Tag Archives: anime

Stripped and Sold for Parts — “Cowboy Bebop”

Netflix’s live-action “Cowboy Bebop” proves that camp filmmaking isn’t easy. Why the contemplative, atmosphere-drenched sci-fi anime has been turned into a campy hodge-podge of kitsch is anyone’s guess. It’s not the adaptation I’d want to see, but I’m game for the concept. The problem is this: if you’re going to carve out the soul of a source material and transplant another one in, you’d better have a firm grasp on what you’re replacing it with and why.

“Cowboy Bebop” follows Spike, Jet, and Faye, bounty hunters in a post-Earth solar system. They’re constantly scraping by while jumping from planet to planet for their next target. These targets often embroil them in local politics and vendettas. They do their best to stay clear of these with varying degrees of success. Spike and Faye both hold secrets about their former lives, while Jet abides and gives them the benefit of the doubt even when they let him down.

John Cho’s Spike, Mustafa Shakir’s Jet, and Daniella Pineda’s Faye are the best thing about this show. There are changes from the anime, but the biggest ones have less to do with how the characters act, and more to do with their stories.

This is where I want to tackle “Cowboy Bebop” from two angles. I firmly believe that an adaptation doesn’t have to be too accurate when it comes to the details. Story changes are fine, so long as they maintain the broader intentions and themes of the original.

I have issues with “Cowboy Bebop” as its own entity, and as an adaptation. I want to split those two things apart. Let’s start with:

“COWBOY BEBOP” AS ITS OWN THING…

For some reason, “Cowboy Bebop” wants to be camp. The anime it’s based on wasn’t, but adaptations should feel free to change things like this. The problem is that showrunner Andre Nemec seems to think that camp is just one thing. The tone shifts from 60s fumetti adaptations (take “Barbarella” as an English example) to 70s exploitation films, into 90s Hercules/Xena modes, and through Robert Rodriguez territory. There are a lot of situations in which that breadth of campiness would be incredible. There’s no problem with doing all of the above, but there is a problem if you don’t understand the difference between these forms of camp and what each requires from its filmmakers.

Let’s take stilted line delivery as an example to show you what I mean: Fumetti adaptations were 60s and 70s adaptations of European comics, often in Italian and French. Their awkwardness and aggressive absurdity served as a contrast to the French New Wave movement they also drew from. Less studio-bound, raw filmmaking techniques that emulated the real world sat next to ridiculous situations, dialogue, and line readings to create a dissonant viewing experience. The quality of actors speaking in languages they didn’t know or being covered by underfunded dubbing only served to accentuate this dissonance.

By contrast, exploitation films ranged from blaxploitation to Troma and at their best encapsulated a subversive, insurgent activism. Isolated line readings served to call attention to those lines with sleek delivery within a relaxed editing rhythm, creating cinematic icons where they hadn’t existed. Exploitation could build on the outsider narratives of noir to then critique the voluntary helplessness to which noir – and its viewers – often succumb. These line readings were intentionally highlighted as a way of dismissing challenges from those that this new iconography made uncomfortable. These would in large part be bastardized into the one-liners of 80s movies.

“Hercules” and “Xena” in the 90s faced stiff budgetary constraints. By calling attention to their own shortcomings, they invited the audience to join in the play of it all, to feel like a partner alongside the actors in the same campy sandbox. These series also served as a hotbed for low-budget cinematography and technical experiments that laid foundation to the New Zealand filmmaking renaissance that would follow.

Robert Rodriguez makes his camp deliberate, both existing in and commenting on the genres it uses. He dials up stylistic elements in order to see how much he can squeeze out of a budget. Every line is an opportunity for a character to show off. Regardless of how well it serves the story, Rodriguez wants his performances to offer a high melodramatic return-on-investment. Get the most out of a line, worry about how well it fits later.

They’re all camp, but each approach does something completely different, and is built on a different shot selection and editing pace. The writing and filmmaking priorities for each is completely different. If you don’t know the difference between these, then you don’t know what each needs to be successful, and this is just talking about what one element of camp needs to work.

The first episode of “Cowboy Bebop” plays with the mistimed acting cues of fumetti that “Barbarella” made such successful comedy of, with the Dutch angles and intentional tableau of Rodriguez, with the inviting meta and budget-limited middle distance creativity of “Hercules” and “Xena”, with the isolated line as cool character moment, but none of them are housed within the styles or technical elements that give each of these things a foundation.

The isolated, cool line reading of exploitation cinema does not work within the mistimed cue of a fumetto adaptation. The wide range of exacting tableau Rodriguez delivers doesn’t work when every tableau is filmed as a middle distance two-shot. Dutch angles highlight the artificial nature of a shot in order to evoke something uncomfortable in pushing us away; they work directly against a moment of meta humor that invites us to feel alongside the actors.

The live-action “Cowboy Bebop” seems to believe camp is easy just because it’s silly, but this misses the very things that help camp create coherent alternate realities of storytelling that drive home its themes. Camp filmmaking here is understood as a quirky monolith, but just these four foundations of camp come from four different eras, four different places (Europe, the U.S., New Zealand, Mexico), and they speak to four different storytelling cultures – and these four are hardly the only anchor points in the history of camp filmmaking.

This might seem like: who cares, this is delving way too far into something that’s just silly. I could just say “Cowboy Bebop” is a muddled pastiche that can’t settle on a style and be done with it. The truth is, though, that “Cowboy Bebop” has settled on a style, and that style smacks of appropriating what came before without understanding any of it. It evokes someone showing up and acting like they know how to do something without having done the work to understand how and why it functioned time after time before they even got there.

Those line readings are just one example that describe so many more. This misapplication of camp permeates every element of the show. There has to be a knowledge of what kind of camp you’re aiming for, why that works for this scene, and what else has to be there to support it.

Camp is about irony. If you don’t know which approach to use because you treat them all the same, then you don’t know how you’re being ironic. Everyone can tell what you’re being ironic about, that’s the easy part. Congratulations, you just made “Family Guy”. But if you don’t know how you’re being ironic, then your audience sure as hell doesn’t either. It’s like cutting to the punchline of a joke without telling the setup. You told the most important part, sure, but that hardly means it works.

If comparing “Cowboy Bebop” to “Undercover Brother”, the 2000 “Charlie’s Angels”, “Hercules”, “Xena”, or “G vs E” finds it outclassed every time, something’s gone really wrong. Hell, last year’s “Vagrant Queen” didn’t do a lot right, but the things “Cowboy Bebop” does wrong are almost entirely what “Vagrant Queen” did get right.

None of this is the fault of the actors, and “Cowboy Bebop” is ultimately saved to some extent on the sheer charisma and talent of its three leads. Cho, Shakir, and Pineda do great work when the filmmakers get out of their way long enough for them to do it.

I’ve wanted to review “Cowboy Bebop” on its own facets before addressing how it does as an adaptation. The decision to make this camp is one that could have worked much better. What bothers me before even thinking about this as an adaptation is that this is a bad representation of camp, the points it can make, and the stories it can tell.

That sense of someone showing up and thinking they can do better with something they don’t understand only gets worse when you consider:

“COWBOY BEBOP” AS AN ADAPTATION…

Setting those problems aside, how is this as an adaptation of the anime “Cowboy Bebop”? Its success depends on what you want out of it.

The first episode of “Cowboy Bebop” is a disaster, trying to cram in so many nods and Easter Eggs from the show that it feels like one of those pages from “Ready Player One” that lists a bunch of popular items in the hope it can convince you bulk recognition is the same thing as nostalgia. The show does improve markedly after this, but it’s an uphill climb in the hope of getting back to sea level.

Let’s get into those three leads. The casting is perfect, but these aren’t 1-to-1 portrayals, either. Each takes their character and makes it their own. This means some changes in traits and tone; that’s going to come with any adaptation.

Their stories are often substantially rewritten, and many of these changes seem needless. I’m fine with an adaptation making changes like these so long as there’s a good reason and they don’t betray core meanings – I think it can be argued that Jet’s, Faye’s, and especially Julia’s stories are changed to the point of violating core meanings.

Is there a good reason for these changes? That’s very arguable. Do we need Jet to be an absentee father, chasing after a doll for half the season? Is “Cowboy Bebop” the most apt place to be retelling “Jingle All the Way”?

No, that’s just filler. The show is rife with writing that takes complex relationships of partial trust and different views on moral quandaries and reduces them to Odd Couple sitcom dynamics. This sitcom-style rewriting has its ups and downs, and sometimes it’s even well done. Cho, Shakir, and especially Pineda bring a ton of energy to it. What they’re doing in “Cowboy Bebop” I have no idea, but these sitcom elements are the most watchable part of the show, and writing that sentence makes me feel like I need to take a shower.

In other cases, the adaptation changes major character plotlines so that it can fill in its own explanations. The original anime was content to keep a lot in the dark, just as the characters were from each other. When you explain what’s mysterious, though, you lose the mystery. Yes, that might be the single most obvious sentence I’ve ever had to write, but it seems to be the philosophy behind this adaptation. And again, that’s fine if you’ve got something to replace it.

What made the original “Cowboy Bebop” so enticing was that mystique. We didn’t know these characters as well as we wanted, and we filled in what we didn’t know with hope for them that they may not have had for themselves. That was compelling, and it brought out what was human in the viewer. It made us catch our empathy in our throats. It brought out the stark divide of watching their universe even as ours grows to look more and more like it. The criminals Spike, Jet, and Faye brought in for bounties were often the only ones fighting the corporatism, corruption, and exploitation that had ruined each of their lives, that was ruining lives every place they went.

In researching their bounties and trying to understand who they hunted, the trio would often commiserate and identify with their quarry’s motives, even if their target had long ago lost the thread or become corrupt. The show was a scream from inside a broken system, a warning of what’s to come in a world with no future.

Its adaptation carries no such complexity. This “Cowboy Bebop” gives passing reference to these contemplations and hand waves them away in favor of kooky bounty hunting antics. Its plot explanations lose the existential, mistaking what was once anxious, absurd, and alienating for comedy quirk.

Even when a story is expanded with a good reason, such as Julia’s, it runs directly against the biggest throughline “Cowboy Bebop” had. Julia deserves her own agency and story, something the original never found the time to offer. This “Cowboy Bebop” focuses heavily on her story, but in so doing doesn’t find the same message as the anime. Instead, it seems to say that empowerment can be found within the same corporatist system that “Cowboy Bebop” was created to warn against. Julia should have an awesome expanded story. It shouldn’t be one that finds the empowerment everyone else lacks in the very system that first allowed her to be abused and threatened, and that removes power from everyone else.

So much of what made the anime great was this idea that Spike, Jet, and Faye were functioning as cogs within a corrupt system just to make it by, while resenting that system for taking away their lives and making everyone’s future bleak. How do they marry this idea of helping the system to continue while constantly running up against those who’ve decided to resist? It’s a concept that has only grown more and more relevant today. For the live-action adaptation to suggest a character’s escape from that system is simply to become the one running it and abusing others is a devastating betrayal of the original’s message. It’s a misunderstanding not just of the anime’s social value, but of how that fight exists in people’s lives today. Within the context of an adaptation, it’s at best a misunderstanding of empowerment and at worst a lie about it.

This adaptation is – in every way it can be – the epitome of someone walking in and thinking they can do better with something they haven’t even done the work to understand at its most basic level.

I went in with tempered expectations because the anime is a masterpiece. You can’t compare an adaptation to a masterpiece. Yet if the adaptation turns its back on the ethos of the source itself, that’s difficult to overcome or justify. The style, the ethos, the message, all of it is gone, replaced with a camp approach that could still work as its own thing but fails to understand how and why camp is used.

And maybe it’s not the worst of these issues, but the best way I have to sum up the adaptation is this: the stillness of the original is gone. The anime “Cowboy Bebop” was centered on jazz and blues. Every viewing was a syncopation, a calm before a chaos. Each character represented a moral viewpoint that had been transgressed, yet was desperately held to. Tension was created in which would win out: The transgression or the moral? The chaos or the calm? The hunter or the bounty? The system or the motive that resists it?

The anime was jazz, in the truest sense of the word. Here, the jazz is just the soundtrack to an asset strip.

You can watch “Cowboy Bebop” on Netflix.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

New Shows + Movies by Women — October 15, 2021

This is a phenomenal week for surprises. It includes a new psychological horror from one of the best directors out there, Claudia Llosa. It also features one of the best reviewed horror movies of the year, the latest in a recent surge of Welsh suspense. Nineties franchise “I Know What You Did Last Summer” gets re-adapted as a series. To top it all off, Kate Beckinsale goes against type in an ego-driven dark comedy. This is where we’ll start:

NEW SERIES

Guilty Party (Paramount+)
showrunner Rebecca Addelman

Kate Beckinsale stars as Beth, a discredited journalist. She tries to relaunch her career by ingratiating herself with a mother sentenced to life for murdering her husband. Beth is determined to prove herself relevant again- er, to prove the woman innocent.

Showrunner Rebecca Addelman has written and produced on “Dead to Me” and “Ghosted”.

You can watch “Guilty Party” on Paramount+, with new episodes premiering weekly.

I Know What You Did Last Summer (Amazon)
showrunner Sara Goodman

“I Know What You Did Last Summer” is a new adaptation of the Lois Duncan novel. It also saw a popular 1997 film adaptation. Five teens hit someone with their car on the night of their graduation. They hide the body. A year later, someone starts killing them one by one.

This is the first series showrun by Sara Goodman.

You can watch “I know What You Did Last Summer” on Amazon.

Build Divide #000000 Code Black (Crunchyroll)
directed by Komada Yuki

I really appreciate Japanese titling. From “Reborn as a Vending Machine, I Now Wander the Dungeon” to “Bofuri: I Don’t Want to Get Hurt, so I’ll Max Out My Defense”, and even “Melty Blood Actress Again Current Code”, they’re just so much braver than our surfeit of boring, old 1-3 word titles.

Anyway, in “Build Divide #000000 Code Black”, players in a trading card game attempt to defeat the king of Neo Kyoto. If they do, their wishes will be granted. (#000000 is the hex code in a spreadsheet for black, if you’re wondering what the connection is. I’m…still not sure that clarifies anything.)

Komada Yuki previously assistant directed “Mugen no Juunin: Immortal”.

“Build Divide #000000 Code Black” is simulcast as it airs in Japan, with new episodes every week. You can watch it on Crunchyroll.

NEW MOVIES

Fever Dream (Netflix)
directed by Claudia Llosa

“Fever Dream” is an adaptation of Samanta Schweblin’s 2014 novel of the same name. It tells a surreal tale of horror inspired by environmental abuses in Argentina.

I named writer-director Claudia Llosa’s “The Milk of Sorrow” my best film of the 2010s. She is a brilliant visualist and patient storyteller. You could say her sense of empathy has infused her movies with elements of cultural horror (about misogyny and colonialism), but this looks like her first crack at a film that’s housed in the horror genre. The crew she’s gathered is a stunning group, including “Loki” composer Natalie Holt, “The Orphanage” cinematographer Oscar Faura, and “A Fantastic Woman” production designer Estefania Larrain.

You can watch “Fever Dream” on Netflix.

Censor (Hulu)
directed by Prano Bailey-Bond

Enid is a film censor. She’s strict, with a specialty for censoring moments of violence. When she’s tasked with reviewing a particular film, its details spur childhood memories about her sister’s unsolved disappearance. Enid sets to work investigating the film’s origins, even as fiction and reality increasingly blur.

This is the first feature from director and co-writer Prano Bailey-Bond. It also marks another well-reviewed Welsh horror entry centered on family bringing to light generations-old wrongs. Welsh horror is carving an extremely unique voice with independent-styled films that focus on characters who convey different realities based on privilege. These horror metaphors tend to center on gaslighting, often of women and often in relation to long-disappeared or dead family members.

I can’t help but notice the popularity of this theme, and wonder how much it might connect to a history of English abuses and cover-ups such as the culturally defining Aberfan disaster.

I featured “Censor” when you could rent it, but this is the first time it’s been on a streaming service. “Censor” now also appears on Hulu.

The Blazing World (VOD)
directed by Carlson Young

In this fairy tale horror, a woman returns to her childhood home. She’s stayed away since the accidental drowning of her twin sister. Yet as she returns, she finds access to an alternate world where her sister may survive. She’ll have to convince three demons to release her sister back into this world.

This is the first feature for director and co-writer Carlson Young.

See where to rent “The Blazing World”.

Moving On (MUBI)
directed by Yoon Dan-bi

In this Korean slice-of-life movie, two children move into their grandfather’s house for the summer. Their aunt soon follows, and the three generations work out how to live under the same roof.

This is the first film from writer-director Yoon Dan-bi.

You can watch “Moving On” on MUBI.

On the Fringe of Wild (VOD)
directed by Emma Catalfamo

The story of two young men falling in love in small-town Ontario is inspired by “Romeo and Juliet”.

This is the first feature-length film from director Emma Catalfamo.

See where to rent “On the Fringe of Wild”.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

A Study in Distractions — “Yasuke”

“Yasuke” is based on an African man who came to Japan with Jesuit traders. His circumstances and position are unclear, and the show refers to him as a “servant” at this point. Once in Japan, he entered the service of legendary warlord Nobunaga, and became a samurai. That’s about where the anime’s historical accuracy ends.

This isn’t necessarily a problem – the series dives into a fantasy battle from the opening scene. Giant robots lay waste to soldiers as sorcerers conjure devastating attacks in response. It lets you know that “Yasuke” isn’t really going to be recounting history.

Most of “Yasuke” takes place after Yasuke himself has gone into hiding. It’s 20 years later and he’s known as the “Black boatman”. He takes people up and down the river and fishes along the way. Traumatized by his time in battle, he spends his free time drinking or sleeping. He’s charged with taking a girl upriver to see a doctor. Needless to say, things go haywire from there.

The problem with the show rests in its world-building. There’s an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to incorporating anime cliches. That’s fun at first, but becomes increasingly overwhelming and distracting. It’s a six episode series and outside of two fight scenes, Yasuke himself has nothing to do outside of drink or be tortured for the first three episodes.

For a show ostensibly created to celebrate a Black samurai, it feels frustrating. He certainly wasn’t the only Black person in Japan at the time, but he’s the only one we know of who broke through its considerable racism and achieved such high social status in a very hierarchical military culture. In those first three episodes, we get flashbacks where Yasuke trains, fights, and discusses honor and loyalty. Those flashbacks are great. The storyline that takes place in the present, however, mostly sees him drink and get tortured.

There may’ve been more for him to do, but the show is too intent on shoveling in trope after trope that don’t have to do with him. Like I said, it’s fun to recognize them at first. Yet none of them are contextualized or even very consistent. You see, the Mongols invaded Japan using giant robots, forcing Japan to adopt the tech as their own to defend themselves, except giant robots are sometimes magical constructs and sometimes technological ones, and sometimes mecha operated by a pilot and sometimes not, and who knows which and does any of it matter because I’m not sure even the show knows.

And then there’s a werewolf, and then there’s an African sorcerer, and then there’s a wise-cracking robot, and then there’s a woman with a scythe who’s maybe a mecha pilot one time in the fifth episode, and then they work for an agent of the Catholic Church who’s a mutant with biomass powers but he also has electric powers and oh! he can also can turn his mouth into that series of teeth that the worms from “Dune” have, and then the Daimyo is an evil psychic spider, and then there’s a Dark Samurai infused with powers that do something, but he glows purple real well, and then there’s astral projection, and then, and then, and then.

With each new “and then”, I got excited about how brimming the world was with the intersections of all these things, until I realized none really mattered. None were ever filled in. Their presence in the world isn’t given reason. They’re all present, for no particular reason. The voice cast does a good job with these characters, but the writing needed to have fewer of them or provide them more substance.

The series details Yasuke’s past in beautiful ways for three episodes, and LaKeith Stanfield does some great work as a young, idealistic Yasuke and a burnt out, traumatized older one. There are nuances of the character that carry through, but a worldview that’s been damaged. It’s a good thing Stanfield does this level of work, because the rest of the show doesn’t. It weaves his story in the present in such a way that sidelines Yasuke in exchange for world-building. That’s fine, but then that world-building doesn’t mean anything. Nothing is shaped out of it. It’s good for a few meta one-liners, but many of them fall flat and they aren’t central enough to build into something larger. We’ve traded Yasuke and his story for a pile-on of elements the show never treats as very important.

For the first three episodes, “Yasuke” relies on balancing his arc in the past against his arc in the present, without ever giving him an arc in the present beyond getting drunk and being tortured. It hardly feels like a celebration or recognition of him, but even if these aren’t what we’re looking for, what is given us feels needlessly counter-productive and cruel.

The last three episodes leave the flashbacks behind and progress the current story. Here, Yasuke has considerably more agency and the show capitalizes on those flashbacks in some resonant ways. I really wish the series had found a way to focus on the flashbacks from the first three episodes, and the present-tense storyline from the last three episodes, with all that wasted time in the first three episodes cut down.

But it’s an action anime, I’m taking it too seriously? Sure, but the lack of context and consistency saturates the action scenes. Let’s take the good first: the sword fights themselves are stylish and communicate in a way that makes following them feel easy. We can watch Yasuke fight, dodge, counter, and then follow the movement of his sword all the way through to someone’s head being chopped off, the camera spinning around the world in relation. There’s a groundedness and great sense of choreography – particularly for what anime enables our POV to follow in a cogent way.

Then comes the robot. The fight and chase scenes he’s involved in have very little geography. Characters fly around in ways that completely lose the viewer’s sense of direction and strategy. If we can’t follow what the pursued and pursuing are thinking and why they take a certain action, then it doesn’t matter how many energy blasts you’ve got, the scene lacks consequence. Of course, anime has a long history of abstracting fight scenes so that geography disappears altogether, and this can be really striking – but this doesn’t describe the approach here. Instead, these are grounded fights and chases – they just aren’t done well.

This also expands into the battle scenes, where landscape and geographical features are only included once they’re needed for a plot point. You’re ambushing from the forest? I guess there was a convenient forest on both sides of their army the whole time, OK. You’re blasting through a chunk of mountain to bring an army in? OK, so there was mountain there the whole time, I guess. The more elements a fight, chase, or battle includes, the more the sense of “and then, and then, and then” takes over.

Many may show up for the music, and it is by far the show’s standout strength. The electronic/hip hop artist Flying Lotus designs an expressive landscape of yearning synths and soft yet driving drum hits. There are moments that are reminiscent of Vangelis’s work in “Blade Runner”, but Flying Lotus also shifts easily into a unique blend of hauntology, hip hop, and Japanese instrumentation that often rises toward heroic darkwave themes for the fights. There are even clever synth callbacks to Ennio Morricone in moments of stand-off and rising tension. I don’t know how much I’d recommend the show, but the score has an argument as one of the best ever made for a series. It does so much heavy lifting that I think it kept the show’s emotion alive for me after the rest of it had already burned through my patience.

The animation is a mixed bag because it’s often sabotaged by editing decisions. Japanese studio MAPPA do some really detailed work, with early backgrounds of Yasuke’s village standing out as beautiful. The presentations of astral projection and sorcery are well done, with a sense of impact and consequence. There are some towering moments of otherworldly weirdness with the show’s big bad.

That brings us to the robots/constructs/mecha, which can be impressive when they’re actually shown in relation to characters, but are often isolated to their own shots that don’t relate to the battle, fight, or chase scene at hand. I don’t mean to double down on criticizing the robot element here – I was excited at its inclusion at first – but the show never defines any element of how they function or intersect in a fight, while relying on them in half the fights. Worse yet, it leans on cutting to them in isolation or in a completely different area. They’re not linked up to an element of the action scene where the viewer is already anchored, so whatever they do ends up being confusing until one of the characters notices, ‘oh hey, they just did xyz’ or you catch up and just figure it yourself. There’s a reason the trailers avoid showing most of the sci-fi elements: they just don’t work.

Character designs can feel like they come from different eras, which should be a strength but can also stress the sense of wanting more context and world-building from all the different elements crammed together. There are also a few times scenes feel missing, where a character just Hudson Hawks from one place in one scene into a completely different place in the next without the interstitial scripting that connects them.

Would I recommend “Yasuke”? I’m fifty-fifty. The symbolism’s strong in a lot of moments. Then it gets distracted by one-liners, many of which don’t work or are overly familiar. The flashback story of the first three episodes is strong, with a genuine sense of character and texture that made me want to see this element expanded. The last three episodes feel a bit rushed and could have supported more meat to this part of the story, but they’re overall good.

On the other hand, that sense of being rushed only makes me more frustrated with all the wasted time in the present-tense story of the first three episodes. Even as the show got more consistent in its final episodes, I felt like my patience had already been wasted. I wasn’t sure if I was finishing the show because I wanted to see what happened, or because I’d already invested an hour-and-a-half and figured I may as well finish the last hour-and-a-half. I’m glad I finished it, but its early misfires also made me bristle any time I felt the series was getting distracted or focusing on unexplained, throwaway characters again.

The everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach isn’t a bad one. I’ve enjoyed it in series and movies that are far worse than this, so why didn’t I enjoy it here? If I’ve defended “Vagrant Queen” or “Flash Gordon”, how can I possibly criticize something that is more artful and substantive like “Yasuke”? Those may be worse, but they didn’t lose the thread of their stories or characters. They didn’t sideline their stories and characters in ways that wasted viewers’ time.

“Yasuke” doesn’t ground the huge range of elements it wants to throw in, it just keeps throwing more in. Neither does it pursue something abstracted, surreal, or meta enough to use these elements as texture on which you can imprint larger meanings. There are a lot of anime series that handle such a wide range of elements in more directed ways than this. They may not always have the elements of social consciousness that “Yasuke” has, but even when “Yasuke” brings them up, it can’t focus on them very long when a robot needs to deliver a one-liner you’ve heard 20 times before. At the same time, it’s not like there are many anime series entrusted to Black creators like LeSean Thomas, and that representation gives the series an off-the-screen importance that other shows lack.

“Yasuke” has good characters, some good action, and phenomenal music, but with incredibly inconsistent and distracted storytelling. Countless elements are thrown in, a lot of them with writing that doesn’t hold up to the standard of the writing of the main characters. There’s no sense of consistency to the things that establish consequence. Some scenes arrive without context, powers are all over the place, and even the features and geography of a battle will change as the plot suddenly requires the landscape to be different for something new to happen. Moderate distances are too great to travel one minute, while great distances are then traversed in no time when the series realizes it only has 30 minutes to wrap things up.

None of this is enough to topple “Yasuke”, which is borderline shocking and speaks to how good certain elements like the music, acting, and much of the animation are. Yet the series never feels very steady either. There’s a story here that it wants to tell, and that’s fun to see, but there are so many distractions and excesses that it feels like Thomas is often more interested in these than in the core plot and hero…and that risks us following the storyteller’s lead and becoming less interested in the plot and hero, too. All that we’re left with is those distractions, which aren’t going to hold our attention. When the show finally does get more interested in Yasuke, his agency, and his story, I couldn’t feel comfortable putting that initial trust and emotional investment back into it all.

You can watch “Yasuke” on Netflix.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

New Shows + Movies by Women — October 9, 2020

The biggest news of the week is that “GLOW” won’t be getting its fourth season. As explained by star Marc Maron, the new season was two-and-a-half episodes into filming when COVID-19 halted production. Netflix doesn’t want to pay for indefinitely renting the sets and offices needed to continue shooting. Maron is lobbying Netflix to film the remainder of the show as a movie, which could potentially reduce costs and utilize what’s already shot. There isn’t yet word from showrunners Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch on the strategy.

As for this week, anime tends to release on a seasonal schedule. The first few weeks of October see a lot of new series. These are the weeks to find something new if you’re a fan. There are three listed here. It represents a fraction of the new anime being released since most are still directed by men. That’s hardly unique – it’s an imbalance that’s common to just about every film and television industry operating.

One other note: there are a lot of entries this week. That’s always a good thing. I want to keep things manageable, so I’ll be splitting documentaries off into a separate article next week.

NEW SERIES

Sleepy Princess in the Demon Castle (Funimation)
directed by Mitsue Yamazaki

Princess Syalis of the kingdom of Goodereste is kidnapped by a demon lord. She’s fine with that so long as she’s still treated like a princess. Her main priority is getting a good night’s sleep, which it turns out is pretty difficult in a demon castle. Magical items, parts of the fluffy guards themselves, anything she can get her hands on will be repurposed to help her sleep. It’s soon apparent that she’s not locked in with the demons. The demons are locked in with her.

This is surprisingly relatable as we enter the Nth month of sheltering in place because conservatives don’t believe in the concepts of, you know, medicine and public health. Is…is the sleepy princess the hero of our times?

Director Mitsue Yamazaki started as a storyboard artist on “Kurenai” and now boasts a resume with impressive range. She’s directed projects that span from “Monthly Girls’ Nosaki-kun” (a romance about a girl who becomes an assistant in the manga industry) to the epic mythic fantasy “Hakkenden: Eight Dogs of the East”.

You can watch “Sleepy Princess in the Demon Castle” on Funimation with a subscription.

CW: The next entry contains pregnancy horror.

The Expecting (Quibi)
showrunner-director Mary Harron

A woman wakes up in the woods without knowing how she got there. She soon discovers she’s pregnant. Before long, it becomes apparent that her pregnancy is supernatural in nature, and that those around her know more than they’re letting on. The show stars AnnaSophia Robb, Rory Culkin, and Mira Sorvino.

The big draw here is showrunner and director Mary Harron. Most famous for “American Psycho”, she’s also directed “The Notorious Bettie Page” and “Alias Grace”. To be blunt, she’s a director with a tremendous sense of the meta-film that takes place alongside what’s on the screen.

What does that mean? Harron has a way of outlining the pieces that are being withheld from the audience in a way that takes a particular shape. Very often, the story she tells on-screen also begins to tell a story the audience can shape off of it. Especially given her track record, she’s been overlooked and undervalued across her career.

You can watch “The Expecting” on Quibi with a subscription.

Flesh and Blood (PBS)
showrunner Sarah Williams
directed by Louise Hooper

This Masterpiece Theatre miniseries is about three siblings who become upset when their mother falls in love with someone new. Their father has only just passed. Since it’s a Masterpiece series on PBS, you either know there will be amazing teacups or a murder (sometimes both). Here, it’s a murder.

The miniseries features Imelda Staunton as a neighbor who takes an interest. Staunton is most famous for playing Dolores Umbridge in the “Harry Potter” movies.

Showrunner Sarah Williams created and wrote the show. She’s known for writing Jane Austen biopic “Becoming Jane” and miniseries “The Long Song”.

Director Louise Hooper started out making BBC historical documentaries and has more recently shifted into series directing on shows like “Lucky Man” and “Cheat”.

You can watch “Flesh and Blood” on your local PBS station.

I’m Standing on a Million Lives (Crunchyroll)
directed by Kumiko Habara

Yotsuya and some of his classmates are transported to a world of mythology and magic. A game master then gives them a challenging quest. If they fail to complete it in time, demons will descend on their world. The game master will help them by giving them powerful RPG roles, though. He makes one a powerful warrior, another a skilled magician. Yotsuya rolls…a peasant. So long as one of them finishes each stage of the quest alive, they’ll all live. It’s up to them to finish the quest in order to save their world.

This is the first series directed by Kumiko Habara. She’s previously been an episode director on shows like “Noragami” and “Sailor Moon Crystal”.

You can watch “I’m Standing on a Million Lives” on Crunchyroll with a subscription.

Do Do Sol Sol La La Sol (Netflix)
directed by Kim Min-Kyung

A concert pianist loses absolutely everything. She ends up in a small town, where she connects with a worker who juggles multiple jobs. Sparks fly, and romantic complications ensue. (The title is a reference to the notes in the first line of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”.)

Director Kim Min-Kyung doesn’t have many credits to her name, and this is her first job directing an entire series. The first two episodes are out now, and new ones will be available weekly.

You can watch “Do Do Sol Sol La La Sol” on Netflix with a subscription.

Our Last Crusade or Rise of a New World (Funimation)
co-directed by Mirai Minato

This is “Romeo and Juliet”, but with a knight and a witch princess from rival houses. Come to think of it, Shakespeare, this really could’ve served to spice up the original text.

Mirai Minato directs with Shin Onuma. The pair directed gaming comedy “Bofuri: I Don’t Want to Get Hurt, So I’ll Max Out My Defense” earlier this year.

You can watch “Our Last Crusade or Rise of a New World” on Funimation with a subscription.

NEW MOVIES

The Forty-Year-Old Version (Netflix)
directed by Radha Blank

A playwright turning 40 reinvents herself as a rapper. The film won Radha Blank the directing award at the Sundance Film Festival in January this year.

Blank herself has been an actress, writer, director, and producer across her career, most recently as a writer-producer on “She’s Gotta Have It”. She reprises all those roles here. As in the film, she also performs live hip hop comedy.

You can watch “The Forty-Year-Old-Version” on Netflix with a subscription.

The Lie (Amazon)
directed by Veena Sud

“The Lie” finds a father driving his daughter to dance camp. They spot the daughter’s best friend on the roadside, and stop to offer her a ride. What follows is a crime movie that finds the parents covering for their daughter’s deadly mistake.

Veena Sud is best known as the showrunner of “The Killing”, and more recently directed rideshare horror series “The Stranger”. “Killing” lead Mireille Enos re-joins her former showrunner here, opposite Peter Sarsgaard as the two parents.

You can watch “The Lie” on Amazon Prime with a subscription.

The Devil to Pay (VOD)
co-directed by Lane Skye

Danielle’s husband disappears in the Appalachians. Soon, her son is kidnapped. A powerful family wants a debt repaid. Danielle seeks to repay it…in vengeance.

Lane Skye directs with husband Ruckus Skye. She’s a writer and producer who specializes in horror and thrillers. This is her first directorial feature.

See where to rent “The Devil to Pay” on streaming right here.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

New Movies + Shows by Women — April 3, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has redirected some of what this feature covers. Originally, it was meant to highlight new movies by women in the theater and on streaming. As theaters are nearly entirely closed, I started covering new series as well.

The original scope was more limited, and it made sense to list recent titles that were a few weeks old as well. Since that scope has opened up, the list is ballooning. That’s good; it provides a great chance to cover more work by women. At the same time, it also means I’ve got to keep articles more concise.

I’ll focus on covering what’s new this week, of course. Unlike past weeks, I won’t be listing what’s been out for 2-3 weeks in a “recent releases” category. There’s a ton of great work that’s recent, and if you want to see what else is out there from past weeks, click on “New Films by Women” just above the title of this article, or click on “new movies and shows by women” at the end of the article. You can get to every single week’s new movies and shows by women from there.

Financial accessibility is also important. Is a new movie on streaming best featured when it’s $20 to rent, or when it’s $5? My approach is I’ll feature it both times as “new”, at least as long as the pandemic is collapsing those different release phases into each other.

I also want the list to be as practical as possible. The goal isn’t to just list work by women, it’s to get you to watch it. It’s easy enough to list what service a new show is on, but if it’s a movie you can rent in different places, I’ll make sure at the end of each film or show’s write-up that you know where you can rent it, and what the best rental price is.

Thanks for bearing with some notes. As a new feature, this will go through some evolution. That’s enough of that; let’s get to new movies and shows by women.

The Other Lamb (digital rental)
directed by Malgorzata Szumowska

IFC Midnight doesn’t have the cachet of an A24 or Bleecker Street. It has done solid work platforming horror and drama films by women lately. 2019 saw them acquire a range of independent films by women, including Jennifer Kent’s period revenge tale “The Nightingale”, Emma Tammi’s supernatural western “The Wind”, Claire McCarthy’s Hamlet-by-any-other-name “Ophelia”, Mary Harron’s examination of Charles Manson victims “Charlie Says”, and Jennifer Reeder’s surreal vaporwave thriller “Knives and Skin”, just to name a few.

There’s still ample room to improve (I look forward to the day when one of these indie darlings distributes more films by women than men), but it is one of the better places to look right now for horror films by women.

Director Malgorzata Szumowska has mostly worked in the Polish film industry, and often tackled issues of identity, the culturally taboo, and the viral spread of religious cults.

Writer C.S. McMullen has been widely regarded as an up-and-coming screenwriter, with placement on Hollywood’s “Black List” of best unproduced screenplays. “The Other Lamb” is her first full-length screenplay that’s been produced.

Currently, “The Other Lamb” can be rented through Amazon Prime for $6.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (digital rental)
directed by Eliza Hittman

When social distancing started, this was the film I was most disappointed I’d have to wait to see. The trailer doesn’t over-communicate and tell you the whole story. It just paints the premise: a teen gets pregnant and leaves her hometown with her cousin in order to get an abortion.

I don’t know that much about writer-director Eliza Hittman. This is the first time a film of hers has broken big. There are a few musical artists I enjoy involved – Sharon Van Etten has a role and Julia Holter composed the score. I can’t quite tell you what it is about this film that sits there as a landmark on the calendar for me. The trailer alone already stands as a poignant and overwhelming two minutes. It utterly strikes me as something I haven’t seen told this way before, and need to.

Films that would otherwise be in theaters right now are getting at least several weeks at a $20 rental (to watch within 48 hours) before going to a more reasonable price that’s closer to what you’d expect after a theatrical run. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is no exception to this, and I’ll share it again here when it hits an individual rental price point. You can currently rent it through Amazon or iTunes.

How to Fix a Drug Scandal (Netflix docuseries)
directed by Erin Lee Carr

34,000. That’s the number of criminal cases that were affected when chemist Annie Dookhan was found to have falsified drug lab results. She had tested just a fraction of the samples she said she did, a fraction of the samples about which she testified in court. Those cases impacted as many as 40,000 people. The state of Massachusetts ended up dropping more than 21,000 pending criminal charges, not to mention facing the innocent people who had already been convicted on Dookhan’s falsified evidence. It was a disturbing view into how innocent lives could be ruined by one person in a flawed justice system that’s more interested in filling jail cells than it is in fair justice.

Sonja Farak was arrested six months after Dookhan. She was another chemist serving the Massachusetts legal system, and she was getting high on the drugs she was supposed to be testing. The docuseries tells the story of both chemists, as well as the impact on the tens of thousands who faced wrongful arrests and convictions. It also investigates the possible cover-up by former state AG Martha Coakley’s office.

Director Erin Lee Carr digs into subjects of crime with a reporter’s tenacity, and has averaged a documentary a year over the last six years. Perhaps her most famous was last year’s “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal” for HBO.

Vagrant Queen (SyFy)
showrunner Jem Garrard

I reviewed the premiere of “Vagrant Queen” earlier in the week. It’s a colorful, irreverent sci-fi romp that’s erratic on quality, but still fun. Based on the comic series by Magdalene Visaggio, it features a queer will-they/won’t-they relationship and Tim Rozon of “Wynonna Earp” fame. You can read my full review, and my takeaway is this:

“For those who enjoy cult movies, consciously B-grade sci-fi, cheese-fests, YouTube or community production sci-fi, it’s a messy refuge that’s at times bad, but that also celebrates and enjoys a lot of what we love.

“For those who are looking for something to scratch their ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, ‘The Fifth Element’, or perhaps even their ‘Jupiter Ascending’ itch, it gets the job done – but perhaps not satisfactorily.

“For others, I just don’t know. Part of watching something like this is the glee you get from it existing in the first place. That makes up for a lot of shortcomings. If you don’t have that starting interest and investment, the show might just be really, really bad.”

You can watch the full first episode for free on YouTube right here. You can also watch it on SyFy, after episodes air on cable and satellite services, with a YouTube TV or FuboTV subscription, or purchase it (at $2 an episode) to watch on Amazon, GooglePlay, or Vudu.

Home Before Dark (Apple TV+ series)
showrunners Dana Fox, Dara Resnik

The show about a child reporter who investigates a cold case is “inspired by” reality. The reality is that Hilde Kate Lysiak started a newspaper in Selinsgrove, PA in 2014. Its first story was about the birth of her sister, but soon she was covering stories about vandalism. In 2016, she broke a news story about a murder.

By 2019, her family had moved to Arizona. In stories investigating the Border Patrol, she was threatened with arrest for videoing a town marshal. She posted the story online anyway. I wouldn’t mind seeing a series about this kind of reporter handling stories that make an impact that way.

“Home Before Dark” looks like it follows very little of this, but that’s why it’s “inspired by” instead of “based on”. (I worked as a reporter, so I get a bit tense over those delineations and what they suggest.) Lysiak never investigated the disappearance of her father’s friend and wasn’t wrapped up in the kind of conspiratorial intrigue “Home Before Dark” suggests.

My grain of salt spoken, it’s fair to take “Home Before Dark” on its own merits. It seems like good family fare that can speak to and inspire a future generation of women reporters, as well as normalize the idea of women as reporters among young men. It looks interesting, and maybe it will inspire young women and men to support Lysiak and other women reporters as they speak truth to power.

Kabukichou Sherlock (Hulu series)
directed by Ai Yoshimura

It’s hard to dig up a ton of information on this, but I’m already hooked on the idea of an anime Sherlock Holmes digging into crime in a wild, neon-strewn Shinjuku, Japan. Also called “Case File no.221: Kabukicho”, the show finds Sherlock competing with other detectives over cases, including the pursuit of Jack the Ripper. It’s somewhere between a comedy and mystery series.

Ai Yoshimura has been directing anime episodes since 2010.

Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll (Netflix movie)
co-directed by Haruka Fujita

“Violet Evergarden” is an exceptionally well-reviewed anime series that follows an ex-child soldier who becomes a letter writer. The job is to assist and even ghostwrite for those who can’t write on their own, whether through disability or other circumstance. It’s been on my list to watch for a while, as it looks like a rare blend of atmospheric animation and philosophical storytelling. In particular, I keep an eye out for series and movies that suggest the melancholic patience and peacefulness that anime can at times accomplish better than any other art form.

“Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll” is the first movie in the franchise, and acts as a side story to the series. It finds Violet becoming a tutor at an all-women’s school. (A separate movie that continues the series will be coming later in the year.)

Haruka Fujita directs alongside Taichi Ishidate. The pair directed every episode of the first season of the series, often alongside other directors.

“Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll” is also the first production from Kyoto Animation since an arson attack in July 2019. The attack resulted in the deaths of 36 people, of the 71 who were in the building at that time.

Elephant (Disney+)
co-directed by Vanessa Berlowitz

Disney+ added a host of documentaries on April 1 to celebrate Earth Month. “Elephant” and “Dolphin Reef” are the new debuts. Their past Disney Nature documentaries will be joining them on the streaming service. This includes “African Cats”, “Chimpanzee”, “Born in China”, “The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos”, “Monkey Kingdom”, “Wings of Life”, and “Penguins”. Most are fairly self-descriptive.

A range of National Geographic documentaries will join these, so keep your eyes out. Don’t forget the calm and peace that nature documentaries can bring you. They can be a balm as you and your loved ones weather the anxiety and stress that social distancing can introduce. Disney’s tend to join remarkable documentary cinematography with stories that interest adults and children alike.

The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show (Netflix series)
directed by Laura Murphy

Iliza Shlesinger is a stand-up comedian who’s done five specials with Netflix. Considering the popularity of some of her shows, “The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show” seems to be coming in somewhat under the radar.

Director Laura Murphy has a long history on these kinds of shows, first as a segment director on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” and more recently as a director on “Adam Ruins Everything”.

Take a look at new movies and shows by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

What’s Exchanged in Shattering — “Land of the Lustrous”

I keep thinking of what I could say that does justice to “Land of the Lustrous”. Words and phrases like “staggeringly beautiful” and “bewildering” come to mind. So do “lonesome” and “heartache”. The 2017 anime series is an artistic masterpiece and a technological breakthrough, but those feel like the least important aspects of its storytelling.

Sometimes you find on a sculpture the sign of the hands that made it. It could be an indentation, a furrow, a ripple of sinew, a smoothness where someone else would leave it rough. What those marks represent tells you where that sculptor wants you to focus, on how they want you to identify with a character. There are rare pieces of art where – days later – you consider your emotions and you still recognize the indentations a story has made in you, the furrow that it’s molded in how you even feel a feeling. That’s what “Land of the Lustrous” can do. What words are there for that?

I think the most important thing to say is this: I was ready to turn “Land of the Lustrous” off after two episodes. I wasn’t sure whether I’d keep watching. This is because I misinterpreted what it is. “Land of the Lustrous” fosters this misinterpretation so that it can turn it upside down inside you.

Let’s start from the beginning. Adapted from a manga by Haruko Ichikawa, “Land of the Lustrous” takes place in a post-apocalypse. Humans went extinct, but it’s been long enough afterward that all signs of previous civilization are gone. Entire new geological eras have taken place. The world is lush grasslands and vibrant seashores. It’s not dire or extinct; it’s full of life.

The Lustrous are immortal beings created from gemstones. It’s not that their heart is a gemstone or they carry some magical gemstone within them. They are entirely created – head to toe – out of gemstone. Each character is composed of a different gemstone. Those who are more brittle can shatter if they fall over. Those who are harder can fight in battle. Microscopic organisms inside them constitute their sentience and memory. If one shatters and can’t recover a piece, they lose a part of their memory and knowledge.

The Lustrous are hunted by the Lunarians, moon dwellers who erupt massive armies from the sky at a moment’s notice. The Lunarians use the Lustrous in their jewelry. Though their armies are usually defeated, it seems they have numbers to spare. They’ll sacrifice hundreds just to shatter and collect a single Lustrous – and the Lustrous only number 28.

Lunarians attack in Land of the Lustrous

Phosphophyllite – or Phos for short – is naive, privileged, and impressionable. They’re the youngest of the Lustrous at 300 years old. Among the most brittle of the gems, they’ve resigned themself to being useless. Phos can’t fight, and they have no role such as other non-fighters have, like doctor, designer, or academic. They can’t find a purpose and are decidedly noncommittal even when they’re assigned one.

The characters are androgynous, but it took me a while to pick up on this – they’re animated tall and lanky, often with traditionally femme-presenting hairstyles and clothes, and they’re all voiced by women. That is, all but Kongo, their creator and leader. The effect is one of a school of young women being led by a man who created them and is worshiped by them. Most of them are somewhat impressionable and excitable. This is what first gave me pause.

Despite being hundreds and in some cases thousands of years old, many of the Lustrous often read as child-like. There are stories from every culture that misuse or abuse this trope. It takes a minute for you to start suspecting that this is the point, that the series wants you to be uncomfortable with this and question whether this is an intentional aspect of the Lustrous’ creation or even a willful choice that’s reinforced in their culture so as to hide from a truth no one wants answered. Certainly, many of the Lustrous do act more like adults. They’re the ones least connected to the rest.

The English translation uses the gender-neutral singular “they” to refer to the Lustrous. The original Japanese refers to them using a pronoun that’s similar to “he” but that I’m given to understand still reflects an ambiguous or somewhat gender-neutral aspect. There is no concept of gender among the Lustrous themselves.

(Others with far more knowledge on the show’s intersection of queer and Japanese cultural aspects have written on it, and they open a window into further elements of the show I have less ability to speak on. They contain spoilers, but if you want to read up on the presentation of queerness in “Land of the Lustrous” try: Sy Fy Wire’s “The Audacious Queerness of ‘Land of the Lustrous’” and Anime Feminist’s “Mangaka Ichikawa Haruko and the beautiful horror of growth”).

My initial hesitation had to do strictly with how characters might be read as feminine and childlike, worshiping a patriarch, and the potential problems that reside within this – before understanding that the series itself wants you to question the nature of that system.

The other half of my initial hesitation was Phos themself. It’s difficult to create stories around someone who is uninterested in their own story. That’s where the body horror element of “Land of the Lustrous” comes in. Minor spoilers, but by the second episode, Phos is swallowed by a large snail and starts to dissolve in its digestive acids.

It’s this body horror element that reveals what “Land of the Lustrous” truly is. Watch the Japanese trailer (I’ll post an English one at the bottom of the article), and it looks like a pleasant looking anime battler with impressive design and some humor.

Yet in the first episode, we meet a social outcast who wants to die. Cinnabar is poisonous to the other Lustrous and can’t come close to them. Cinnabar lives in self-exile and patrols during the night, when Lunarians are loathe to appear.

Phos themself increasingly becomes obsessed with self harm. If they can replace enough of their body with other materials and alloys, they’ll lose memory of who they are and become someone else – perhaps someone more useful. The course they pursue becomes altogether Faustian in nature.

The Lunarians inflict a toll as well. Characters are lost and pieces of who a character is are lost – there’s no gore to the characters shattering, none of the shock/revulsion that some filmmakers attempt to turn into titillation. There’s just a person who is, and then isn’t. It feels like a more honest portrayal of death and its shock to the living than a thousand more realistic depictions.

By the end of the 12-episode first season, what initially might seem like a quirky battler with school-plot humor becomes a magical realist meditation on the relationship between trauma and resistance. With some spoilers that won’t mean much without context, this fan compilation of shots describes the melancholic beauty and stark tone of the latter half of the season better than the official trailers do:

I almost turned the show off after two episodes because I couldn’t quite match the humor, fight scenes, and the show’s penchant for quiet introspection and self-analysis. It was this last – often in moments of threat or loss – that finally made me pay attention and start understanding it better. There are surreal moments of memories and trauma relived, and it’s within trying to understand the world and one’s own nature that the show excels.

This introspection often veers straight into magical realism: A character questions their usefulness in society as they’re absorbed into a snail. They lose their memories and create space for new ones as parts of them are lost and replaced. Ice floes naturally shape into monuments to long-dead sinners, shrieking as they pass each other, echoing your subconscious thoughts back to you as you as temptations. A character stands unmoving for days on end in one place hoping to speak with an enemy, becoming covered in butterflies as they wait. The show is filled with awe-inspiring, magical realist ideas and frustrated, lonely, sometimes silly people doing their best to make sense of their place in such a world.

I’m not the most avid anime viewer. It’s one of many things I watch, but it’s not a primary focus. I try to find room for what looks interesting or unique, but there’s a lot of anime that passes me by. I know enough to recognize this isn’t the first anime to combine some of these elements – while “Land of the Lustrous” ultimately falls very far from the magical girl genre, I can’t help but think of “Puella Magi Madoka Magica”. It was a revolution in taking tired magical girl tropes and introducing aspects of cosmic horror, PTSD, and – in its case – contemporary art. The two shows both center on Faustian bargains in order to take on a role that protects society, a role characters can only begin to question once they’re fulfilling it.

“Land of the Lustrous” is without a doubt in my mind the best anime series I’ve seen since “Mushi-Shi”. What does that mean from someone who isn’t an expert in anime? I can’t tell you. But why compare it only to other anime? The single season that’s out now is one of the best seasons of any show that I’ve seen. The way its deeper-and-deeper world-building is slowly revealed is unique. It finds overwhelming beauty and calm in the stillness between moments of trauma. The Buddhist cosmic horror of the Lunarians is presented with a peace and silence that becomes far more frightening than the loud, gurgling, dark, and oozing horrors I’m used to seeing in other shows and movies.

What “Land of the Lustrous” does that’s almost impossible to do, that is a rare and complicated feat in storytelling, is it evolves the viewer’s understanding of its world in perfect time with a character’s own. The psychology of Phos’s character, at first so innocuous and simplistic, becomes utterly involved, complex, and heartbreaking. Phos is so convinced that they’ll fail that they constantly self-sabotage. Others die because of it, but Phos is always protected from carrying that burden themself because others think that Phos can’t handle it. The desire to be useful drives Phos to wild extremes. Yet the social determination that they’ll always be so useless that they shouldn’t even carry the burden of their mistakes is what makes Phos so desperate in the first place.

Butterflies land on Phos in Land of the Lustrous

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character evolve so much, in such an earned way, in as brief a time as twelve 20-some minute episodes. This is what makes “Land of the Lustrous” leave its mark on you. It has impressive anime battles that are stunning to look at, but it’s not really a battler. It has plenty of humor, and a surprising amount of dry humor laced throughout otherwise serious moments, but it’s certainly not a comedy. It has plentiful discovery of its intricate world-building without ever being a straight-ahead fantasy.

“Land of the Lustrous” is, at its core, a psychological portrayal of one character in a world built from metaphor. Few pieces of art have managed to leave this profound an emotional mark on me. I don’t find myself often leaning forward in my seat, but there were many moments in later episodes that saw me do this. One was a surprisingly tense chase scene; the rest were almost all moments in Phos’s psychology, where who they were and who they’d decide to be rested on a very fine balance.

There are some works of art that are masterpieces, that have such command over their medium that they guide you through every moment and perception with unfaltering sureness. There are other works of art that I often find more interesting – these are more ambitious. They’re usually too messy in everything they want to speak about to be as fine and controlled as masterpieces. And sometimes, very rarely, you find both of those aspects in one work of art. They are messy and ambitious and somehow find that sure-footedness in something that seems like it should be desperately uncontrolled. They don’t just guide you, they guide you through chaos. “Land of the Lustrous” is utterly thick with metaphor. It builds a world from things that are nearly impossible to build worlds from.

If you asked me to describe the show in a sentence, it’s this: It centers on the psychology of a magically real amnesiac, trying to find a role in a critically flawed society, amid the threat of Buddhist cosmic horrors, half-remembering trauma in fits of surrealism.

This shouldn’t work. That it does, and it does so well boils my brain down to those hyperbolic phrases of criticism you’re never supposed to use: Staggeringly beautiful. Bewildering. Masterpiece. Heartbreak. Awe.

“Land of the Lustrous” is currently available in the U.S. through Amazon Prime. I watched the subtitled version, which I recommend in particular for Tomoyo Kurosawa’s constantly evolving but anchored Japanese voice performance as Phos. Reading a bit on other viewers’ experiences shows the dubbed version is also well regarded.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

10 Things I Thought While Watching “Wizard Barristers”

Wizard Barristers title sequence

by Gabriel Valdez

1. Think of Wizard Barristers like you would a more serious version of Key & Peele’s Law and Order: Wizard City sketch, or the best version of The Dresden Files we’ll ever get on TV. I started watching it as a lark – we wanted to do some anime coverage and it was recommended by a friend. I wasn’t expecting much, but…Wizard Barristers is a pretty successful combination of social issues, well-paced writing, and, well, fanservice to 12 year-old boys.

It’s 2018 in an alternate-universe Tokyo. There are normal people just like you and me, as well as magic users…wizards. You’d think the power these wizards wield would dominate the ordinary people, but instead they’ve been relegated as a sort of second-class, complete with their own highly prejudiced court system. Hmmm…that doesn’t sound like anywhere I know.

They’re called “wuds” and ordinary people treat them with fear and revulsion. More on that in a bit.

2. The show centers on Cecil Sudou, the youngest wizard barrister in history at 17. She joins a slightly dysfunctional law firm, but her aggressive optimism means she saddles herself with tough cases before she completely knows what she’s doing. The character’s actually very winning, drawn and voiced charmingly. I’m a sucker for effective optimists on TV, the people who say, “What’s next?” after a victory in lieu of celebrating it. Yes, that’s a West Wing reference and, accommodating for genre, Cecil would fit in pretty well with the Bartlet administration.

Even as she’s kicking the asses of magical muggers, Cecil shouts, “Please turn yourselves in. I’ll represent you in court!”

That’s a hero I can root for.

Wizard Barristers scooter

3. There is, however, a creepy amount of fanservice centering around a 17 year-old girl. I try not to judge, because I don’t have the cultural context to view things like this – I’m reasonably versed in Japanese film, but that’s not enough to be able to start making claims about what should or should not be acceptable in someone else’s culture.

This is complicated by the fact that I have a number of friends who utilize kawaii (cute or “lolita” fashion) in their own careers and, as our own Vanessa Tottle wrote earlier this year (at the bottom of this article), kawaii itself has been co-opted into a borderless counter-culture movement akin to the 70s/80s punk movement in Western culture.

I have a theory as to what’s happening in the fanservice and why it’s actually used in a socially conscious way, but that doesn’t mean that I’m completely at peace with it. At least they’re fairly equal opportunity about it, featuring buff men as well as buxom women. I like seeing a professional setting dominated by women – that’s a plus – I just imagine that in the U.S. this law firm would have about a dozen well-deserved sexual harassment claims against it in its first day.

Wizard Barristers Erari Quinn

4. Wizard Barristers does do an excellent job of addressing cultural stigmas. There’s a repeated criticism of the justice system and its automatic assumption of guilt for those who are in any way different. I know this is an issue with the Japanese court system, but believe me, theirs is far from the only culture guilty of this.

While the first big case concerns a “wud” and self-defense (killing a robber at the bank he used to work for), it’s not just his being a magic user that’s put on trial, it’s his being a social outlier. He was forced to resign from the bank because he wasn’t socially accepted, and now his guilt is more easily presumed for the same reason. One of the pleasures of Wizard Barristers is that it’s pretty easy to underestimate, which means it surprises you pretty regularly.

Wizard Barristers Erari Quinn 2

5. One thing you have to appreciate about limited run anime (animes that run for 12 episodes like this one), is that the plot MOVES. By the third episode, we’ve already got a cleverly orchestrated terrorist attack on the magic court itself. It holds accountable a justice system that declares a homicide accidental while demanding the death sentence, yet turns around and lets another wizard live for clearly premeditated murder.

It suggests a court system of who you know and the quality of your defense, not a system of effective justice, and this is the through-line Wizard Barristers keeps revisiting.

6. Like I said, I meant to write about this as a lark…but the stories are good, the world-building is solid, the mysteries are just complex enough to bear out a 23 minutes-an-episode pace, and – most importantly – the characters are utterly fantastic. I am elitist as they get about animation – I don’t watch a lot of it, so I don’t like to waste my time – but Wizard Barristers is worth the investment. This show is much better than expected.

Wizard Barristers restaurant fight

7. Let’s pick an episode out to illustrate what I mean. “Six Nine” is the best of the bunch. It all focuses on investigating one case, trying to clear another wizard barrister of murder. There’s a cutaway to the overall series arc about how Cecil is some ubermagician foretold in blah-blah-blah, but it’s pretty inconsequential to the episode.

The more intense focus on Cecil and her frustrating working relationship with the office geezer is the real standout. He works at a snail’s pace, she’s gung ho – only later does she start to realize how observant and clever he is, and how he solves the case while she’s busy demanding a new partner. It’s an episode that relies only on character to tell its story and Cecil’s character is strong enough to hold it up.

8. Of course, the ubermagician blah blah blah starts to derail the “one case an episode” approach, but I can’t compliment a series for its fast pace and then complain it’s moving too fast, can I? In truth, this is a show that I feel is stronger in this more serialized approach, but it’s not as if it loses any quality by developing more overall arc. It just shifts direction, and ultimately, I’d rather a show do something well and move on than settle into doing nothing else.

Wizard Barristers cosplay

9. The sixth episode, “Hero Show,” might have the cleverest social commentary. Cecil and another barrister cosplay TV superheroes at a convention, ostensibly for yet more fanservice. The twist is that they’re kidnapped along with four young children. When they save the day, they do it dressed as heroes, and the children marvel at their magic.

This is the same magic those children will grow to hate and fear, and whose practitioners they’ll ostracize as adults. Their parents shy from the ‘wuds.’ It’s a clever way to hammer the message in – hate isn’t natural, it’s taught at home.

10. Food, and where I think the fanservice might be doing something interesting. The plot always seems to be taking place over food. Someone on the writing staff has clearly worked in an office before, and knows that nothing moves in one without food.

That may sound like it drags down the series but, to the contrary, it helps give the world a better sense of place (characters aren’t just doing things that are plot-relevant in every scene) and it speeds things up – there’s a great deal of motion and interaction to eating, and this can give an energy to exposition that’s missing in many shows.

It’s also the biggest reason I pause in criticizing the fanservice too much. It’s ALWAYS attached to food. I have to wonder if they’re using the expectation of fanservice in this kind of show as a commentary that, if there’s one thing sexy women all do, it’s not starving themselves – they eat. If you have to include fanservice, that’s an encouraging message to include with it.

This focuses on the first half of the season. I’ve watched more and will probably write more on it, as the show changes pretty considerably after this. Overall, though, I’d recommend it, which I didn’t think I would when I set in. It delivers a lot of social commentary in sly, smart ways that – like Cecil herself – you wouldn’t necessarily expect given its outward appearance.

You can watch Wizard Barristers in its entirety for free on Hulu.

Wizard Barristers Cecil

Trailer of the Week — “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”

Kaguya

What does Japanese animation offer that American and European don’t? The space to breathe. The space to exist in a world not made for the screen, but for its characters. American animation stresses constant motion. Visual cleverness is prized.

Anime, on the other hand, stresses the moments in between the action. A moment so still you can close your eyes and feel the breeze on your face, that a character’s contemplation will spark your own…that, you’ll only get from anime.

Beauty will often be found in background details, while the motion of the wind through an entire field might be represented by a single, black line and a soft sound. It’s this artistic restraint and reliance on the power of suggestion that makes anime so unique and powerful, that lets viewers access the otherworldly and surreal where Western animation would add fidelity to the point of overexplanation.

Western animation is often so detailed and action-packed, characters barely get to breathe. It can be beautiful in its constant motion, and it certainly lends itself to humor, but it always leaves us keenly aware we’re watching a movie.

Because anime is so based on suggestion, it can often give us that feeling of remembering a dream upon waking up. Our brains might scrabble for the details for a moment, but it’s the impression we’re left with that’s important, the unique feeling we can only access in that moment of opening our eyes, reminiscing about something that never existed.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is told in a boldly illustrative style, and I’ve been looking forward to it ever since it opened to rave reviews in Japan a year ago. Even in a one-minute trailer, you can see the sheer power of performance in its hand-drawn style, the birth of resolve in a character’s eyes, the absence of detail in a moment of anger reflecting what that panic and vengeance really feel like.

The Homesman
Hilary Swank. Tommy Lee Jones. Meryl Streep. Miranda Otto. Hailee Steinfeld. John Lithgow. Tim Blake Nelson. James Spader. William Fichtner.

It’s like the Western drama version of The Expendables, but I’ve already checked – Annette Bening’s not acting lead in anything this year, so it’s unlikely Swank wins an Oscar for this.

If there’s an American corollary to anime, it’s probably the Western. After the days of actors like John Wayne and Gregory Peck saving the girl, Italian director Sergio Leone took Japanese samurai narratives and filmed them in Spain as American westerns. He took the cinematic tendencies for stillness, introspection, and a uniquely Japanese form of postwar regret from directors like Akira Kurosawa and translated them into a Eurocentric perspective that took everything inward and painted it onto the landscape. He created a Purgatory for lost souls, the outward projection of self-punishment for characters whose ethical null-states didn’t allow them to feel penance.

The Western never looked back and, if you think it’s dead today, when was the last time you watched a post-apocalyptic movie or TV show?

Some Westerns still take place in the Old West, though, and that makes me happy, because they give actors a chance to stretch their wings. The Homesman is still unique among them, however, because Westerns typically involve men who haven’t bathed in a week shooting and beating the snot out of each other. I can drive down to Tully O’Reilly’s any Saturday night for that.

No, what makes The Homesman unique is that it’s centered around women in the Old West. Quick, name the last Western you saw dominated by female characters. Yeah, neither can I, and that’s a problem.

It’s directed by Tommy Lee Jones, whose debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, was overlooked several years ago.

Congratulations!
The trailer for Mall premiered recently. One of our contributing writers, S.L. Fevre, appears in the film, and it looks like it has potential. Congratulations!

Others
Wetlands looks too consciously gross to be my kind of movie, but the NSFW trailer is rather brilliant, and the film’s been heaped with critical praise on the festival circuit. The Canal is a promising trailer in a year starved for good horror movies. While it looks visually interesting, it’s going to live or die on the predictability of its story. Finally, Kelly and Cal looks like it could be something of a comeback for Juliette Lewis, as a suburban housewife who develops a relationship with a wheelchair-bound neighbor half her age.

Worst of the Week
I suppose this is becoming a tradition, and there are a lot of contenders this week, but if we’re going to do this, let’s be fair about it.

While internet thriller Open Windows looks like it’s never actually seen anything resembling the internet in its life, it does feature a pair of actors in Elijah Wood and Sasha Grey who remain intriguing.

Wood has shown generally good taste in independent projects – even when they aren’t successful, he’s interesting in them. Regardless of Grey’s past in adult film, her work with Steven Soderbergh in The Girlfriend Experience is a triumph of Hal Hartley influences, sexual psychology, and cinematic language displaced from the early 1990s. Wood and Grey are interesting because they’re both actors who became icons of very different industries, and are largely hamstrung in their future careers because of it. That alone makes a movie with the celebrity stalking premise of Open Windows intriguing, even if the trailer is a complete disaster.

So this week, it’s Drive Hard, which stars John Cusack and Thomas Jane in the only roles I’ve never wanted to see them in – Cusack as a race car driver/bank robber (this cliché is being done to death right now, and no one’s going to do it as well as Ryan Gosling) and Jane as…his driving instructor? Chaffeur? It’s hard to tell what exactly, because the trailer communicates very little actual story, focusing on the movie’s comedy instead. Except there are no laughs, and the audio is so off (I’ve checked different versions; it’s definitely the trailer cut) that their lines sound mumbled and unimportant.

And in case you’re sad that this isn’t a sequel to Nicolas Cage’s Drive Angry, first of all, what’s wrong with you? Second of all, don’t worry, the man’s still at work – you can always check out his starring role in the long-awaited film adaptation of Left Behind. Yes, you just read that right: binging, boozing Nic Cage is the star of Left Behind. Come to think of it, that’s probably why he gets, you know, left behind.

Wednesday Collective — Ghost in the Cruise

This week, we’re talking about Ghost in the Shell, Tom Cruise, singing cowboys, the X-Men, Steven Soderbergh, and Indiana Jones. We’ve focused some Wednesday Collectives lately about specific interests, so we’re playing some catch-up – we’ll have even more articles in tomorrow’s Thursday’s Child.

ARTICLE OF THE WEEK
There is No Ghost in the Shell
LogosSteve

The thing about science-fiction is that the world catches up to it in short order. We may not have the spaceships of early 90s Star Trek, for instance, but we’ve certainly surpassed their clunky data devices and equaled their communication abilities. Star Wars movies made 15 years ago present us with dated, impractical visions of technology (oddly enough, the 30-year old films still feel more futuristic).

In the 80s, cyberpunk sprang to the fore of science-fiction. If nothing else, it was a reaction to Reaganism and the growing power of the corporation. Yet the subgenre’s originator, William Gibson, left his own genre a decade ago, saying that reality had caught up, and it was a far more insidious one than he could have imagined.

So it’s impressive that an anime film made 20 years ago looks like a grim vision of the future and asks us questions we’re still at the beginning stages of contemplating. Above is a staggeringly complete video essay on the questions about the soul, human consciousness, and the increasingly cybernetic nature of our lives that Ghost in the Shell raises.

The Fall of Tom Cruise
Amy Nicholson

Tom Cruise

I can’t understand people’s reasoning behind hating Tom Cruise. He stood on a couch at Oprah’s behest and he has a crazy religion. You know, unlike all those perfectly reasonable religions the rest of us have.

I know people who hate Tom Cruise but will geek out over Mel Gibson being in The Expendables, or who will gladly sit down for a Roman Polanski or Woody Allen movie. I know people who hate Tom Cruise who get upset when I turn off a Michael Jackson song.

Yes, he’s kind of crazy and his personality caused Katie Holmes to leave, but to lump him as somehow worse than that bunch and less deserving of our viewership based purely on personality is mind-boggling to me. He started out dirt poor. There are countless examples of his going out of his way and taking big financial risks to help directors and stars just getting their start. Directors come away saying he’s a workaholic on-set. Cast and crew come away saying he’s generous with his time, and pitches in with menial on-set tasks that other actors won’t. When he sues tabloids, he’s always given the entire proceeds to charity. Why don’t those things hold value?

Amy Nicholson answers a few of these questions for me in painting a picture of Cruise’s infamous Oprah appearance. Nobody could have known how badly timed it was – YouTube was a week old, Perez Hilton and Huffington Post just a month. It was a perfect storm of the Internet’s as-yet-untested viral tabloid ability and a breakdown in PR.

Her article also reminds us of Cruise’s early years, spent turning down tens of millions of dollars in action franchises so that he could instead play second fiddle roles to actors like Dustin Hoffman and Paul Newman, and work with directors like Ridley Scott and Oliver Stone.

I hope there comes a time when we’re able to remember Cruise as one of our most iconic movie actors, and not for an Oprah interview that – by the way – her attending audience that day was cheering. Well, until they got home and checked their e-mail, that is.

“Hollywood’s First Black Singing Cowboy”
Dennis McLellan

Herb Jeffries

I’m not one to run obituaries. If someone dies, I don’t need a recap – I’d rather celebrate their life by discussing one of their films, or by sharing how their work affected me personally.

That said, history is riddled with important figures who we leave forgotten. Herb Jeffries is one of those figures. Before Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef took apart the Western there were straight-laced cowboys played by Gregory Peck and John Wayne. But before they saddled up, cowboys merrily sang their hearts out. In an age of crooning, white cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, Jeffries was the premier black one. He provided a counter during an age when African-American heroes were simply not seen on-screen.

Interviewing Lauren Shuler Donner
Diane Panosian

XMen lead

Lauren Shuler Donner is one of Hollywood’s most successful producers, famed for being the woman responsible for getting X-Men onto the screen and, by extension, making the comic book movie genre viable.

I like this interview because it’s short, to the point, and all about Shuler Donner’s development process. Many producers toe the studio line and keep everyone on-schedule. There’s nothing wrong with that, but she’s known as a very hands-on producer. Her strength is her adaptability – she’s one of the few executives who regularly talks about viewing a project from the perspectives and needs of writers, directors, and actors. She gives some good advice about how to produce to the strengths of each of these jobs.

Steven Soderbergh is Terrible at Retirement
Alex Suskind

Soderberghing

Steven Soderbergh retired from filmmaking because it was becoming nearly impossible to fund his style of modestly-budgeted narrative-heavy filmmaking. Nevermind that 15 of his 18 theatrically released films were profitable – even domestic underperformers like The Girlfriend Experience and Che made money for their studios because Soderbergh abandoned blanket overseas distributorship in favor of nuanced, sometimes individually-designed releasing contracts in foreign countries.

The thing about Soderbergh is that he can’t keep still. He’s recut two classic movies while developing and directing TV series The Knick with Clive Owen for Cinemax. He’s directed off-Broadway while starting an import business for Bolivian liquor…I know, it sounds like I’m just making up new David Mamet plots now, but Soderbergh’s a weird cat. I said a long time ago that if TV was smart, they would capitalize on the studio system’s failure by investing to keep Soderbergh employed behind the small-screen. It looks like they’re doing exactly that.

Fortune, Glory, and Evil Indiana Jones
Quint

Temple of Doom

I feel a bit dirty linking to a website like Ain’t It Cool News, but I really did enjoy this personal essay about Quint’s watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a kid. I like folding personal experiences into these kinds of essays – artistic analysis is nothing without being honest about how our own personal biases fit into them – and it makes me think of Temple of Doom in a light I hadn’t considered before now.

SHORT FILM OF THE WEEK
“More”
dir. Mark Osborne

Vanessa ran a short film a few weeks ago and I liked the idea. We’re going to try closing each week’s Wednesday Collective with a short film of the week. I’ll start with one of my favorites – a stop-motion animation from Mark Osborne called “More.” It was nominated for an Oscar and won best short at Sundance way back in 1999, when I was just a 16-year old twinkle in a college admission department’s eye. Ah, those were the days. The awful, awful days. “More” remains one of the most moving and effective short films I’ve seen.