Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Mob Psycho 100

Well, I totally fell for the silly, simple charm of One Punch Man, so was keen to watch the other series from creator One, and ended up catching up with all the available manga too.

Honestly, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between One Punch Man and Mob Psycho 100. If you dislike one, I’m sure you’d dislike the other. Both centre on unassuming, rather goofy and socially awkward guys who just happen to be incredibly powerful, with the comedy usually turning on them being underestimated and then showing their strength – and then things can be serious when a genuinely strong opponent appears. Which, let’s face it, is basically the same schtick as the first year or two of Dragonball. And numerous other Jump series, too.

Fortunately, though, I loved One Punch Man (and early Dragonball), so more of the same is good for me. Where One Punch Man focuses on superhero stories and builds upon that, for Mob Psycho 100, it’s ESPers, people with psychic power. Again, there’s a goofy main character who nobody thinks will be powerful, this time a young boy rather than a young adult, though they’re drawn extremely similarly. In rather a genius touch, the incredibly powerful young psychic works for a con-man, who until he met young Kageyama Shigeo (also known as Mob, the Japanese term for ‘background extra’) thought that psychic powers weren’t real and has been exploiting the gullible.

There are a number of concurrent themes running through Mob Psycho 100. Shigeo wants to become popular, but is very easy to ignore. His brother is very outgoing and likeable but hasn’t been able to show any psychic ability. Shigeo comes up against evil spirits (one of whom becomes a comedic ally) and a rival psychic who follows a classic story path of being too proud, getting humiliated and then becoming an ally. The series, sadly only 12 episodes long, concludes with a satisfying battle against a shady hidden organisation, with plenty of bathos but also impressive action scenes.

Like One Punch Man, this series doesn’t work purely on its premise, but by having very likable characters and actually being funny. The moment where Shigeo makes his decision on which school club to join will endure as one of the funniest moments in an anime I’ve seen for quite a while.

Because I’ve now read the manga, I have to say that there’s a whole lot more material still to come that I’m looking forward to rather more than anything in this season. There are good emotional moments and some great action scenes. But certainly there is room in the world for both Mob Psycho 100 and One Punch Man, and I want more of both, much more, and soon. Alternating series of the two shows with all iterations of the manga and webcomic versions being sporadically released suits me just fine.

Monday, 12 September 2016

The Simpsons season 11

‘Behind the Laughter’ sums up the state of The Simpsons by season 11. It was a pretty poor episode, lacking in laughs but with the occasional bright moment, and at least not just a clip show. But by this stage the jokes were about terrible episodes like ‘The Principal and the Pauper’ and some of the more stupid celebrity cameos.

There are still some good episodes, of course. This isn’t quite the nadir yet. Episodes where Bart is put on Focusyn and where the family have to live in Mr. Burns’ mansion and Homer gets carried away are good ones. But there’s just too much nonsense and the grip on reality is long gone. In this season alone, Bart becomes a faith healer, has a mystical vision of his future and adopts another horse. Homer, meanwhile, becomes a Hell’s Angel, a professional duellist, a food critic, a Hollywood writer, a missionary and almost entirely responsible for Maud Flanders’ death in what would otherwise have been a clever and interesting piece of continuity development and was otherwise a strong episode.

Oh, and for some reason Maggie is a bowling savant.

Some parts just about work, like when Lisa gets Bart and Homer sent to a leper colony, or evil corporate sponsors turn Apu’s kids into a zoo exhibit. Other ideas are fairly normal but ruined by bizarre twists, like when Lisa takes up tap dancing and ends up assisted by science-magic dancing shoes.

But by far the worst part of this season is that it’s now very clear Homer has made the change from likeable idiot who loves his family to outright psychopath. Say what you will about Flanderisation, the devolution of Homer’s character is by far the worst thing to happen to the Simpsons. But at least at this stage, the show is generally enjoyable. 

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

King of the Hill – season 1

It’s one of those shows everybody watched but few call a big hit. It’s not as iconic or easy to merchandise as The Simpsons, South Park or even the show that (sadly) replaced it, Family Guy. It didn’t have the same mass appeal as its creator Mike Judge’s previous hit, Beavis and Butthead. Some might say it may as well have been live-action. But in many ways, King of the Hill is the best of the bunch.

Traditional right-wing American values are under fire just now, especially if you spend a lot of time on the Internet. Many observers, including centrists like me, are concerned by the growing authoritarianism, bullying tactics and outright cruelty on display from the far left, who at some point have to realise they’re not the good guys when they behave just like those they detest. I can’t imagine how that kind of person would perceive King of the Hill. But the whole point of the show is that it’s not a celebration of conservative small-town America. It’s an affectionate lampooning of it. It portrays a traditional Texan community full of xenophobes, homophobes and extremely fragile masculinity, but rather than eviscerating them, it gently exposes the follies and foibles of ignorance while accepting that these kind of people can also be likeable, good-hearted and ready to learn. In a world of safe spaces, echo chambers and thought policing, a show like King of the Hill would be extremely healthy viewing, poking fun at the right and left of the American political spectrum without viciousness.

I watched King of the Hill as a child and teenager, but didn’t really get it. I wasn’t familiar with the American small-town mentality, conservative values or particularly Texan idiosyncrasies. A lot went over my head, like that Dale was a conspiracy theorist wholly unaware that he’s being very obviously cuckolded and is raising another man’s son – which should resonate with the so-called ‘alt-right’ just now, with their obsession with ‘cucks’ and tin-foil-hat theories.

Rewatching the show now, I’m thoroughly enjoying it. The first season was a short 13 episodes, but it’s quite astonishing how quickly the show not only introduces its core cast, but makes every single one of them both buffoonish and likeable. Hank Hill is such a wonderful character because there’s far more nuance to him than Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin. He’s big and tough but deeply insecure because of his overbearing father. He’s lost in a modern world and terrified of liberal values as well as comically prudish. But he loves his family, wants to help others and wants to protect a way of life he adores. Yet he is constantly challenged, looks like an idiot at first (‘So are you Chinese or Japanese?’) but later actually learns and develops. Peggy is hilarious, sometimes a voice of reason and sometimes dangerously competitive or self-centred with a wonderfully gung-ho attitude to Spanish. Bobby pre-empts the popular character type later seen in the youngest boys of Malcolm in the Middle and The Middle but manages to always seem reasonable in his bizarre behaviour. Luanne is more than token overemotional trailer trash, and has some of the season’s best one-liners, with Brittany Murphy’s subsequent stardom an amusing footnote.

Hank’s friends Dale and Bill are classic loser characters, yet each gets moments to shine to lift them from being one-note joke characters. Boomhauer is more one-note but he’s so funny I don’t mind, and mysteriously he also gets the additional character quality of being a womaniser. The Laotian family next door are in many ways stereotypes but are actually very nuanced, fiery characters, each with a lot of distinct personality.

The humour largely comes from small-town characters having to deal with a developing modern world and confronting their prejudices, usually highlighting the arbitrary nature of some signifiers of what is masculine or what is American. It’s a healthy examination of a section of society that is as gentle and subtle as it is cutting. King of the Hill is smart and insightful, and right now, it’s more fun to watch its early seasons than The Simpsons past its glory days. 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Simpsons: Season 10

I’m not adding anything new to the world of Simpsons criticism – from people far more informed than I am – when I say that where season 9 was the turning point, season 10 is where it’s clear this show isn’t what it used to be. There’s a tendency to claim that while the glory days are now behind The Simpsons, weak Simpsons is still better than most TV. But compared to most other animated sitcoms, whether Futurama or King of the Hill or South Park or even Beavis and Butthead, from here on in The Simpsons is sorely lacking. It’s right on the brink of not-worth-watching at this point, and I found some episodes decidedly tedious.

And yes, the main problem here is Homer. He’s now absolutely the show’s main character, but he’s also a self-centred, borderline psychopathic, narcissistic weirdo. He was once so relatable, and now he’s a proud criminal and unbelievable moron who I find it hard to believe anyone would like if they started watching the show from this point. No longer Fred Flintstone, he’s become more Felix the Cat, and that’s hard to stomach.

There are some decent episodes here, especially toward the beginning of the season, like ‘The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace’, where Homer actually shows some conscience after coming up with a scheme to destroy a piece of American heritage. Bart shows a bit of depth in ‘Bart the Mother’ and the moment where a whole awards ceremony is faked for Lisa is probably the funniest moment of the season, alongside Homer surveying his newly-built barbeque. Homer’s stint as a bodyguard also has its moments.

This is also one of the few example of an episode where there are two plotlines where both are good (Homer gets a pet lobster concurrently with Lisa’s cheating dilemma, and both are amusing stories). Too often, there is a strong strand and a weak one, and sadly it usually falls to Marge and Lisa to pad episodes with some dull time-wasting, like trying to find a missing jigsaw piece or getting a new doorbell.

Some ideas are good and badly-executed, like the kids setting up a pirate radio show, ending with a terrible musical number, or Homer and Ned’s trip to Vegas which jettisons all its interesting moral questions very quickly. Other ideas are just terrible, like Homer becoming friends with a Hollywood couple in a bizarre self-congratulatory celebrity episode. More could have been done with Homer looking into his roots than him being a horrible person to hippies, and the Treehouse of Horror episodes are wearing thin, especially as they are no longer the containment episodes for surrealist sequences. Trips abroad are terrible, the Scotland jaunt being weirdly tacked-on and the journey to Japan being embarrassingly less amusing and insightful than one phone call to Japanese people about Mr. Sparkle. The Steven Hawking cameo also isn’t nearly as funny as I remember it being.

This is a disappointing series where the saving graces are few and far between, and I don’t predict any improvement from here. It’s also a little sad to note this is the end of Phil Hartman’s characters Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz after his murder. He would have made a great Zapp Brannigan. 

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Finding Dory (with Piper)

Finding Dory was preceded by the short film Piper, which was a characteristically cute little story of a little sandpiper who at first is traumatised by water, but then learns to innovate by following some little hermit crabs and becomes the best little hunter around. It’s a very Pixar story, extremely cute and full of heart (though of course requires us to be highly selective with what life forms we anthropomorphise), with plenty going for it technically – not just the water effects, but the clever way the simulated depth of field imitated cameras focusing on very small things. For me, though, the strangest surprise was seeing King Crimson stalwart (and recent NyX collaborator) Adrian Belew provided the music.

The movie itself was a triumph. When the sequel to Finding Nemo was announced, people were sceptical. Finding Nemo again? But the shift of the story from Marlin to Dory was a very clever one. Dory as a character centred on the quirk of her memory loss. That made her a character who was extremely amusing but shallow – what would she forget next? Her friends? Her companions? Where did she come from? What was she doing before she met Marlin?

So here we get a quest for self-discovery from a fish with short-term memory loss. And, indeed, long-term memory loss. Dory doesn’t remember her parents, until small things begin to remind her of where she grew up. Not in the ocean, but in captivity.

Like the first film, Finding Dory is primarily a journey – or two journeys, since Marlin and Dory are separated through much of the story. On this journey, numerous characters are introduced very quickly – burly, protective but fun-loving sea-lions; insecure but loveable whales; a self-centred but good-hearted octopus; a typical small role for John Ratzenburger as a little crab quietly trimming the lawn. Sigourney Weaver steals the show without actually having a character, and there’s a very satisfying mini-cameo right at the end to tie up some loose threads from the first film.

Of course, the film relies heavily on coincidence, highly unlikely feats of action and an octopus able to thrive seemingly indefinitely out of water. But those don’t impede a simple, direct and at times very moving plot. There’s a little plot device involving shells that is particularly sweet. Having this kind of ensemble cast works well in an animation, when characters can be so distinct without having to play a very large role in the story, and the humour is always gentle, affectionate and celebrates pushing yourself a little further before and thinking outside the box.

Visually, this is also triumphant, a notable improvement from the first film, and the huge central tank of the aquarium is particularly beautiful – though of course animating something designed to be beautiful is going to result in beauty, so that helps the visual impact of the film. In some ways the ending is a little messy and one wonders if there wasn’t some huge impact on how humans view marine life, but it was also a satisfying large-scale moment in a relatively small-scale film.

Sequels are often seen as a lazy cash-in, and very often detract from the original. But this kind of sequel, made 13 years later from a place of real affection for the original, filling a gap that persists from the original storyline, is exactly how a sequel should be done. And it didn’t hurt that baby Dory was just so damn cute!

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Dofus Livre 1: Julith / Dofus Book 1: Julith

Finally watching the Wakfu OVAs put me very much in the mood for more Wakfu. There’s no more Wakfu to watch until Season 3 begins next month, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t more from the universe I could see. I still had this to watch, the first in the Dofus films, released theatrically in France earlier this year.

France has been producing some impressive animated movies in recent years, Le Jour des corneilles being a particular favourite, and it seems fitting that Ankama got something up on the big screen. And to mark the occasion, they’ve upped their game, creating something beautifully fluid and ambitious, yet again pushing the boundaries of Flash further than anyone else. I couldn’t say this movie quite stood alone, requiring a fair bit of knowledge of Joris’ background, but parents accompanying their kids or random cinemagoers probably would have enjoyed this as a standalone piece.

The story picks up three years after the end of AuxTrésors de Kerubim. Little Joris is still little, but a slightly more rebellious 10-year-old, rather than the adoring 7-year-old of the series. He still adores his papycha Kerubim, but rebels against him a little, too, especially when it comes to seeing the Boufbowl games.

However, life around Kerubim is never simple, and when the formidable Huppermage named Julith comes for the dofus Kerubim is protecting, there’s little our heroes can do to oppose her. Joris and little Lilotte, now much closer to Joris than she was in the season, have to join forces with a young rival Huppermage named Bakara and a swaggering Boufbowl player named Khan Karkass to secure an opposing Dofus and use it against Julith before she can put her wicked and very Fullmetal Alchemist-esque plan into action. And Joris might just discover a thing or two about his real parents along the way.

Where Julith really succeeds is in not taking itself too seriously. The characters have the typical Ankama eccentricity to their designs, with Julith having a very distinctive nose, Khan Karkass being the silliest Iop design yet and Bakara looking somewhat like she belongs in The Dark Crystal. There’s some wonderful bathos to some of the rather serious moments, and the fact that underpants are instrumental to the antagonist’s plan just undercuts everything nicely. Like many French animations, it also covers territory that American family fare tends to shy away from – getting drunk, flamboyant homosexuality and explicit heterosexual desire, too. It’s also both silly and rather joyful that defeating the antagonist essentially turns into a game of Boufbowl at the end.
But the heart of the piece is of course Joris and he retains his extremely likeable personality from the series. He’s still a very long way from the Master Joris we saw in Wakfu, but he’s also growing and changing. And yes, as expected, we had an explanation for why Kerubim calls him ‘Father’ in the OVAs – if not yet a similar one for Atcham.

I’m excited for more Wakfu, but I have to say far more than the peaceful, fun little series that was Aux Trésors de Kerubim, this movie made me excited for more Dofus. I’m very keen to see where things will go with Livre 2. 

Saturday, 23 July 2016

The Simpsons: Season 9

If problems had begun to appear in the last couple of seasons, this season is the one where it no longer felt like the next episode was likely to be good, with a small chance of being a stinker. This is where the Simpson family stops being relatable and start being outright scary. It’s also where the show completely disconnects from reality, where things that were previously Treehouse of Horror material enter regular episodes. Witness, for example, Kirk Van Houten’s arm being sliced off, never to be mentioned again. Or the launching of a submarine captain as a torpedo when Homer randomly gets put in charge. It just doesn’t seem like The Simpsons in its prime any more. Family histories can be altered whenever it’s convenient to the plot, like when Grandpa shows Lisa that Homer and Bart were very smart as young children, and perhaps most irritatingly and controversially, Principal Skinner’s character is totally assassinated when he is revealed to be an imposter, which for many – such as Chris Turner in Planet Simpson – is the show’s ‘Jumping the shark’ moment. It’s not just the abrupt change in continuity that sits uneasily – it’s the sheer implausibility of the town’s reaction. That said, it’s not up there in implausibility with things like moving the whole town five miles on wheels.

None of these are the nadir of the season, however. That honour goes to ‘All Singing, All Dancing’, which may be my least favourite episode of The Simpsons ever. I’m just glad these episodes weren’t among the first I saw.

But there are certainly strong episodes here, too. Nelson as a star peewee footballer, Lisa falling victim to an elaborate advertising gimmick, and Bart actually facing some consequences when he gets caught in a string of lies all work well for the show. Moe finds love and actually gets some proper character development, and Mr. Burns – despite it coming over as a bit strange so soon after an episode where he was broke – has one of the season’s funniest episodes in possession of a trillion-dollar bill. The season finale, with Homer and Marge trying to reignite their sex lives, is also full of strong moments and still manages to feel like envelope-pushing, almost two decades later.

But the real problem with this show at this stage is how quickly the characters can be remoulded to fit an idea or concept. We’re already getting to the stage where Homer is a psychopath who doesn’t care if he kills. It’s a struggle for Marge to be interesting. Bart is badly in need of more depth and Lisa seems to be losing her strength of character and cleverness.

Sadly, it’s downhill from here.