Monday, January 29, 2007

A different kind of Otaku no Video

Perhaps the most interesting thing I saw at Anime Los Angeles wasn't Anime, nor was it officially on the program. I saw a fansub of the first episode of the Japanese TV series Densha Otoko on someone's laptop, and was blown away.

The weird tale of the guy who called himself the Train Man on a Japanese chat room was first compiled into a book, then was made into a Manga. Then came this TV series, a stage play, and finally a movie. The anime that was referenced in the TV series and the movie, Getsumen To Heike Mina, is now unspooling on Fuji TV, having its premiere on January 17th of this year.

I missed the screening of the movie iteration of this story at San Diego Comic-Con this year. However, it's going to be coming out from Viz Pictures on DVD on February 7th. Perfect timing for giving to the Otaku or Otome Valentine in your life. The Manga is already in the process of release, and the last of three volumes will also be out in time for Valentine's Day.

I would like to also see this TV series given a legitimate release on DVD because the guy who portrays the protagonist in the series, Ito Atsushi, is incredibly good as a comedic actor. He's a little bit Jerry Lewis at his spazzy best, a little bit Jim Carrey before he got all full of himself, and a whole lot of fun. I haven't seen the movie yet, so I can't really judge the cast. But the TV series is worth it for Ito alone. Fuji TV broke my heart by not putting out DVDs of Iron Chef. Don't do it again to me, guys!

UPDATE: the Densha Otoko movie is NOT as good as the TV series, unfortunately. However, the commentary, done by Japanese Pop Culture expert Patrick Macias and two of his closest Japanese friends, is hilarious, and the DVD is worth buying just for that. Also it looks pretty unlikely that a Densha Otoko TV series Region 1 DVD release won't happen because of music clearance issues. So between this and the translated mangas this is what we Amerika-jin get of Densha Otoko-mania. So enjoy it.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Greetings from Anime Los Angeles 3

It's a sunny, not too warm day in Van Nuys. The roar of small aircraft, the smell of Pocky, the sight of cosplaying otherwise adult humans. Yes, it's back.

This time I am totally here just for fun. No volunteering, no nothing. Today is actualy a fairly quiet major panels, the AMV contest is mellow.

I might record a little here at the con, with an eye towards presenting a report on the con for the podcast. My buddy Don Burr is here now, and Chad Page is on his way down from Central California as well.

Tomorrow should be much, much, MUCH more hectic.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Confessional time: I didn't vote for the Annies...

...and I don't intend to, either.


Because watching the snippets and bits and pieces of animation I was supposed to vote on was hell. I have never seen so much UGLY in one spot. If you were to sum up the entirety of what I looked at before I just gave up on the process, which incidentally was online for the first time ever, it was ALL PLUG-UGLY CGI, all the time. Except for one pencil-drawn bit of animation by Bill Plympton, the short "Don't Download This Song." That was cool. The rest of the stuff I saw just sucked and sucked and sucked.

I was not given the opportunity to vote Flushed Away as best picture. That opportunity was taken away from me. Instead, you had to make a choice between Cars, Over The Hedge, Monster House, Happy Feet and Open Season. GOOD GOD THOSE ALL SUCKED RUNNY EGGS!!!

Even the commercials were plug-ugly CGI. I mildly enjoyed the Hilton one with its recollection of Chuck Jones' The Dot And The Line, and the CGI cut-outs of the United Airlines "Dragon" commercial. But none of them said "I'm good, I'm really good, reward me!"

2006 will go down in history as the year of the crappy CGI production. No redeeming qualities. I hope I don't lose my Annie voting privileges over this by not just opting out of voting but spilling some of the beans about the super-seekrit process of voting. Maybe this year I'll be able to say I genuinely enjoyed some of the stuff and enthusiastically vote for it. Last year, however, was a desert.

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Cartoon Geeks L.A. Episode

Here it is at last! For Windows, right-click on this line and choose "Save As..." to save the file on your computer. For Macintosh, click and hold on this line, and when the dialog box comes up, choose "Save As..."

Christopher Noxon, getting Rejuvenile at Castle Park's 18th Hole

Photo: Michelle Klein-Hass

Michelle and Tom talk about his visit to Warner Brothers Studio (a genuine studio tour, not a mocked-up imitation). We view and discuss Star Trek: The Animated Series, and how it should serve as an inspiration for better dramatic animation on TV. Michelle talks about the book Rejuvenile with its author Christopher Noxon, who discusses the growing trend of adults to engage in entertainment and activity which used to be considered "kid stuff." And a review of the animated films up for the Annies and Oscars this year.

Note: this is the first time we've recorded using Michelle's mighty Mac with GarageBand 3.0. As mentioned, it's not the only way to create a podcast and record audio, but it is a beautiful, elegant solution with amazing abilities. I don't know any product for Windows, commercial or otherwise, that combines all this capacity and versatility in a single application. (Hint, hint...maybe those German elves at Goldwave should go back to their software cobbling benches...)

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Happy Feet: message good, execution bad.

OK, I didn't like Happy Feet. However, my reasons for not liking it have nothing to do with politics, with whether or not I believe that the oceans are being overfished, (they are) whether there is such a thing as Global Warming or not, (there is) and whether or not I think we humans have done a crummy job caring for the planet. (we have.)

My beef with Happy Feet is very, very basic. It speaks to what animation is, what live action is, what the Uncanny Valley I raved on and on about in the Ashcan Podcast is, and why this animated movie is a total and complete botch.

It has to do with the ability to make characters ACT. There was NO ACTING in this movie. These flightless birds (who nonetheless can fly under water) can bop around, can sing, can be manipulated like marionettes, but they have no capacity to ACT. It's all in their design. The eyes are too small to register emotion. The beak is an immobile piece of leather. There is no real way to connect with any of the penguins other than Mumbles, Our Intrepid Hero, because they all look too much like Emperor Penguins which are all quite eerily uniform. Aside from a few variations, the characters all look alike according to their species. The Argentine penguins who all speak broken Spanglish look alike. Lovelace the Macaroni Penguin looks like a Macaroni Penguin who had an unfortunate encounter with a plastic 6-pack caddy. And none of these species have the facial structure to convey emotions.

The ultra-realism prevented acting, and it also made every single creature in this movie, be it penguin, seal, orca or human, fall right into that Uncanny Valley where they all look like puppetry with taxidermy. Folks, wake up and smell the creepy. This movie had the same "brrr" factor that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the Animatrix short Last Flight Of The Osiris, and the movie The Polar Express had. And by "brrr" I'm not just talking the icy landscape so beautifully rendered here. Puppetry with taxidermy, people. Zombie flightless fowl.

The movie might have had more success if its main characters visually resembled March Of The Penguins less and resembled more cartoony penguins like the Linux mascot Tux more. Think about it. Tux has big eyes, the better to convey emotions with. Tux has very short but human-like legs, the better to convey Savion Glover's dancing with. He's stylized and cartoony. Think Tux. Think Opus. Think Daffy Duck.

It is a crying shame to imprison the vocal acting performance of Robin Williams in a prison of feathers and photo-realism. Think about his Genie from Aladdin. You see Robin Williams' actual facial expressions and gestures in the animation job done on the Genie. You don't see that here, and it is a crime.

The other missing element, something missing from every CGI movie I've seen this year except for Flushed Away, is STORY. I can't believe it, but even PIXAR forgot the absolute critical importance of STORY and STORYTELLING this time around. With Flushed Away, you get the idea that the blokes at Aardman had a definite plan for what this story would be about, a plan for how the characters interacted, and what would make you care about them. Every other CGI animated movie I've seen this year, this one included, is a series of set pieces in search of a story.

I always use the example of Antz and by comparison A Bug's Life to illustrate what I mean by this. Antz strikes me as having been whipped up as a pitch. You have the artists' renderings of THE BIG SCENES, and some guy doing a bad impersonation of Woody Allen kvetching his way through life to hold those BIG SCENES together. A Bug's Life, on the other hand, has great characters, a gripping story, and a lot of heart. Did you see that in Cars? No. You saw a remake of several "Sophisticate gets stranded in the sticks and learns Life Lessons" movies holding together a few grand set pieces.

Basically Happy Feet wanted to be a little bit Footloose while telling that same old tired "Hero's Journey" story we've been forcefed ever since Star Wars (Episode IV) hit the cinematic world like a blast from the Death Star.

And yeah, this is a good soundtrack. But what they do with it is just horrible. The best Pixar movies have shown that animated features do NOT have to be musical comedies to be successful. Suffice it to say that pop tunes are used in an even WORSE way than they were in Madagascar and leave it at that. Call this movie "Antarctic Idol" if you must.

In the upcoming "LA Special Edition" of the Cartoon Geeks podcast (I've given up on numbers) I made one huge mistake. I made a false mouse move and lost Tom Reed's whole take on seeing Happy Feet. He liked it. Maybe he was in a better mood than I was. It's funny, he had that whole "Russian Judge" persona on this one message board but I really think I'm the real "Russian Judge" because I am so hard to please. Maybe I'm too picky. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

However, I just couldn't get behind Happy Feet. I wanted to just as much as he wanted to. I think Michael Medved, one of the film's critics, should have stuck to giving out Golden Turkeys and resisted being seduced by the Social Conservative Cabal. I think that the rest of the people who have criticized Happy Feet for its political/environmental message are similarly contemptible. However, I will not climb onto a film's bandwagon just because I like its political stance.

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