Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Blood+: Mediocrity, sadly...

Ten episodes away from the end, ten away from what will likely be a lackluster ending. Even after all this time, watching the characters go through struggle after struggle, I can't connect. I've felt this way for a long time, watching this show, and I've been contemplating what might be the cause. Anime, unlike typical film or American cartoons, relies upon the characters above all else to propel the story, often at the expense of realism. Blood+, unfortunately, appears unable to suspend realism long enough for the characters to grow.

It's an inevitable trade-off. While there are plenty of anime and manga that deal with "realistic" situations (Karekano, Jin-Roh, Genshiken), every single one must utilize an exaggeration of personality or circumstance to incite growth and interaction between the characters. Karekano uses a cast, all of which have great talent in one or more areas. Jin-Roh uses an alternate reality where the Nazis won WWII in order to create a compelling environment for character development. And one will be surprised to hear me say that each character attempts in some way to exploit a generally accepted otaku personality trait. Blood+ tries to avoid these exaggerations, and in doing so fails to do anything well. Rather, it settles for mediocrity.

In many ways, this is the fault of the series director and the director (both of whom happen to be the same person in this instance: Jun'ichi Fujisaku). Prior to this, Fujisaka worked on Ghost in the Shell: SAC as a screenwriter, however here in Blood+ he shows his weakness in the art of character development. Part of the problem is that in Ghost in the Shell: SAC, he had established characters with strong background development already in place. For Blood+, he had to do this from scratch, and for a much longer series.

The best episodes, in terms of character development, all involve Kai. Unlike the other characters, who either remain static and relatively two-dimensional (like Saya, Lewis, Joel, and the majority of the cast) or fall only to return to their previous level (David), Kai undergoes actual growth throughout the series. In many ways, for what began as a story of a girl's coming of age story, this story has centered very much on how Kai has come into his own as a man. His struggles to overcome how he feels about Saya and her role, and his apparent helplessness result in a strengthening of his resolve.

Just as surprising is that the characters aside from Kai who grow the most throughout the series are those without futures - the Sif. They are the few who actually change as time passes. Their affliction with the Thorn, and its ever-present promise of death, forces them to change. The Sif, above all, present humanity at its most desperate. The Sif prefer to characterize themselves in terms different from humanity, because of their disease. Much like cancer victims, who feel isolated and lost, the Sif feel a sense of hopelessness which overcomes their lives. However, as they meet with Kai, Saya, and the humans of the Red Shield, they come to understand a sense of hope which they never knew before, and a sense of trust.

But these two examples are the exceptions, rather than the rule. Blood+ is marked by long, drawn-out episodes that stagger along, attempting to prevent the attainment of resolution. With the amount of "dead time" (long pauses, unnecessary angles) that the series utilizes, it never manages to get in the necessary time to develop its immense cast (Diva, four chevaliers, Saya, two chevaliers, Joel, David, Lewis, Kai...that's twelve characters already).

Blood: The Last Vampire, upon which Blood+ is loosely based, showed so much potential. Unfortunately, differences in budget, combined with the difference in directorial talent has led to this unfortunate result - Blood+ is a shadow of the potential of its predecessor.

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Monday, August 28, 2006

Watching blogs succeed and fail...

This post comes as a reaction to the fact that I have not, in fact, returned to my weekly posting schedule unlike what I said earlier this month. There has been no resumption of regular updates, no deluge of intellectually stimulating posts, no return to the "routine." In fact, as I speak, I am as far out of "routine" as I can possibly get. Life seems to be like that boat in The Perfect Storm, that gets tossed around a lot and flips all over the place. Fortunately it appears that my blog hasn't lost all of its readership in this period of inconsistency.

I always promised myself that I wouldn't be one of "those people," who doesn't adhere to a regular update schedule when I explicitly state, in my header no less, that the blog will be updated by such and such a day, every week. This is a particular pet peeve of mine with webcomics, and while this is far from a webcomic, I still believe that adhering to schedules is important. People like reliability, and I'm obviously not providing.

A similar thing happened with AnimeLife, Scott's anime blog. He went on hiatus for well over a month, in which time I kept checking back and checking back, but nothing ever came up. Not even a single post, detailing why the long away time. When he finally did return, the blog took on a new form - not focusing on episode recaps or summaries...but something different. It began to cater to Scott, and anime bloggers within the community at large.

There are several different measures of a blog's success. The most obvious is the number of "hits" a site gets (of which I get a decidedly mediocre amount). More popular blogs, like Riuva and Memento, can get thousands upon thousands of visitors a month. Of more interest to the blogger than hits, however, is the number of comments he/she will get on a post he/she writes. This is because comments are not only a method for interaction with the people who read the blog, but also serve as an indicator of how many people have invested themselves in reading it. Again, for the more popular blogs you'll see well over a dozen comments on even the most mundane topics. Now, for a blog of mediocre popularity like mine, you can expect maybe a half dozen comments on a good post, and a handful for something of no importance.

So what determines a blog's success? Being good at what you do, for one. TJ Han over at Riuva is great at figure reviews and is deep into that niche of otaku culture, while bateszi at...Bateszi does some really great episode/series reviews. Then there's the amount of content you put out. For example, Garten over at Memento does more episode summaries in a week than I post in a month (or two). Do pictures and the "flash" really attract readership? I think it depends on what you're talking about, and who you're trying to get to read your blog. Some of the best blogs I've read have no pictures at all, but then on the same token, many of the most popular blogs actively incorporate media into their posts. It really depends on the post type (for example, editorial-like posts don't require loads of pictures whereas episode summaries and reviews tend to be more fully loaded).

Another aspect of the anime blogging that cannot be ruled out is the number of bloggers who cross-reference your blog (either by citing you, linking you, or commenting on your blog). It's a small community, as evidenced by anime-nano and other anime blog rolls, and knowing other people definitely helps get the word out there, especially for the blogs with smaller reader bases.

Overall, what does this all mean? Nothing really. Blogs succeed and fail, in the end, based on the wills of their creators to continue to write for them. Many more factors than what I listed above contribute to that, but I think I'll save that for a future post.

Note: Been watching Welcome to the NHK!, and I love it. It's the best show I've seen this year, combining a good dose of otaku-oriented humor and a very creepy sense of reality. And it's fun to watch, something that always helps. Its musical score is unusually good, and the opening theme in particular sticks out for its cheerful score. I recommend this series highly.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Death of the Hit...

Considering the fact that NANA is a part of the genre of manga that is taking the American industry by storm, it isn’t doing so well. At least, not that I’ve seen. I’ve spent the past few days checking the web for indicators of its success state-side, as the level of its success in Japan is already clear to me (twenty-five million copies or so as of the last announcement I heard). However, every “top fifty” list of manga I’ve checked through, from those at to press releases from the various manga companies show no mention of it. And on it isn’t doing so great either, ranked at 57,000 or so (for volume 2), and 100,000 or so for volume 3.

NANA is a cultural smash hit in Japan, akin to the success of Harry Potter in the states (except with only one gender group involved in this). Why it hasn’t been able to follow up that success in America is probably related to the reason why GTO didn’t do nearly as well in America as in Japan.

Well, there’s the established base of readers, for one. Since reading manga in Japan is considered to be at practically the same level as reading a novel, there is a much broader group that a manga-ka can reach. In the states, up until the past few years, publishing a graphic novel or comic book (once considered one and the same) meant targeting a single audience – boys (and the adults who still act like them). Recently the popularity of manga has soared in the states, but still it does not have nearly the recognition as in Japan. I was reading the first volume of Blood Alone a few weeks ago on an airplane flight, and was approached by a flight attendant (a lady in her mid-thirties) who asked me what I was reading, and then remarked that: “my son likes those manga comics too.” At least she knew what to call them.

Of course, there is the cultural phenomenon to consider. NANA taps into a level of the Japanese female psyche that cannot truly resonate over here because of the level of freedom which American women are accustomed to. The anti-organization, roam-and-be-free attitude of Black Nana just doesn’t make as much of an impact as it does in Japan, where women are relegated to very superficial roles in business, and are generally “placed” as the caretaker of the home…and only the home.

Finally there is the fashion. I like the fashion of NANA for the risks it takes, but it’s by no means the fashion guide of the decade. Many of the designs are so outlandish that the only way they can work is in manga, and the movie verifies this to a great degree. For a manga that touts itself as being on the cutting edge of fashion, NANA does a good job – for Japan. But again that whole culture thing comes into play, and what is considered good fashion in Japan might be considered differently in other countries. The majority of Americans I have met are still trying to reconcile their very biased opinions with the rapidly globalizing world (including long-standing biases against the “weird” fashion designs of the Japanese).

It’s funny that as the world has gotten more and more connected, and more and more choices have been placed at our feet, we’ve gotten even pickier about what we want to see and not see, what we buy and don’t buy. The new economy, in which the “hit” no longer matters and it’s the individual preference that rules the day is epitomized by NANA’s failure to significantly impact the American manga market. In the US, at the least, the day of big time success is over, and only by catering to all the various interests of a group can a business be successful.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Otaku: The Gods of Consumerism

I heard a story once, about how once an otaku stood up to boast to Hideaki Anno of how much money he spent on anime. In response, Anno told the young man that he should use that money to continue his education. More people should have listened to Anno.

The otaku culture is spreading, gaining more and more converts in this day and age. There are manga and anime that celebrate it (the ever-popular Genshiken, being the most obvious example), and finally it has been recognized by the media and the Japanese public in general (and in the US as well - there's even an article in Wired about it: There's a good, economic reason for this. Otaku are the gods of consumerism, having formed a niche market so large and powerful that it dwarfs the GDP of many small nations. And this has grabbed people's (wearing business suits) attention.

Otaku has always seemed to have this synonymous relationship with the word "obsession." It's a lifestyle, really, that promotes as complete an immersive experience as possible, typically in the domains of anime/manga and video games. This is a pretty specific definition though, as otaku can be so broad as to describe anyone who spends ridiculous amounts of time on the computer. What business, and now media, has become interested in is the obsession that tends to accompany the otaku monicker.

This is worrying, because while the mainstream may be accepting otaku, they are accepting the wrong part of it. True, obsession is a typical characteristic, so typical in fact that it's what differentiates otaku from just a "fan," but that doesn't mean that it's the most important part of what it means to be an otaku.

I love anime - love it dearly. Watching characters grow, watching them overcome challenges, I love the connection that anime creates, and how that fosters a unique environment for learning. True - most anime only has merit as entertainment, but there are plenty of shows that challenge your mind and present you with the opportunity to confront real issues and real questions. Ghost in the Shell was one of the first mainstream anime in the US to display this attribute. Mamoru Oshii laced within the plot questions concerning humanity, the importance of identity, and the real issue of continual improvement. Miyazaki's films contain a common theme of maturation, of progressing from the self-centered thought processes of a child to being someone who interacts with others for the benefit of all.

It's the love for anime, a deep desire to impart the lessons learned within the jewels of medium that drive me as an otaku. I have my obsessive tendencies like anyone else. I watch more anime than can realistically be called healthy. However, what separates an otaku from a fan should be more than just the level of details that he's gleaned from a particular episode. There is nothing even remotely redeeming about being able to recite from memory the entire script of Love Hina. There is nothing remotely redeeming about having spent all of your college book money on anime. What is redeeming is taking something away, something that helps you grow as a person - that helps you reach a new level of maturity that you would not have reached without its influence.

That's what the business world, and people in general, don't see, and frankly it's what many otaku forget about as they continually strive to keep up on the new shows. When it's all said and done, what do we have left if we don't use our love for anime for something else? That's what Anno was getting at - that the otaku lifestyle as it is defined does not have intrinsic meaning. And sadly, things have worsened since he spoke those words to that young man. As it stands, otaku are a market analyst's dream: a group of people whose only purpose is to consume.

Note: I'm back. Finally. It's been over a month, and in that time I've been to three states, and two countries outside the US, which should help to explain the delay in posting. And now for this post...what the heck, right? I've just crticized both myself, and many of the people whose blogs I read avidly. That seems a bit hypocritical, if I do say so myself. However, I think it's something that should be said every once in a while. I know that it's not like everyone's just sitting on their butt doing nothing all day, but with the amount of time I've seen that people devote to anime, I don't see how they have time for much else (say, reading a book). The other thing that really frustrates me is that it's hard to talk about anything meaningful when it comes to anime - so many people seem to just want to talk about "who their favorite character is," or "what's the best show EVER?" There is very little real, meaningful discussion about what anime really touch us, why they do, and why that matters. I think the anime that really nails this issue on the head is Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal, the Rurouni Kenshin OVAs. Almost everyone I know loves them, and touts them as works of art, masterpieces of the anime art form. But why do we say that? They've got great animation, a solid plot (if a bit simple), etc., but what is it that really connects us with the characters, and what is it about the loss that touches us? The themes of atonement and forgiveness resonate throughout the series.

Note 2: I've been doing some series posts, but it hasn't really been working. I've felt that I've moved away from the point of this blog, which is to touch on the deeper issues of anime that don't seem to be tackled all that often (or, in some cases, at all). This really isn't a typical anime blog, and it shouldn't read like one. I'm really trying to move away from series reviews (and as always avoid episode analysis like the plague) so that I can touch on some issues that I feel are actually important (such as, why is Gundam Seed Destiny so popular in Japan?). So expect more of this sort of thing throughout the year. Oh yeah, and I am now officially back on my "once a week" posting schedule.

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