Friday, 24 November 2017

The Amazing World of Gumball season 3

Gumball is my go-to show to watch at the moment. It’s such exuberant, silly fun with such likeable central characters and such joy in the medium of animation. Not every episode is a hit but enough of them are that I’ll always have fun in any viewing session.

The season starts in a slightly sad way as the original voice actors pass the torch to the new kids. Replacing kid actors is generally necessary in these kinds of shows, though they seem to be letting Jeremy Shada keep voicing Finn long-term since he replaced his brother in Adventure Time. In fairness, by the time the voice work for Gumball season 3 started, the boys’ voices had changed a lot, even when they weren’t exaggerating it, and it was nice to even give them a send-off rather than just making the switch behind the scenes. I’m not generally that keen on meta-humour dominating a whole episode, and the season finale where the cast contemplate selling out for money didn’t work for me, but in this case it was sweet and worked well as a pretty original concept.

Otherwise, the season is mostly more of the same. The kids get into scrapes with various classmates and family members, struggle with allergies, try to watch scary movies without Anaïs, or think up an imaginary friend. The show does a great job of taking tried-and-tested concepts and subverting them, or sometimes affectionately pastiching them. The show also does the surprise anticlimactic ending even better than Adventure Time.

But this season doesn’t just coast along doing the same old things. There’s a fair bit of character development. Some background characters get more fleshed out, with Sarah and Alan getting episodes centred on them, and one episode is even centred on ‘extras’. There’s also quite an interesting side-story where uninteresting background characters disappear into ‘The Void’, with one not only being rescued from there but another becoming a much more major player when he manages to escape.

Most significant, though, is the development of Penny. Initially Gumball’s comedy crush, the two of them have genuinely gotten closer, culminating in Penny literally coming out of her peanut shell. It’s a very interesting development and it’s sweet how the couple are still so awkward and it doesn’t end up taking over Gumball’s entire life. Perhaps more interesting is the effect it has on Darwin. He’s initially very jealous and protective of his best friend being taken away from him, and his protestations of love for Gumball get pretty ardent. It walks a nice middle ground where potentially gay kids could see him as a perfectly normal boy with a gay crush (albeit on his adoptive brother, which is a bit weird), yet it’s also completely possible to see his devotion as a ‘bromance’. Religious groups can’t go crazy about it corrupting youth but at the same time it leans towards the normalisation of if not homosexuality, then dismantling the limits of what can be portrayed on kids’ TV in terms of appropriate expression for boys.

Which is not to claim Gumball is spearheading a cultural revolution. It’s just a nice background touch to a smart, entertaining and inventive TV cartoon. Which I will certainly continue to watch.  

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

思い出のマーニー/ Memories’ Marnie / When Marnie Was There

I’ve been slipping lately as a Ghibli completest. There are a few movies I haven’t gotten around to seeing in the last few years, and one of them was this, When Marnie Was There – the second movie from Yonebashi ‘Maro’ Hiromasa, who seems to be carving out a niche for himself adapting whimsical, gentle-paced English children’s books from a generation ago. With Arrietty and this movie, I thought that was simply what he was instructed to do by Miyazaki, given that those books are on his favourites list, but since Yonebashi and various others from Ghibli have fractured off to found Studio Ponoc, he seems to be continuing the trend even outside Miyazaki’s influence with Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

Yes, When Marnie Was There is an adaptation of a 1967 novel by Joan G. Robinson set in Norfolk. Honestly, though it won some awards and was previously adapted for Jackanory, I’d never heard of it and it seems to have been out of print until interest was revived by this adaptation. The sample chapters I’ve read show a rather unlikeable protagonist and lots of patronising and overdone renderings of the Norfolk dialect, but presumably the protagonist gets more likeable and the story itself is a sweet and well-crafted one.

This adaptation, transplanted to Hokkaido and its comfortable-looking temperate summers (definitely considering spending a lot of time there next year), is remarkably well-done and tasteful. It doesn’t have the bombast of Miyazaki’s most prominent films and won’t make anything like their cultural impact, but it’s a wistful and sweet story in the vein of Omoide Poroporo and thus makes it into my top five Ghibli films. Yonebashi seems to have managed to capture that middle ground between the supernatural fantasies of Miyazaki and the everyday dramas of Takahata, and the film benefits greatly from that.

Twelve-year-old Anna doesn’t fit in. She’s adopted and feels distant from her family, doesn’t make friends easily, sometimes says very rude things when she feels cornered, and as a girl apparently with some foreign blood – visible mostly in her eye colour- feels like an outsider in her native land. She’s also asthmatic, and the doctor thinks the air of the Hokkaido countryside will do her good, so she goes to stay with relatives by the sea.

In the new town, she’s drawn to a strange mansion down on the marshes. She meets a girl called Marnie who is free-spirited, looks like a French doll and is virtually held as a captive in her own home by her household staff.  Anna and Marnie become fast friends, to the point they profess their love for one another and it borders on the adorably homoerotic. Anna is in some ways girlish but with her short hair, usual choice of shorts and rather headstrong attitude has very appealing androgynous characteristics. Marnie is more classically girlish, usually wearing pretty dresses and loving to dance and twirl, but also gets down to some serious rowing when she needs to. They’re lovely characters, suit one another very well and their intimate friendship is a joy to see unfolding, even after the twists are revealed and we come to understand everything.

The film is understated and beautifully-done. Movements and expressions are rendered in a lovely way and the setting is striking, even if but for a windmill changed for a grain silo, this could very easily have still been Norfolk. With a Japanese matsuri. The two lead characters reminded me strangely of Shinku and Souseiseki from Rozen Maiden, which was sweet.

I think this will mature not as one of Ghibli’s most iconic films, but one of their more mature and understated. Certainly one I’ll enjoy rewatching in the future. 

Friday, 10 November 2017

The Amazing World of Gumball: Season 2

In the five years since I watched the first season of Gumball, it got a lot more popular. Clips from the show occasionally pop up on Facebook, going a little viral. It’s fully incorporated into Cartoon Network promotional material like its 25th anniversary clip. It’s won a number of awards and generally entered into public consciousness to a much greater degree. I’m pretty sure it will be remembered nostalgically in a decade just like Powerpuff Girls and Fairly Odd Parents are remembered today.

I actually watched a fair chunk of season 2 before I stopped for a few years. Back then it was hard to find anywhere to watch the show. But I absolutely loved the episode The Job, where the show’s love of mixing animation styles is taken to extremes. It’s a beautiful, fun episode with a whole lot of weirdness going on, and one of the most inventive episodes of a show animation-wise that can ever have aired on TV.

Broadly, though, the show continues in the same way as the first season. Short, exuberant 10-minute episodes cover things like Gumball feuding with Banana Joe over a chewed pen, going to see the simple life of a rather Armish-esque potato or getting embarrassed over a stupid video of Gumball going viral.

The Watterson parents get more fleshed out here. Richard becomes a little less irritating and more sympathetic, even doing stupid things like getting into petty quarrels with his neighbour or being too wet to kick out the partiers who take over his house. We also get an insight into how he became the way he is, with an appearance from his overbearing mother. As for Nicole, that tough-love competitive spirit of hers reaches extremes, first in how far she pushes Gumball in a paintball game, and later in her own refusal to lose, which develops into her being some incredibly strong beast more or less unbeatable in the established world.

Other characters get more exploration too. Hector becomes more than just some feet and shins. Carrie shows more of a dark side. Insane new girl Sarah gets her introduction, though only seems a little obsessive in this season – and brings with her a very amusing set of friends from another school who look and move like 70s cartoons. Another human introduced is Santa, played with aplomb by Brian Blessed, national treasure.

Then there’s Gumball and Darwin, who were pretty well-developed from the start. They remain two of the most joyful characters to watch in any cartoon – impulsive, selfish and fun-loving Gumball paired with cute, sweet-natured, caring Darwin. In one episode they explore their dynamic, Darwin wanting to take the lead instead of following as the straight guy, and it’s an interesting examination of their dynamic. They’re still totally adorable, and their relationship is still very often homoerotic and has no qualms subverting gender expectations – the boys are quite happy to dress up as girls for their fake TV show (adorably rendered in anime style by Mike Inel online), hyperventilate into one another’s mouths or comfort each other by hugging and stroking. It’s totally adorable.

And on that note, this season pushes more boundaries than ever before. What this show gets away with is considerably more surprising than Adventure Time’s ‘Get in his pants’ joke. Of course everything is only implied – double entendres like “Did you see what he did to that guy’s cherry”, or visual boundary-pushing like Gumball and the balloon boy Alan meeting in the boys’ bathroom and Gumball having to reinflate him by, well, blowing him up. And then coming out of the bathroom looking decidedly disturbed. It pushes at what’s permissible and that’s one of its strengths.

Of all the cartoons currently airing targeted at kids, it’s the one that appeals the most to me. As an animation fan, in terms of humour, in the cuteness of the characters, in the unpredictability of the episodes and in terms of subverting expectations. The last two episodes in particular poke fun at the ideas of a whole world being made of living things and how horrific that would be, and the idea of cartoons resetting after each episode without consequences.

Funny, easy to watch, cute, likeable and inventive, I’ll definitely carry on watching Gumball

Friday, 3 November 2017

君の名は/ Kimi no Na Wa / Your Name

After a longer time than expected, I got around to watching Kimi no Na Wa, Shinkai Makoto’s breakout masterpiece. And I have to say, I see why it succeeded where his other films were restricted to fandom and, to an extent, arthouse crowds. I’ve never been a great fan of his work, which while often artful and in his early days a remarkable achievement for what was basically an individual, never connected with me emotionally.

Yes, what Kimi no Na Wa at last manages, finally launching Shinkai into the leagues of Miyazaki, Takahata and Hosoda, is to have heart. The story is a strange one and the gets bogged down in a rather artificial drama in the final act, but what really matters is that the characters are likeable and compelling – plus the setting has interesting things to say about very different lifestyles in a changing Japan.

I was a bit confused by the title of this film. Why na and not namae? I’ve heard a variety of explanations from Japanese people – ‘It’s more formal and sounds more like a real title’; ‘It has the nuance of your full name, because they only knew given names’; ‘It feels uncomfortable to say “Kimi no Namae Wa?”’ (even though that’s the climactic line of dialogue in the actual script’; and maybe most convincingly, Shinkai just used the title of an old radio drama from 1952, adapted into a movie trilogy in 1953-4 that was a huge hit back in the day.

But this is not an adaptation of an older work. It’s an original story that on the surface is about a boy and a girl who swap bodies and live in each other’s shoes for a day. Not just one day, but over and over again. At first they think they’re dreaming, but begin to communicate with one another through phone journals and other messages, and eventually try to meet one another – though there is a lot that stands in the way of their coming together.

A lot of the drama is rather superficial, with a whole lot of made-up rules for this magical circumstance that it’s implied is connected to the power of a local god. But that’s okay, because the overall narrative is really just a vehicle for two things – the exploration of two characters, and their very different circumstances. She is set to inherit the temple and trains as a shrine maiden in a somewhat stifling small town where everyone knows one another and the girls at school sometimes pick on her for having to do embarrassing things like make sake the traditional chew-rice-and-spit-it-out way. He is a busy city boy living in a small apartment and working as a waiter in a restaurant, and despite his pretty face very inexperienced with women. Judging from his reaction to an excursion, he’s also craving more spiritual experiences.

It’s oddly cute to see Taki, the boy, with Mitsuha’s feminine mannerisms, very well-observed by the animators. Interesting that we’re introduced to him like that, too. Observing gender differences is far less important, however, than observing the social differences between the very different lives these two lead.

The film is also very beautiful. There’s some slightly jarring cel-shaded CG, but mostly this is a real visual treat. Glorious panning shots, intensely detailed backgrounds, masterfully-captured natural phenomena and even some explosions make for a feast for the eyes.

And while it’s somewhat on-the-fly and arbitrary, the film’s narrative makes for some great emotional highs and lows and builds to a good strong climax. Combined with really likeable characters and meaningful stakes, the result was good.

I see that a live-action remake is in the works. Honestly, I don’t see what it would add. In fact, I suspect it will lose the beauty and the carefully-observed physical comedy. A great step forward in Shinkai’s career.  

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Rick and Morty, seasons 1-3

My introduction to Rick and Morty was the long, not particularly funny couch gag on The Simpsons. Nonetheless, the show has been a huge hit and is constantly being referenced online and seems to be on track to become this generation’s South Park – so I decided to give it a go.

Honestly, the friend I was watching it with and I almost gave up after three episodes. It didn’t click. The show introduces its main characters, obviously riffing on Doc and Marty from Back to the Future, which was indeed the show’s starting point. However, going in its own direction, the show has Rick and Morty as grandfather and grandson, with Rick an alcoholic sociopath and Morty an overly naïve adolescent. Both are voiced by co-creator Justin Roiland, who I know from voicing the annoying but amusing Earl of Lemongrab in Adventure Time, and his performances take some getting used to. Morty stutters and whines, while Rick’s speech is punctuated by annoying burps.

The first episode seems to try way too hard. The humour is very adolescent, and the audience is expected to laugh at things like Morty having to shove things up his rectum and blowing up aliens in explosions of gore that probably seem edgy to kids who have never seen the likes of Superjail – with Rick having much in common with The Warden.

The Lawnmower Man with dogs subplot in the second episode amused me and made me think the show had potential – though I’d already seen the most amusing part as a clip online without knowing what show it was from – but the lazy gross-out humour of the third episode set inside a body made it seem like the show had very little to offer. But after a few friends strongly urged me to keep going, I persevered.

Now, after all the available episodes, I can say I’m a bit of an unusual case. Rick and Morty is one of those Marmite shows – either adored or reviled. People seem to think it’s either the best show ever created or utterly worthless stoner-bait liked only by the very sheeple the show likes to admonish to make itself look cleverer. But for me, I think it’s pretty good. It has some great moments and some utter dud episodes. Some of the ideas are thought-provoking, some unoriginal, and some half-baked. Sometimes we’re just supposed to laugh at butts farting green clouds. Again.

The show really gets interesting when Rick’s solution to a problem gone completely out of hand is simply to slip into another dimension and take the places of a Rick and Morty who happened to die just them. There are after all infinite universes, so if you can cross between them, why not? But this doesn’t just get left there, it becomes continuity and takes a psychological toll on Morty – and raises the question of whether Rick has done it multiple times before.

This is where the show gets interesting. Of course, like most multiple-universe sci-fi it really doesn’t begin to broach the real conception of infinity. The show indicates there are a bunch of remarkable versions of the characters from other universes, like a doofus Rick or a lizard Morty or even two Mortys who dress like the characters from Gravity Falls (in one of many references to that show, because the creator is buddies with Roiland). But of course, in infinite realities there are infinite versions of each of these, plus infinite that are not like them, with infinite universes being created in infinite fractions of time from each and every moment, so having just ‘a whole bunch including some quirky unique ones’ doesn’t really cut it – even if most of the show’s best episodes are based on taking this idea further to have, for example, an evil Rick and an Evil Morty, a ‘Citadel of Ricks’ who decided to get together and in some cases exploit the rest, and even jaded corrupt police officer Mortys showing around good-hearted rookie Ricks.

Perhaps the heart and soul of the show is trying to discover whether or not Rick has a heart and soul. He’s decidedly an antihero, perhaps one of the most reprehensible characters ever created, willing to create whole universes to power his car battery and destroy them too, drunkenly devising Saw-like games to slaughter people he doesn’t like, watching Morty writhe in pain with two broken legs with little to no interest, and subjecting his family to endless mind games and manipulations. Yet it’s very compelling for the viewer to speculate that it’s all a façade for a deeper pain and yearning, a wish to be accepted and for others to help him with his inner pain – which was at the centre of the season 2 cliffhanger and remains interesting even after he illustrates how getting caught was part of his plan. Witness one version sacrificing himself to save Morty, or a flashback about his love for his wife and daughter that it turns out he fabricates, or the close friend who reveals that his exuberant random catchphrase is actually a cry for help. He even tries to zap out his brains!

For some reason, it tends to be the show’s most uninteresting and unfunny moments that take off as the most popular, simply because they’re big, obvious moments. Rick sending Morty on a dangerous mission to get him a drug that makes him do a silly dance, or spontaneously coming up with a song called ‘Get Schwifty’, or turning himself into a pickle. These seem aimed at just making stoners laugh at how random and zany the show is, but I can’t say I find them funny at all.

I’ve seen a lot of this humour before, too. Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide has a lot in common with a machine shocked that its purpose is to pass butter, perhaps with a dash of the toaster from Red Dwarf – which also has the ideas of hallucinating a whole life only to see a ‘Game Over’ screen and an alternate universe version of a cool character with a bowl cut and buck teeth. In fact, most of Rick and Morty’s humour aims to be edgy and boundary-pushing, but it’s actually all mostly very safe, on ground previously trodden by the South Parks and Family Guys of the world. Attempts to be edgy by joking about sex robots and cuckoldry and of course that ultimate edgelord button, people having traumatic memories of childhood sexual abuse, are sub-4chan attempts to shock, and the one and only time I was surprised the show ‘went there’ was when it showed drunk Rick rants about Israel – which was genuinely surprising and funny, with the point being that the most feared and respected man in the universe feels awkward and babbles excuses when it comes to the tension there. Though the most recent episode glibly suggests peace was attained there by getting high. Typical.

There’s also some episodes that are total duds. Using interdimensional cable as an excuse to just have the actors ad-lib only results in ‘You had to be there’ style moments, and those episodes were probably the show’s worst. At least the montage of memories in season 3 brings with it the interesting moral question of how many of Morty’s memories have been altered by Rick – including, endearingly, any time that Rick messes up and gets embarrassed in front of Morty.

For all the faults I found with the show, though, what I really liked was how it put its characters through cheesy sci-fi situations but actually allowed that to have a deeper impact. Morty is changed by the knowledge that there are myriad other universes and he’s expendable. Summer has the harrowing experience of a machine taking ‘keep Summer safe’ to horrifying extremes. Beth has to wonder if she’s only a clone who believes herself to be the real Beth. Jerry is the show’s punching bag but has the curious experience of being put in a position to help assassinate Rick. These people are altered by what they go through, even if it turns them into much worse people ready to commit murder almost as easily as Rick is. When Rick and Morty shines is when it raises interesting questions about existence and purpose in a multiverse where you are one of countless identical versions of yourself, if you even exist at all and can trust your beliefs.

I’ll watch all there is of Rick and Morty, but honestly I would call it hit-and-miss at best, occasionally deep and inspired, but far too often formulaic and unoriginal. I’d call it above average, but not by much. 

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Chii’s Sweet Adventure /こねこのチー ポンポンらー大冒険 / Kitten Chii’s Full-Belly Grand Adventure

I thought that little kitten Chii’s animated adventures had come to an end after the end of Chii’s New Address and the single OVA that followed it. But a few years on, the show has been revived, this time as a CG adventure from a studio called Marza Animation Planet - perhaps best known for animating the Vocaloids for the Hatsune Miku live parties.

The show picks up more or less where Chii’s New Address leaves off, even re-animating the events of the OVA, where little Chii meets another kitten, the hilarious Kocchi – who is an interesting example of the male tsundere. Unlike naïve, hapless Chii he thinks he’s big and tough and even calls himself ‘ore-sama’, and yet he’s still a clumsy little kitten too, making him the perfect foil for Chii and a great addition to this cast.

Other than this addition, plus Chii being reunited with her siblings Ann and Terry (without knowing they’re related), it’s largely more of the same. Chii gets up to mischief at home and outdoors, be it by messing with the computers at home, chasing frogs and birds or getting lost out in the town after being chased by a dog. Some other enjoyable episodes happen when big local tomcat Kuroi-no tries to teach Chii to be a cat, which she’s pretty hopeless at.

Things are episodic and cute, every episode ends with a game of ‘acchi-muite-hoi’ with Chii and the production is all very slick and professional. There’s a nice song by Perfume to open the episodes, with interesting mixed media effects, superb voice acting and even some fun musical numbers.

Of course, the visual change will be divisive. CG is no longer a novelty and generally isn’t very welcome, lacking a lot of the charm of hand-drawn animation. It took me a while to get used to this, and the humans certainly never escape looking like an uncanny mixture of stop motion and video game characters, especially poor little Yohei whose dot-eyes don’t transition well. But Chii herself actually makes the transition very well and looks very sweet in this style, to the extent that going back to watch the animated version, it all looked a bit too rough around the edges. By the end I had adjusted to the style and very much enjoyed it – though could have done without the two recap episodes with creepy live-action episodes where a huge kigurumi Chii lumbers around the animation offices and goes to the Japan Expo in Paris.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Lego Batman Movie

I was looking forward to this. The LegoMovie was an unexpected joy, there’s more potential to mix franchises here than anywhere else, and word of mouth was good. But honestly, I don't think this matched up to its predecessor. It lacked the exuberance and anything-goes freewheeling nature of that film, and had more one-note humour. Still, for casual and hardcore fans alike, there was a lot to enjoy here. 

Riffing on the Batman of the first movie, all self-referential boasting, claims of being awesome and deep emotional repression, there were a whole lot of great points here. Having a full roster of Batman villains - and then one-upping them with the big bads of numerous other franchises - was a whole lot of fun. A small scene with the Justice League gave some laughs too. The big action setpieces were great to look at and often very inventive. And the strange thing about comedy is that the more overt, exaggerated and silly you make a character's hang-ups, problems and angst, the more directly you can switch gears to actual pathos and touching character moments. Making the film essentially about how Batman's bravado is all a front for his yearning for family and companionship makes that very easy to do - especially when you pair him with a Joker longing for acceptance, where the joke is that the protagonist-antagonist relationship has a lot of parallels with a romantic relationship. 

So all in all I wanted to enjoy it. I got most of the jokes and references and it often raised a smile. Because it's a comedy it doesn't really matter that loose ends aren't really tied up, like why the Joker didn't have to go back with the rest of the baddies. I loved the little touches like Bane sounding like the movie version and Robin's costume origin. It was also nice to have Barbara Gordon written so strong and capable. 

But in all honesty, it wasn't what I'd hoped it would be. Everything was superficial by design, so I ended up not connecting with anyone on the cast - which wasn't the case with the Lego Movie. There was no way to prevent Gotham getting totally torn apart so it felt like there wasn't much more at stake after that, nor that the characters particularly cared about any of the carnage in any case. And while the Lego Batman character was great as a side-note to a wider story, he wasn't really that fun as a protagonist. 

Not bad by any measure, but just not that fun either.