Kitsune-Kon

So I have decided, in a fit of winter cabin fever, I have decided to attend Kitsune-Kon in Appleton, WI this weekend (21-23). I feel the need to interact with people and Appleton is my old stomping grounds, so it works out well. Anyways, I hope to see some interesting or fun people there, and I hope everyone else who attends has a good time. Maybe I’ll do some “boffer” and smack some people around.

When I return, I should have some pictures and stories, though, again, I wish I could get my friend over here so we could go together. Maybe next time.

K-on!(!) OR Another Post Where I Hate on Something Everyone Likes

 

Okay, first of all, I know it’s been a while, and I apologize. I keep getting close to getting a job, and then I’ll get rejected, and it’s screwing with me psychologically, like I’m in limbo. Excuses, excuses, but that’s the fact, Jack.

Anyways, I’m going to talk about something a little off my usual beat. I’m a man. I’m also an anime fan, and one that is at the mercy of a friend who doesn’t really care about my taste in shows or genres. So if she wants to watch some goofy, moe-moe, slice-of-life, highschool girls show, I’m whipped enough that I’ll usually watch it with her. Which brings us to K-on!(!).

K-on! was popular a couple years back, though I believe its significance has faded somewhat as new anime has taken its place, but it’s about a group of disparate highschool girls that form a band in the “light music club”. The anime showcases their daily lives and adventures and focuses a lot on the friendships between the four girls, Yui, Ritsu, Mio, and Mugi. It’s one of those shows where there are maybe two male characters in the entire cast, and they barely show up, but it is damnably cute and earnest for the most part, and the music is pretty catchy.

Granted, the music is not actually a huge part of the show. It seems like most of the season is spent with them getting ready for a concert, but you won’t actually see them play until the actual day, and even then you don’t really hear the whole song. The opening and especially the closing songs are great, though, with a special emphasis on “Don’t Say Lazy”. The real focus of the show is the interactions between the four main characters. Yui’s air-headed natural talent and determination, Ritsu’s tomboyish antics, Mio’s dedicated level-headedness, and Mugi’s… well, Mugi is a bit of an oddball, really, but she’s amusing.

Now, as usual, I have to find something to complain about, and, like Sword Art Online, the thing I dislike is to be found in the latter half of the show. In this case, it is the heretofore unmentioned fifth wheel of the cast, the slightly younger Azusa. Azusa is introduced near the end of season 1, a talented guitarist who finds the girls to be far too laid back to be true musicians, but ends up getting drawn into their group as a friend and band member anyway.

Simple enough, right? It should be, but, for reasons I cannot understand, the show slowly ends up being almost solely about Azusa. I find this offensive. The whole draw of the show, the reason people stick around to even see Azusa, is because of the strength of the original four girls as characters. The fact that they become, essentially, window dressing to this new character is a detriment to the show.

Secondly, Azusa herself is not a particularly appealing character. Her schtick is mostly to try and get the other girls to focus on practicing instead of doing their silly slice-of-life antics. Okay, fine, but it ends up making her into something of a stick-in-the-mud. They try to balance this out by making her “cute”. Personally, I never really bought it. They put cat ears on her once, made her say “nyan” (something she hated by the way), and almost every single fan of the show fell for it. It was one, solitary moment, and we were supposed to buy into her “cuteness”. I’m sorry, but her bad attitude and stand-offish-ness made much more of an impact on me than the nickname “Azu-nyan”.

Finally, although the show’s emotional focus rests squarely on Azusa’s narrow shoulders, especially near the end of the second season, the anime itself doesn’t really seem quite sure what to do with the character most of the time. There are several episodes that feature separating Azusa from the rest of the group. The main four will have their (more entertaining) adventure, and Azusa will hang out with Yui’s sister and her friend or end up home alone. This happens a lot, and, while it helps to not have Azusa around to be a wet blanket to the main girls, there’s still episode time wasted on checking in on Azusa. It’s tedious and unnecessary.

I understand what purpose the character is supposed to serve. She’s the one left behind when the others graduate, and she’s left alone to carry on the legacy of the band and the club. Okay, fine, but I think it would’ve served that end better if Azusa had integrated better with the rest of the cast. She’s an outsider, by her own actions, for the entire show. And yet, despite that, when the K-on!! movie came out, a big part of plot was writing a goodbye song for Azusa. Once again, she is given far more importance than she deserves or has earned.

I know it seems like a silly thing to complain about. It’s such a light-hearted, goofy, harmless show. Still, I consider it a problem, and one that needn’t have come about. All the time spent with Azusa I would rather have spent with Mio (my personal favorite) and Ritsu, or Yui, or Mugi. Or even their teacher, Sawa. I liked those characters. Those were the characters that got me into the show. I don’t care about Azusa, and I don’t think that her story is the one that’s worth paying attention to.

Overclock your Remix

 

There’s a reason that my music tastes are still stuck in the 90’s and early 2000’s, almost completely unaware of any current music trends or groups or artists of the current day. I don’t listen to the radio, I don’t want to listen to the radio, and I don’t care about what people are listening to. That’s not necessarily a slam against other people’s music tastes, it just doesn’t appeal to me. It certainly isn’t an implication that my taste in music is superior, because it’s actually about as niche as you can get.

I’ve made it clear by now that I like video games, especially RPGs, and so it may not be surprising in any way at all that I like video game soundtracks. This was true even when they were still pretty low-quality, like the original Chrono Trigger soundtrack, or Final Fantasy VII, but it has gradually gotten much better. There are orchestral versions of older soundtracks, and some of the newer OSTs are really good, most notably NieR, which arguably has the best OST of any game… well, EVER.

However, this post isn’t about official albums, as good as they might be. This post is about one of my favorite sites on the web, the video game remix community known as OverClocked Remix. OC Remix is probably the premier website for these kinds of projects, and it shows, with over 2500 remixes, and dozens of albums… everything from Sonic the Hedgehog to Street Fighter to Final Fantasy to Gunstar Heroes, in styles ranging from trance, techno, western, rock, hip-hop, and orchestral.

Best of all, all of this music, all this content, is 100% free. No membership fee, no download fee, no cost whatsoever. Now granted, with so many games and so many styles, there’s no way that everything is gonna be to anyone’s taste. I’ll be the first to say that I don’t like everything on the site. In fact, even stuff based on games that I like doesn’t always match up to my expectations (the Chrono Trigger orchestral album is quite disappointing). Despite that, there are literally hundreds of great songs on there, and, again, no cost, which is also nice.

A good way to explore OC Remix without randomly downloading songs or surfing around Youtube is to check out http://ocr.rainwave.cc/ . It’s essentially a radio station that plays all OC Remixes. This should give you a good feel for the variety of music available and the different games that have music remixed for them.

Furthermore, the newest OC Remix subsidiary, OverClocked Records, now provides a way to easily purchase actual albums of original music by the OC artists. So if you listen to some music and find a new favorite artist, it’s only a few short clicks to be able to support the actual musician and their original work.

So there you go, if you like video game music, remixes, or just finding new musical artists, take a look at OC Remix and see what’s available.

Warehouse 13 – Where’s the Artifact that Makes a Series Worth Watching?

 

I’m a couple years late on this one, complaining about a series that is on the verge of ending anyway, but there’s never a bad time to explain and learn from failure. Good speculative fiction shows are hard to come by, needing to strike a good balance of milieu, characters, special effects, and story, all while swimming upstream against the public sentiment against sci-fi and fantasy as a niche genre. Taking all that into consideration, I’m willing to give a little bit of leeway and goodwill to a series that seems to have potential.

Warehouse 13 has squandered that goodwill and any potential it might have had.

If you haven’t seen Warehouse 13, it is a “Syfy” original series centered around the eponymous warehouse, which is used to store and contain various objects of various kinds all of which contain some innate power, anything from Timothy Leary’s glasses, which allow the wearer to view the world in a distorted, psychedelic way, to Jack the Ripper’s lantern, used to hold the notorious killer’s victims spellbound in place, and everything in between. Some of these “artifacts” are as large as a building, some are in multiple pieces, and some are innately evil. Our heroes have to go out and retrieve these objects and get them back to the Warehouse for storage.

It’s a cool concept, with a lot of possibilities for different kinds of artifacts and how they could be used, the other forces that would be trying to obtain them, even internal power struggles amongst the higher-ups about the usage of these artifacts. What we ended up getting instead was a mediocre, silly, dumbed-down show with painfully stupid characters.

It’s even more of a shame because, in retrospect, it started out pretty strong. Aside from the premise, which I liked and still like, there were a couple of good characters. Artie Nielsen (Saul Rubinek) is perfect as the grizzled, knowledgeable veteran with a literal bag of tricks. Mrs. Frederick (CCH Pounder) is the subtly menacing supervisor of the Warehouse team, managing to make a middle-aged woman into a seriously intimidating presence. Claudia Donovan (Allison Scagliotti), joining partway through the first season, was a delight as the young, street-smart computer genius well-supplied with a snarky attitude and a burgeoning father/daughter-type relationship with Artie. The primary protagonists, Peter Lattimer (Eddie McClintock) and Myka Berrng (Joanne Kelly) were never spectacular, but early on, they were, at least, relatively inoffensive.

Slowly, however, so slowly as to be somewhat difficult to notice watching in real time, the show’s tone changed… it turned from a serious show with light humor to essentially a comedy with fake, forced drama once or twice a season. It started with the gradual exaggeration of the characters’ most “comedic” traits: Pete’s childishness, Myka’s anxiety, Artie’s grumpiness, and Claudia’s, well… Claudia became the obvious pet character of the series, the closest I’ve seen to a Mary Sue in a live action television show.

By midway through the second season, it was almost impossible to take Warehouse 13 seriously anymore. It’s just not believable that the government, or anyone, would trust people who act this clownish with items that can literally be as powerful as a nuclear weapon. Pete and Myka are ridiculously incompetent, not only are they not trained investigators (a problem from the very start as they are, inexplicably, Secret Service agents), but they’re the worst Secret Service agents ever, able to be outfought, out-maneuvered, out-shot, and out-done by ever tin plate villain to come down the pike.

Almost every conflict ends up being resolved either by dumb luck or Claudia’s increasing Mary Sue powers. Actually, that’s not true, sometimes conflicts end very badly for our heroes. People die, friends depart, homes are destroyed, but, in one of the most absurd parts of the show, the reset button is always, always hit. Every season they throw in a cliffhanger, and every following season opener, everything that happened previously is completely erased by plot magic.

That and the appalling lack of concern with continuity or internal canon are the biggest non-character-related problems with Warehouse 13. When was the Tesla (Warehouse agents’ taser-like stun gun) invented? Who’s a single child and who has siblings? Who was married and who wasn’t? Does Myka not eat sugar or does she love Twizzlers? The answer is whatever the show requires. It may sound like nit-picking, but it’s the kind of thing that really wears on me.

I’ve given enough reasons why this show upsets me, but there is one other atrocity – related, of all things, to the Twizzler question above – that Warehouse 13 commits. It has the most blatant, offensive, full-frontal product placement I have ever seen. It started with Myka suddenly loving Twizzlers, but, by Season Three, characters would literally stop in their tracks to talk about the features of the car they’re driving. It’s like having a car commercial in the episode. Mind-bogglingly disrespectful to the audience.

Ultimately, the disrespect for the viewers is the overarching problem of Warehouse 13. The show-runners didn’t believe in the intelligence of their audience and didn’t care. They appealed to the lowest common denominator and ruined what could have been a great series. I’m not sure who to blame for this… not the actors, but was it the writers? Was it network interference? Or was it the producer, Jack Kenny? I’m not sure, but someone dropped the ball. Someone is to blame for this, not that it matters anymore. The show was still successful, and is only this year ending with it’s fifth and final season.

I still wish I could’ve seen the show that Warehouse 13 might’ve been.

Batman vs Superman vs Me

 

Despite my lack of interest, I couldn’t help but hear that the Zack Snyder movie, “Batman vs Superman” has possibly been pushed back to 2016. This is the sequel to the recent “Man of Steel” release, and would be something of a landmark in DC universe-based live action movies, with both cornerstone characters appearing in the same film. There’s no doubt in my (and many others’) mind that this is probably an attempt to start a DC version of the hit “Avengers” movie from Marvel. There’s only one problem with this idea…

Everyone is pretty sure it will suck.

It’s not an entirely fair assessment, and it’s one of those things that I hope I’m wrong about, but I can’t really conceive of a way this move could be anything more than mediocre. It has nothing to do with casting or directing, and everything to do with the respective franchises. Batman and Superman are both so iconic, so set in the public’s conscious, so defined by their “superhero” status that it’s hard to make them easy to relate to as humans. What you end up with is two guys jumping around in silly costumes. Nonetheless, DC has to try. “Avengers” and its subsidiary movies and characters, Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, were so successful, such box office hits that DC is struggling to catch up.

My solution would be for them to do something radical, something unexpected, but something that plays to their strengths: Make an animated movie.

Let me back up a second and go over what, in my opinion, are each company’s standings in various media… Marvel is probably at least somewhat ahead with comic books and Marvel is way, way ahead with live action movies, despite the relative success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films. DC has a slight edge, maybe more, in video games, but where DC really shines, where it has its most iconic moments and characters and successes is in animation. Marvel has had its share of cartoons, like the X-men and X-men Evolution series, but compared to the popularity of Batman the Animated Series, Justice League (and Unlimited), Teen Titans, Young Justice, and Batman Beyond, its clear to me that DC has them beat with animation.

So let’s use that. Let’s make a really great, really striking, really mature animated movie, whether it be Batman vs Superman or Justice League or anything else of theirs. It’s more palatable watching two characters in silly costumes jumping around when they’re not live action, and, again, it would exploit DC’s proven record in creating top-notch animated content. The closest DC ever came to doing this is with “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm”, a genuine theatrical release based on Batman the Animated Series. Unfortunately, at the time, it didn’t do very well at the box office, though I think that, as it’s aged, it has gained more and more fans. As well it should, Mask of the Phantasm was a fantastic movie, with great performances and a solid story.

Even that, however, is only a fraction of what could be done. While I don’t think it’s necessary to copy anime in this case, there are lessons to be learned from their sensibilities with animation. It doesn’t have to be something only for children. It can be violent, adult, even sexual to an extent. It wouldn’t be easy, it might fail anyway, because, culturally, Americans think of animation as something for kids, but therein lies the opportunity. DC could re-invent and reinvigorate the entire animation genre, make a whole new business out of it. The possibilities are endless, but it has to start somewhere. Why not with Batman and Superman?

It would be a brave move. A bold move. It’s high risk, high reward, but it’s the one field where DC has proven it has credibility. Get Kevin Conroy, pull Mark Hamill out of retirement to do the Joker again. Take advantage of the assets you’ve built up in the last couple decades… they know it works. That’s why they use the voices from the animated series in DC Universe Online, in Arkham Asylum, in Batman: Gotham Knight (aka Batmanime). I can’t promise it would work, but at least it would distinguish them from their competitors.

Back in School

 

I know a lot of people look back on their high school lives with a certain fondness, and, to an extent, so do I. There are a lot of good memories from those days, a lot of friends, a lack of responsibility, but… nonetheless, I’ve recently reached an important milestone where I’ve spent more of my life out of school than in it. It’s been over a decade since I graduated, and I’m pleased that school is no longer the pre-eminent memory of my life.

And yet… and yet, I find myself having to constantly relive high school over and over and over again almost every time I watch anime. My friend, “T”, has made me watch three separate shows in the past week, and all three of them are high school-based anime: Chuunibyou Ren, Noragami, and Kannagi. All in one week. And that’s just the beginning, Bakemonogatari, Chaos;Head, Lucky Star, Azumangah Daioh, School Days, Yuyushiki, K-on, half of Clannad, Chobits, The Daily Lives of High School Boys… the list goes on and on. That’s barely a fraction of the school-based anime I’ve seen (in all fairness, in nearly half of those shows, while they feature high school students, school does not feature prominently in the story, but the point remains).

Granted, it’s not as if I don’t know what I’m getting into a lot of the time. Many of these are openly about school, so I can’t really be surprised by it. It is one of the cliches, however, that wears me out with anime, and makes it hard for me to enjoy even some of the better shows. Noragami, for instance, a show about a minor god in human form fighting “Phantoms” and trying to gain followers, actually looks pretty good, but the high school aspect of it makes it less appealing than it might otherwise be. Chuunibyou is a great show, funny with likeable characters, but there’s only so many school festivals and clubs that I can take.

It’s strange, actually, when you think about it, because anime, as compared to Western animation, is usually more serious, more graphic, more sexual and violent, and, contradictorily, it seems fixated on teenagers and even relatively mundane teenage life. They may be fighting monsters or going into cyberspace or dealing with insane psychological issues, but they still wake up every morning, walk to school with their friends, interact with that one perverted classmate and the teacher in the eternal mid-life crisis, and go home. I suppose the sheer repetition and similarities between shows is what grinds on me the most about these anime.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that anime needs to change or the culture around it needs to change, because it certainly is a cultural thing, some part of the psyche that appeals to them and to us, I just wish that every show that came down the pike didn’t feature some teen sitting near the back of the class by the windows (and they almost always do). It makes me more aware that a lot of my favorite anime break that trend and show something beyond school: Steins;Gate, Ergo Proxy, Spice and Wolf, Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne… it’s actually such a relief when I start a show and it’s in some fantasy or sci-fi world because the cliché is less apt to show up.

I guess this is a bit of a rant, and I don’t mean to detract from high school-based shows at all. There are a lot of them I had quite a bit of fun with. It’s just hard to watch that day after day. When you sit down and pay attention with a bunch of other kids in a classroom, it starts to feel like being back in school.

And that’s exactly what I want to avoid.

Keyes-Chain

 

In nothing is my abject nerdiness so apparent as when I reveal how I find most, if not all, of the authors that I prefer. Since I began reading, I was one of those kids who loved reading the Star Wars expanded universe novels. My passion for them has waned somewhat as the expanded universe has gone in directions I don’t particular care for (probably will be more on that later), but I still enjoy reading the older books. You may have heard of some of them: Timothy Zahn’s “Heir to the Empire” trilogy, Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston’s X-Wing novels, the New Jedi Order series… there’s a ton of them.

Timothy Zahn and Michael A. Stackpole are two such authors that I became a big fan of through their Star Wars novels, and now I have large collections of their original books. The third big author that I discovered through this method is Greg Keyes, sometimes known as J. Gregory Keyes. He is the author that wrote “Edge of Victory I”, “Edge of Victory II”, and “The Final Prophecy” of the New Jedi Order series. These books are some of my favorites in the entire 21+ book series, and I especially appreciated Greg Keyes’s respect for original characters made by other authors.

As much as I like his Star Wars work, however, my appreciation of his writing only increased when I read his own novels. Greg Keyes tends to fantasy more than science fiction, comparable in some ways to George R. R. Martin in that they are more low-fantasy, somewhat grimmer and grittier than, let’s say, a J.R.R. Tolkien or a Terry Brooks. At the same time, he has philology knowledge and language is a feature of some of his stories, though to a much lesser extent than Tolkien. Mr. Keyes also has firsthand knowledge of sword-fighting, fencing especially, so expect to find some of that as well. He has written some Elder Scrolls books that I have not read, but he has three separate original series that I strongly recommend.

His first, and my personal favorite, is the “Chosen of the Changeling” duology. Unfortunately, this cannot yet be found on Kindle, but I have the paperback copies and they’re well worth it. The world Keyes creates in these books is one where gods of greater and lesser power can be found in nearly everything, from streams and rivers, to mountains and trees, to buildings and animals and even weapons. The cultures that are focused on are actually more Asian than European, which is quite unusual in a fantasy novel, but it provides a nice contrast to the usual fare. The series is somewhat continued in the short story collection “The Hounds of Ash and Other Tales of Fool Wolf”, which can be found on Kindle.

The second series is “Age of Unreason”, a four book alternate history featuring such well-known figures as Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton, Peter the Great, Louis XIV, and others. This series is a political and fantasy one where the history of the world is significantly different due to the use of magic and alchemy rather than technology. Some force is manipulating the major governments and figures of the world in an attempt to stall human progress, and the crux of the series is finding out who and why. Admittedly, this series has actually fueled my interest in that era of history.

Third, and the most recent major series by Greg Keyes, is “The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone”. This, perhaps, is Mr. Keyes most conventional fantasy story, though using the term conventional is a definite disservice to the author and his work. What I mean is that it would probably be the most familiar to anyone new to Mr. Keyes’s work, it’s a more western style fantasy, but the story is dark and sprawling and has a lot of great characters and interesting ideas. It is the easiest of his original series to find, either digital or physical, and would be a good jumping off point for anyone interested.

At any rate, I fully endorse reading any of his books. Greg Keyes is a great author, my current favorite, managing to make unique, fascinating worlds that defy a lot of the conventions and cliches that can plague fantasy. Take a look, check it out, and enjoy.