Tag Archive for anime

How Anime is Dubbed (Quinni-Con 2013)

At Quinni-Con 2013, voice actor/director Chris Cason ran a lot of panel about how anime is dubbed and released in the US. He works full time for Funimation, one of my favorite distributors. The panel I was able to catch was all about voice acting from casting to syncing and it was pretty eye-opening.

dubbinganimefunimation How Anime is Dubbed (Quinni Con 2013)When Funimation secures a license for a new show, they put together their in-house creative team. As many as seven separate shows are being worked on in different studios at a time with an regular work schedule of 10AM to 6PM. The director is given the translated scripts, character descriptions, and images from the show. However, they’re in charge of researching the show and influences to figure out the crux of the series. They plan for as long as the production schedule allows them so they can figure out the right tone and approach for the translated program.

After research is complete, casting begins. Notebooks are prepared with the title of the show, a description of the show, character descriptions with images, and auditions sides. About 150 people are called in to audition in a mix of scheduled audition slots and cattle calls. The scheduled auditions go off every 15 minutes for three days for a single show.

The voice actors arrive and are instructed to choose three characters they believe they can do the best on the show. They perform the sides and are given direction to see how well they can work with the director. This is a standard tactic in any performance situation. It always freaks my students out when they prepare for an audition and we ask them, on the fly, to go in a different direction. If the director has worked with you before, they probably don’t need to do this part. It’s meant to gauge what the working relationship will be like when the show goes into production.

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Chris Cason

The casting process is hard. It’s not because of a lack of talent. Chris Cason estimates about 5% of voice actors nail everything they’re asked to do in a given audition; an even smaller percentage fail. The rest all do well enough to potentially be cast in the show in some way. It comes down to the blend of the voices. You hopefully get to choose your leads out of the 5% and then fill in the rest with complimentary actors who also gave fine auditions.

Once the cast is set and the contracts are signed, it’s time to actually record the show. It’s a much slower process than you would think. Cason says, working one on one with a voice actor, they usually get through 30 scripted lines and 35 reactions–screams, laughs, cries, grunts, etc.–each hour. The sessions with an individual actor usually last three to four hours. It takes about a week to record each episode in an anime series.

Actually directing the show is a challenge. Because of the tight time constraints, the actors are usually working cold. They’re given the script and have to go with it on the day of the recording session.

Once in the booth, the voice actors have to contend with two screens. The script for the show is on the left. The video of the scenes is on the right. We’re not talking about fan parodies on YouTube (that’s another post); the lip flaps have to match for licensed dubbed anime to work. Chris Cason equated it to acting with math. You have to sound good and sync up with a limited amount of time.

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Two screens at once for anime dubbing

The trick with actually directing anime is the style. Anime tends to be a pretty melodramatic form. With the exaggerated psychology that has evolved from manga art, the reactions by the actors have to be large enough to match the action onscreen. You can’t just whimper and sniffle when a character has seemingly unhinged their jaw and began gushing gallons of tears out of their eyes. The same applies to body-shifting anger and fear. If you go really realistic on an anime dub, it’s probably not going to turn out well. There’s a reason the young protagonists in a shonen series tend to scream all the time; they’re drawn that way.

Once a series has wrapped and the voices are ready to be mixed, it will be months before the cast and creative team can talk about the new show. They sign weighty NDAs threatening bad things if they talk about what they were working on before they’re allowed to. It’s a timing issue with the actual anime license and the distribution deal with the TV network. What it means is that, by the time a new anime dub airs on TV, the cast and creative team have probably recorded another series already that they can’t talk about. It’s a long road from license to release and one that is far more challenging than you might have imagined.

Thoughts on the anime dubbing practice in America? Sound off below.

Abridged Series Creation: Anything for a Laugh (Quinni-Con 2013)

At Quinni-Con 2013, there was a variety of panels about the process of creating anime. From drawing the art to casting voice actors for the US dub, the traditional aspects of the popular medium were well-covered.

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Sometimes, the jokes right themselves

Quinni-Con also hosted a lot of events related to a less-explored aspect of the world of anime fan culture: abridged series. Abridged series are online parodies of popular anime properties. The creative team edits down the 22 minute episodes to a shorter length, usually about 5-8 minutes, redubs all the voices, and send-ups the ridiculous aspects of the series. Popular subjects are the melodramatic Death Note (see image), 4Kidz’ complete and total butchering of the much darker than it appeared in the US Yugioh, and the unbelievable adventures of a 10 year old traveling around the world to battle wild animals in Pokemon.

Sadly, very few of these abridged series are ever completed. It’s certainly not for lack of interest. An abridged series is just a huge undertaking. It’s surprisingly hard to get all the details to line-up for a full series run.

The abridged series panels at Quinni-Con 2013 were hosted by collaborators Nowacking and 1KidsEntertainment. The pair work on Pokemon: The ‘Bridged Series. They opened up about a lot of details people might overlook when they decide to criticize the release schedule of an abridged series or dive in and create their own.

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Pokemon: The ‘Bridged Series

The biggest thing you need to create an abridged series is time. You have to be extremely well-versed in the anime you’re manipulating. Nowacking and 1KidsEntertainment explained that you have to watch each episode enough times to know the material you can work with. Since you’re not creating a series from scratch, you need to work off of the footage available in the episode. You can have a gag about a severely depressed character if she’s grinning the entire episode. The only way around that constriction is to edit the art or splice in footage from other shows, which only adds onto the lengthy production schedule.

Once you know what you have to work with, you have to sit down and write the new abridged episode. The episode has to match the tone you already established for the abridged series and remain faithful to the footage in the actual anime. You have to realistically consider the talent you have and determine what you absolutely need to tell the story you want to tell.

The only real time-saver on an abridged series is that, since it’s parody, you don’t have to match mouth movements. The dialogue just needs to time out with the footage available, not necessarily look organic or natural.

The syncing is a minor advantage. You still need to record all the voice actors. The levels have to be right or else the audio is unusable. The characters have to be distinct enough so the viewer knows who is who even when it’s voice-over without the characters present. The tone of the voice and speaking style has to be consistent with the animation and character you’re trying to create.

From there, the actual raw footage has to be edited down to match the script. This is where you can insert footage from other series, manipulate the order of the episode, or alter the speed or direction of the footage for comedic effect. It’s a lot of things to consider for such a short medium.

Then, once the abridged series is actually uploaded, you have to make sure it stays on your video server of choice. Thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and subsequent legal action, YouTube had to install safeguards to protect copyright holders. Many anime distributors upload episodes of their series in private mode and have Google scan all the available videos on YouTube for possible infringement. If your video is flagged, it’s taken down. That means lost views, lost viewers, and frustration.

Fortunately, the DMCA is a two-way street. The copyright holders get much-needed assistance protecting their properties online and the alleged infringers get to defend themselves. YouTube has a form built into the site that lets you explain why you believe your video should not be taken down. The answer is simple for abridged series: parodies are allowed under US copyright law. No one will view an episode of Pokemon: The ‘Bridged Series and think they’re watching the actual anime so there’s no actual damage to the copyright. It’s a pain, but you just plead your case and wait for YouTube to put your video back up.

The next time you’re watching an abridged series and find out that the updates only come every few weeks or months, take a moment to remember how much effort it takes to make an abridged series. These are fans who decided to rewrite a series for everyone’s enjoyment. They’re working other jobs or going to school full time because monetizing an abridged series is just going to get it flagged on a regular basis. Be supportive if you like the show, hold off on mentioning the real name of the actual series (it might impact the scans for automatic take downs), and have fun.

Thoughts on abridged series? Have any favorites? Share them in the comments below.

Read: Letters to an Absent Father

letterstoanabsentfathercryogonal Read: Letters to an Absent Father

Rare Candy Treatment deals in absurdity.

There are a lot of Pokemon webcomics out there. Rare Candy Treatment examines the odd quirks of the Pokemon universe. Super Effective is a slapstick reimagining of the manga, complete with black and white tones. Nuzlocke’s Hard Mode brings an alternate rule set–namely when a Pokemon faints, it’s actually dead and you must release it from your collection–to life with a lot of unexpected feelings. Everything from Cyanide and Happiness to Penny Arcade has done at least a one-off Pokemon comic.

Yet one short form webcomic still stands above the rest in concept and execution. Originally released in 2011, Letters to an Absent Father reimagines Ash’s journey from Pallet Town to Pokemon Champion as a series of letters to his father. Ash’s father is only ever referenced once in the manga and anime as a trainer who went on his own journey. Ash does not get to benefit from his years of experience as other 10 year old trainers do on their first journeys.

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If you recognize these characters, you’re ready to read Letters to an Absent Father

Artist Maré Odomo employs a simplistic art style for the comic. She relies on the reader recognizing basic attributes of major Pokemon characters–Ash has spiky hair and a red cap, Misty has a bright orange pony tail, Pikachu is a yellow and black mouse, etc.–to establish the context of the series. Then she flips the script and turns it into a brand new experience.

Ash’s only desire in the Pokemon series is to become the Pokemon Champion. He has to collect all the different species for the Professor’s research and evolve his team to beat gym leaders, but everything is done for the singular goal of being the best. His inner desires are left unspoken as he will sacrifice anything to achieve his lifelong goal.

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Letters to an Absent Father 1 (click for full) Read More

Odomo wisely starts Letters to an Absent Father with the first emotional chapter in Pokemon history. The first wild Pokemon ash catches is a Caterpie. He raises his Caterpie from a small insecure little bug into a beautiful and powerful Butterfree. While traveling by the coast, his Butterfree falls in love with a wild female Butterfree. All the Butterfrees are partnering up and Ash knows the best thing for his Butterfree is freedom. Ash gives up the first Pokemon he ever caught so that it can be happier than it ever imagined. Odomo stacks that emotional story with a knock-out final line in the first comic, “Do you ever miss Mom? Love, Ash.”

From there, Letters to an Absent Father covers everything from first love to loneliness to self-actualization. It’s a whirlwind of emotional comics that never betrays the basic concept of Pokemon. Ash is expressing his feelings in private as they relate to his very public life as a Pokemon trainer. It’s a beautiful meditation on a popular series and an excellent piece of art.

The only slight downside is the need to know the basics of Pokemon to understand all the references. Even removed from that, it would still be a strong project. The story is universal enough that the fantastic elements you don’t recognize do not overshadow the heart and goal of the project.

You can read the complete Letters to an Absent Father at Maré Odomo’s website.

Thoughts on Letters to an Absent Father? Share them below.

Cosplay Candidate at Quinni-Con 2013

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A Count Named Slick-Brass served as moderator and commentator

At Quinni-Con 2013, 11 costumed contestants took to the stage to compete in a send-up of the US electoral system called Cosplay Candidate. The host, A Count Named Slick-Brass, was serious from the start, eliminating one candidate before she even had a chance to share her platform. This was a raw and unpredictable exploration of the US electoral process through the lens of anime and video game characters running for fantasy office in a slipstream world.

The participants in the contest had great knowledge of their characters but didn’t necessarily understand all of the political issues at play. There is an inherent absurdity when Link from The Legend of Zelda series, Liechtenstein from Hetalia: Axis Powers, and Internet cryptozoological creation Slender Man, represented by one of his future victims, answer questions about abortion as it pertains to artificial intelligence and staving off nuclear war with Lex Luthor.

The cosplayers were encouraged to answer as their characters would. Liechtenstein insisted on neutrality at every juncture like her savior Switzerland would want her to. Kanaya from Homestuck advocated for over the top slapstick policy. Salamander Man stuck to primitive growls and grunts to the delight of the crowd.

The entire conceit of the game was that the personality traits of the characters would become the campaign platform for each candidate. Obviously, this meant that not ever cosplayer could adequately answer each question. The overall effect was strong. The large audience began to root for or against various candidates as their platforms were defined and then refined on the fly. The cosplayers even began to pander to certain demographics if answering a particular way garnered audience approval. The talking points began to overtake the substance of the arguments as the debate reached its final round.

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The final round of Cosplay Candidate

The top 3 candidates from each primary became the six potential nominees. A shorter round of debate began before the moderator declared, quite correctly, that alliances had formed. These pairs became running mates who coordinated together on the final two questions. Once again, the people decided who would be the ultimate victor.

When asked to choose between Kanaya/Kaito (Vocaloid), Slender Man/Salamander Man, and Link/Liechtenstein, the audience voted for the Kanaya/Kaito ticket. The convention had a huge turn out of Homestuck fans and they were not afraid to cheer on their own. The sizable Hetalia: Axis Powers fans brought Link/Liechtenstein to the cusp of victory but ultimate fell short.

The concept of Cosplay Candidate is a strong one that will hopefully be continued at other conventions in the future. With a more contained space so every answer can be clearly heard, the contest could easily become a convention mainstay.

Check out the full gallery below.

Thoughts on Cosplay Candidate? Share them below.

Quinni-Con 2013: Now That’s a Fan Convention

I had a hole in my schedule over the weekend and that was supposed to be filled with convention coverage. That’s when I did a quick search online and found out about Quinni-Con. This is a Japanese culture and entertainment convention run by the Quinnipiac University Anime Club in Connecticut. I wasn’t sure what to expect other than a free convention within reasonable driving difference. It turned out to be so much more.

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(click to enlarge all photos)

I firmly believe that you can tell a lot about the people running a convention by how well it turns out. If they’re only concerned with turning a profit and their bottom line, you usually wind up with an over-crowded expo show where you can’t even enter the dealer room without being hit by 20 people at the doorway. If they are focused on star power alone, you’ll have a signing room with great guests and a pretty tepid schedule of panels and outside events. However, if they focus on the needs of the fans attending the convention, you wind up with a really smooth and relaxed environment with a ton of diverse content and easy access to food, seating, and open spaces for photos and meet-ups.

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hashtags galore

Quinni-Con 2013 is one the best small conventions I’ve been to. This was only their second year putting on the event and it far exceeded my expectations. The entire convention was confined to the student center and they made the most of the space. Registration, Dealer’s Alley, food, seating, the main stage, and the Maid Cafe were all on the bottom floor. The two panel rooms, a video game room, a roleplaying room, raffles, and a screening room were all on the second floor. Even with the Quinnipiac students coming and going to the cafeteria and gym all day long, Quinni-Con never felt crowded or overwhelming.

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The Asterplace drove the crowd wild with great cover songs

I spent my time at the convention panel and event hopping like I always do. It was hard to choose what events to go to. I could have spent most of my day at the main stage, taking photos and videos of the copslay contest, Anime Jeopardy, and even a concert from The Asterplace (a NYC-based Tokyo rock/anime cover band that always puts on a great show). But that would mean skipping panels on creating abridged parody series, how voice acting works at Funimation, bizarre fan theories about Adventure Time, the basics of anime-style art, and the philosophy of Pokemon. And if you just hop from panel to panel, you have to skip out on video game contests (how I wish I could have taken on all challengers in Super Smash Bros. Melee where Jigglypuff is still a viable contender), anime screenings, improv games, the Maid Cafe, and just hanging out with other fans.

I did catch a lot of diverse content that I’ll be covering more in depth throughout the week. Here’s a run-down of what I did at Quinni-Con 2013.

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45 points for me

I arrived a few minutes past 9AM, so I missed the opening ceremony. I took a good amount of time to go through the program, familiarize myself with the layout, and plan out my day. This was where I first noticed the total fan-focus of the convention. One page in the program turned Quinni-Con into an interactive event. You earned points for spotting cosplay (5 points for Luffy), participating or attending main stage events (20 points), and even points for total fanboying (20 points to challenge a Pokemon cosplayer to a battle). I spent a few minutes chatting up vendors before heading up to a panel on abridged series run by the creators of Pokemon Bridged.

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Misa from Death Note cosplay

When I tried to get back to the main stage for Cosplay Candidate, a fantasy-tinged political debate between various attendees playing their cosplay characters, I realized how big Quinni-Con actually was. The place was packed. The tables were all filled, so I quietly made my way to the back of the room to set up for coverage. The crowd was constantly interacting and the host, Steam-Funk Studios’ A Count Named Slick Brass, was eating it up. The sizable base of Homestuck and Hetalia: Axis Powers fans cheered their own right into the finals.

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The Ice Queen ran a panel and placed in the cosplay contest

After a quick break to refuel and talk to the staff, I spent a lot of time with fans at the con. One panel, Theory Time with Ice Queen and Gunter, was a big interactive moment of Adventure Time fans debating everything from the history of the Mushroom Wars to the true identity of Princess Bubblegum. The cosplay contest saw the fans continue their domination of the day with a wild response to every participant.

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Liechtenstein from Hetalia cosplay

From there, we hit full on Sketchy Details territory with panels on Funimation’s production process hosted by voice actor/director Chris Cason, voice acting on the Internet, the art of anime, and the philosophy of Pokemon. Even in the more structured panels, the fans attending the convention wanted their voices heard. The beauty of a smaller convention is that you will get a chance to interact if you choose to. Each of the panel hosts took on all questions, joked around with the audience, and encouraged debate. This is what fan culture is all about.

With a 90 minute drive down my choice of poorly-lit highways ahead of me, I ducked out of Quinni-Con at 7PM. Had I had more time to plan, I would have a way to stay later and return for day two, as well. Maybe next year.

I cannot say enough nice things about Quinni-Con 2013. I had a few minutes to talk with convention chair Amaris Mujica about how everything was going. She was clearly excited. The staff did not anticipate such a large turnout. She was open about the problems with the convention, but, honestly, it was so well run that the minor issues–running out of programs, having very limited space for the artists and dealers–didn’t hurt the experience at all.

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The line was out the door to register for Quinnicon by 9:30AM

If every con was run with as much passion for the fans and organization as Quinni-Con, writers wouldn’t need to write long screeds explaining what went wrong after every major convention. We wouldn’t walk away opting not to cover greedy conventions with rude staff and not enough events for the ticket price. And we certainly wouldn’t need to worry about whether or not we’d have to walk 10 blocks away to buy a reasonably priced sandwich and bottle of water to make it through the day.

If you’re in the greater Connecticut area and like anime, I strongly encourage you to seek out Quinni-Con next year This is a convention to watch out for in the future. A lot of people are posting about their Quinni-Con 2013 experience at the 2013 Facebook event page. They even started a Facebook group to keep in touch as they plan for next year.

Thoughts on Quinni-Con 2013? Share them below.

Speed Grapher and The Push for Structural Innovation

Speed Grapher is a very strange anime from GONZO. Originally released in 2005, the 24 episode series earned mixed reviews from fans and critics. Oddly enough, the English dubs are considered better than the original Japanese audio because of the quality of writing. A story this strange needs to play everything as strange, not ground the dialogue in subtle shades of reality like the original broadcast.

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I’d get that checked out if I were Saiga

A war photographer, Tatsumi Saiga, investigates an underground club for the extremely wealthy. There he meets The Goddess, teenager Kagura Tennozu, who grants Saiga a superhuman ability with a kiss. His camera is no longer a tool to capture reality but a way to destroy anything he sees through the lens. The pair escape, setting the entirety of the Tennozu Group–a wealthy investment company run by Kagura’s mother–on their trail. This includes a long series of similarly gifted club members who will stop at nothing to recover The Goddess for the club.

Speed Grapher (Speed PhotoGrapher, get it? Cause I didn’t for a long time) has one story to tell over 24 episodes. There are little diversions into individual characters and some time skipping stuff to provide context as the story goes, but it’s mainly a linear store. The show creates interest through a vast array of bizarre characters, each stranger than the next.

Tatsumi’s ability to cause explosions with any camera is one thing. The next gifted human you meet is a professional dancer with a totally elastic body. After him is a woman made of diamonds. After her, a dentist with many drill-tipped limbs.

As the characters become more extreme, a bizarro sense of suspense is created. You begin to wonder how much further the characters could go even as their strangeness begins to distract from the story. The more realistic episodes always happen after a huge fight between gifted humans and work to reground the series in the story.

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I still can’t figure out what this guy really wished for. (click for full)

Speed Grapher is the story of how Tatsumi tries to free Kagura from the Tennozu group’s underground crime and club circuit and nothing more. It’s a story that could have been completed in three episodes on another series. Here, it is the sole narrative thrust. The random diversions into dark fantasy and violence shade the linear tale into something more adventurous and unpredictable. Who else is hiding a secret about Kagura? How many have been blessed by The Goddess? And when will the next devotee emerge to reclaim their unwilling benefactor?

The show really soars when an episode teases a meeting between the opposing sides. After running away, Kagura and Tatsumi wind up in a drag club for protection. Kagura is forced onstage by her new “big sisters” and quickly picks up the act. In between scenes of Kagura having the time of her life in front of a live audience, members of the Tennozu group–including a man who earned a hypersensitive nose from The Goddess–confirm that Kagura is inside. The episode cuts so many times between the concurrent scenes that you cannot predict when the Tennozo group will make a move. When they do, it’s chilling. It’s also a masterful piece of misdirection as the presumed threats from earlier in the series are nothing compared to what Tatsumi and Kagura are actually up against in the club.

Speed Grapher is strange, violent, and very gritty. The one hero solves challenges by blowing up his surroundings and the other hero is a genetically altered victim simultaneously sexually exploited and infantilized by an evil corporation. There isn’t much plot but there is a lot of innovative suspense and dark fantasy battles. You can describe what happens with great ease but will never convey the novelty of the show.

Speed Grapher is currently available to stream on Netflix and Hulu Plus.

Thoughts on Speed Grapher? Share them below.

Psycho-Pass and the Morality of Justice

If you could live in a world where criminals could be apprehended before they even committed a crime, would you? This is the central premise of Psycho-Pass, a new anime written for television and airing in time with the Japanese release all over the world thanks to Funimation.

psychopassposter Psycho Pass and the Morality of JusticeIt is the near future and most crime has been eradicated from Japan. Scientists have discovered a way to accurately measure the probability that someone will commit a crime. This figure is the Crime Coefficient and it is monitored at all times by the Sibyl System. The way to keep a low Crime Coefficient is to receive regular therapy and work on managing your stress levels. Trials and courts are no longer needed as the Sibyl System controls the law, regulation, prevention, treatment, and punishment.

When the Crime Coefficients get too high or a person actually commits a crime, the Public Safety Bureau’s Criminal Investigation Unit is dispatched to the scene. These units consist of very intelligent law-abiding citizens, Inspectors, and incurable but highly stable latent criminals, Enforcers. They are equipped with a combination stun/ammunition gun, a Dominator, that confirms the Crime Coefficient before unlocking to subdue an individual engaging or about to engage in a crime.

Psycho-Pass presents an interesting world from the perspective of Unit One of Public Safety Bureau’s Criminal Investigation Unit. Akane Tsunemori is a recent graduate who scored so high on her career exams that she could choose any career she wanted. She chooses to be an Inspector because she was the only student in her class to pass the Public Safety Bureau’s standards. She is put in charge of the Enforcers Shinya Kogami, a former Inspector, and Shusei Kagari, a young man who grew up with a high Crime Coefficient. The trio are sent out to investigate crime scenes and apprehend latent and active criminals.

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Robots are used as a tool for comfort and investigation

Psycho-Pass could have been a standard procedural show with a sci-fi twist. Instead, writer Gen Urobuchi (Fate/Zero) uses the form of the procedural as a critique of the criminal justice system. We obviously live in a world where trials and police work define justice. Deterring crime and apprehending criminals on lesser violations before they have the chance to do something more destructive is a big part of this job. But if deterrence and early detection alone became the main focus of the legal system, how could we be sure that we’re actually apprehending and punishing real threats?

In the first episode of Psycho-Pass, a woman is kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a criminal. The investigators know the assailant is a huge risk because of his high Crime Coefficient and his track record of bad behavior. However, when they finally find the man in a labyrinth of abandoned apartment buildings, his victim is already registering a high Crime Coefficient. The stress of being attacked put her in a terrible mindset that falsely identifies her a being more dangerous than the man who raped her. Akane, on her first day as an Investigator, makes the choice to directly disobey orders and subdue Shinya before he exterminates the victim for having a dangerous Crime Coefficient. Akane is able to calm the the victim down enough to get her out of the lethal Dominator range and take her in for emergency rehabilitation.

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A calm voice quiets a stressed mind

The show spends a few episodes defining the morality of the characters and the limits of the centralized and omnipresent Sibyl System for detecting crime. You find out there are blind spots in many public places, businesses and schools don’t have to submit themselves to the constant Crime Coefficient scanning, and some people don’t even register on the scale at all. If the only way to regulate crime is the Sibyl System and the Sibyl System is far from perfect, how can you trust the alpha and omega of crime enforcement to actually protect society?

The genius of Psycho-Pass is how this context is established. The first five episodes are there just to introduce you to the how and why of the world. From there, the longer narrative emerges. A criminal mastermind who doesn’t register at all on the Sibyl System is encouraging latent criminals to commit very public acts of violence and mayhem to take down the entire legal system. When one protege is caught, another is brought in to do even worse things. His goal is to wake society up to the flaws of the Sibyl System.

In Psycho-Pass, there are no obvious right or wrong answers to justice[/caption]Meanwhile, Akane is constantly put at odds with her own team of Enforcers and Nobuchika Ginoza, the senior Investigator in Unit One. She is told on her first day that the rules don’t matter as much as the results and the theory of why using Crime Coefficients to help society means nothing when you pursue actual criminals. Akane rejects the premise outright and insists on doing as much investigation into crimes and latent criminals as possible. This means actually letting the Enforcers try very risky strategies to lure out offenders and refusing to rely on lethal action even if it means letting the criminal escape.

psychopasspushpull Psycho Pass and the Morality of Justice Psycho-Pass is the push and pull of modernizing criminal justice. No one is entirely right and wrong in their theories about the role of the Sybil System in law enforcement. There are obvious wrong-doers–murderers, rapists, violent thieves–but they are far out-weighed by what looks like regular people having a bad day. Can you really sentence someone to jail and rehabilitation because they lost their job or got in an argument with a loved one before going outside? And how much of a role does mental health play in determining actual criminal risk? Is a person with anxiety more likely to commit a crime because of their illness than a victim of bullying who is fine so long as he’s nowhere near his abusers?

Psycho-Pass is a constantly evolving communique on evaluating right and wrong versus legal and illegal in modern society. If a criminal thinks he’s doing the right thing by committing a crime, they might go undetected for years or even life because his crime has no impact on their psyche. But a regular person who makes one bad choice and knows it is wrong could be sentenced to death for a momentary lapse of judgement. These are the extreme ends of the spectrum of justice and morality in Psycho-Pass, but they are the forces that drive the tension and interest of the series.

Have you checked out Psycho-Pass yet? It’s streaming on Hulu with new episodes coming out on Thursday nights. What do you think? Sound off below.

The Tangled Horror of Elfen Lied

Elfen Lied (as in a song, not a lie) is a very dark horror/fantasy anime series. There is a new genetic strain of humans called Diclonii. They are physically separated by small horns on their heads, but also possess highly dangerous telekinetic abilities. Lucy is a bitter Diclonii who hates human beings for the way they treat the Diclonii. However, Lucy’s psyche has splintered into another identity, Nyu, who is an almost infantile Diclonii with no abilities. Nyu allows Lucy to take revenge on those who intend to harm the Diclonii without any recollection of her actions.

Elfen Lied is based on the bulk of the manga of the same name. The anime shifted the focus to the struggle between scientists and Lucy/Nyu in attempting to train Diclonii for nefarious purposes. Unfortunately, because the manga was still in production, the creators of the anime had to develop their own conclusion to the short run series that doesn’t exactly follow the direction of the original story.

elfenliedschism The Tangled Horror of Elfen Lied

The story told by the anime is a fantastic example of technology/science gone wrong horror. The series chooses not to focus on how the mutation occurred, but why so many laboratories are attempting to control it. It opens up interesting questions of evolution, bioengineering, and scientific ethics.

At the same time, Lucy/Nyu are starring in their own monster story. After a series of traumatic events in the early part of the series, Lucy begins to unravel. Her desire to take revenge on people who have hurt her kind extends to an uncontrollable blood lust. Until this turning point, Lucy only kills people trying to hurt how. From this point on, her powerful vector (telekinetic) arms begin to kill on their own even when Lucy has no reason to attack. She struggles to bring Nyu back to the surface to protect her new friends.

elfenliedwindow The Tangled Horror of Elfen LiedThe entryway for the viewer to this twisted world is the relationship between college-aged cousins Kouta and Yuka. Kouta moves to a new beach-front town to attend college. He finds Nyu wandering around the beach during a storm and brings her into his home. Kouta and Yuka quickly befriend Nyu, but Nyu keeps running away. The cousins find out that Nyu is wanted by the police and other organizations and choose to hide her. They don’t even know Lucy exists.

Once the relationships are established, Lucy starts to emerge more and more. It’s as if the relative safety of her generous hosts allows her the freedom to show her true self. Kouta and Yuka become Nyu’s guardians and constantly save her from harm.

Then the incest, sexual assaults, child abuse, ultra violence, and blood really goes wild. The anime focuses on the violence to comment on human relations and discrimination. It also uses shocking, out of character moments from all the major characters to force you to realize that there can’t be a happily ever after in this story. Saving or defeating Lucy will not solve the Diclonii conflict; it will only shift the numbers one way or the other in a growing battle for domination.

Elfen Lied is a very thoughtful series filled with beautiful animation. It is a difficult but rewarding watch. The big thing to keep in mind is that, due to nudity, violence, language, and adult themes, this is a series for adults. At the same time the horror unfolds, Elfen Lied also comments on nudity, male and female gaze, and the objectification of minors. The combination of content is a troubling one that gives the short series far more weight than it might otherwise have.

Have you watched Elfen Lied before? Share your thoughts before.

Highschool of the Dead

Highschool of the Dead is a zombie anime for people who like the over the top gore and sexuality of the low budget American slasher. A group of high school students are trapped in their school when the zombie apocalypse strikes. The gym teachers accidentally spread the infection to the locked campus when a strange man approaches the gate.

From there, it’s utter chaos. The sprawling campus is overrun with the walking dead in only a few minutes. By the time the school tells the students and staff to evacuate, it’s too late. They might have had a chance of surviving if they stayed in their classrooms and barricaded the doors. Instead, they run right for the main steps and became zombie bait.

Highschool of the Dead is a bloody cartoon. The 12 episode series is bent on showing you every crimson drop on every character. The zombies are stained sticky with blood from the attacks that transformed them. The survivors, too, wind up as Rorschach tests of blood and trauma.

highschoolofthedeaddesign Highschool of the DeadPerhaps the strongest aspect of the series is the creature design. These are the shambling zombies of Romero concentrated in a relatively small area filled with desperate people. They don’t have the reasoning skills to turn away from a wall after hitting it, but they’ll stalk you down with terrifying precision if you make a noise.

The inclusion of the blood in the design really makes these zombies pop. Their skin turns gray and limp upon transformation. Their eyes go stark white before fading to a sickly gray. And, worst of all, their victims die within seconds if the bite is deep enough even in a leg or arm.

For all of the excellent horror action, Highschool of the Dead has another underlying concept that breaks taboos. Any female character who has developed, adult and teenager alike, is shot with extreme jiggling action. The unnatural bounce of the breasts and bottoms wouldn’t be too disturbing if the camera didn’t constantly shoot up or down the school uniforms.

highschoolofthedeadexploit Highschool of the DeadIt’s very perverted, especially for a Shonen series. These are manga/anime titles targeted at boys as young as 10 years old. Shouldn’t the blood and weapon-wielding action be enough to draw in readers and viewers? What is accomplished other than a cheap thrill by drawing action shots like this? One scene in the first episode went on for so long that I thought they were going to show a teenager have an accident caused by fear. It’s a dark mark on a series with a such a strong story.

If you can get past the animated perversion, Highschool of the Dead is an adventurous zombie/action series. Most of the streaming platforms have the whole series. Unfortunately, the creative team behind the manga went on a long hiatus that prevented the anime from continuing. The result is a short but effective horror series to complement a far more sprawling and ambitious work in print.

Have you watched Highschool of the Dead? Sound off with your thoughts below.

Pacing is Everything: Long Form Storytelling on TV

I decided to put the time in to watch the entirety of Death Note over the weekend. It is a 37 episode anime series adapted from the manga series of the same name. Essentially, it’s a twisted detective story/crime thriller hybrid. A super intelligent high school student named Light finds a supernatural notebook that allows the owner to kill anyone by writing their name and imagining their face. Light begins to kill all of the violent criminals appearing on the news, attracting the attention of L, the world’s top private investigator and Light’s equal in every way. From there it’s a slow trek to any sense of resolution, with tons of repetition and a lot of style to distract from the pace.

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Tune in four weeks from now to see what's in the trunk on The Killing.

In a lot of ways, Death Note reminds me a lot of another detective show currently airing: The Killing. This show follows the investigation into the murder of a teenager. Season one has 13 hour long episodes that only cover two weeks of the investigation. The case is not resolved by season end. Season two–another 13 episodes–promises to reveal the killer in the last episode. The performances, style, and investigation are interesting. It’s just the information is revealed so slowly that you might lose interest in who killed poor Rosie.

I’m not willing to call a shift toward slow and methodical plot pacing a trend on television at this point. Long story arcs driving prime time series are not common. There are overriding arcs–The Big C has coping with the cancer diagnosis, Glee has nationals, etc.–but the individual episodes are more contained. Longer arcs are typically saved for genre shows, but even American Horror Story and Fringe break things up with stand alone episodes.

The issue at play with all of these decisions is pacing. How fast do the writers want you to realize what’s happening? How much information will they give you at any given time? How much time passes in a given episode? Where is the story focused?

deathnotereflection Pacing is Everything: Long Form Storytelling on TV

Even the characters on Death Note are bogged down in slowly revealed TV drama.

In the case of Death Note and The Killing, there is no sidebar content. If you’re not dealing with the crimes, you’re dealing with the lives of the people connected to the investigation. They’re all consuming narratives that rely on the novelty of the story arc and character development to retain viewers. There’s also a certain emphasis on style.

Both of these shows have a distinctive style. The Killing is simultaneously pale/dreary with supersaturated environmental elements. The grass will jump out at you more than the people investigating in a field. There’s a common joke at this point about the presence of rain, but it is a moody detective series. Rain makes sense.

deathnoteimagination Pacing is Everything: Long Form Storytelling on TV

Hyper-stylized noir makes Death Note stand out.

Death Note is animated and hyper-stylized noir. As soon as Light or L begin to piece together a plan in their minds, the world is transformed. Everything is gray scale except for eyes and hair. Light is bright red, L dark blue, and Light-stalker/enthusiast/ally Misa bright blue. Space and time fail to exist any longer in their imagination.

When it takes so long to make any progress at all in a story, is a strong visual style enough to keep your interest? I don’t think so. It comes down to how the story is told. And in the case of long form storytelling on TV, that’s all about pacing. If the pacing or character development is too slow, you’ll lose the audience before you resolve the story.

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Look how high the grass grew before they got a single clue in The Killing

The Killing has a major inertia issue. It’s not that the story is taking too long to unfold. The problem is that the writers don’t know how to maintain the pace without frustrating the viewer. Can you really expect people to stick around for a detective show where a red herring is explored to the end almost every week? The Killing is taking a serpentine route to its conclusion. It’s covering a lot of ground in each episode, but it’s not really advancing the plot.

Death Note has the other issue going on. The story moves at a quick pace, even if time itself is moving slowly. The characters, however, are static and underdeveloped. You learn everything you need to know about Light, L, and everyone else as soon as you meet them. Their motivations and approach to the investigation/crimes do not change so long as they are in their original states. The overriding story is hindered by the character development issues. Why should you care who wins in the end if the protagonists are Mary Sue’s and everyone else is static?

I’m drawn to slow and methodical storytelling. Charles Dickens is one of my favorite authors and I love to sink into a two+ hour film with small stakes and oodles of character. The problem with this long and slow approach on TV is the episodic format. The genre is designed to be told in installments.

deathnotenoir Pacing is Everything: Long Form Storytelling on TV

Slow and stylish works if the characters and pacing match the story.

If you want to tell a twenty hour continuous story over the course of a few months (doled out a half hour or hour at a time), you need to find a way to keep the audience interested. This is why shows like The X-Files have monster of the week episodes. You go off track for a week or two in order to recharge the audience. It’s the intermission at a play or halftime at the football game. Even then, if you put the break in at the wrong part of the story, you lose interest. Anyone else remember the outrage when Trey Parker and Matt Stone inserted a nonsense Terrence and Phillip special in between the two-parter about Cartman’s real father?

Do the challenges mean that people should avoid creating long form stories for TV series? I don’t think so. Some stories need more time to develop. Some of those stories could make for interesting television. It comes down to how much work the writers are able to put in to get everything mapped out in a way that makes sense. There needs to be a delicate balancing act between character development and story pacing that stays internally consistent. It’s not simple, but I would imagine getting it right is rewarding.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Great Score: Susumu Hirasawa’s Paprika

I love film scoring. I believe, under the right circumstances, that original music can make or break a film. It’s an element that people don’t always notice when it’s done right but know it’s wrong when it goes wrong. In this new series, I will be digging through some of my favorite film scores of all time to explain why I think they work so well and deserve recognition.

Paprika is a Japanese animated science-fiction/fantasy film about a new piece of psychotherapy technology. It allows the practitioner to transport their spirit into a patient’s dreams to guide them through therapy sessions in a safe environment. Paprika is the dream name of Chiba Atsuko, one of the doctors involved in the initial testing of the device. Unfortunately, someone has stolen the technology and is using it to drive people insane. It becomes Paprika’s job to unravel the mystery of the theft before the thief tears down the wall between dreams and reality forever.

The film, from the writer/director of Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers Satoshi Kon, is an aggressive burst of visual stimuli. It takes full advantage of the dream settings, creating noir detective chases, elaborate circus acts, and even a parade of living toys that causes insanity. This film required a wide range of original music and composer Susumu Hirasawa was more than up to the task.

The following is the most common recurring theme in the film. It is one of the two recurring motifs and acts as the theme song for Paprika when she’s traveling in the dream world. The first version is called “Meditation Field.” It’s a driving pop song accompanied in the film by the neon lights of the city as Paprika rides her motorcycle through traffic. It’s a thrilling opening sequence in the film because the music adds so much excitement.

This theme transforms into something much more quiet and contemplative about two-thirds of the way through the film. As Paprika comes closer to the source of the theft and discovers the actual stakes, her theme song becomes a lullaby of sorts. The synthesizer sequences begin looping the first few notes of the chorus and verse as acoustic piano and vocals take a backseat. It’s an intentional dreamlike effect. The song is called “A Drop Filled with Memories.”

Since the film has so much action, it’s only natural that the main use of “Meditation Field” would be a more upbeat interpretation of the song. This version is called “The Girl in Byakkoya.” It’s an acoustic version of “Meditation Field” with more layered vocal effects. Despite its more subdued backing and fuller vocal at the chorus, it’s the closest Hirasawa’s score comes to pure pop music. This could play on the radio or in a dance club without much of a push at all.

The level of variation in the score is staggering. Little bits and pieces of Paprika’s theme weave their way throughout. Whether it’s the instrumentation, the vocal layering, the melody, the harmony, or even just the rhythm, this theme permeates the score. A great film score tends to have one theme that is the basis of everything.

Paprika has two. There is a strong reason for this. Where Paprika is the hero of the film and needs music to follow her throughout the story, the parade of toys I mentioned above is the villain. It, too, needs its own musical vocabulary. What Hirasawa does is create a demented circus vamp. It’s compelling and wrong at the same time. A typical marching band beat of bass drums, snares, and crash cymbals takes a backseat to a male chorus as the driving force. This rhythmic jumping melody almost seems to arbitrarily jump from low to high points to set the listener on edge. The tenor and bass melody on the verse and chorus are smoother and more appealing, but are distracted by digital modification and synth choral arrangements. It sounds like a party that you’re not sure you want to be invited to. The song is aptly called “Parade.”

This isn’t even getting into the circus theme, jungle theme, bar theme, or hallway theme. These are 1 minute cues that get repeated every time the characters enter those environments. The short length is due to how small an amount of time is spent in those locations.

Susumu Hirasawa gives Paprika a rich and robust score capable of supporting the strong visuals at every scene. It’s a score I knew I needed for myself when the credits rolled. It works great with the film and only grows better the more you listen to it without the visuals. The music adds easy to understand context to a film with a varied visual style that needed some grounding and support to soar.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Franchise, Franchise, Franchise: Yugioh’s 4th Series is Coming

I joke with some of my friends that I only watch the anime designed to sell me a product directly. I’m talking shows like Pokemon (video games), Naruto (action figures, video games), and Yugioh (card game, video games). There’s comfort in knowing when you’re being advertised to directly and these shows make it no secret that they only exist to sell merchandise. I can respect that.

The worst offender has to be Yugioh, which is based off a manga series about a trading card game. So it’s a comic about a trading card game that became a TV show produced by the company who produced the actual trading card game. If you watch any episode of this franchise, you’re going to see at least one commercial for a Yugioh product. Shoot, almost every card used in the game is a commercial for a Yugioh product since most of them are available to play in the real trading card game.

Get ready to be tempted to open up your wallets for an assortment of glossy cardboard and Nintendo games because Yugioh is entering its fourth original television series. The first series was an introduction to the game through the similarly named Yugi character. The second series, DX, was about a school for dueling and eventually some bizarre dark underground of dueling. The third series, 5D’s, introduced motorcycle dueling. I wish I was joking. The characters used tricked out motorcycles to race and duel at the same time.

Now we’re entering Yugioh Zexal, which is actually a pretty decent direction for the show. There’s a new dueling device (isn’t there always?)–an eyepiece that lets the duelist see the 3D holographic dueling arena anywhere they go–and a new spiky-haired protagonist, Yuma. Yuma is the worst duelist in his school (aren’t they always?). He has one funny friend and one girl friend who is not his girlfriend. He has an elderly guardian–his grandmother–and a smart sometimes mentor–his sister.

The twist that actually elevates this a little higher than the usual “buy more product” theme is the introduction of Astral. Astral is a ghostly presence whose memories have been split into 99 specialty number cards (hmm…kind of sounds like that short run Scooby Doo series, or that mediocre horror series, only those were about capturing ghosts and demons). Only in defeating the controllers of these 99 cards can he regain his actual form and purpose. He is forced into a partnership with Yuma and together they stumble into these duels.

There’s a level of absurdity to this Zexal series that has been missing from the other three series of Yugioh. The players still take the game very seriously, but a wise-cracking quasi-ghost and an evil conspiracy of numbers means the usual dark underbelly of the game–cults trying to raise the ancient Egyptian monsters and/or specific legendary dragons–cannot become as deathly serious as it usually does. So help me, if it turns out that there’s an ancient mob of duelists fighting to keep the 99 cards separate, the show will actually become campier and more entertaining. Nothing shy of killing off Astral after Yuma loses too many duels could sink this show’s bizarre entertainment factor.

How serious can you take a cartoon where the lead character has a bright pink stripe in his hair and shouts at everything? Somehow, bumbling fool Joey Wheeler from the original series sent his past self into the distant future before he learned the basic mechanics of the game. The latest series might actually put Yugioh: The Abridged Series out of commission without anymore threats of lawsuits. It’s impossible to lampoon a show that has become a campy parody of its own faults. Sell those cards while you can, Konami, because I have a feeling this new series isn’t going to win you many big-spending converts.