A movie about Ping Pong, can’t be good, surely?

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Table tennis, ping pong, whatever you want to call it, is a specialist sport played mostly by an enthusiastic collection of hardcores, eccentrics and oddballs. Examining the game with unloving eyes, all you may uncover is a baffling blur of squeaking shoes and pumped up grunts. So, amidst this boring confusion of pings and pongs, we miss the compelling battle of wits taking place; that moment the winning player realises he can fly, while his losing opponent watches his cherished dreams come crashing down around him.

Ping Pong (2002, YouTube trailer) is a Japanese live action movie penned by the legendary manga-ka Taiyou Matsumoto, and there’s no beating around the bush here, it is one of my favourite films of all time; a charming and philosophical portrait of human nature painted by an eccentric quartet of characters in love with ping pong. Here’s why.

At the centre of the story are two teenaged best friends; Peco (Yosuke Kubozuka) and Smile (Arata). They are both preciously talented table tennis players who seem to struggle when under pressure. Goof-ball Peco dreams of becoming the best in the world, but blows off practice to gorge on junk food, while Smile doesn’t care about the game at all; he only plays to hang out with his best mate. They’ve shared a strong bond of friendship since childhood because Peco saved Smile (so named because he never does) from bullies, thus Smile idolises Peco as his hero; some one who, when the world’s about to end, saves the day.

The two other most notable characters are intense, aggressive skin-heads; nicknamed Akuma (Demon) and Dragon. Akuma is a hack player with no talent, but so desperately wants to be good, while Dragon is the local champion but works so hard at training and practise that he’s lost all love for the game; despite winning it all, he never smiles.

Ping Pong is punctuated with colourful humour, a fist-pumping soundtrack (with a lot of music from SUPERCAR) and a lot of exciting (CG-assisted) action, but its true brilliance lies within its characters, who in distinctive Japanese style, grow to embody their own particular philosophical flavours.

Peco is running from Smile’s admiration, afraid of not living up to the expectations of his friend, while Akuma, try as he might, can’t accept that his talents lay elsewhere. Even Dragon, the champion, locks himself in a cubicle through out tournaments because he gets so envious of players with real ability.
It feels so heart-filled and compelling because these are issues that transcend the sport in question and impact on us all; some of us want to be the best at what we do yet hopelessly fail, others may be talented but flit it all away, we can even try so hard that we lose sight of whatever made it fun in the first place. Ping Pong is about learning to fly, or in other words, growing up and realising your place in the world; it’s a moving, eccentric and funny film that I hope you run out and pick up right now.

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Breaking out of the moe box

moe.jpg“I don’t want to put people off of watching purely moe anime, but I would be a lot happier if more people started to actually watch some anime as a legitimate form of art and entertainment, rather than just quick fix for entertainment or lust. Basically, just think about what you’re watching and ask yourself, “Am I really enjoying this, or am I just wanting to enjoy this because of my moe preferences?””

The above quote was taken from The Fortune’s “Moe Factor” and though it’s obviously referencing the ever-trendy moe genre, I think most of us are at least a little guilty of allowing our eyes to deceive our minds in creating superficial reasons to justify our tastes in anime. The truth is, as should be blatantly obvious to any of my regular readers, I’m not a moe fan; aside from a general frustration with intensely “cute” characters, I’m disturbed by how the moe aesthetic blatantly panders to its older male otaku fan base. Because of all this, I’ve never bothered to watch the likes of Lucky Star, Kanon or Haruhi; in fact, looking at Wikipedia, I’ve managed to avoid everything produced by Kyoto Animation altogether! These days, I guess that’s pretty rare for a bloggin’ otaku!

I suppose I could just say I’m not into “school life” anime and leave it at that, but then that’s false because I still managed to sit through all 22 episodes of “angst-&-flowers” Red Garden. The funny thing is, and with the benefit of hindsight, this was never a particularly outstanding series anyway, but I managed to stick with it because, first and foremost, the art was deliberately unique in eschewing the cliche anime school-girl style. If it had looked like Haruhi, or My-Hime, I never would have bothered with it in the first place.

And there-in lays the fatal flaw in my logic; if all we ever create are superficial reasons for avoiding anime, sooner or later we’re bound to miss out on something great. I adore both Azumanga Daioh and Fruits Basket, but I didn’t pick them up because I knew I’d love them, rather I was sent the DVDs to review and reluctantly forced myself to give them a fair chance; I’m glad I did! These days I’m in a better position to pick and choose what I want to watch, but that’s as much problem as it is a luxury; I’m getting bored knowing what to expect, and basically, I think I’m about ready to pop the Kyoto Animation-coloured cherry.

A rather deplorable facet of human nature requires that we label everything, and I’m guilty of it as much as the next guy. Just like I’ve been avoiding anime slapped in the moe box, you’ll often see others dismissing Claymore or Death Note because they are from the dreaded Shonen Jump magazine, and therefore, must be exactly like Dragonball Z or Naruto. Maybe you think all anime with bishonen characters is “gay” and that “classic” movies from the 80s are boring and unsophisticated? It’s sad to think that so many of us are missing out on great anime for no reason other than ignorance.

Anime is dead

Promo art of the character from The Five KillersIf you haven’t seen it already, stream this short trailer for the upcoming “anime” The Five Killers and prepare to be gob-smacked. First, lets just say this looks absolutely fantastic, however, a little digging will reveal that, much like last year’s (in)famous Afro Samurai, it’s being bank rolled, first and foremost, for the North American market. So, despite being directed by Tomohiro Hirata (of Trinity Blood fame) and featuring authentic Japanese character designs by the upcoming talent Shigeki Maeshima, the script is actually being penned by George Krstic (Megas XLR, Star Wars Clone Wars) and comic book writer Mark Waid.

Ultimately, this poses an interesting question – in this age of truly global collaboration, how can we define anime? Consider the strictest application of the word, the one we all presume to use – put simply, anime is animation produced in Japan. This rule, though water-tight in theory, hardly stands up when you consider much of the low-level animation is farmed out to cheap foreign neighbors (like Korea). I know that a lot of Naruto isn’t animated in Japan, but I still think of it as anime, but why?

Naruto is written by Masashi Kishimoto and he’s Japanese, so as long as the story was conceived in Japan, we can safely say it’s anime… Actually, no, Gankutsuou (Alexandre Dumas) and Romeo X Juliet (William Shakespeare) were written by famous European play rights. Now I’m confused; magically qualifying as anime has nothing to do with the physical location of animation or the nationality of the original story writers. So, truly, what the hell is anime?

Of course, being anime has nothing to do with a cliche art-style either. Experimental animation houses like Studio 4°C rarely prescribe to the typical “bug eyes, no nose” aesthetic but regardless, their work is regularly described as anime anyway. This brings me on to the final nail in the coffin, Studio 4°C’s most recent theatrical movie, Tekkon Kinkreet, was directed by Michael Arias, an American.

The conclusion is obvious. Anime is dead; or at least, what it used to mean to fans (even 10 years ago) is dead. We need a new word.

Death and rebirth

Welcome to the latest version of Bateszi Anime Blog; all WordPress’d up and ready for action. I hope you like the new layout too – this is the fifth time I’ve changed it in a year! Please note, since I’ve switched over to the WordPress system, a lot of the old Bateszi URLs will no longer be working – the most important one being the RSS news feed; if you subscribe, please update your feed readers to point at this new URL. Regular service shall be resumed shortly, but in the mean time, please bask in the shiny newness!

By way of episode 15, analyzing the appeal of Gurren Lagann

I watched episode 15 of Gurren Lagann last night. Put simply, it was awesome; the best episode so far, I can’t emphasize that enough. I wanted to blog it right there and then, but threw in the towel after two hours worth of typing had produced little more than a couple of paragraphs lined with superficial hyperbole. I must admit, even now – the morning after, I’m still struggling to come up with the words to explain exactly why it is so much fun; my only answer is to say that “it just is”.

Poking around the interweb, it’s becoming clear that I’m not the only one to have trouble talking about Gurren Lagann either. For example, it’s almost the smallest sub-forum (out of 11) under “Current Series” on AnimeSuki; 2,753 posts compared with the 3,044 under “sola” and 8,781 under “Lucky Star”. It didn’t even make the top 10 on last week’s Anime Nano Popularity Chart. Why not?

Through it’s provocative use of colors and symbols, Gurren Lagann relies on invoking a core emotional resonance within the viewer, but it’s so far disconnected from what we consider normal that we find ourselves gazing in awe, simply watching it all unfold. Watching, rather than participating; there is a clear separation between Gurren Lagann and the real world. That’s not the case with the majority of other anime, where the settings, the drama and even the characters are able to satisfy our nostalgia; allowing us to mentally place ourselves within story, to imagine that we are there.
This disconnect leaves me with little more to say about Gurren Lagann. It’s an “awesome” and “cool” series, fun and imaginative, but it’s different in that it won’t allow you to “escape” in the same way.

One Piece – Finishing Enies Lobby ~ To the ocean, back to the sea of adventure

When you enjoy something so completely, it’s never easy to write a review about it, and, as if you didn’t know already, I love One Piece. Of course, I could just not bother with this blogging nonsense, but I can’t ignore my conscience. More people need to be watching this anime and, in my own feeble style, I need to tell you why I love it.

Earlier today I finished watching episode 312 and according to Wikipedia, that’s the official end point of the Enies Lobby saga. My initial thoughts are that this was by far and away the best arc of One Piece. That’s a remarkable feat when you think about it; after an amazing 300 episodes, it’s still getting better and better. A lot of the credit has to go to the unflinching vision of Oda-sensei, who has been crafting this wonderful story for nigh on 10 years now. I imagine he draws it with a big Luffy style smile slapped across his face.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that One Piece is the most fansubbed anime ever; every single episode has been translated, encoded and shared by people spread the world over. So through all the tragic 4Kids bullshit, the fans remained undeterred and stuck together, achieving a quite remarkable record. You cannot doubt their dedication! Here’s hoping FUNimation give us a release worthy of such a loyal fan base; even though they will be beginning production at Skypiea, I’m desperate to fill my walls with beautiful One Piece DVDs.

Why is Enies Lobby so much better than, say, Alabasta then? It’s the way the Straw-Hats worked together. In the past, it has usually felt like that as long as Luffy was around, the day would be saved. He beats down Crocodile, and that is that, the world saved. It’s not that simple with Enies Lobby though; Luffy is basically sidetracked by Rob Lucci, leaving the rest of the Straw-Hats to rescue Robin. It takes a real team effort to survive; each person is pushed to their limits, a true test of their spirit to remain together.

My favourite scene was just prior to the final moments of Luffy’s clash with Lucci; Usopp’s looking down on the fight from high above and spots that Luffy is close to defeat. He removes his Sogeking mask and starts screaming and shouting, urging Luffy to fight on, desperate for him not to give up. All this contrasts with Usopp’s earlier fight with Luffy; they are supposed to be enemies, but Usopp’s show of support gives Luffy enough heart and determination to finish the fight. It’s a really wonderful scene, a perfect ying-yang of Luffy’s strength and Usopp’s support; they need each other to survive.

It’s apt that Merry shows up in the end and carries everyone to safety. Though it may be too nostalgic for some, the boat is symbolic of the Straw-Hats bond to one-another; it represents all those past adventures, their precious memories and the dreams they’re yet to grasp. It’s not just a ship, it’s the One Piece adventure itself, Merry is the reason they are all together and ultimately, it’s the reason they survive.

Elitism on another level: pie-facing movie directors because they aren’t “worthy”?

I’ve just read this story at ANN and it really bothered me. Lately we’ve had all this talk about elitism in the anime community, but this one guy is on another level; for those who can’t be arsed to click the link, I’m talking about “Khyron Prime”; some one who, upon deciding that he hated the new Robotech movie (Shadow Cronicles), dragged himself up to the Anime Expo and threw a cream pie in the face of the movie’s director (Tommy Yune). Yune took it all in good humor and even posed for a few impromptu pictures but the obsessed fan was later slapped with a (deserved) life-long ban by the Expo committee. It gets worse when you read “Khyron Prime”‘s venom-filled blog entries that detail his adventures at the Expo; it’s fair to say he reads like Travis Bickle’s Robotech-lovin’ younger brother, a real case of social alienation.

We throw around words like elitism quite freely, but this guy is the real deal. Why do (some) anime fans feel like they are entitled to great anime, to the point where they feel personally slighted by something they don’t like?

One Piece – A nostalgic comment, nearing the end of my adventure

I’m up to episode 301 of One Piece; 15 more and I’ll have finally caught up with the current fansubs. It’s taken me nearly three years to get this far and now I’m almost there, I have this weird feeling. It’s been great knowing that if I’m ever bored with anime, if I ever wanted to watch something that I knew I’d love, I could always lose myself for hours on an adventure with One Piece. Yet in a few days time, that’s all going to change. I’ll be waiting each and every week, like all the other straw-hats, for just one measly episode. Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer watching anime in bulk. 23 minutes per week just isn’t enough and having to wait so long between cliffhangers totally fades my enthusiasm. Almost just as much, I’ll miss writing about the series in this way too, I suppose my One Piece posts have largely come to define me as a blogger, so for what it’s worth, thanks for reading! I’ve had so much fun talking with you guys about the show.

Anyway… I started writing this because I wanted to sound off about Enies Lobby. Episode 301 marks the turning of the tide in favor of the Straw-hats; basically, Robin is saved, thank god! I’m not sure how much more I could take of the bastard Spandam’s violent abuse; he’s the first villain in One Piece that I’ve truly come to hate, given his unrelenting and harrowing treatment of Robin. Best of all, the one to save her, at the darkest of dark moments was, of all people, Usopp (or Sogeking, if you want to get technical!); I love that he’s finally done something to be proud of (good job on Sanji’s part, talking some sense into him) and saved a dear friend with his own two hands.

From the various CP9 characters, my favorite has to be Kaku. Not only does he have this cool square nose and an innocent sense of humor (HAHA! Giraffe!) , he was probably the only CP9 assassin to show a little humanity. Once Zoro finishes him off, we see this bitter-sweet flashback to his time in Water 7; I love that scene of him jumping over the city, flying through the clouds at such a speed with that big smirk slapped across his face.

Now, I’m about to embark on my final catch-up with One Piece. I can’t wait to see Luffy beat down Rob Lucci. Until then!

Lelouch and Light: the era of yuppies with broken dreams

Art imitating life, I’m sure you’ve heard that one before; the idea that the thoughts and fears of our generation are somehow reflected in the art (and therefore, entertainment) that we create. Life now, at least in developed countries like Japan, North America and the UK, is a lot calmer than it was 50 to 60 years ago; basically, you aren’t waking up in the morning and expecting a nuclear apocalypse in the face, yet still, there is an shiver of social unrest.

Two of the most popular anime characters from 06/07 are Lelouch Lamperouge (Code Geass) and Yagami Light (Death Note); both are terrorists – charismatic, dashing vigilantes hell bent on suicidal missions to rebuild civilization according to their own designs; they have no qualms about murdering their way to the top; they are guys who, despite living comfortable lives, decide to take on the “all powerful” government for the sake of an ideal, or remarkably, out of boredom.

The importance of these dark social creations reflects a growing dissatisfaction felt by many people in Japan who have spent large periods of their lives reaching for the sky. When the dream inevitably crumbles and the daily grind sets in, so emerges world changing, embittered characters like Lelouch and Light. They truly are children of the 21st century; yuppies with broken dreams, ready to risk it all to make a difference.

Of course, that’s not all – right now, the majority of first world countries, without a world war to distract themselves, have hit a slump of inward-set paranoia. Basically, no-one trusts their governments anymore. Japan is no different; consider that the heroes of One Piece are law-breaking pirates while the enemies are the bumbling World Government. Claymore is another mainstream Shonen Jump anime in which the mysterious “organization” betrays its own children, while the ruling State Alchemists in Fullmetal Alchemist are riddled with corrupt, shape shifting homunculi. They all resonate with an audience because they feel relevant, important.

What is clear is that we’re just now beginning a new era. After the financial boom-time of the 80s and the electronic revolution of the 90s and early 00s, these are gray and direction less years, saturated by media hype and flooded with pop culture. The underground dissatisfaction is just about ready to boil over; it’s already happening in Gurren Lagann!