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New eBook Release: When Ai Met Yu

After being published in five parts on my own blog, it's time for this story to come to a wider audience. My first attempts at both a re...

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Review - Movie - Ninja Scroll

This review is based on the DVD Collector's Edition, published in the United Kingdom by Manga Entertainment.

Anime in the 1990s are sometimes a mixed bag. Several of them show their age through their animation or dubbing, but some remain great to this day. One of them is 1993's Ninja Scroll, a period action drama that cemented both the career of its writer/director Yoshiaki Kawajiri and the rise of animation studio Madhouse.

The story is pretty standard fair for its time. During the Edo period, a group of ninja are sent to investigate the death of an entire village, only to be all but massacred by one of a shadowy group called the Eight Devils of Kimon. The main protagonists are Jubei Kibagami, a cross between a ronin and a ninja who is blackmailed into helping by the Edo spy Dakuan; and Kagero, a survivor of the Eight Devils who has some serious relationship issues due to being a walking weapon whose touch alone is poisonous. The main plot is somewhat convoluted, but this movie's appeal is in its high action and the freaky powers of the Eight Demons, who fall directly into the tropes associated with ninja during the 20th to 21st century.

In the animation department, the movie is a triumph. It does use the common tricks of that era of anime (repeating animations, mostly-static conversation scenes), but it also features layered backgrounds and choreography that is stunning even after over two decades. The amount of love for the project is clear, ranging from the detail of the various ninja abilities, to the dedicated fight scenes featuring Jubei. There's plenty to enjoy during both the moments of calm and the hectic action scenes which come at frequent intervals. There's also the trait of arousing female and oh-so-manly male character designs that remains ingrained in anime culture.

The music from Kaoru Wada is very good. Not at all in keeping with the period, but also amazingly enjoyable. It pushes along the action and punctuates scenes of emotion without being intrusive. That also means that, aside from a few places where the music forms most of the scene, it can become unmemorable. The English dub is good for the time, having just the right amount of camp without reaching Dragon Ball Z or Pokemon levels.

Please note that this anime isn't for kids. Alongside Ghost in the Shell and Akira, it was one of the pioneers of true adult feature-length anime. This means that there is violence a plenty, blood and gore, disturbing imagery, nudity, and some traditionally awkward animated sexual encounters. I was surprised that it only contains very mild swearing, at least in the English dub. Despite being older than me, Ninja Scroll remains a classic for all the right reasons, even though it shows its age in places.

8/10

Oh yes, and a final note. I came to this movie after watching Madhouse's follow-up television series of the same name. I'll probably be reviewing the series next week.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Return to Submitting

I know, the title looks like a cheesy sequel. And that's the irony; it is. It's been some little time since I've been doing submissions on a regular basis. This isn't due to nerves, but due to the holiday season. Lasting from December through to January, it's pretty much a dead time for anyone submitting to publishing houses and agents. And it's been difficult in several ways.

So what's difficult about this? Well, I'm brought face-to-face with how much my style's changed. You think "what the heck were you thinking when you wrote that" or "that's never going to get me published". You know, the usual stuff. The stuff anxiety attacks are made of. But the thing about me is that, under the pessimism and habit of getting into absolute tizzies at the drop of a hat, I'm generally quite optimistic and determined in my goals. I've chosen to do all I can to become a writer, have several avenues to follow, and won't give up just because my last few attempts weren't as good as they could be.

On top of that, the work  I'm submitting is new. My adventure story, built on facts and history rather than the crutches of magic and science fiction. It's something that's got appeal, but it's also something that may be a hard sell as I'm a pretty-much unknown name and this isn't some established blockbuster or macho adventure; it's a woman's slightly whimsical first-person journey with occasional asides to deconstruct the genre and its absurd pitfalls. I've already sent one submission off, and plan more. I've also sent a submission for a non-fiction book, yet another first for which I'm not holding out massive hopes. But that's the point; you try your best and try multiple avenues. I've even got some plans for one of my works that's in publishable form but hasn't been taken up yet - something I wouldn't have dreamed of a year or so ago. If nothing comes back by February, I'll feel no qualms about polishing it up and sending it out.

So what's this? What am I doing? Well, I'm talking. It's an outlet I can't let slip. It stops me from becoming a completely closed system, which is the worst thing a writer can be. Close yourself off, whether from talking about your work or from the work of others, and you handicap yourself to the point of crippling your chances. You can't do stuff in total vacuum. So here I am, talking. And it's a huge relief, as well as an act of bravery as I'm exposing my own weaknesses. And if there're any mistakes I didn't pick up before this got published, there's a living example for you. :)

Sunday, 28 January 2018

What's Missing?: Doctor Who

This is the beginning of a new blog series I've decided to dub "What's Missing?". Here, I look at stories from multiple media and look at how, over time, those stories may have lost something that originally made them iconic or helped them stand out from the crowd. This week, it's a classic of the science fiction genre: Doctor Who.

For those not in the know, Doctor Who is a science fiction series following the adventures of the Doctor, an alien being whose TARDIS machine is capable of space-time travel. Together with a changing roster of companions (human, alien and otherwise) and a changing set of actors (and now actresses) taking on the role, the Doctor becomes mixed up in more conflicts than any one world's history could comfortably accommodate. Originally running from 1963 to 1989, then successfully reviving in 2005 to the present day, the series is one of the longest (continuous and extant) drama series in television history.

The series' biggest shift, arguably, was with its 2005 revival. It saw classic monsters revived in new ways, and for its first series experimentation with monster and alien concepts comparable with the era of Philip Hinchcliff during the mid-1970s. But as the series has continued and gone from strength to strength, something's become apparent. While it still has moral messages and complex characters at its core, something else Doctor Who once reveled in is gone; commentary. For these comparisons, I'm taking three stories from the series' original run and comparing them with the revived series; The Daleks, The Green Death, and The Talons of Weng Chiang.

The Daleks (1963-64) is notable for introducing the series' most recognisable alien nemesis, the titular menace which has endured multiple exterminations and a temporal war. But what were they actually about? Their writer Terry Nation created the Daleks out of two prevalent ideas in the 1960s; the threat of nuclear war, and the legacy of the Nazi regime in Europe. The setting of The Daleks, where neutron bombs have turned most of the planet into a petrified wasteland. The Daleks' own attitudes, seeing all other races as either a threat or inferior and thus disposable, reflect the core Nazi ideologies of superiority and racial purity. Even without knowledge of these, The Daleks makes bleak watching for a modern viewer.

The Green Death (1973) reflects a different mood. It covers several different issues of the day; the possibilities of green energy, the dangers of new and untested energy sources, concerns about corporate power and their influence on politics, and labour issues. Global Chemicals acts as the focal point for all of these; through the sci-fi veneer of Global Chemicals's new energy process creating a poisonous mutagen which turns a population of maggots into giant killers, The Green Death tells a cautionary tale about corporate power gone mad. Even as the byproducts of their "clean" energy process literally start to swarm, Global Chemicals use their political muscle to have the problem hushed up. In these days of the suspicious dealings by politicians and questions about the states of private companies, The Green Death remains relevant even after some forty years.

The Talons of Weng Chiang has an interesting twist on its otherwise fairly conventional Gothic tale in the vein of The Phantom of the Opera and multiple Hammer classics. The character of Magnus Greel, posing as the eponymous Chinese deity, acts as a parallel to a phenomenon of the time. During the mid 1970s, several high-profile Nazi members were being located and brought for trial by a dedicated group of "Nazi hunters", many survivors of the regime's concentration camps. Greel's legacy as a war criminal with thousands of deaths on his hands who escaped through time mirrors how many Nazi soldiers and elites escaped to sympathetic countries like South America to hide from the Allied powers' retribution. His horrendous experiments, hinted at and partially seen in the serial, also reflect the terrible crimes of Nazi scientists such as Josef Mengele.

Now I'm not saying that the revived series doesn't do commentary like this. It's just changed its focus, and with the concept of overarching narratives dilutes it considerably. The two-part story The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People is an example of this. Taken on its own with excess drama put to one side, it's an unsettling take on modern labour issues, in addition to the question of personal identity. But that whole concept is somewhat undermined by the plot twist at the end, which yanks the viewer out of an thought-provoking self-contained narrative to throw them into a science fiction premise that - to me at least - seemed rather trite. You could say the revived series is less obvious about it, but to be honest the original series could be quite subtle about its themes. For every Silurians, there's an Inferno. For every Mutants, there's Seeds of Doom.

Now there are a number of factors which contribute to this, but the ones that leap to mind are runtime, themes, tastes, and audience. The runtime has changed drastically, with most single 45-minute episodes from the revived series equating to half or less than half an original story's length in the original series (except in the Colin Baker era, where it was a series of two-to-three part stories with episodes of that length). The series' themes also shifted from current events and issues to people-focused drama and focusing far more on the pseudo-mythical themes previous original series stories had dabbled in. Tastes also want more people stories and seem to move further away from reality, and when it does touch on reality it causes massive controversy where before it would be seen as commentary. And the audience has also shifted; while Doctor Who was always intended for children, it now seems to aim for evoke the child in us where before it reached out to children and adults alike (more towards teens to adults as the series went on).

Let me be perfectly clear. I'm not saying either series is necessarily better than the other. There are several original series stories that are just plain bad, and I very much enjoy some of the stories and monsters the revived series has produced (the Weeping Angels being one of my all-time favourite Doctor Who creations) The "What's Missing" series seeks only to show how something may have changed without many people noticing. On the surface, the two phases of Doctor Who are basically the same. But there is a different. Something missing, for better or worse. Now, let's go and find that old copy of The Unquiet Dead, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, 42, The Doctor's Wife, The Crimson Horror or Thin Ice...or whichever your revival favourites are, and enjoy!

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Separating Work, Play and Hearth

Sorry for a lack of content last week, but there's an excellent reason for it. I was moving my work space (desktop computer, printer, lamp and other such items) into another room in my current home, separating my work space from my bedroom after several month of growing discomfort of having them in the same space. It's this that inspired my latest post.

The working environment is something everyone has issues with at some point in their lives, no matter how tolerant they are of things. You may wish to be in the midst of wide open spaces when stuck in an office, or vice versa. But how about a working environment in the same room as your bedroom, or your other areas?

This is the state of being I've been content with since my mid-teens, but now I've had enough. It's difficult to think of my bedroom as my little private sanctum when I've got a computer and monitor staring at me. Even moving the bed doesn't really help as it's just there, waiting for me. Add to this the fact that it effectively became my multimedia center for many of those years (playing DVDs, watching television, ect.) and you've got a device that was beginning to intrude upon what that room was originally meant to be -- my bedroom.

This meant massive moving of furniture, but it also meant a reevaluation of what I consider necessary for my work space. A window view? I've still got it, it's just in my peripheral vision and I've only got to glance out to see a beautiful exterior and know that it's a good time to take a walk (or, conversely, a bad time). Quiet? I've got that whichever place I choose. An ear on the wider goings-on of the household? I didn't have that in my room, and I've got that here.

But separating work from pleasure is about more than just separating work from rest. It's also about realising that I'm effectively an adult sharing the house as an equal, not a little kid in his room with his hobby. For various reasons, that realisation's been a long time coming. It's difficult to grow out of things, particularly accepted ways of living. History's full of people who couldn't take a hint. I've tried not to be one of them, but even still...

Well, here I am, writing at my new office space in the library/office area of our house, my room blissfully free of any inclination towards work, the sun setting outside behind nearby forest, the apple trees in the front garden looking stark but alive, my muscles complaining about a week of moving heavy books and furniture all over the place, my wallet noticeably lighter after getting myself a new TV/DVD/CD-Cassette set-up for my room. And I'm not regretting one bit of it.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Lovecraft Follow-up

This post is a follow-up to my piece on my complicated feelings towards the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. I'm returning to the topic based on a reply I got on Twitter from a comment on the subject prior to publishing that post. It ran like this;

While I have no problem with strong female protagonists in fiction, I think your time could be better spent understanding the underlying themes of Lovecraft's mythos and less on making it 'acceptable' for modern audiences. Good luck in your future writing.
That got me thinking. While I'm not going to abandon the original idea or my intent on making Lovecraft's universe to a wider audience that isn't as tolerant of casual racism and elitism as Lovecraft's original readers were, I realise that adopting the deeper themes of his work alongside the complex universe he presents on face value has its merits. As I've said, my usual subjects are as far removed form Lovecraft's own as it's possible to get.

So how do I create a compelling Lovecraft homage without corrupting my own style? Well, first, don't be put off by the very long words and complex expressions the original author is notorious for. In fact, embrace them, glorify them, eulogise them! I've got plans for a key Lovecraftian figure to talk like that as part of his trickster-like persona. Having the contrast between my heroine's down-to-earth way of speaking and the flowery speech of this character should help create an interesting contrast between them in addition to furthering the homage.

Another aspect that must be preserved is the tone. A key aspect of Lovecraftian fiction is the idea that there are forces existing beyond comprehension that make humanity seem insignificant by comparison. While these themes aren't my favourites, I'll still use them when needed and so I can adjust to writing within it. The main thing to remember is this; I can create a world similar to Lovecraft without sacrificing a strong main protagonist that doesn't meet an excessively horrific end by the final page.

Finally, there's that key element to any true Lovecraft narrative; the unreliable narrator, or at least the narrator whose account was made shortly before his untimely death. While this is more than suitable, it's also rather depressing. So I've decided to take inspiration from another author; Agatha Christie. She is best remembered for her lighter detective stories, but she also experimented with unreliable narrators, shifting first-to-third person points of view, and retrospective knowledge changing the perception of events previously clear-cut. While I'll keep the details secret, I can say that this combined with the Lovecraft angle has provided me with a wonderful means of incorporating the unreliable narrator while keeping with a single sane protagonist.

I'm not sure how much more there is to say. I'm still in the early stages of creating this story, and much might change. Hopefully it won't join the small but significant pile of concepts and projects I couldn't complete for whatever reason. As of now, I'll just have to keep writing and planning. And hope for the best.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Review - Movie - Traders

I don't typically like overt violence in movies, and most British small-scale movies have that weird greying effect that makes them look more depressing than they are. But there are a few British movies of that type I've watched and enjoyed. The most recent - and most unexpected - is the Irish-produced Traders. Currently available on BBC3 via iPlayer, Traders is what might be described as an action thriller with a surprisingly dark twist.

The premise is simple; a man named Henry Fox dissatisfied with his low-paying work becomes embroiled in a game created by Vernon, a man he meets by chance. The game is called Trading, and it soon takes in a viral quality. The rules are simple; sell possessions to create a money stake, fight to the death, survivor collects both stakes and arranges it so the victims are presumed suicides with methods difficult to trace and confirm. His first "Trade" nets him 10,000, but the thought of more pulls him into more and more trades, which become increasingly dangerous and violent.

The theme of the movie is the time-worn question of how far someone is prepared to go for riches, but it can also act as a commentary on the modern world and how the internet is allowing the creation of these types of "entertainments". It's one person creating the Trading game, and that one person is causing dozens of deaths. The theme is disturbing to say the least, more so because of a distinct lack of blood and guts. This is where the subdued tone works in the movie's favour; the emphasis on middle to lower-class suburban neighborhoods drives home a feeling of desperation, the fact that those trading probably have problems in their lives that need this money. The ambiguous ending drives the overall message home.

On the whole, the movie looks good. You can tell the budget was low, but the tone and subject matter actually help rather than hinder. The cast, including Killian Scott as the lead and John Bradley as Vernon, does a creditable job of portraying a group playing for high stakes out of desperation or greed. It must be stressed that this movie is not for younger viewers. Quite apart from the disturbing content and subject matter, there's violence a plenty. Most of it is deceptively bloodless, and consequently more disturbing. For me, seeing someone stabbed to death is far less unpleasant than someone getting the life choked out of them. There's also the usual - but thankfully sparse - use of swearing.

On the whole, this is a great movie of its kind. A very modest scope belies a scenario many might easily compare to Stephan King's original Running Man or Battle Royale, but while not original it's still highly enjoyable in a delightfully disturbing way. Some contrived moments drag the experience down, and the ending might upset some, but on the whole this is worth a watch while it's available.

8/10

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Y'ha-nthlei or bust...; Me and Lovecraft

If you want to see an earlier post about my feelings towards the work of Tolkien, please look here.

My relationship with H.P. Lovecraft is complicated to say the least. My encounters with his work were non-existent until I accidentally heard an abridged reading of At The Mountains of Madness on what was once Radio 7. I later heard another reading, this time of The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Then for my 20th birthday my father bought me a book dubbed Necronomicon; The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft. This large book contains thirty-six stories from Lovecraft's body of work, including his entire Cthulhu-related bibliography, several stories from his Dream Cycle including the posthumous novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and a few other notable stories and poems.

Once I got into Lovecraft, I began seeing his influence in other works I enjoyed at the time, such as Hellboy and The Fifth Element, and later The Scarifyers and Blood-C. I also quickly realised that his writing wasn't the kind the modern world is used to reading in popular fiction. Very long words, exhaustively descriptive and plodding prose, and the use of several archaic phrases and expressions make it a bit of a drudge for modern readers. I also saw some elements that others might look over more readily. These are that none of his key characters were women; and that his enemy characters or the worshippers of his pantheon are described with terms such as "negro", "mongrel", "scum", "mulatto", "hybrid", and other casual racist or elitist epithets. There are some things I'm willing to tolerate, but such blatant and casual degradation isn't one of them. I later learned that his circumstances and the culture he was raised in led him to hold these prejudices, but it's still a bitter pill to swallow.

There was also an extra element; my work focuses on human accomplishment and individual power, in addition to openly critiquing class or race-based divisions in society. Lovecraft's work most famously focuses on humanity's insignificance in the greater scheme of things, and portrays the more successful or enduring races as congregational and caste-based. He often goes into nihilistic territory and frequently relies on insanity (in his time a piteously misunderstood condition which resulted in occasionally terrible abuse in the name of medical care) as a plot development. This allows for some truly disturbing uses of the unreliable narrator, but it also reflects upon Lovecraft's opinion of humanity as a whole and the so-called "oddities" within it in particular.

Thankfully, many authors are in a position to rectify that. Due to a variety of circumstances and events, virtually all of Lovecraft's work is in the public domain. Indeed, he openly allowed contemporary authors to borrow from and incorporate his work into their own, with August Derleth becoming the largest contributor to what came to be known as the Cthulhu Mythos after Lovecraft himself. Derleth, together with Conan creator Robert Howard and successor Richard Tierney, have expanded upon and borrowed from Lovecraft's work. More and more authors have been influenced by the Mythos, with some additions being dead serious and others - such as Neil Gaiman's I, Cthulhu - being more humourous. Now, I think it's my turn. Instead of complaining to myself without end of Lovecraft's defects, I should follow his advice and use his work to create something of my own. Using my style, with my approach to characters and plot, but using an available and beloved fictional universe.

If you want to listen to what I consider a good reading of Lovecraft, listen to this; an unabridged reading of The Call of Cthulhu by actor Garrick Hagon.