within the panel. So how did Japan come to think of movement differently than the West?

Rhetoric scholar Fan Shen described the important Chinese rhetorical concept of “yijing.” In yijing, “the process of criticizing a piece of art or literary work has to involve the process of creation on the reader’s part. In yijing, verbal thoughts and pictorial thoughts are one. Thinking is conducted largely in pictures… [Yijing] is not a process of moving…” [emphasis mine]

This is a fascinating concept. Chinese thought has obviously been a huge influence on Japanese thought on rhetoric and images and it’s easy to see yijing in manga: there is little emphasis on movement because in East Asian thought the author delegates the creation of movement to the reader.

For example: if the “Octopus Pie” example were a manga, we might see Eve at the top of the building in one panel and in the next we’d see the splash caused by her fall. The author would let the reader’s mind fill in the events that occurred in between. You can also bet the backgrounds would be INSANELY detailed (which isn’t to say Gran’s aren’t in every other strip – for here, the lack of background provides excellent contrast and emphasis on Eve’s fall).

Western and East Asian concepts of movement are even ingrained into the representation the cultures create of themselves. Western culture prides itself on progress and moving forward; Chinese and Japanese cultures value the present, to the point where the latter doesn’t even have a future tense in their language!

Whoa! Heavy stuff there. But it all provides a fascinating example of how culture and language shape visual arts/rhetoric.

I’ve been trying to put it into words recently, but I guess it should’ve been pictures all along.

PS: This post was inspired by 2-D Teleidoscope, a great blog for those interested in critical studies of anime and manga.

PPS: I’m aware I’ve used manga to implicitly represent much of East Asian sequential art. Any recommendations for manwa or Chinese comics or anything else would be great!

Valkyria Chronicles, or, “Truth in Truffaut”

28 October, 2010 § Leave a comment

“Valkyria Chronicles” (PS3, SEGA, 2008) is an interesting game for what it does very right and very wrong.

The artwork is gorgeous, a mix of anime and watercolors that works seemlessly. It’s hard for me to believe, as a light strategy RPGer, that a game I loved like “Final Fantasy Tactics” came out less than a decade ago when comparing the art quality (to be fair, “FFT” was also two game console generations ago).

The storyline is based in an alternate reality Europe in 1935 as war breaks out between the two major powers of the East Europan (no typo, it’s actually just Europan) Imperial Alliance, analagous to modern Russia and eastern Europe, and the Atlantic Federation, analogous to western Europe. Caught in between the two forces is the small, resource rich nation of Gallia (based on France, if the name didn’t tell you, but located roughly in the Baltic).

The battles are fun and a little daunting (again, I’m not a big strategy RPG person) but easy to catch up on after a few run throughs. Did I mention it’s pretty as hell? There were some points in battle where I couldn’t help but just look around. In a game where missions should be completed as quickly as possible, this wasn’t the best idea, but daaaaayum! I’m pretty sure my dreams were rendered in this game’s style for a week or so. Those were nice dreams, yo.

“Valkyria Chronicles” is about World War II, so it’s not surprising that racism is a major issue the game deals with. The subplots and scenes dealing with racism towards Darcsens (analogous to Jews) are surprisingly well done, and provide many of the game’s emotional moments. Many of your party distrust or outright hate Darcsens. Consequentially, they will perform worse when deployed alongside them in battle. It’s a subtle touch that could really be misused, but helps drive home the game’s anti-racism message.

“Valkyria” does make some pretty egregious mistakes, however. It’s an intriguing basis for a story that, unfortunately, makes for an odd gaming experience (at times).

For starters, the gorgeous artwork seems to contrast with the “war is hell” message the game pushes. There are moral issues of war raised, but not necessarily addressed. We’re told the war is terrible but the battles are so, well, fun (and PRETTY!)! And besides, all your soldiers are rather attractive and stylish for a rabble of volunteers and dispossessed (one character’s backstory is that she was a model before the war took her job. What’s surprising about that is it’s only one of your characters.)

How can war be bad if all soldiers are this adorable?

Filmmaker Francois Truffaut once said (somewhere, I can’t find the source, TAKE MY WORD FOR IT) that any artistic depiction of war will inevitably glorify it in some way. I can argue a few exceptions to this rule (I MEAN “GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES” COME ON) but “Valkyria Chronicles” proves Truffaut’s theory effortlessly. It’s a problem every game I’ve played runs into when tackling action scenes that are supposed to be harrowing or difficult. By nature of being a game, we learn from our mistakes, keep playing through the frustration, and eventually triumph! War isn’t such a big deal when you have unlimited lives (and ammo)!

The story is every JRPG you’ve ever played, but with a serious World War II fetish. Really. The big baddie is a pompous, effeminate aristocrat. Other baddies include Reluctant Baddie and Hot Baddie Chick. All the plot details are fairly predictable and some of the more JRPGy comic relief scenes don’t mesh well with the seriousness of the story.

[EDIT 31/10:] While credit deserves to be given to the game for being gender and preference inclusive, I feel the game’s treatment of its gay characters to be lacking. Jann, a gay male of the lancer class, while undoubtedly one of the most powerful lancers, is decidedly of the campy John Waters gay variety (he’s also voiced by Bender from “Futurama,” WHAAA?). While his potential offensiveness will probably vary from person to person, I found the gay engineer Dallas to be decidedly offensive. She not only “fancies women” but hates men. It’s stupidly juvenile logic: she hates men, so she must be a lesbian, RIGHT? Also, her crush on the main character’s love interest, Alicia, is a little bit obsessive (although the brief video of her “Alicia Lover” potential being unlocked is strangely adorable).

It’s just unfortunate that two homosexual game characters are relegated to being stereotyped instead of interesting and realistic. And I thought the whole point of the Darcsens-are-Jews analogy was to show the stupidity in stereotyping? For shame, y’all. [/EDIT]

“Valkyria Chronicles” is a good game overall though. The art is gorgeous, the battles very fast-paced and enjoyable, and the soundtrack is by the guy who did “Final Fantasy Tactics,” so it’s obviously incredible. As interesting as the concept is, I’m not too keen on JRPGs taking on, say, big serious earth-shattering events like World War II. Leave it to the FPSes I guess.

Katamari Damacy, or, “EVERYTHING IS FLUFFY!”

4 October, 2010 § Leave a comment

The games I’ve analyzed as artistically worthy thus far are downers. I realize this. “Final Fantasy VII” is legendary for a gigantic character death so memorable that it’s on par with that one guy who dies in that one “Harry Potter” book. While “Final Fantasy” games tend to be well balanced mixes of epic, sad, and humorous, “Shadow of the Colossus” is merely the first two. It’s a big bummer befitting of its colossal scope.

Sometimes you just need to feel good. “Katamari Damacy” is the stylistic equivalent of Saturday morning cartoons. But REALLY Japanese. With an incredible soundtrack. And more than a little bit of a head trip. Check the intro to the game:

Intrigued? Weirded out? Suffering flashbacks to that one time you took “the good (or bad) stuff”? Weren’t those dancing pandas ADORABLE? It’s all just a glimpse into the warped and colorful fun of “Katamari Damacy.”

After the King of All Cosmos accidentally destroys the stars in the sky, the tiny Prince is sent to Earth to roll up objects with his katamari (a ball that objects smaller than it stick to) to eventually grow large enough to replace the stars. Don’t ask for too much more story, because “Katamari Damacy” is all about taking a simple, extremely fun concept and running with it for an entire game. Add some truly hilarious sight gags and dialogue into the inherent sillyness of the game and you get something so fun you won’t care if it only takes ten hours or so to beat it.

Surprisingly or not, there is a critique of consumerism buried amidst all the fun. Much of the items the Prince rolls up into his katamari are cheap trinkets, similar to omiyage (souvenirs). The Prince’s quest to continuously acquire more and more cheap and meaningless goods to expand the katamari is blatantly analogous to consumerism. The katamari is essentially gaining more and more useless crap until it can become big, but never quite big enough, for the King of All Cosmos.  It’s expansion for expansion’s sake. The bright, distracting colors and infectious music make “Katamari Damacy” seem all the more like a surreal pop-art parody of a commercial, something like the works of Takashi Murakami.

“Katamari Damacy,” to continue the film comparison I began in my assessment of “Grand Theft Auto III,” is like a Pixar or Studio Ghibli film. It’s wonderful fun that’s appropriate for all ages, and adults will get just as much, if not more, enjoyment out of something aimed at kids. As a quick search on Craftster can attest, the visual style of the game is very popular among many knitty, crafty types and Prince and King costumes are surprisingly popular around Halloween.

“Katamari Damacy” is a throwback to why we started gaming in the first place: sheer entertainment that no other medium can compare to. Though short (about ten hours), the length is perfect for a repetitive game and the music will be stuck in your head long after you finish the game. If you want to just have fun, look no further than “Katamari Damacy.”


25 September, 2010 § 1 Comment

Quick update about Fantastic Arcade: it is fuuuuuun! But you already knew that.

Here’s a fast-paced and addictive game from some Austinites:


Fantastic Arcade!

22 September, 2010 § Leave a comment

Hey folks! I will be attending Fantastic Arcade from Thursday to Sunday. I’m super stoked, as any Austin-area gamer should be, but most specifically for:

  • Friday’s presentation at the Lamar Drafthouse featuring Jonathon Blow, developer and writer of “Braid” (which, if so provoked, I will not shut up about)
  • old arcade consoles retrofitted to play up and coming art games
  • delicious Highball food and drinks

And much more! Basically, it’s going to be the best. Expect coverage starting Thursday night/Friday morning.

Band of the Now: I, Cactus

19 September, 2010 § Leave a comment

I, Cactus is a fairly obscure chiptunes/electro artist on the 8bitpeoples label. Like Anamanaguchi, he uses chiptunes as a medium instead of a genre, crafting short and nostalgic songs heavily indebted to ambient electronica. Though the songs may be brief, they are catchy and mellow enough to boast a high replay value.

You can download I, Cactus’ self-titled EP for free here at the 8bitpeoples official website.

The 5 Worst Moments for Women in Video Games

17 September, 2010 § 6 Comments

Just as a warning, this post has lots of swears. Read at your own discretion.

Video games have been the realm of men since their first spurt in popularity in the early 1980s. It’s not that women never played “Duck Hunt” or “Super Mario,” they just didn’t flock to gaming like men did. After two decades of being marginalized, underrepresented, and alienated, women are finally a considerable part of the gaming community – 48%, by recent estimates. But after reading this list of little-known and legendary games, you’ll understand why it’s taken so long for women to form a major part of the gaming community.

Case in point: typing in "girl gamer" on Google images. Although very outdated (joysticks anyone?) this was the least offensive and sexualized image.

5. “Daikatana,” or, “John Romero’s about to make you his bitch.” (2000)

(personal computer, Nintendo 64, Nintendo GameBoy)

An oldie but goodie (baddie?). John Romero was the mastermind behind id Software, the pioneering gaming company behind “Doom,” “Quake,” andWolfenstein 3D”: three titles that influenced literally EVERY first person shooter (FPS) game ever made since the mid-1990s. So what prompted the ridiculously smug self-aggrandizing of this little slogan? « Read the rest of this entry »