Watching Ghost in the Shell, in Asia

 

While I do like to write reviews on occasion, I usually go for lesser-known books and movies particularly if there is a focus on China or Asia. Generally speaking, while I do have my fanboy side, I think enough has already been written about big Hollywood blockbusters and my point of view won’t add much.

However, with all the recent controversy surrounding the now-bombing remake of Ghost in the Shell, I feel it may be worth sharing my perspective as an American abroad in Asia. Hope I’m not too late to the game.

First of all, I am a longtime fan of the original manga and anime. I wrote about my manga habit here, about the brilliant mangaka Masamune Shirow creator of Ghost in the Shell. I find the source material even better than the acclaimed 1995 anime film directed by the great Mamoru Oshii, but suffice to say that is one perfect film. The explorations into the nature of sentience, cyberpunk critiques of tech in society, and the philosophical themes about identity are all amazingly ahead of their time. (Actually,  just rewatched the original film for old time’s sake… And that only makes me loathe the remake more.)

Directed by Rupert Sanders, the new film is certainly interesting in the visual sense but so extremely dumbed down that it there is just no reason for the movie to exist. There’s already an excellent adaptation of the manga, not to mention plenty of episodes of the spinoff series and concurrent animations. Why do we need this live-action film?

I suppose that could start a discussion about the nature of any adaptations. Even if we were to go down that road and I’d grant that it’s worth rebooting these things for the sake of finding a new audience, I still feel the one currently out in theaters fails on its own merits.

The film doesn’t work. The streets of Hong Kong–or some ambiguous setting–full of holographic advertisement bombardment seems to be the only thing Sanders cares to add with any interest. There’s not even any nudity. The acting is stiff, pretentious, and not believable. Scarlett Johansson does not come across as well a reserved cyborg warrior with deeper notions of trying to understand herself. Batou, played by Pilou Asbæk, is inconsistent with his accent and not in the same league as the anime character whatsoever. Overall, it’s just like that other recent remake that was such a big deal, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Because ultimately the only thing these nostalgic movies succeed at is that they make you want to go watch the original classic animated versions.

But just being another lame Hollywood scifi action blockbuster isn’t the real reason why this film has been so controversial, and is failing so badly. Let us address the elephant. The whitewashing.

First of all, I was quite willing to give this universe’s version of the Major a chance. Fine, Scarlett Johansson is playing a character inspired by a Japanese character but named Mira Killian. She wouldn’t literally playing a person of another race in this version’s world, right? She even said so in interviews. I mean, after all the awareness of whitewashing the producers couldn’t be stupid enough to actually have her play an Asian?

I’d announce a spoiler alert, but in fact the trailer gave it away a long time ago. In more of the film’s stupid choices for originality, instead of the fascinating cybernetic lifeform Puppet Master as villain it turns out that the Hollywood plot is of course a complete Robocop ripoff. The evil corporation experimented on her and she has to try to get back her memories. The Section 9 team doesn’t do anything but get manipulated, and bring nothing constructive to the world of the film. So why root for them?

In any case, the trailer gave that away and it wasn’t a good storyline. But what’s worse, if you finally watch the movie the only surprise left s that the Major’s true self turns out to be.. wait for it… a Japanese girl named Motoko Kusanagi.

Oh, come on. Who on earth thought that would be a good idea? So there you have it, in your face whitewashing. Scarlett in yellowface. White privilege casting through and through, full of supremacist implications considering that cybernetic engineers “perfect” their experiments by turning them white, and with assumptions of whiteness as default thrown in.

That was just so much worse than it needed to be. Why Hollywood, why?

 

As a disclaimer I should probably say that I am a white person myself. Yet I do recognize the fact Hollywood clearly marginalizes minorities and that the idea of ‘white’ as the default is a supremacist trope which must be challenged. The media has a responsibility to be fair, and empathetic humans should care about these issues no matter what we look like or where we come from.

Continue reading

More than Meets the Eye: the Transformers blog

Manga Fan:

Growing up with manga

Shonen Jump

 

Does the following count as anime/manga?

 

We all know the theme song.

There was a certain cartoon — a classic American cartoon of the 1980s that happened to be brought to you by Ronald Reagan’s toy advertisement deregulation. (So THAT’S why there were so many awesome 80s shows which were basically advertisements for toys.) A certain program we all grew up with, and it had Japanese origins.

In the early 80s Hasbro bought up several toy lines of transforming robots hailing from Japan. Marvel was hired to create the backstory, as the comic company had done with G.I. Joe. Jim Shooter and Dennis O’Neil created the Autobots vs. Decepticons of the planet Cybertron premise, with all the character profiles and so on.

The show was produced by Japan’s Toei Animation, and it was a hit. Transforming robots, what’s not to love! There was also Gobots that predated it a bit, from Tonka and Hanna-Barbera, and the less said about that.

To me, the highlight was 1986’s Transformers: The Movie, set in 2005, a brilliant piece of outer space escapism that killed off Optimus Prime and had all Cybertronians facing off against the planet Unicron. AWESOMENESS.

215px-Transformers-movieposter-west

 

 

And I fucking hate the new Hollywood blockbuster movies. They are shit. I’m not even going to get into that. No, I am all about the Generation 1.

Going back to the post My History of Comics, when I was about 11 I moved into some relatives’ house and inherited a ton of 1980s Marvel Comics. I didn’t mention that many of those comics were the original Transformers. I had almost all the issues from # 1 to 55 written by Bob Budiansky, although there were gaps filled in later.

It was originally intended to be in the mainline Marvel Universe, and issue 3 featured Spider-Man vs. Megatron! That full issue to this day can’t be legally reprinted by other companies.

MarvelUS-01

 

Actually, it was fascinating to me and much better than the TV series. Optimus Prime died early on, replaced by Grimlock. Prime did come back to life. Megatron died and came back too. The Headmasters spinoff featured more complications, and it built up to an epic mythology. Even a crossover with G.I. Joe.

It got even better after 56 as writer Simon Furman took over the franchise until the final issue 80. He said that at the time Hasbro was winding down the product line and he was given free reign. He incorporated much of the futuristic film’s characters, and told of the secret origin of the Transformers. Most of those issues are rare and valuable today; I didn’t read much until reprints in graphic novels years later.

I did however eat up the short-lived 12 issues of the Generation II written by Furman. It was pure 90s Marvel, violent, and I an adolescent just loved it.

$_12

 

Nowadays, it’s hard to recall that there was a time when the popularity of Transformers was uncertain. In the early 2000s, Pat Lee led a resurgence with high-quality art in the anime style, and Dreamwave was licensed to publish new Transformers comics.

815298_original

Now a proper grownup, I geeked out as only a well-read adult can. I’m too old for toys. Most of the time. There more decorations than toys. Yet will not apologize for my taste in fine literature.

The first two miniseries were actually not that great, but then an ongoing series by Brad Mick got much better. I felt they were building up to the film’s 2005 year, and then they were going to get into Arcee and the female Autobots, when Dreamwave abruptly went bankrupt and the whole thing was stopped short at issue 10.

 

Simon Furman also wrote an amazing prequel set of series, The War Within, on the ancient beginnings of the Cybertronian civil war. The art and redesigns were meticulous. Two 6-issue miniseries, but then a third one cancelled in the middle.

tww-1

 

IDW took up the mantle and currently publishes many Transformers comics. I hear some of them are supposed to be good. Sadly, I got burnt out on reboots and moved abroad and don’t follow.

I really should get around to reading Last Stand of the Wreckers…

Continue reading

Shonen Jump 少年ジャンプ Shōnen Janpu!

Previous: Manga 漫画 マンガ!

When I wrote about my favorite manga growing up in the 90s and 2000s in the above, you may have noted a certain title concerning dragons and balls to be noticeably absent.

And when it comes to nowadays, you may have wondered where are the pirates and ninjas.

That’s because Shonen Jump deserves a post all it’s own

Goodreads: Shonen Janpu

 

The most popular comics in the world are published by Shonen Jump anthology magazine in Japan. Although Shonen implies adolescent boys, males and females of all ages have enjoyed these tales.

The Japanese comic model is more sustainable than the American magazine system, with its color and ads, as in Japan you can buy these phone book-sized anthology books before the little tankōbon graphic novels.

In 2003, Viz published an American edition. I started from the beginning, reading my favorite titles over a decade a go. I believe it’s only digital now.

But let me go back further than that, to Dragon Ball and its maturation into Dragon Ball Z (the distinction is only made in the anime series on television). It was certainly one that consumed my teenagehood. Akira Toriyama, already famous for Dr. Slump, created this Monkey King analogue about a certain Son Goku searching for dragon balls to make wishs and the adventures along the way. It soon became his most popular series, and he went on with it to ridiculous lengths

DB_Tankōbon

The fighting became more over the top, with cosmic escalations. Characters began to have the power to destroy the Earth — although the Earth always was this strange fantasy-land which is another trope of the Shonen Jump greats below. Further tropes were time skips and subsequent aging, villains from earlier arcs becoming heroes, and characters dying yet continuing on in an afterlife setting. Not to mention the slow pace of story-telling, waiting for our hero to save the day after training…

1324829-b79f4942_4f60_483b_b86a_1cfe63fc1d91over_209000

Power level over 5000! Remember when that was a big deal to Vegeta? Then Super Saiyans and 2s and 3s and androids and Majin Boo. The best villains were always the aliens, though I almost thought the story should’ve ended with Frieza.

Dragon Ball GT just sucked, only consider the canon. Only those based directly off the manga comics were canon, that goes for all anime series. Though the occasional film directed by the creator counts as well, such as Battle of the Gods and One Piece Z and the upcoming Naruto the Last.

Eventually, I read the entire manga; that’s 42 books at 519 chapters. And the current stories I like — Naruto and One Piece — run far longer than even that.

But I was first introduced to DBZ on television. In middle school, there were a few episodes of Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z on network television. That didn’t last long, but luckily Cartoon Network aired the whole series and it took off on American pop culture and we all remember it fondly. It was an era.

 

I also liked Yu Yu Hakusho/Poltergeist Report, back in the early days of Toonami. The story of bad boy ghost Yusuke contained similar themes of afterlife and demons and saving the world in increasingly-epic fights. Much shorter though; didn’t take all those years to go through series — manga nor anime.

YuYu_Hakusho_volume_1

 

Also, about another dead guy. Bleach I started out reading but never got too into it. More power to you if you happen to be a fan.

Bleach_cover_01

 

These days… Naruto!

NarutoCoverTankobon1

Continue reading

Manga 漫画 マンガ!

Patriot that I am, I have always been a great fan of American comics — and by association that goes for various British authors as well. I grew up on superheroes primarily, though of course comics is a medium not a genre and there’s no reason I can’t read more literary and independent series along with the flying adolescent fantasies.

However, so far I admit to having been too Western-centric. There happens to be a whole other country with a tremendous comics tradition that dwarfs the whole of North America and Europe together. I speak of course, of that mysterious land of Japan.

 

I read:
Goodreads shelf: manga

 

The Eastern style is so different, and in many ways superior to the assembly-line system of writers, artists, inker and colorist . The cartoonist in Japan is almost always both author and illustrator, the he or she is helped by assistants. Black and white except for special occasions. Adaptations, usually made famous in anime productions, are word-for-word and shot-by-shot remakes extremely faithful to the source material. Comics being taken seriously by the literary world is fairly recent in the West, yet Japan embraced adult comics right after the post-war period as an efficient form of entertainment when they couldn’t afford to make films. They are produced quickly, read fast, and often stories come into hundreds of chapters (dozens of graphic novel volumes) for a story to be patiently completed by the auteur.

I recommend the brilliant essay/graphic novel Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud to delve deeply into the nature of East vs. West art forms, upon the subjects of minimalism and respect for words & pictures at once as well as studies on neurological effects of cartoons.

 

Let’s start with some history. Best place to begin is with Osamu Tezuka, the God of Manga. An insanely-prolific writer and artist, the mangaka drew over 100,000 pages in his lifetime! Originally inspired by Disney stylings, he soon found his own voice in the 1950s and 60s. Funny how Disney later ripped off his Kimba the White Lion with a certain lion king…

I came late to the party, but did all I could to read his best works in my late teens and early twenties in the 90s and 2000s.

You may know the character of Astro Boy.

Astro_Boy-08

Tezuka was originally trained as a doctor before he found his artistic calling, and his medical drama Black Jack comes highly recommended.

Black_Jack_manga_vol_1

There was also Adolf, about World War II. Buddha, biography of the holy one. Phoenix, an epic tale that bounced from ancient Japanese history to the far future.

Here’s the Goodreads shelf for more:
Tezuka

Now, I wasn’t watching the Astro Boy cartoon in the 1960s. I got into anime in the 90s like everybody else starting with a VHS tape of Akira.

I was way too young to be watching a movie like that, and I was blown away. The most badass cyberpunk film ever made, still awesome today.

“Neo-Tokyo is about to explode.”

AKIRA_(1988_poster)

The comic was even better. While the film had the title character — the government pscychic test subject Akira — only as brain tissue in jars, the comic had the super child reborn. And, when Neo-Tokyo was nuked the film ended. That was only half of the comics series. Then it continued twice as long with in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of World War IV. With incredibly detailed art work by Katsuhiro Otomo, who also directed the film.

 

There were higher standards back then. When manga really blew up in the 2000s, we learned that Japan produces a lot of crap as well. But in the 90s only the best of the best was worth translating into English. Dark Horse Comics in particular was the quality publishing company of record.

Ghost in the Shell, by Masamune Shirow, took hard science fiction to a whole other level.

Ghost_in_the_Shell

Masamune Shirow was never very prolific, but his books had a level of intricacy and know-how never before seen. Appleseed was more his opus, but Ghost in the Shell became his main franchise still going strong today. I enjoyed Black Magic and Orion equally.

 

But it wasn’t all seriousness and mindfuck scifi. A lot of these comics were more fun. Take the comics published by Viz:

I remember me and my sister bonding over Ranma, the gender-bending comedy of a martial artist who turns into a girl, with bunches of supporting characters who turned to animals. Challenging cisgender heteronormalcy before it was cool.

ranma-1_2-wallpaper

I wasn’t as into Sailor Moon as my sister, and most Shōjo is frankly crap. It was the works by top female mangaka Rumiko Takahashi that were so funny and so creative. I went further back, and discovered old Urusei Yatsura stories from the 70s about an alien demoness named Lum and her pervert ‘boyfriend.’

“Dah-ling!”

ds_front

I never did get into Inuyasha though.

Continue reading

Shenzhen Daily

SZ Daily
Occasionally I write (and edit) for the local English-language newspaper of Shenzhen, the Shenzhen Daily. All very official. The only English daily in South China…

It’s not much in the realm of hardcore investigative journalism, but some fun lite reads herein. Here are a few humble lite posts worth resharing:

Hong Kong ASSEMBLING Art Exhibition Features Shenzhen-based Artists

Shenzhen-Based Artist Wins Award in Hong Kong

Interview/Restaurant Review: Canadian Opens Vegan Restaurant

Book Review: Good Chinese Wife

Book Review: No City for Slow Men

Film Review: The Wind Rises

Futian District: A Holiday at Lianhua Hill

Interview: American Expat to Run Marathon in Australia

Interview: Expat Cycles to India for Good Cause

Interview: American Starting Local Volunteer Group

Editorial: Kimmel’s Apology Merits Acceptance

Restaurant Review: Vegetarian Oasis

Interview with a Chinese Learner

Interview With a Chinese Learner: Ray Hecht

Originally posted at EazyChinese.com
http://eazychinese.com/interview-chinese-learner-2

Hey everyone, how’s it going? Today I’m coming at you with another interview. Today’s victim is Chinese learner Ray Hecht. He”s been living in Mainland China for years, and has a lot of interesting things to say on his blog about China, dating in China and learning Chinese. Plus he shares some pretty sweet art and poetry as well, so hop on over to his site and check out his writing! Being a fellow comic geek, I can relate to a lot of what he has to say!

Now on to the interview.

Q: What Made you decide to learn Chinese?

I was first interested in Asian culture by way of Japanese manga and anime, being a long-time comic geek in my youthful days (and still a geek in my older days). As I got older I became more interested in film, and after watching many classic Kurosawa I came upon Cantonese films of Wong Kar-wai in my teenage years. Eventually this led to watching the film Farewell my Concubine, directed by Chen Kaige, which is one of my favorite movies of all time. In addition to watching the 90s films of Chinese 5th generation filmmaker Zhang Yimou, I became fascinated by China. However, I studied Japanese in college. Learning kanji did give me me a head start in learning hanzi, although the languages are quite different. I never did end up moving to Japan, just visiting a few times (learning some of the language did help). I later got an opportunity to move to Shenzhen and I fully embraced it. Currently, Mandarin is the only other language besides English I speak with any fluency, though I always have more to learn.

Q:How long have you been a student of Chinese, and how long did it take you to become conversational?

I’ve been studying for six years, and in the first year I learned ‘survival Chinese.’ I’ve been getting better at being more conversational in the last 3 years I suppose, but on having deep conversations I know I still have ways to go. The problem is that most conversations are the same: “Where are you from?”, “Are you married?” “How many years have you been in China?” etc.

Q:What was your biggest challenge learning Chinese? And what came easiest to you?

My biggest challenge at first was definitely the tones. Then, the characters although I am always making progress even though it takes years. When it comes to characters, just be patient but make a little progress all the time. In speaking, the grammar of Chinese is easier and I was able to formulate simple sentences quite fast (even if not pronouncing it correctly). “I like…” “I’m from…” and that sort of thing.

Q:What advice would you give to our readers who are just embarking on their journey with Chinese?

I suppose the best advice is to be fully immersive, go to China — or Taiwan, or Singapore — and start speaking. If you are in a big city in China, be careful not to be in the bubble that is the expat scene in which you rarely even speak Mandarin. Push yourself to practice those phrases you studied in real-life, it’s the only way!

Q:Do you have a favorite Chinese phrase? If so, what is it and why?

Well, 多少錢 duoshaoqian (“How much money?”) would be the phrase I say the most often, in going out shopping everyday. Some vocabulary words are fun, when Chinese can be so literal. Technological words such as 電腦 diannao (electric brain: computer) and 電影 dianying (electric shadow: movie) and many more.

Q:What’s your one biggest “hack” for learning Chinese?

One trick is to not stress about tones too much, and just try wait you’re best until one day it becomes effortless. You can still communicate, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. With pronunciation, one can imitate another more advanced learner of Mandarin instead of imitating native speakers. After all, any fluent learner was once a beginner and can offer great advice.

Thanks for taking the time to share with us Ray! I hope everyone will learn from Ray’s experiences, and move forward in their own studies. I especially agree with his point on getting out there and SPEAKING. So what are you still doing here? Get out there and practice your Chinese!

Toyshelf

Continuing with my geek out – see first post about casual gaming – I’d like to share my humble toy collection.

After a recent move, it was very important for me to get a new bookshelf to organize my toys. Not that I play with them, I’m a grownup, it’s just my version of decorations. To each their own, right?

WP_20140514_001

Where to start: Classic nime characters, nostalgic transforming robots of our youth, cute stuffed-iness… I only wish I had more. One day I shall complete my collection, one day.

Continue reading

Film Review: The Wind Rises

My review of Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, the Wind Rises

Written for Shenzhen Daily, screening in Hong Kong

http://szdaily.sznews.com/html/2014-01/03/content_2743272.htm

Image

WHEN legendary Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement earlier this year, his latest film “The Wind Rises” took on a new meaning and received scrutiny as his swan song.

It’s a beautiful, almost flawless film. But the realistic style is a bit of a departure for the director. Unlike the more fantastical films for which he is most famous, such as “Spirited Away,” there are no mythical creatures in “The Wind Rises.” It lacks the environmental messages of “Princess Mononoke” and “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind,” and it’s very much a film geared towards adults, without the childish wonder of “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service.”

On its own merits, it is an excellent film. A biopic of early Japanese airplane engineer Jiro Horikoshi, “The Wind Rises” may not always be historically accurate but never fails to make the audience care deeply about the lead character. If it was live-action it would surely be taken seriously by all critics. But as a Miyazaki film, it must be compared to his other masterpieces, and even if it’s not his best, it’s still a quality story with far more heart than the vast majority of animation coming out of Japan or America or anywhere else.

The tale opens within the childhood dreams of the young engineer, and the various dream sequences are among the loveliest animation visuals ever seen — and noticeably without the use of computer-generated effects. Dreams play an important role throughout the story, as Jiro Horikoshi repeatedly goes back to the same mystical land of not-yet-possible flying machines and even meets his idol, Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni. It is left unclear as to whether there is something supernatural going on or if it’s only in his imagination. The greater point is that everyone should embrace their dreams.

The boy soon becomes a man, and on a train ride to his university in Tokyo he experiences the devastating violence of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. The scene is powerful, sometimes beautiful and sometimes terrifying, as the landscape bends and curves into impossible shapes. The sound effects are all done by human voices and it’s very jarring to hear such a unique style rarely heard in film.

Eventually Horikoshi rises to the top of his engineering firm, falls into a tragic love as his wife slowly dies of tuberculosis, and designs planes for the military. The film has courted controversy in certain ways; there is ample smoking, which some critics have said is not appropriate for child viewers. More importantly, others question why Miyazaki has apparently made a film that seems to promote the era of Japanese militarism.

But it’s not that simple. Miyazaki is known to have a pacifist stance and has repeatedly promoted peace and cultural exchange with his Japan’s neighbors. In July, on the topic of the Abe Administration and nationalist politics, he was quoted as saying: “Changing the constitution is completely unthinkable.”

In fact, his entire film expresses a great sense of inner conflict over his nation’s evolving identity. There was a rush for development at the time as the recently opened-up country tried to catch up with the Western powers, by means of advancing their military technology. The engineers in the film constantly take note of this unfortunate state of affairs. Yet Horikoshi’s character is a peaceful man who stands up to bullying and always takes care of the weak.

In one scene, he meets a kind German man who insists that Hitler’s Germany is run by thugs and will “blow up,” and then Japan itself will “blow up.” In another scene, the main character must hide from the secret police as they arbitrarily arrest innocent citizens. Most poignant of all, during one meaningful dream sequence Caproni specifically states: “Airplanes are not tools for war. They are not for making money. Airplanes are beautiful dreams.”

“The Wind Rises” is not a story about a simpler time. Japanese fascism is an inescapable backdrop to the period and the horrors of World War II in the Pacific region are always looming. While the central character’s arc is most important, the setting cannot be forgotten. “The Wind Rises” is ultimately a complex story about tough choices, and about a man who has a dream but must make sacrifices, as he makes compromise after compromise with his ethics, his country and his loving wife.

Miyazaki has said he was inspired to make this film after reading a quote from the real-life Horikoshi: “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.”

As for the acting, Hideaki Anno — a much esteemed animator in his own right, mainly noted for the “Evangelion” franchise — voices the lead character. It’s an odd choice. Anno is not particularly known for his voice-acting. But Horikoshi is meant to be an awkward man and stands apart from the people around him, and Anno expresses that well.

Hayao Miyazaki has now retired. His own legacy will live on via Studio Ghibli, which will continue to produce the finest in animated storytelling. Some films will even be directed by Miyazaki’s own son, Gorõ. But Miyazaki himself will never be replaced, and fans shall always miss this master director, who has taken a memorable bow with this final film.

“The Wind Rises” is screening in Hong Kong with Chinese and English subtitles.