Thursday, December 30, 2010

The good drugs

I got my cat back from the vet today - I dropped her off to be spayed yesterday, and everything went great. I was a little worried about taking care of her after the surgery, because taking care of my pet rats after surgery was always very difficult and nerve-wracking. Happily, it appears to be a little easier taking care of my cat. However, she is drugged out of her mind.

When not drugged, she is usually a very energetic cat who occasionally really, really wants to be cuddled. She sleeps with me and actually enjoys being held. When drugged, she's much less energetic and much more prone to cuddling. I figure sleep is probably good for her right now, but she's only comfortable with sleeping if she can do it on or near me. She prefers it when I nap with her. When I spent a long period of time on the phone, she refused to lay down and take a nap, so she ended up falling asleep on her face while standing up. I couldn't stand watching her that way, so I tipped her over so she'd at least look more comfortable.

It should be an interesting next few days. She's got an e-collar, so, with any luck, she'll leave her sutures alone. In the meantime, I'm sitting on the floor with her and watching lots of DVDs. Right now, I'm working my way through Baccano! for the second time. As it turns out, my monitor makes dark scenes in TV shows even darker, so this show is a LOT gorier than I remembered it being, now that I'm watching it on my TV. But still very, very good. Watch it, seriously. After this, I think I might watch the second season of Maria Watches Over Us. Or something else - I've got tons of stuff on my To Be Watched pile.

It's a little early, but have a good new year, everyone!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Maria Watches Over Us, Season One (anime TV series)

This is a long post, and a hard one for me to write. It was hard for me to articulate exactly how I felt about this show.

Although this post isn't entirely spoiler-free, it's pretty close.

Synopsis:

Lillian Academy, a private Catholic school for girls in Japan, has a special system in which older girls choose younger girls as their petite soeurs, or younger sisters, by offering them their rosaries. If the rosaries are accepted, the older girls are then responsible for the behavior of the younger girls they choose and are expected to guide and nurture them.

One group of girls is particularly admired by all the others - the Lady Roses, their Rosebuds (the petite soeurs of the Lady Roses), and the petite soeurs of the Rosebuds. At any other school, this group would be considered the student council. Yumi has always admired Sachiko, Rosa Chinesis en bouton ("Rose Chinesis in bud," likely to become the next Rosa Chinesis), but she never expected to speak with her, much less become her petite soeur.

That's why it's so shocking when Sachiko suddenly declares Yumi her petite soeur. The two had only spoken to each other once before, and Sachiko didn't even seem to remember that time. It seems Sachiko may only be offering to become Yumi's soeur because she hopes to get out of playing Cinderella alongside a male Prince. Both Sachiko's father and her grandfather have had mistresses, so Sachiko now hates men.

Although Yumi would like nothing more than to be Sachiko's petite soeur, the thought of having a soeur who doesn't truly care for her is painful. Eventually, things get sorted out, and Sachiko offers Yumi her rosary again, this time truly wanting her as her petite soeur. And, this time, Yumi happily accepts.

Sachiko is not always very open about her feelings, so Yumi still has times when she fears her soeur is disappointed in her, and that sometimes leads to misunderstandings. The rest of the series shows Yumi dealing with various moments and milestones in her relationship with Sachiko, including Valentine's Day and their first date (get your mind out of the gutter - I'll try to explain in the commentary). The series also reveals a bit about the other girls and their relationships. Of particular interest in this season are Rei (Rose Foetida en bouton) and her petite soeur Yoshino, and Rosa Gigantea and her petite soeur Shimako (not nearly as much information about her as I would have liked, I'm afraid).

Commentary:

"The maidens, who flock to Maria-sama's garden, pass through the tall gates today yet again with innocent, angelic smiles. Their pure hearts and bodies are clad in deep-colored uniforms. So that the pleats of their skirts are not disturbed and so that their white sailor collars are not set aflutter, it is customary here to walk slowly and with decorum. The Private Lillian Girls' Academy, a garden of maidens."

When I first started watching this show, I both hated it and loved it. Somehow, I got sucked into it and watched the first 10 episodes of the 13-episode season in one day. There was something mesmerizing about these girls and their melodramatic lives and relationships. However, there was also something about it that rankled, and the above quote, from just before the opening credits of almost every episode, seemed to be a distillation of what I hated about the show.

The girls in this show are not the kind of girls I have ever met. They are all beautiful, and they are all perfect in some way. Rosa Gigantea may be overly fond of pushing others' buttons, but she always knows the right thing to say. Sachiko is the perfect lady, and Rosa Chinesis is like what Sachiko could become once she learns to be a little more approachable. I could go on, but basically only Yumi seems even close to being anything like an ordinary girl. If you don't count Sachiko's cousin, Yumi is the only character who has any on-screen family members to indicate that she has a life outside Lillian and the girls who go there. With few exceptions, the Lillian girls try to behave as the above quote describes, and the result is a show that appears filled with the kind of ideal maidens one usually sees smiling shyly and gently at the heroes in harem anime.

I'm glad I took a little time to allow myself to process this show, however, because I began to see it in a different light. The above quote, along with the setting, the girls' behavior, and how the soeur system is depicted, really just boils down to an indication of purity. No, these girls aren't realistic, and I'm sure several of them are supposed to be considered "ideal" girls, but I'm not sure it's correct to say they are the same as the "shy, gentle" type characters found in harem anime. You're not meant to be waiting for the inevitable fanservice moment in which the poor girl inadvertently and embarrassingly shows her panties.

The soeur system promotes incredibly close relationships, so close they often resemble romantic relationships. In fact, the relationship between a soeur and her petite soeur is often spoken of in the show in words usually reserved for marriages. However, the girls never obsess about the wrongness of their love for each other. Actually, they don't even think about it, period. No one ever tells petite soeurs that what they feel for their soeurs is unacceptable. Yumi frets about her upcoming date with Sachiko, which she even refers to as a date, around her brother, and he never bats an eye. The nuns and teachers look upon the relationships with smiling indulgence, only interfering if a pair of girls appears to be unhealthily attached (shirking responsibilities, not pursuing outside friendships, etc.).

For someone used to the constant "but we're both guys!" wail prominent in anime and manga featuring romantic relationships between guys, it seemed odd that there wasn't a corresponding wail in an anime featuring romantic (or at least really, really close) relationships between girls. It could just be that the writers (or writer of the original light novels) just chose to ignore the issue the way the OVA Fake ignored it. However, I think a better explanation might be purity.

No one comments on the girls' relationships because those relationships are pure, just as the girls themselves are pure. Romantic relationships abound in this show. Sexual relationships do not. There is one couple that could unquestionably be called a lesbian couple - however, as close as they are and as deep as their emotions run, there is no indication that they've ever done anything more except hold hands and maybe kiss (I can't remember if there's an on-screen kiss or not). Sex and sexual attraction don't enter the picture, not with any of the relationships. This is not Loveless' Yamato and Kouya. Just like the bit before the opening credits says, these girls are pure in every way, from the way they act to their properly demure outward appearance.

Rosa Gigantea may occasionally behave inappropriately with Yumi, but she's open about the fact that she does it because Yumi's reaction entertains her and because she likes to ruffle Sachiko's feathers. To me, her actions seem more playful than sexual. The only relationship in this show that edges into impure territory is Sachiko's relationship with her cousin, Kashiwagi. In one of the few times he interacts with Sachiko in this season, he makes it plain that he expects the two of them to have a physical relationship once they are married (he and Sachiko are betrothed). Although Sachiko once loved him, Kashiwagi couldn't return her feelings, so his moment of pretending to feel passion that he doesn't, in front of Sachiko's friends no less, is practically a mockery of her feelings. His words and actions cause a horrified Yumi to cover her eyes and earn him a slap from Sachiko. Rosa Gigantea's past romance may have been close to the point of being unhealthy, but this is the only relationship portrayed in a truly negative way. (A stray thought: There aren't enough males in this season for me to say for sure, but I wonder if, in the world of Maria Watches Over Us, the only truly pure relationships are those between women?)

I had owned this boxed set for a while before finally watching it - actually, I started watching it because the other seasons were on sale at RightStuf.com and I wanted to know if it was worth it to buy them. I wasn't sure about the show at first, because, like I said, the girls seemed like the sort who should make me gag. I didn't entirely like Sachiko in the first few episodes, because she seemed unnecessarily harsh towards Yumi. As far as the look of the show, although the girls and scenery were often beautiful, sometimes things seemed a little off (in ways I can't quite describe, although I could point to particular moments if I had to) and sometimes all that beauty was less beautiful than kind of creepy (I consider Shimako a good example of this).

The show, with all its melodrama, really grew on me. This is one of those shows where characters and their emotions are of paramount importance, above and beyond any events that are going on, and I got caught up in that. I did end up buying the other seasons (although I'm still waiting on the US Postal Service), and I hope that they end up growing on me, too.

It's interesting: even though I feel like the girls can only really be shown to be happy when the shows focuses on the present, part of me hopes that the later seasons reveal more of the girls' pasts and what's expected of them in the future. Aside from Yumi (I have no idea why a girl like her is attending such a prestigious school), I think many of the girls come from wealthy families that have already mapped out their futures for them. Some of the girls might not necessarily have restrictive futures ahead of them, but they've had to overcome painful pasts. Sachiko's got a little of both going on: coming from a wealthy family set her apart as a child, making it difficult for her to open up to others, and, although her present as Lillian Academy is enjoyable, eventually she will have to deal with a future in which she is expected to marry Kashiwagi. As much as I enjoy watching the girls take part in the usual pleasant school anime activities (we've done Valentine's Day, a first date, and Christmas, so Golden Week and cultural festival episodes are a possibility in the later seasons), it's also kind of fun to watch them deal with their tragedies of their pasts and futures.

Extras:

The extras are pretty good, although some should be viewed with caution. The character bios, for instance, include spoilers. I waited until after I watched all the episodes on a disc before viewing the character bios on that disc, and that still turned out not to be good enough. If I remember right, the character bios on the third disc spoil some of the events on the fourth disc.

I loved the specials. They're set up like outtakes and poke fun at various scenes from the show. Although I don't know if they necessarily spoil anything about the show, the humor in these specials is best understood if you have first watched the original episodes.

The liner notes are nice - without them, I wouldn't have been able to make heads or tails of a few lines from the show.

I'd also like to mention that, although the show is only available in Japanese with English subtitles, there are two subtitle options: one with Japanese honorifics, and one without. I watched the show with honorifics, although I briefly tried it without. The liner notes explain the Japanese honorifics, so I would recommend that anime/manga newbies read that and just watch the show with honorifics. The "without" option means you get subjected to "Miss Yoshino" and "Lady Sachiko," and yet you must still puzzle through "Sacchan" (which only makes sense if you know about "-chan").

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • Princess Princess (manga) by Mikiyo Tsuda; Princess Princess (anime) - The main character in this series transfers to an all-boys school, only to learn that the school has a system where the prettiest boys dress up as girls in order to improve the rest of the school's morale. The main character just happens to be a pretty boy. At first, he's horrified by what he's being asked to do, but he agrees to it readily enough once he learns that there are significant perks to doing the job. The series focuses on the hilarious things he and the two other "girls" have to deal with. In their shared situation, their friendships deepen and they learn surprising things about one another. The tone of this series is drastically different from Maria Watches Over Us, more like the Maria Watches Over Us specials than the main show. I haven't read the manga yet, but the anime is more hilarious than melodramatic. I should also mention that, although there isn't really any m/m romance, the relationship between a couple of the characters dances right on the line, and there is an on-screen kiss. I'd suggest this show to those who liked the silliness of the Maria Watches Over Us specials, those who like their melodrama with more humor, those who'd like another show with idealized girls (even though these girls are actually boys), or those who'd like another series featuring a single-gender school with an interesting quirk.
  • Kare Kano (manga) by Masami Tsuda; His and Her Circumstances (anime TV series) - This series is actually pretty different from Maria Watches Over Us, but I'd suggest it to those looking for another engrossing school romance with lots of interesting and complex characters. The main focus of the series is a couple of students, both of whom are the best students at their school. What no one knows is that they are both wearing masks. Yukino pretends to be perfect in every way because she is addicted to receiving others' admiration. Arima's mask hides a painful past. Yukino sees Arima as her rival at school, but, as she gets to know him, she begins to fall in love with him. In addition to Yukino and Arima's romance, the series also looks at the lives and relationships of several of their friends. The anime is tons of fun, but it doesn't really have an ending. For those who'd like the complete story, I'd recommend reading the manga.
  • Emma (manga) by Kaoru Mori; Emma (anime TV series) - This historical romance focuses on the romance between Emma, a maid, and William, a member of the gentry. I'd suggest this to those looking for another lovely, fairly slow-paced romantic series that, like Maria Watches Over Us, takes itself seriously. The anime, particularly the second season, is a bit different from the manga, but both are good.
  • Ouran High School Host Club (manga) by Bisco Hatori; Ouran High School Host Club (anime TV series) - Ouran high school, a prestigious school for the filthy rich, is home to the Ouran high school host club, a group of male students who flirt with and entertain their clients (female Ouran high school students) for a price. The school's only scholarship student ends up being forced to join the club after breaking one of the club's expensive vases. Only later do the club members learn that their newest member is actually a girl. She doesn't really care whether others think she's a boy or a girl, but, if she wants to stand a chance at paying for the broken vase, she has to make sure that no one outside the club finds out her true gender. Although the series hints at romance, the anime (and possibly the manga, although I haven't read much of that) never follows through. I'd suggest this to those who'd like another series featuring a prestigious high school and wealthy students, or those who'd like something else that gradually reveals the stories of all the members of a tightly-knit group. However, the tone of this series is very different from Maria Watches Over Us - overall, the series is very light and humorous, to the point of being silly.
  • Fruits Basket (manga) by Natsuki Takaya; Fruits Basket (anime TV series) - Tohru Honda, whose mother died a while back, somehow ends up living with Yuki Sohma, the most popular boy at her school, and Shigure Sohma, one of his relatives. She soon learns the Sohma family secret: when certain members of the family become weak or are hugged by someone of the opposite sex, they transform into a member of the Chinese zodiac. Tohru gradually gets to know and love more members of the Sohma family, but the family's deeper secrets may spell the end of her new friendships and budding romance. I'd suggest this to those who'd like another school series with romance and a main character who is a lot like Yumi.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Dark Hunters (OEL manga, vol. 1) story by Sherrilyn Kenyon, art by Claudia Campos

Synopsis:

Amanda wants nothing more than to be a normal person, in a normal family, living a normal life. Unfortunately, her family is anything but normal, and they've managed to chase off Cliff, the guy she was hoping to marry. That becomes the least of her worries when Desiderius, who is something called a Daimon (basically, a vampire who feeds on souls), kidnaps Amanda, thinking she's her twin sister, and chains her to a gorgeous leather-clad hunk.

The gorgeous leather-clad hunk, Hunter/Kyrian, quickly figures out that Amanda isn't who Desiderius thinks she is and does his best to get them both out of danger while simultaneously making wisecracks. Like Desiderius, Kyrian also appears to be a vampire, but he's really a Dark-Hunter, someone who is tasked with killing Daimons. Kyrian does his best to keep Amanda at arm's length, but it's hard for the two of them not to start bonding, what with being chained together.

Amanda just happens to know someone who can remove chains made by a Greek god, and that person just happens to be Julian, a friend of Kyrian's back when they were both human and living in ancient Greece. Amanda learns that Dark-Hunters are those who have given up their souls in return for vengeance - in Kyrian's case, he wanted vengeance against his wife, who had betrayed him to the Romans.

Once again, Kyrian tries to keep Amanda at arm's length, and once again it doesn't work out. Other Daimons have entered the fray, and they've destroyed Amanda's house. After making sure Amanda's friends and family are safe, Kyrian takes Amanda to his place, the only place where he can be sure she'll be safe. And that's where they finally start to succumb to the feelings that have been building between them since they met. Too bad that the warm fuzzy feelings they share together somehow manage to rob Kyrian of his powers - how will he protect Amanda now?

Commentary:

I used to gobble up Kenyon's books like potato chips, but, even when I still really loved them, I knew they had some serious flaws. One of those flaws is that they tend to be giant infodumps. Kenyon has built a very complex world, and she is incapable of communicating the details and rules of that world in a subtle, natural way, resulting in lengthy expository conversations and passages.

That problem carries over into this OEL manga adaptation of Kenyon's paranormal romance Night Pleasures (this title is not specifically mentioned anywhere on or in this volume that I can see, but that's definitely the book it's based on).

I think a one-shot OEL manga or OEL manga series based on Kenyon's Dark-Hunter world might have been ok, but I'm not sure anything short of a major re-write could have saved this Night Pleasures adaptation. Instead of focusing on the action, the romance, and/or the angst that Dark-Hunters practically drip with, instead of allowing the rules of Kenyon's world to naturally be revealed as the story progresses or just assuming that most of the people reading this OEL manga probably already have some familiarity with Kenyon's Dark-Hunter world, readers are treated to pages of the characters standing (or sitting) around and talking about as many world rules and character back-stories as possible.

This makes for some incredibly wordy pages in a format that usually tends to rely as much, if not more, on its artwork than its words. I know there's wordy manga out there, but I tend to think of American comics as being wordier than Japanese manga. And this book was trying so hard to be seen as Japanese manga - it's even in "traditional Japanese right to left manga format," rather than in the left to right format that would make more sense considering it was originally written in English. While the right to left design was done well enough that I actually didn't notice it at first (I am that used to reading right to left manga), I can't shake the feeling that those involved in the creation of this series/volume were trying a bit too hard to make it more "legitimate" for manga fans.

The long expository conversations don't just seem odd for the format, they also sacrifice the story in favor of world-building. By the end of this volume, Kyrian and Amanda have had a few longing-filled glances and "I'm attracted to you" moments and are to the point where they feel ok cuddling (in original book, replace "cuddling" with "having sex"), and Amanda says "It's like we're one--mind, and body, joined" without either of them cracking up. Except there hasn't really been much time for romance to develop. Amanda knows Kyrian's tragic back-story, Kyrian knows Amanda was considered a freak by her peers when she was younger because she foresaw the death of a friend (a back-story tidbit that swooped in practically out of the blue), they both had lots of adrenaline in their systems, and they're both good-looking. That's basically what their relationship is based on. I can't remember if the original book is much better in this regard, but I think the book's page count at least gives the reader more time to feel like they've gotten to know the characters.

And speaking of this being based on a romance novel... Kenyon's books have sex in them. That can be a touchy thing to deal with in a visual format, since there is always the potential to at least ramp the intended age group up, if not completely push the work into porn territory. Still, it's possible for a manga series to have sex without being explicit about it: Yuu Watase's Ceres: Celestial Legend is an example. Kenyon's books are intended primarily for adults. One would figure that those reading this OEL manga would either be people who read and enjoyed her books (the category I fall into) or people who enjoy manga and would likely look Kenyon up if they enjoyed this. According to the back of the volume, the intended audience is actually age 13 and up. I suppose that explains why, instead of a tastefully done sex scene, readers are given a cuddling scene. I wonder why this wasn't aimed at older teens?

This volume just has too many problems overall. There are story details that make no sense:

Why did Desiderius not just kill Amanda (who he thought was actually her Daimon-killing sister) and Kyrian? He chains them together on the assumption that Amanda would try to kill Kyrian, but what he's really doing is introducing the possibility of failure to his plan. It's just stupid.

Why did the Apollite queen become enraged when the Apollite woman sent to seduce Apollo had his son? Her idiot rage doomed all her people to either die at an early age or eat souls for the rest of their days.

Supposedly, Kyrian is not an idiot, so why did he stop to take a bath and have a glass of wine when he and his wife should have been using the extra time to get more distance between them and the Romans?

Some of these Moments of Stupid have explanations within the volume, but those explanations are pretty weak, in my opinion. If something is explained better in the original book...well, why? Shouldn't this work be able to stand on its own?

I wish I could say the artwork, at least, is solid, but it's not. It has some great moments - I love the panel where Talon is hit by an astral blast and Kyrian's facial expressions when he's being cocky are pretty good. Unfortunately, particularly as the volume progresses, Kyrian's design becomes really inconsistent. On one page, his features might be rounded and a bit boyish, while on another page his features might be sharper. The sharper-featured look was more common, and I preferred it more, but it was jarring for his "look" to change so much throughout a single volume. Also, even though I liked Kyrian's sharper-featured design, there were still things I didn't like about his character design. Like his eyes, or, to be more accurate, his eyelashes. They would have been the envy of any manga girl - it's a personal preference, but it's not a look I like for manga guys, especially tough, kick-butt manga guys. I didn't really have any feelings one way or another about Amanda's design, and I liked certain aspects of Talon's design, but I hated how Nick looked.

Getting back to the whole inconsistency thing, there were certain details in the artwork that could have used a bit more checking over before publication. For instance, a big deal is made of the fact that Kyrian has tons of scars, and Campos makes sure to draw them. Some of the time. Other times, the scars are gone, such as in the scene where Julian is taking care of Kyrian's wounds, or the scene were Kyrian meets Amanda after his bath. The scars should be there, but they aren't. At the beginning, a big deal is also made of Kyrian's black eyes. Even as Amanda notices they are black, they aren't black in the actual artwork. No, this work is not in color, but it's not hard to communicate "black" in black-and-white artwork. Sometimes Kyrian's eyes are black, sometimes they aren't. Kyrian has also mysteriously appearing pants at the end of chapter 6. Only moments after dropping his towel in front of Amanda and saying "Ancient Greeks never had a problem with public nudity," he is revealed to be wearing what appears to be pants.

It seems I am always disappointed by OEL manga/graphic novel adaptations of books, and this is no exception. If I continue on with this, it will probably be via ILL requests, and only because I want to see if it gets better once all the exposition has finally been dealt with. And also because I'd like to see what Campos comes up with for other character designs. I took a peek at the preview of the next volume, and it looks like she forgot (on purpose?) the hideous design she came up with for Nick in volume one, because he actually looks a bit more appealing and completely different from the way he was depicted in this volume.


Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (live action TV series) - As much as Kyrian likes to make fun of this series, he talks like one of its characters, and, when he's not sitting around explaining his own tragic past or how his world works, he kicks "vampire" butt just like Buffy. This series has humor, romance, and action - give it a try if you haven't already.
  • Night Pleasures (book) by Sherrilyn Kenyon - The book this OEL manga series is based on. However, if you're on the younger end of the intended audience for the manga, this book might be a bit much. Like I said in the commentary section, the OEL manga may not have sex, but this book certainly does.
  • Vampire Kisses: Blood Relatives (OEL manga) - If you really are on the low end of the intended audience, you might like this, another series with vampires and romance. The main character is a Goth girl who likes all kinds of things no one else in her small town does. Much to her delight, a boy she is convinced must be a vampire moves in to town. I can't remember if this is the point at which this manga begins, but you get the idea - the focus is a Goth girl and her sexy-yet-nice-and-mostly-nonthreatening vampire boyfriend.
  • Vampire Hunter D (anime OVA) - Something about Kyrian's look reminded me of this, just a teenie, tiny bit. Please, Vampire Hunter D fans, don't pelt me with vegetables for that. Anyway, although I think I remember the girl in this having a crush on D, this is not a romance. It's all about action, gory stuff (or so I recall - I think I was in my teens the last time I saw this), and D being cool and kick-butt. For those who find this to be too old, there is a much newer movie, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, but I haven't seen it and don't know if it's any good.
  • You Slay Me (book) by Katie MacAlister - This is another book with a woman who starts off wanting to have nothing to do with all the paranormal stuff that gets dumped on her lap. In this book, the "paranormal stuff" includes a sexy dragon in human form who seems guaranteed to cause her nothing but trouble.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Complete Book 1 Collection (non-Japanese animation, TV series)

Although I had a knee-jerk desire to proclaim it "sucky wannabe anime," it's actually pretty addictive. There are, as usual, some spoilers below.

Synopsis:

In this first season, Katara and her brother Sokka stumble upon a boy and his flying bison, both of them trapped in ice. The boy, Aang, turns out to be the Avatar, the one person in the world who is capable of mastering all four elements. The Avatar is supposed to keep the Four Nations balanced but, when he disappeared 100 years ago, the Fire Nation began trying to take over the world. Unfortunately, a comet is coming that will give Firebenders incredible power. Now 12-year-old Aang, who has so far only mastered Air, must somehow master the three other elements in time to save the world from the Fire Nation.

Avatars must master the elements in a certain order, just as they are reborn in a certain order: Water, Earth, Fire, and then Air. So, the next element Aang must master is Water. Katara is a Waterbender, but she hardly knows how to do any bending herself. They, along with Sokka, decide to seek out a Waterbending master at the Northern Water Tribe, which has so far not been hit as hard by the Fire Nation.

It's not a simple journey. For one thing, they basically have to travel to the other end of the world. For another, everyone in the Fire Nation is after them once word gets out that the Avatar is back. The exiled Prince Zuko is one of Aang's most determined pursuers, because he believes that capturing the Avatar will help restore his honor and prompt the Firelord, his father, to end his exile.

Aang and the others do eventually make it to the Northern Water Tribe, where, after a rocky beginning, Aang and Katara learn Waterbending. Unfortunately, the Fire Navy armada arrives as well. The Waterbenders have the advantage at night, when the moon is out, while the Firebenders have the advantage during the day. The balance is tipped in favor of the Firebenders when Admiral Zhao kills the Moon spirit, but one Water Tribe member's sacrifice brings the spirit back to life, and the Northern Water Tribe manages to win.

Commentary:

My very first exposure to this series was an "animanga"-type book - basically, word bubbles are added to screenshots from the show, set up to look like a graphic novel. It was terrible, and my first assumption of the series ("sucky wannabe anime") seemed to be correct. My second exposure to the series was M. Night Shyamalan's movie The Last Airbender, which was bad in a different way. However, it at least made the premise of the series seem a bit better, and the fights were pretty good. When my mom ended up in the hospital with pneumonia, I found myself at my parents' house spending a lot of time watching TV while I waited to see how things were going to go. One of the shows I watched was Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I got hooked. Unfortunately, there was no way for me to watch the show from beginning to end - I just had to make do with whatever happened to be showing that week.

Now I own the whole series, and I'm finally getting to watch it in order for the first time. I can see where M. Night Shyamalan got the bones for his movie, and I'm amazed that he thought he could fit an entire season of the show into a single movie. M. Night Shyamalan's movie was this season of the show, ultra-condensed, with a few changes here and there in an attempt to make up for some of the stuff that was cut out, and with all the humor and fun sucked right out of it. I shudder to think of what he will do if he is allowed to make more movies based on this series - I'm sure it will be one movie for each season.

Ok, moving on. I was looking at customer reviews of this show on Amazon and saw several reviews to the effect of, "I hate anime, but..." or "I'm adult, but..." First off, I always kind of wonder about "I hate anime" comments - what shows are people thinking of when they say this, and do they realize that there is huge variety of anime out there, intended for every age-group, in every genre including some many Americans have never even heard of before? It makes me wince to think of the number of people who base their opinions of anime on Pokemon, Dragonball Z, etc. - depending on who's watching it, the anime that gets TV time in the U.S. isn't necessarily bad (although I would like to take this chance to say that 4Kids needs to never be allowed to touch any anime, ever), but almost all of it has basically the same intended audience, young boys.

Anyway, those Amazon reviewers that thought they wouldn't like this show but did found themselves getting something that still has a tendency to be a little unusual in American animated TV shows: a show that is not only about its humor (and, admittedly, the fact that Avatar's humor is American humor, rather than Japanese humor, could be part of the reason those reviewers like Avatar better than whatever anime they've seen), and a show that has an overarching plot instead of just a bunch of one-shot stories. Avatar still has plenty of the humor you'll find in any kids' cartoon, but the humor isn't the point of the show. Instead, the humor creates light moments in a series that follows a kid and his friends who are trying to save their world.

Although I learned, during the week I spent watching this show at my parents' house, that it's possible to jump into this series at various points and sort of get what's going on (it probably helped a lot that I had seen M. Night Shyamalan's movie and therefore knew a bit about the world and the story), I still really appreciate being able to see it from beginning to end now. This way, I get to see how later episodes reference earlier events, and I get to see each character grow (character growth: also still rare in U.S. animated TV shows).

I like the series premise, the characters, and the action. I can't wait to see more of the show. Although, darn it, if I had waited just a little longer before buying the series, I could have bought it cheaper - a couple of seasons of this show are now available at my local Walmart for just $20 each.

Extras:

The extras were nice, but I really wanted a lot more. They felt too brief, like they were designed to bit fit into a commercial break (maybe they were?). It was fun seeing the original pilot episode, which despite its somewhat rough-looking animation/artwork, had one particularly awesome scene that reminded me of Tekkonkinkreet. The pilot episode, by the way, is not Episode 1 in this collection - instead, I'm guessing it was a test episode created to show (executives? the money people?) what this show was going to be like, before everything about the series was completely figured out, so it differs from the series in a few ways.

I also liked getting a behind-the-scenes view of the work done in the sound studios, and the brief look at the Korean animation studios involved in this show was fascinating (by the way, they use some animation lingo which may not make sense to all viewers - it turns out that having watched Animation Runner Kuromi was really helpful to me in this regard). I did like getting to see the cast and crew, but it was an incomplete view - I couldn't help but wonder, "Where's the person who voices Katara?" Looking at my other boxed sets, I'm pretty sure she'll turn up in later extras, but it still felt odd. There's also some audio commentary for one of the episodes, courtesy of the guy who voices Momo, Appa, and other animal characters in the series (it hadn't even occurred to me that these sounds were the product of a human voice - I didn't know humans could make noises like that!) and one of the people who worked on the show's sound effects.

Coming up with a list of watch-alikes/read-alikes was a lot harder than I expected it to be. You'll notice that M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender is not on the list. I didn't want to include that one, not even as padding.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • Naruto (manga) by Masashi Kishimoto; Naruto (anime TV series) - Another series with a hero who's a bit of a goofball (some may be put off by his tendency to act and speak before thinking). Naruto turns out to be incredibly powerful and does grow somewhat as the series progresses (the anime, by the way, is continued by the anime Naruto: Shippuden - both the anime and manga versions of this series are long). Those who'd like another series that mixes humor, action, and some occasional heavy drama might want to try this. If you can afford it, or if your local public library carries it, I highly recommend reading the manga over watching the anime. The manga starts off rough, but it ends up being much better than the anime, which suffers from Too Much Filler syndrome and (during Naruto: Shippuden in particular) severe pacing problems.
  • Teen Titans (non-Japanese animation) - This is the only U.S. animated TV series I can think of that is in any way like Avatar. As far as I know, it doesn't have an overarching plot like Avatar, and character development tends to be more minimal. However, like Avatar its animation has Japanese influences, and it combines humor (to a greater degree than Avatar), action, and more serious developments (to a lesser degree than Avatar). The series focuses on a group of young superheroes. The one most likely to be familiar to people is Robin (once Batman's sidekick).
  • Soul Eater (anime TV series) - This has absolutely nothing in common with Avatar in terms of its story and characters, but it might still appeal to fans of Avatar because of its mix of humor, action, and drama, its "save the world" storyline, and the importance that friendships and learning to work together plays in the series. The series focuses on meisters and their weapons, particularly ones that are still in training. Meisters are capable of wielding weapons, while weapons (which, like meisters, are people) have a great deal of power they generally can't make use of without their meisters. Meisters and weapons in training work together to capture 99 evil souls and 1 witch soul, after which the weapon becomes a Deathscythe, a particularly powerful weapon.

Millennium Prime Minister (manga, vol. 1) by Eiki Eiki

Spoilers below, as usual.

Synopsis:

Minori is an ordinary 16-year-old girl who likes nothing better than skipping school to go play video games at an arcade. Unfortunately, on one particular day she might have been better off just going to school - the handsome guy whose score she beats takes one look at her, decides he loves her hair, and declares her his future bride. It's not until later that Minori learns he, 25-year-old Kanata Okazaki, is Japan's new prime minister.

Suddenly, Minori can't go anywhere without people recognizing her and whispering about her. She keeps hoping that the whole situation will blow over, but everyone, even her parents, seems happy about marrying her off to Kanata. Well, everyone but Sai, Kanata's senior aide. Even after Minori has been declared Kanata's financee on TV without any noticeable public fallout, even though every one of Kanata's other friends and staff members likes and is protective of Minori, Sai still glares at Minori like he hates her.

Near the end of the volume, Minori finally learns the reason why: Sai is in love with Kanata. Distraught after being rejected by Kanata, Sai leaves...but he's still the prime minister's senior aide, so what's the country going to do without him?

Commentary:

This series requires ginormous amounts of suspension of disbelief. You have to be ok with/be able to ignore several things:
  1. A 25-year-old guy who apparently has a habit of skipping out on important things to go play video games at an arcade can be elected prime minister.
  2. Despite suddenly deciding he's in love with a 16-year-old girl, he had no past scandals that kept him from being elected.
  3. Kanata's senior aide is a doctorate-holding 18-year-old who is immature enough to run away from his very important job because his crush, Kanata, rejected him.
  4. Nearly everyone is ok with Kanata's declaration that Minori is his fiancee. No one comments about the utter lack of evidence that they had been dating prior to the announcement, and the age difference does not create a political scandal.
That's just a few things - I'm sure I could make the list longer if I tried. What it comes down to is that this is not a series that wants you to bring things like logic and reality to the table. Read it for the good-looking guys, the humor, and the romance, probably in that order.

I don't think I really went into this series expecting anything much. I got this as part of a used bookstore-shopping haul. It was in the Clearance section and only cost $1, so all I really did was flip through and decide that even though I didn't know what the series was about the artwork appealed to me. After I got home, I realized that I had read at least one work by the author before. This particular author is fairly well known for her m/m romance (hence this quote from the author's brother when she showed this book to him: "It's not gay!"), so Sai being in love with Kanata was not that much of a surprise to me.

Some of the kinds of suspension of disbelief that Eiki Eiki asks of her readers in this particular series put me off a little - I can't wrap my brain around the idea that Kanata even got elected in the first place, much less experienced no problems after declaring a 16-year-old girl his fiancee. However, I do like Eiki Eiki's sense of humor, and I could enjoy the overall situation as long as I accepted it as light, fluffy fun happening in some kind of messed up parallel universe (the word "millennium" in the title refers to Kanata's explanation of how he managed to become the prime minister: "It is the new millennium" - apparently, the millennium has magical powers in this parallel universe.). I enjoyed the very cute Makita, Kanata's S.P. (secret police), and his habit of threatening to shoot Kanata if he tries anything with Minori before they get married. I even liked Kanata's journalist friend, who ends up getting the short end of the stick a lot (being the "bad guy" who leaks Minori and Kanata's "relationship," having to take care of a pathetic post-rejection Sai, etc.).

As far as good-looking guys go, for the most part, Eiki Eiki's style is very pleasing to the eye (the exception being her sometimes awkward facial expressions), so all the guys look good. Eiki Eiki even manages to make several of the guys kind of sweet. For instance, it would have been very easy to turn Kanata into nothing more than a near-pedophile. Instead, I was left with the impression that, as much as he flirts with Minori and tells her he's in love with her, his intentions are actually fairly pure. What he seems to want most, even if he maybe doesn't realize it, is someone to have a comforting morning routine with, someone who will tell him to have a good day and be there for him when the day is over. Basically, Kanata wants a family. There's a bit in the latter half of the volume where Minori is looking at a photograph of what I'm guessing is a young Kanata, his mother, and his father. The woman I think is his mother is younger than his father and looks a bit like Minori. It wouldn't surprise me at all if it turned out he was trying to recreate the family he grew up with. So, rather than being icky, it seems like his relationship with Minori may actually turn out to be more sweet and a little sad.

So far, this seems like a "meh" sort of a series - if I were giving it a letter grade, right now it would probably get a C. The artwork is nice enough to look at (even if Minori usually looks like a cute boy with pigtails), but the characters and story, though far from bad, aren't great either. I would have been very annoyed with myself if I had bought this volume for the full price of $12.95, rather than the $1 clearance price I actually paid. The drama that I'm sure is part of Kanata and Sai's story should be fun, but plenty of manga and anime guys have drama and angst, so more than that is necessary for a really good story.

It's not entirely clear which couple is supposed to be the focus of this series. I imagine Minori and Kanata are intended to be the primary couple, but there's not really much chemistry between the two of them. Minori notices that Kanata is hot, and she thinks he might be a nice guy, but that's it - at this point, I'm rooting for Sai more than I am for Minori, even though I don't know much about Sai yet, simply because I imagine he has a deeper relationship with Kanata. Kanata may say he asked Minori to marry him because he loves her, but I don't see how that could be true. Unless he thinks love means thinking a person's hair is great. There's a stellar basis for a relationship.

I think I might own the first two of this series, which I believe is composed of four volumes total. I'll have to decide if I want to hunt down the rest of the series after I finish the next volume I own, but it's not looking too likely right now, unless I can get those other volumes as cheaply as I got the first two. This isn't the worst thing I've ever read, but there are too many other things I could be spending my money on.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Princess Princess (manga) by Mikiyo Tsuda; Princess Princess (anime TV series) - (There is also a live action adaptation I've never seen, but I imagine it's fantastically painful to watch.) I haven't read the manga, but I've seen the anime - one of these days I'll write a post about it. This series focuses on a boy who transfers to an all-boy school. In an effort to deal with the horrors of not having pretty girls around who can raise morale with a smile and be worshiped by the rest of the student body, the school has a long-standing tradition of having its prettiest boys dress up and act like girls. Of course, the new boy is perfect for the job and agrees to do it, once he finds out there's lots of incentives involved. This is another bizarre series that has lots of humor (I thought I was going to die laughing when one of the boys' family members were introduced), flirts with m/m romance, and requires a large amount of suspension of disbelief. Incidentally, this manga series is created by Eiki Eiki's manga soulmate.
  • Gravitation (manga) by Maki Murakami; Gravitation (anime TV series) - There are other incarnations I haven't listed. The anime is a very condensed version of the manga (quite a few characters were cut out) and, in my opinion, is a good deal less crazy (no giant panda robots, for one thing). The main character in this one, Shuichi, is part of a band that is just starting to take off, when he meets Eiri Yuki, a bad-tempered and sexy famous novelist. For reasons Shuichi can't at first explain, he can't get his mind off of Yuki, and so begins their rocky relationship. For those who liked the idea of a scandalous romantic relationship developing in the midst of media intrusiveness, this one might be good. Plus, there's plenty of humor, wacky characters, and angst-filled character pasts. Oh, and this one is definitely m/m romance.
  • Kyo Kara Maoh! (anime TV series) - The main character is a boy who's flushed down a toilet into another world, where he learns he is actually a demon king. His kingdom has a lot of problems, but at least he's surrounded by loyal people who are willing to help him out. Unfortunately, all he really wants to do is go home. For those who'd like another series that flirts with m/m romance (several guys seem overly interested in the main character, and the main character even ends up accidentally engaged to another guy) and has lots of humor, this one might be good. Plus, it's got some political problems that need solving, for those who found themselves wondering why political problems were strangely absent in this first volume of Millennium Prime Minister.

Fan anguish

If you haven't read the review for Anne Bishop's upcoming book, Twilight's Dawn, over at Dear Author, you might want to, if only for the comments that come after. I highly recommend reading the review, spoilers and all, to anyone who's a fan of Bishop's Black Jewels books.

The entire thing makes me think about authors, and what readers expect from them. In this case, readers did not expect that Bishop would do any of these things with and to her characters, even though all or most of it is plausible. Keep in mind, the book doesn't even come out until March, so all those anguished comments are not from readers who have actually read the book (in particular, the "series killer" novella), but from people who have read the review. Just the review, and this is how intense fan reaction is.

On the one hand, this intensity of reaction should be gratifying to Bishop, to any author. It means that she created characters her fans can empathize with so much that they (we, since I'm one of them) actually grieve for them. On the other hand, because fans care for those characters so much, they have expectations for them, and those expectations don't gel with where Bishop has decided to take them. There has been some speculation that maybe Bishop hates her Black Jewels world and characters - it has to be frustrating for her that, as far as I'm aware, no characters or world she's ever written since has been nearly as popular as her Black Jewels world and characters. When people talk about what they dislike about her other books, they invariably bring up what they liked about the Black Jewels books. What she's done in her novella could be her attempt to move past the series once and for all.

I've been trying to think of other things to compare this fan reaction to, and the only thing that comes to mind is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's attempt to kill off Sherlock Holmes. Does there come a point when an author's characters are considered to belong to the fans, rather than the author? An author can do what he or she wants to the characters, and fans don't have to like it...but should an author do something like this in the first place? It's hard for me to decide what the answer should be. Really, an author can do whatever he or she wants. The author is the one doing the writing. However, angering one's fanbase can be a very risky move, career-wise - there are even readers commenting on the review who are saying they may have to get rid of their original Black Jewels books, because they can't look at them the same way. If those fans are like me, they keep reading Bishop, even if they haven't fallen in love with any of her recent books, because of their love for the original Black Jewels trilogy and its characters. Will those fans ever want to read any of her books again?

From the fan side of things, it looks like people would have been ok if Bishop had never...wrapped things up in such a final way. I actually thought Bishop's trilogy ended in a fairly satisfying way, and all the other books that came after it were icing on the cake - they accomplished the same thing for me that reading fan fiction does, satisfying my taste for something new with the characters without interfering with my love for the original books.

I do think that the direction Bishop has taken her characters in is amazingly gutsy. Unfortunately, the way it's being executed feels less like she's being gutsy and trying to stretch herself as an author and more like she's saying a giant "I hate you" to her characters (and perhaps to fans who mainly only love her original Black Jewels books?). True, I'm one of those who hasn't read the novella yet, so all I have on which to base my opinion is the review. The review still tells me a lot. It tells me Bishop didn't think there would be a problem with killing off several major characters, ending a romance that spanned decades (millennia, if you count the amount of time Daemon had spent waiting), and starting up a new one (with a character who is plausible as a romantic interest, but an outrageous choice to many fans) that results in child in the space of a novella.

I think I would have been fine (well, upset, but basically fine) if Bishop had done all these things in a novel, giving these major events and changes the attention they deserve. I don't see how all of these things could be done well, in a way that would make anyone happy, in just a novella. I'm sure there are authors who would sneer at what I'm about to write, but I feel like, if an author is going to do something that he or she knows will upset fans, at the very least it should be done well and in a way that shows there is at least some respect for fan feelings. I'm not really getting that from this.

Well, that's pretty much it from me. After posting several comments on the Dear Author review, I decided a full blog post was in order. I'm pretty sure I'll be reading Twilight's Dawn (after first reading anything else set in the world I haven't yet read). It might be a mistake, but I'd like to read it all for myself. I'm also pretty sure nothing I read will cause me to hate the original trilogy - I'll just convince myself that Twilight's Dawn is really just fan fiction, and nothing in it is to be taken as canon.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Reader's block?

...Or whatever you call it when you just can't get into the stuff you're reading. My "currently reading" list doesn't tell the full story. I'm actually currently reading three things right now: Judith Polley's The Secret of Val Verde, Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers, and Japan, Inc. by Shotaro Ishinomori. I'm starting to think I should quit reading all of them except Japan, Inc., at least for now. Here's how it all breaks down:
  • Polley's book just does not excite me, and I'm not in the proper mood to be reading something that doesn't fit my usual tastes. In fact, this one is so lacking in appeal for me that I may just rid myself of it without ever finishing it, which is highly unusual for me.
  • I've wanted to read something by Dorothy L. Sayers for a long time now. If I weren't in such a reading slump, I would probably enjoy Whose Body?. What I think I really need to do is try the first of her Lord Peter Wimsey books with Harriet Vane in it. I've heard fun things about the relationship between the two characters. The problem is that, while the library I work at has several Lord Peter Wimsey books, it has none of the books with Harriet Vane. I'm sure I could get any of them easily via ILL, but I don't really want to wait for any books right now. 
  • I stumbled across Japan, Inc. while trying to resolve an issue in my library's catalog. My library really does have manga. It's manga from the '80s, and its content is based on an economics textbook, but it's manga. I'm probably going to have to read it twice just to really understand what's going on, but manga can be read pretty quickly, so that shouldn't be too bad, even in my current slump. Too bad it suffers from the Bad Old Days of publishers fearing manga might scare American readers away with too much different-ness. Actually, as far as that goes, Japan, Inc. isn't too bad, although there are some moments of very awkward reading where I wish the artwork had not been flipped. The more annoying thing, for me, is the lettering work (straight-up boring, left justified text that doesn't even pretend to be hand-lettered and is often just barely squeezed into the bubbles - there are scanlations that look better than this).

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

As if my addiction couldn't get any worse

While attempting to looking up the meaning of a Japanese word I stumbled upon in an anime review, I came across TV Tropes, a site that has, among many, many other things, a list of anime character types. Not only is this site hilarious, it has expanded the list of anime I'd like to see and bumped a few that I own but haven't yet watched up closer to the top of my To Be Watched pile. I absolutely love that the tropes are accompanied by lists of examples.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Front Page Engagement (book) by Laura Wright

I'm trying out more category romance - this one's a Silhouette Desire, in the Park Avenue Scandals series. I hadn't realized that this meant there was an overarching storyline that wasn't going to be resolved until the last book in the series - which this one isn't - so I was a little peeved that there were mystery elements that were never resolved. However, I still liked the book.

Synopsis:

Carrie Gray is house-sitting for the resident of Park Avenue apartment 12B and is really annoyed with her neighbor in apartment 12C - all his bimbo girlfriends keep getting lost of the way to his apartment and end up knocking on her door late at night and in the wee hours of the morning. The only time she's ever spoken to Trent Tanford, the guy in 12C, was when she confronted him about all those annoyances. Which is why it's completely odd when, the second time he meets her, he proposes to her.

Millionaire Trent Tanford is good at his job and can have any woman he wants, but even his life isn't problem-free. When he gets called in by the police for questioning about one of the women he once dated, who everyone thinks committed suicide but may actually have been murdered, his father decides it's the last straw. If Trent wants to take over the family empire, he's going to have to get married first, and not to one of those empty-headed bimbos he usually dates. No, Trent will have to marry someone with brains and class.

The only person Trent knows who fits that description is Carrie. Although he handles his proposal badly (is there really a good way to handle proposing to someone you've only met once before?), Carrie eventually gives in and agree to marry him - mainly because it'll only be for a year, and because the financial support Trent agrees to give her will help Carrie properly care for her mother, who has Alzheimer's.

Carrie wants their relationship to remain marriage in name only, but Trent's incredibly sweet behavior with her and her mother eventually breaks down her defenses. However, even though the two of them get along well both in and out of bed, they don't really know each other and don't entirely trust each other yet. This leads to a misunderstanding where Carrie assumes that Trent has been cheating on her, after he swore that, as long as their marriage lasted, he would only ever be with her. The misunderstanding almost ends their marriage. However, the two of them finally sit down and talk, everything is cleared up, and they decide to make their marriage a real marriage, and not just a year-long agreement.

Commentary:

See, this is the kind of thing I was looking for when I picked up the stack of Harlequin Presents. I think I just got the category wrong: apparently, I should have been reading Silhouette Desire. Or maybe not. It could just be that I like this particular author more than I did Helen Bianchin. I've got a few more Silhouette Desire books on my TBR mountain (including the next book in the Park Avenue Scandals series), so I guess I'll get to test that.

I love rich, career-driven heroes who thaw after being introduced to their heroines, I love "marriage of convenience" stories, and I love heroes who are devoted to their heroines but don't make a big fuss about it (no "pat me on the head because I just did something good for you"). So, this story was a really nice diversion for me and a big relief after the unpleasantness that was The Italian's Ruthless Marriage Command (I read Front Page Engagement quite a while ago, right after finishing The Italian's Ruthless Marriage Command).

Once again, though, there were some serious aspects to the story that the back of the book didn't even mention. It's like the backs of these category romances want to make them all seem like light fluffy fare, regardless of whether or not the authors decided to include something a bit heavier in the story. In the case of this book, the heavier stuff is Carrie's mother having Alzheimer's and Carrie's father's abandonment of her and her mother when she was a child. Unlike in The Italian's Ruthless Marriage Command, though, where the heavier stuff seemed to weigh down the whole book, that's not the case with this one. And, I know, comparing this book to Bianchin's may seem like comparing apples to oranges to those who regularly read category romance, but I don't have that amount of experience and couldn't help but compare the two, having read this one right after Bianchin's.

Anyway, in this book, Carrie's mother having Alzheimer's is, yes, a bad and upsetting thing for Carrie, but it's not something she dwells upon every second. Instead, it becomes a good reason for her to agree to marriage with Trent, and his treatment of her mother (being nice to her, reading to her, visiting her of his own accord during his lunch breaks, arranging to have meals delivered to her and her caretaker, etc.) plays a big part in Carrie's eventual decision that Trent's not that bad a guy after all. Carrie's father's abandonment of her and her mother predictably becomes a bump in Trent and Carrie's relationship - after all, Carrie must be pushing Trent away in order to avoid being abandoned by him the same way her father abandoned her. That didn't gel with me quite the same way as the stuff with Carrie's mother. The Alzheimer's stuff was handled very nicely, while the stuff with Carrie's father hardly seemed to be an issue until it was convenient for Wright to make it an issue. Certainly, Carrie hardly ever seemed to think about it, except for that time when Carrie's mother got all worked up over it.

Actually, in addition to Carrie's mother having Alzheimer's, I figured that the big issue would be Carrie worrying that she wasn't physically the sort of person who could hold Trent's attention for long. She wasn't anything like the women he usually dated and slept with, and there was a point early on in the book where she compared herself to her beautiful, elegant friends. For those who hate the "I'm not pretty, how could you possibly love me" storylines, it's probably a relief that that didn't become an issue in this book, but I would have found it easier to swallow than the sudden "I have abandonment issues" conflict.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I also sort of had problems with the mystery that came up in this book, the whole issue with Trent and the woman who may or may not have been murdered, not being resolved. I knew that this book was part of a series, but I had assumed that that just meant that the books would focus on a set of characters all living in this apartment building. Instead, it means that and there's an overarching mystery that doesn't get resolved until later. Which means, if I want to find out who killed that woman, I'd have to find the last book in the series. Luckily, I don't care enough about who killed that woman and is sending threatening notes to want to put in that kind of effort.

Although there were a few things I didn't like about this book, for the most part I enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to trying the other book in this series that I've got, and I'm looking forward to trying other Silhouette Desire books. I'll have to see if I can find more stuff by Laura Wright, too.

Sorry there's not a whole lot of variety below. I cheated on this read-alikes list - almost all of them are books in the Park Avenue Scandals series. If you'd like to read all the books in this series in order, read them in the order I've listed them - Front Page Engagement is the second in the series.


Read-alikes:
  • Orchid (book) by Jayne Castle - This is one of my favorites with a "marriage of convenience" storyline. Like Trent, the main male character in this one needs to marry someone if he expects to take over the family business. This book is set on another planet, a world very similar to contemporary America, only the technology and culture is a bit different. For instance, it's very hard to get a divorce, so matching-making is a thriving and important business. This isn't the first book in the series, but that shouldn't make too much of a difference. If you do want to start with the first book, though, read Amaryllis.
  • High-Society Secret Pregnancy (book) by Maureen Child - The first book in the Park Avenue Scandals series, and at least one of the characters from Front Page Engagement makes an appearance. The heroine in this one is a socialite who ends up pregnant after a one-night stand with the millionaire hero. The hero doesn't believe the baby is his, but he agrees to marry the heroine anyway. I'm not sure this one would sit well with me, considering how much I disliked the same kind of elements in Eileen Wilks' The Wrong Wife, but it could still be worth a try.
  • Prince of Midtown (book) by Jennifer Lewis - Yet another book in the Park Avenue Scandals series. This one, I own, although I haven't read it yet. The billionaire in this particular book decides to seduce his assistant to keep her from leaving when she suddenly gives notice. For reasons I'm not clear on (maybe because she's his assistant? although that seems kind of silly since he feels it's ok to seduce her...), he can't marry her, so he's dismayed when he begins to fall in love with her. I think this one comes right after Front Page Engagement.
  • Marriage, Manhattan Style (book) by Barbara Dunlop - Yet another book in the Park Avenue Scandals series. This one doesn't seem to have been as loved by readers as others in the series. Rather than having the usual "billionaire seduces a relatively ordinary woman" storyline, the billionaire in this one is already married. While the couple seems like they should have it all, their marriage is going through a rocky period, because the husband is keeping secrets. From the description I read, it sounds like this might be the kind of book that expects a baby to fix things. Yuck. Still, I have learned that the descriptions for category romances seem to rarely tell the whole story, so I'm going to assume that's the case here until I learn otherwise.
  • Pregnant on the Upper East Side? (book) by Emilie Rose - Yet another book in the Park Avenue Scandals series. This one stars a party planner and the millionaire who's pursuing her - it sounds like he's interested, and she's convinced he'll get tired of her eventually if she gives in. This also seems to be one with an accidental pregnancy thrown into the mix.
  • The Billionaire in Penthouse B (book) by Anna DePalo - This is another book in the Park Avenue Scandals series, so expect more rich hero fun and another piece of the mystery puzzle. The sister of the woman who may or may not have been murdered becomes a live-in maid for the billionaire in Penthouse B, because he may have information about her sister's death and she wants to be able to do some snooping. This isn't one I own, but I think it's the last book in the series.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Big Windup! (anime TV series + OVA), via Hulu

If you watch this on Hulu, there is something you should know. Although Hulu says this is a 26-episode series, it's actually a 25-episode series plus a 1-episode OVA that takes place a year or so before the series and stars an entirely different team, the one with Abe's previous pitcher. "Episode 26" might be better viewed after episode 9 (maybe 10 - I can't quite remember which episode finishes up all the stuff about Abe's previous pitcher). If you do this, you might be able to avoid the confusion and annoyance I went through when I watched the supposed 26th episode.

For once, I have written a post that is spoiler-free, or close to it - I'm pretty sure you can read the whole thing without ruining anything about the show for yourself. If you'd like to completely avoid spoilers, I also recommend not reading Hulu's descriptions for each episode, because they reveal who wins each of the games.

Synopsis:

Mihashi loves baseball and being a pitcher more than anything. Unfortunately, his junior high team lost every game they ever played, and Mihashi knows it was because of his lousy, slow pitching. Determined to stop being selfish and let his teammates enjoy playing baseball again, he transfers to a new school, Nishiura, where no one knows how much he sucked. To his combined horror and joy, he ends up being the only pitcher on Nishiura's brand-new baseball team. He wants so badly to play, but will he ruin the game for his new team the way his did for his old?

Although the entire team needs to learn how to work together, this is especially true for Mihashi, the pitcher, and Abe, the catcher. Training helps somewhat, but Abe doesn't really start to understand how to work with Mihashi until the team plays its first practice game - against Mihashi's old team. Abe wants to show Mihashi what a great pitcher he can be, now that he's finally got a team that will support him and appreciate him, and Mihashi becomes more confident in his pitching as he learns to trust Abe's direction.

Later, the summer tournament begins. Unfortunately, it looks like Nishiura might not last long: their first opponent is Tosei, last year's champion. The team trains and studies as hard as it can, so that they actually stand a chance when their big day comes. Although Tosei underestimates them at first, Nishiura holds its own. It's a close game in which just about every one of Nishiura's players gets a chance to shine.

Commentary:

I almost didn't watch this show. I put it into my Hulu queue on a whim, and then I started watching it because I noticed that the later episodes were going to expire at the end of this month. When I began the first episode, I groaned when I realized that Hulu only had the English dub version of the series: I usually like to watch anime in the original Japanese, with English subtitles, before watching it dubbed in English.

Fortunately, I stuck with it (and finished the entire thing in under a week). The dub was, for the most part, quite good. I found Sean Michael Teague (Mihashi) to be almost too whiny at times, but I'm willing to bet that the character is just as whiny in the original Japanese. Mihashi's just that kind of guy, and Teague's pathetic voice fit. Although I occasionally cringed when Mihashi went into full "kicked puppy" mode, I was also just as likely to squeal "he's so cute!" - as a character, he worked out for me, but it wouldn't surprise me if Mihashi turned away as many potential viewers as he attracted. If you've seen Fruits Basket, ask yourself if you liked Ritsu. If the answer is yes, you'll probably be fine with Mihashi. If he grated on your nerves, you might have problems with this show.

Anyway, back to what I thought about the dub. I wasn't sure I liked the idea of Greg Ayres as Abe at first. I'm so used to Ayres playing pathetic/goofy/whiny/immature characters, and Abe didn't look like he fit into any of those categories. As it turns out, Ayres is great as Abe and manages to make episode after episode of baseball lingo seem interesting. The truly awesome VA in this series is not Greg Ayres, however, but rather Todd Haberkorn (Tajima). Like Ayres, I wasn't impressed with him at first, but he just got better and better as the show progressed. After hearing him, I might have difficulty listening to Tajima's Japanese VA.

Aside from a couple characters whose voices made me cringe (Mihashi's childhood friend and the guy in the OVA who was going to quit the team), the dub was pretty good. I'm looking forward to getting to hear the show in the original Japanese (I don't own the series yet, but I plan to), but I have a feeling that this will be one of those shows where I'll prefer the English dub. The Japanese language track would have to be brilliant to overcome reading screen after screen of baseball terminology and internal monologues about strategy.

The first thing that drew me into this show was the relationships between the characters, particularly Abe and Mihashi.  Mihashi is like a puppy who's been kicked for years. He wants so badly to do good by his new team, and he's so sure that's impossible. Abe is a strong, confident player with a very dominant personality who can, and often does, steamroll right over Mihashi. Abe sometimes comes on too strong, leaving Mihashi convinced that he's angry at him when he's really not, but his direction also keeps Mihashi on track when Mihashi would rather run away and hide.

There is a sequel to Big Windup!, but I read that FUNimation was not planning on licensing it because Big Windup! didn't sell well. It's a shame (especially since I'd desperately like to see Nishiura play against more teams), but, after only a few episodes, I could see why Big Windup! didn't sell that well. Some of it may be due to the show's pacing, which is a bit slow - the characters play like real people, so this isn't a show with over-the-top action, and Nishiura only plays two games in the entire series, one of which takes 10 episodes.

I have a feeling, though, that the primary reason why the show didn't do so well is because of things like Mihashi and Abe's relationship. Mihashi never gets very good at reading Abe, but Abe becomes so attuned to Mihashi that he can tell if he's not feeling right just by nuances in how he acts. He notices the temperature and feel of Mihashi's hands, he worries about Mihashi's weight, and he gets upset when he learns that Mihashi responded to Tajima's text messages but not his. Abe tries to be the best catcher he can be not only for the entire team, but also for Mihashi in particular. He wants Mihashi to trust him as a catcher, and he wants Mihashi to become more self-confident. Combine all of this with Mihashi's constantly flushed cheeks (flushed, I think, with his passion for the game and his feelings of awkwardness and nervousness) and often hesitant manner.

I'm saddled with the usual American baggage, so I can't really say how all of this comes across to Japanese viewers, but I'm guessing everything in the show was intended to be viewed as plain old male bonding, with characters' closeness being a sign of how well-developed the team was becoming. I figured I had a dirty mind, and then I read a few reviews and realized it wasn't just me. We emotionally backward Americans can't help but see homoerotic elements in relationships like Mihashi and Abe's. I remember reading or hearing somewhere that, in the U.S., sports are one of the few things in American culture that give American males a socially acceptable way to touch each other and show affection. That doesn't mean that the male audience I'm guessing FUNimation was hoping would be attracted by this show would be comfortable watching Abe hold Mihashi's hand.

As for me, the list of shows I've watched and enjoyed include Hetalia: Axis Powers, Gravitation, Loveless, and Kyo Kara Maoh, to name a few. Whether or not the homoerotic elements were intentional, they are actually a plus for someone like me. In fact, in the U.S. there are tons of fans (many female, but I'm guessing also male) of shows and manga featuring romantic or near-romantic relationships between males. Had FUNimation made it clearer in its promotional materials and previews for the show that character relationships were more important than action in this show, Big Windup! might have been more successful. I almost didn't watch this show - how many other viewers with tastes like mine never watched this show because it looked like it was just about baseball?

Well, enough about the relationships - while those are what made me stick with and love the show, baseball still plays a huge part. As I've said before on this blog, I am not into sports. At all. I know very little about baseball. So, what did I think about all the baseball stuff in this show?

The show assumes that viewers know how baseball works - this isn't something like Eyeshield 21, where the viewer/reader learns the rules of the game as the players do. As a result, the show occasionally lost me, leaving me to get my enjoyment only out of the characters and the emotional content, rather than the specifics of what was happening in the game. For instance, I didn't even remember, until it happened in the show, that base stealing exists and is allowed. Things were only explained when characters did something special, for instance when players had problems hitting Mihashi's deceptively slow fastball, and even then I tended to have problems following the explanations. I'm sure that, if I had had a firmer knowledge of baseball, I would have been able to enjoy the show on another level. As it was, confusion and all, I still enjoyed the show.

It's amazing, really, that this show works as well as it does. Nishiura's team is filled with people who don't look particularly special - by the end of the series, I still couldn't remember all of their names. Although certain players play very well, everyone plays within the boundaries of what real people can do: you don't see the kind of flashy moves that turn up in Prince of Tennis. However, I think part of what causes this show to shine is that these characters do seem like real people. Every single one of them had to work hard to play as well as they do, and viewers can watch that hard work in action. Not only do these characters all seem real, they are also all very likable. This entire show could be held up as an example of what teamwork and good sportsmanship look like. This is not the kind of show where people cheat or hurt each other in order to win - everybody wins or loses by their own efforts.

I would recommend this series to anyone who enjoys good-hearted shows that are heavily dependent upon character relationships (keeping in mind that the possibly unintentional homoerotic elements might be considered a red flag). The show's only negatives, to my mind, are Mihashi's often over-the-top pathetic behavior and the tortured pacing of the game against Tosei. I was also disappointed that the show only allowed viewers to see Nishiura play against two teams - I would have liked to see more of the tournament. The tournament isn't the only thing that never gets resolved: viewers are never told what it was that Mihashi's childhood friend really did that got him held back a year (unless I missed it), and we never learn which player Shino'oka has a crush on (why introduce the potential for a romantic storyline if you never do anything with it?). It really is a shame that FUNimation has no plans to license any more of this series.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • Whistle! (manga) by Daisuke Higuchi - This is another sports series (soccer, this time) that features fairly realistic gameplay and characters. This series focuses even more on the sport than Big Windup! - character relationships aren't quite as close (I don't think the word "homoerotic" even entered my brain when I was reading this series), and I don't think schoolwork is ever mentioned. Teamwork, soccer, and individual improvement are the important things in this series. I think characters' family relationships also come into play. There is an anime series based on this manga, but it hasn't been licensed in the U.S. and I doubt it will be, considering how things went with Big Windup!
  • Eyeshield 21 (manga) story by Riichirou Inagaki and art by Yuusuke Murata - This series focuses on American football (like Whistle!, there is an anime version, but it's not licensed in the U.S.). I've included it on this list mainly because it's another sports series and therefore features things that show up in just about every sports series, like tough training, learning to work as a team, playing against good opponents, and at least one character who starts off convinced that he can never be a good player. This series has all of that, but otherwise it's pretty different from Big Windup! - everything about it is more over-the-top, rather than realistic. If that's not a problem, then this is a fun series with a ton of energy.
  • Fruits Basket (manga) by Natsuki Takaya; Fruits Basket (anime TV series) - This might seem like an odd one to include, but it might appeal to those who enjoyed Big Windup!'s relationships and characters. One particular character, Ritsu, is a lot like Mihashi, and the relationship between two of the main characters, Tohru and Kyo, reminds me a lot of the relationship between Mihashi and Abe. In this series, Tohru, a cheerful and kind girl, ends up living with a few members of the Sohma family, after learning their big secret: when certain members of the family are hugged by a member of the opposite sex or when they become weak, they transform into an animal from the Chinese zodiac. Tohru begins to find a new family among the Sohmas, but will the Sohma family curse destroy all of that? Although I prefer the anime, it leaves a lot of loose ends, whereas the manga is now finished.
  • The Prince of Tennis (manga) by Takeshi Konomi - As you might guess from the title, this series focuses on tennis. The main character is a young tennis prodigy who manages to rise above older players in his high school tennis team and even take part in national tournaments. This series is basically all tennis, all the time - occasionally family relationships come up, such as the main character's relationship with his father, a former professional tennis player, but you rarely see the characters doing anything that isn't related to tennis in some way. The explanations of everybody's style of tennis playing seem to be grounded in reality. As far as the visual appearance goes, however, Konomi lets artistic license run wild, resulting in tennis-playing that appears super-powered. Like Eyeshield 21, this series is included mainly because it's a sports series and therefore has some of the same things you'll find in just about every sports series. Because it's tennis, there's way more focus on individual growth, rather than team growth, although several characters have to learn to be able to play doubles together.
  • NANA (manga) by Ai Yazawa; NANA (anime TV series) - Those who liked Abe and Mihashi's character types and interactions might like this show, which features a similar pair of characters: Nana Komatsu is a lot like Mihashi, while Nana Osaki is a lot like Abe. Character relationships are a huge part of this series.
  • Cross Game (manga) by Mitsuru Adachi; Cross Game (anime TV series) - I honestly don't know much about this series, except that it is one of the few other U.S. licensed series involving sports and happens to also feature baseball.The descriptions I've read of this series make it sound more serious than Big Windup! (there's some kind of tragedy involved).
  • Hikaru no Go (manga) art by Takeshi Obata, story by Yumi Hotta; Hikaru no Go (anime TV series) - This is basically a sports series, only the "sport" is the board game Go. Hikaru knows nothing about Go, until he awakens Sai, the spirit of a Go instructor from a thousand years ago who had been haunting a Go board. At first, Hikaru just plays like Sai tells him to, but, as he becomes more interested in the game, he learns how to play on his own. Gradually, he becomes an excellent player in his own right, and readers/viewers get to watch him grow into his own as a Go player. Those who appreciated Big Windup!'s emphasis that it is important to have a passion for the game might enjoy this series, in which Hikaru is surrounded by those who already have a passion for Go and gradually finds that same passion within himself. Plus, the rivalry between Akira and Hikaru is fun to watch and is as close, in some ways, as the relationship between Abe and Mihashi.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Wizards and baseball

I saw the newest Harry Potter movie today. I haven't watched any of the previous movies very recently, and it's been a while since I've read any of the books. I don't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, I wasn't super-focused on all the things that were different from the book, because I couldn't quite remember everything that happened. On the other hand, I spent a good deal of the movie trying very hard to keep up. I had forgotten about Dobby's existence, I couldn't remember what happened just prior to the movie (for instance, I had forgotten the most recent death), and I couldn't always remember who was supposed to still be around and who wasn't. Occasionally, my brain latched on to things I had vague memories of and wouldn't let go - I remembered an additional Horcrux, but, try as I might, I couldn't remember them all.

I don't really know how I feel about the movie. I don't think it was bad, but I don't think it was good, either. I do think I need to reread all the books sometime, in order. I've never really done that - I've reread the first and third books many times, because those are my favorites, and I read each book as it came out, but I've never reread them all in quick succession. There were always things I forgot during the wait for the next book. It might be nice to reread them all now that they're all out.

Other than that, I've been working on my Hulu queue and DVDs. As far as DVDs go, I'm currently stalled on the third Red Garden disc. I will finish the show. Eventually. I'm just not entirely certain I like where things are going, and I don't really like half of the girls, which makes it a little hard to cheer for them. On Hulu, I'm bouncing around a lot. A little bit of Spice and Wolf (in Olden Times Europe, a wolf goddess travels with a merchant - could be quite good, but I haven't gotten far into it yet), Darker Than Black (criminals and assassins with mysterious powers - I love it, despite the feeling that I could poke huge holes into it without even trying), and The Great Queen SeonDeok (epically long historical drama), and a lot of Big Windup (baseball, teamwork, friendship, and individual growth - great shonen stuff). I had originally avoided Big Windup because it looked boring. Somehow, I had forgotten how much I LOVE sports anime and manga. Since the show (or at least what's up right now, the English dub version) is due to expire at the end of next month, I think I'll concentrate on it for a bit, at least until it makes my heart explode with joy.
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