Archive for July, 2008

Unfortunately for our wallets, and perhaps fortunately for our reading desires, K and I got our claws on some more manga. It’s tough, because the library doesn’t stock all the latest issues, and reading them online isn’t the same as having it in your hands, though it does slake the addiction overall.

K has been reading Fruits Basket and Hot Gimmick way ahead of me like gangbusters, and I’ve fallen behind. However, I’ve gained the upper hand in knowing what’s going on in Love Hina and Claymore, both of which are really keeping me entertained and happy. It is important that citizens be happy instead of discontented!

We picked up a new series, called Death Note, just to stir up the pot. As if we haven’t enough storylines to latch onto. We saw an entirely different aisle setup with countless new titles in the local Barnes and Ignoble, which put us in a slight sweat. I didn’t ever think I would say, in this day and age of crummy entertainment choices, I am for once inadequate and overwhelmed by the choices of good reading.

Things can get better.

So, in Death Note, this death god named Ryuk gets bored with hanging out with the other death gods and decides to go to earth and stir things up. He leaves his death note, which is a magical notebook, on the earth for anyone to find. The death note has magic powers that adhere to certain rules and contains instructions on how to use the death note properly. The most important power is that if the owner writes a person’s name in the death note while visualizing their face, that person dies.

An honors high school student named Light finds the book and claims it. At first, he is skeptical, but after he kills two people with the death note he is forced to believe. Most people at this point would get rid of the book or try to keep it safe without using it. But Light decides to embrace the full powers of the death note and use them to rule the world while eliminating all crime.

Ryuk becomes Light’s neutral companion. The death god is interested in seeing what a mortal does with his former death note, and is something of a compatriot in Light’s secret. So far, the series is an exploration in the limits and boundaries of the death note, and Light’s struggles to retain control of the growing chaos he is causing.

As hundreds of criminals all begin dying in the same way, the public begins to call the deaths the act of a figure of justice known as “Kira” (or “Killer” in Japanese), while the governments of the world begin an international manhunt. The leader of the investigation is a nameless, faceless operative known only as “L”. This makes “L” immune to Light’s direct power, as Light cannot kill someone unless he knows their real name and what they look like.

Thus begins a cat and mouse chase, as L sets up traps to learn about the scope of “Kira’s” powers and clues to the identity of what people are calling a “telepathic killer”.

The drama is intense, as Light dodges pursuit and kills those trying to learn his whereabouts. He’s smart for a kid, and he has the advantage of the death note with its many permutations. L does everything in his power to learn clues without revealing anything about himself. Any move could prove fatal. Neither of the two is dumb, but one of them is going down in the end.

What’s fun to read about for me is how Light uses the death note. For example, it is possible for him to set the conditions of the death within certain limits. He can set up someone to die right when he needs to intimidate an agent on his tail, or cause a witness to commit suicide several days later to avoid suspicion. He can influence people’s behavior at the moment of their death so that they utter misleading information or do things that implicate other people.

Is there a price for this power? As Ryuk explains, the main price is in the moral and mental strain it places on its owner. We watch as Light goes from considered, adolescent declaration of self-centered desire, to mass murderer who will stop at nothing to accomplish his goal. His fall is so total and self-inflicted, can even the victory of “L” be enough for the boy to pay for his crimes? I sense a dark fate for this fellow, and yet I can’t stop turning away as he invents horrific deaths for his enemies.

And all the while, Ryuk stands by watching the chaos and finding delight in the havoc he’s caused. What is his purpose? Is he learning anything? Hard to say.

But it’s awesome, good fun. At last, some inventive thinking and hard consideration for premise and story. I was getting worried there.

I’d known about O-bento sama since I studied in Japan. But I don’t think I started to really understand them until now. For those not in the know, a bento is a lunch, usually in a container of some kind. The O and sama refer to a certain amount of respect for the lunch and what it represents.

K picks up on things all the time from her communications and sensor monitoring stations. I never know what she’ll find next. In this case, she started trailing the subculture of bento preparation, and boy is there a bottomless depth to human ingenuity and presentation in this one.

At its simplest level, a bento is a container. But you can add dividers, and layers of containers. And then you start getting into shape and size. Depending on the kind of lunch need, whether it’s a single person or a family on a picnic, the containers called upon depend upon the desires of the preparer and the needs of the consumer(s).

Most bento containers are plastic, but some are wood or metal. They may come with spaces for chopsticks or other utensils, and they can be tall or wide. Many have trays within the container that act as dividers in and of themselves.

You begin to get into personalization. Some bento containers are decorated with famous bento characters and sayings. Others are just decorated with scenes of solitude or symbols representative of the preparer’s wishes. You can have a lime green garden on the bento top, with a saying such as “friendship is a treasure, let’s eat!”

There are special containers and utensils that can be added to the bento. Small plastic fish to squirt soy sauce or little molds that can be used to shape hardboiled eggs into shapes. There are small creatures that can be used to cover a small treat. There are plastic figures and accents that can be added to make a point or deliver a message.

The food items that go into the bento start to turn into decorations. You can use cutters to make messages out of cheese, or cut vegetables and fruits into handy shapes like stars or moons. Rice and meat can be colored or arranged in shapes that make a friendly face or a background for another message.

Why all this elaborate work over what should is just a lunch? Near as I can tell, the bento is an actual person or spirit that delivers well wishes from one person to another in the form of a meal. Because the bento is a “go-between”, the lunch preparer can express feelings of love, friendship, or devotion to the eater without losing face, because it is assumed that the bento is relaying the message for both parties.

I like that. You open a container as if it’s a sacred object, and you don’t just eat a meal, you are eating something that expresses someone’s feelings for you.

K and I went searching various Asian stores for bento materials. We didn’t score anything more than some basics, but it will suffice for now. We just started this thing at level 1. It’ll take us a while to get to the higher levels where our bentos to each other are like dioramas.

But even a humble bento is nice. Mister lunch has been visiting me this week, and every small touch makes the meal warm and friendly. I know someone cares enough to send me a message of caring and sharing!

I found the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films by Peter Jackson and company a let down. The first movie was good, the second okay, and the third awful. But as far as being anything approaching Tolkien well, better minds than I have already deconstructed the movie to the pain.

This is a (mostly) family show, so I won’t go into sordid detail about today’s rave. But I think the soft-core movie Lord of the G-Strings is a fine movie. When I think about the nine hours plus of sprawling dung that Hollywood dropped on my head, all I need for an antidote is to think about this little gem of a movie. Everything is transparent to something else, praise Bob.

Bildo Saggins (played by cult soft-core figure Misty Mundae) and her horny throbitt friends are charged by the drunkard wizard Smirnoff to destroy the mighty G-string. Anyone who wears the thing threatens to destroy the kingdom with the lust this item inspires. Therefore it must be destroyed to restore peace, or something.

Arrayed against our stalwart heroines are Smirnoff’s traitorous friend Sour-azz and the pervert Ballum. Yes, the awful names and images never cease.

Michael Thomas (which I’m not sure is a real name) plays an inspired performance as Smirnoff.  I would match his spoof performance of Gandalf any day against Sir Ian McKellan’s serious portrayal in Lord of the Rings.  Both are truth.

I’ve seen several of the other offerings by the company that gave us this weird movie. Playmate of the Apes, Spider Babe – all trash! It’s as if a rare combination of usually worthless materials combine to create a movie that is an instant classic. For me, it’s all about the discovery of the unusual and original.

Now, mind you, I’m not fond of this movie for the nakedness factor. That’s all part of the absurdity of the film. What I embrace is the way this movie takes a venerated icon of fandom and subverts it. The entire trilogy is condensed into one movie, with some extreme liberties taken with the eventual story for the sake of budget. That is, whatever little budget there could have been in a production like this.

The throbitt party has all manner of silly encounters as they walk through the same back yard forest over and over. They meet the cowardly lion and beat him up because he has no courage. The orcs pursuing them get lost and ambushed by hillbillies. At one point, they meet another party of women adventurers with a quest to destroy an artifact going in the opposite direction, and argue over who is really on a wild goose chase.

An effect similar to Monty Python and the Holy Grail is achieved; where through the use of comedy on sacred cows of adventure, certain truths emerge. Smirnoff’s bumbling, lecherous incompetence makes him human and believable. Bildo’s (naive?) acceptance of a ridiculous quest that is part of Smirnoff’s plot to get rid of a piece of junk reflects the way we operate in the real world.

How many movies does it take to tell a story where you are dumping a prop off with the studio crew, anyway? Let’s just get to that backyard renn faire at the end and have a party, complete with stupid cheap computer animation effects. The ending suggests Bildo is not as dumb as she seemed, and maybe the power objects have over us is all in our minds.

On a random patrol for craft goods, K and I came across a trade center in the far off zone many stoplights of traffic agony from our usual sector. We landed and investigated the internal quadrants of the trade center and found ourselves the usual assortment of goods you find at craft stores.

But this time, we came across something a little different. The lanes of sticker fields were a little more varied than usual, but that’s not unusual in a trade center off the beaten track. I find one or two sticker sets that step outside the norm all the time on ventures like these.

No, what K found on a sensor sweep beggared description. Hanging on a discount rack on the far side of the lanes, in a tiny, easy to miss area, was a series of packets. No price, but the label said, in so many words, eighty-five dollars worth of stickers, a true value.

We each got one, and continued our search, K for knitting stuff and me for other items. I came across a stand of sticker books which I’d never seen before. A whole bunch of stickers in the fields I’ve been trying for years to close up my collection in!

Back home at command central, we looked over our assortment of booty and marveled. The lane stickers were good. The booklets off the stand I found a nice completion find. That enough makes it worth while. But when we opened our bargain sticker packets, which ended up being ten dollars each, our eyes bugged out.

Basically, we were looking at packets of stickers that hadn’t sold well, or couldn’t be returned, and were put together in a value pack for easy selling. Dozens of the finest stickers, many of a kind I’d never seen before, and I’m pretty familiar with the Sandy Lion and Mrs. Grossman lines. Both of us got about 60% of the same stickers, but the other 40% were different.

In effect, we’d gotten a real smörgåsbord of stickers. Probably about fifty sheets, or a hundred dollars worth for ten, which tells you how marked up these puppies are. We’re kicking ourselves for not getting the other three packets. But that’s how it is when you score a secret Sticker Stasher stash. You never know when it’s going to be the mother lode, and chances are if you miss the full tractor beam haul, it won’t be there when you head back for a repeat performance.

K and I are just glad we manage to get our claws on some of the treasure. But the Sticker Stasher strides along his merry way, stashing stickers and eluding the pursuit of those meddling kids!

K and I haven’t been to a movie since Pan’s Labyrinth. We go to about one movie every year. She’s given up on movies, while I still cling to the hope that the next movie-going experience will be different. I’m always reaching for that 1% chance of something great.

The buzz for the new Batman movie got me caring enough to try and convince K to go with me. She agreed, we bought a pair of matinee tickets online, and got ready to try our luck again. Don’t ask me to remember the title, all the Batman movies seem the same to me now. Batman’s Big Day Out, Batman Goes To Camp, Batman’s in the Army Now, etc.

Wow, a matinee costs seventeen bucks. Okay, there’s a two-buck service charge for the convenience, but Good Lord. Seven-fifty a ticket? The normal price is ten bucks. We spend fifteen bucks on a large soda, a hot dog, and large popcorn. So that’s thirty-two dollars.

By comparison, K and I could buy or rent a DVD for ten bucks or less, and use the rest to buy a pizza and a six pack of beer. We wouldn’t have to be crammed into sardine-size seats, be distracted by jerks and their bright cell phones texting away, have idiots backing their seats into our knees, breathe air reeking of sweat and farts, and watch twenty minutes of ads and previews for movies that reek or recycled thought-vomit.

The movie is two hours and twenty minutes long, plus the twenty minutes of advertising and ten minutes you spent finding a seat away from the mutants. Judging by the silent, immediate way the audience left at the end to relieve their bladders, it was a long three hours. And no Gandalf or Eyes-of-Frodo to squee at, neither.

I’ll summarize the entire plot in one sentence, so if you hate spoilers, take the tape out now. The plot of the movie is “Batman becomes the bad guy because he isn’t good at anything else.” The entire movie is about Batman failing at everything so he can claim the title of “The Dark Knight”, the “hero people deserve”, that is – the unstoppable thug we all wish we were when it comes to revenge-justice power fantasties.

Never mind how stupid and unheroic this is, it’s boring and it’s outdated. I want to see Batman kick butt and solve crimes, not wallow in nonsensical melodrama and mindlessly react to villains who outthink him at every turn with two bit plans that wouldn’t fool the average person, never mind The World’s Greatest Detective.

That’s probably the worst thing about Batman Mark XVIII, he’s an impotent character that nobody can care about on any level – butt kicking, police work, human drama – nothing. Christian Bale is miscast; he is unable to bring any weight to his portrayal of either Batman or Bruce Wayne. Every time he growled his raspy voice as Batman, I wanted to cringe.

I think the only reason he got the Batman part was because of his role in American Psycho. The casting agents must have figured he could play a one-note lunatic, so why not a complicated psychopath vigilante like Batman.

There’s a scene where the Joker (the main bad guy), played by Heath Ledger, is dangling upside down from a line. It’s the final showdown and the Joker has “lost”, or rather, he’s out of unlimited instant-trap points. Heath’s upside down performance as the Joker dances circles around Christian Bale’s weak attempt at being Batman. The Joker may as well have been talking to himself.

During this scene, I realized Batman was still using his raspy batman voice during the back-and-forth. Even though the Joker isn’t scared of him and knows Batman’s real identity! How stupid is that? Batman hasn’t got squat to say to the villain. As usual in all Batman films the villain has the best lines and scenes. Is the movie about Batman or the Joker?

Heath’s performance as the Joker is the only good thing about the movie. He reinvents the villain as a diseased mind incapable of caring about anyone or anything except his schemes to stir the Batman into action. His portrayal is mesmerizing and scary while at the same time sympathetic. I would say the Joker does a better job of portraying the inner id of people who want to cut loose than Batman’s rich, effete snob.

The movie’s creators wisely choose to leave Heath’s Joker an enigma. His past is never explained, and the police are unable to dig up any information on him. Like a true fool, Heath’s joker moves through every boundary and into any situation without pause. Every time he is on screen the movie picks up intensity and he forces his co-workers to stop phoning it in.

It’s a sad state of affairs when it takes a suicidal actor to convey art of any substance in a Hollywood movie. Thank goodness Heath’s amazing performance was in this movie, because otherwise we’d be stuck with a horrible, unmatchable mess.

And what a mess it is. Whenever the Joker is off screen, the movie reverts to a dragging bloat of multiple plots and unbelievable contrivances. The Joker seems capable of creating instant traps at any time – warehouses full of gasoline barrels rigged to blow, hospitals lined with hidden explosives, and an endless array of “crazy people” who do his bidding. The whole Joker enterprise is hard to believe – Batman passes up this huge organization of psychos to take out the mob? Huh?

I’m also bored with the same old female character that exists only to be put in jeopardy and/or die to motivate the hero. With no personality of her own. It’s old, its crummy writing, and it’s just not full of pathos anymore. Every time I saw Maggie Gyllenhaal, I kept thinking of her role in Secretary and wanting to see that movie instead. Sad.

Aaron Eckhart, who plays Harvey Dent the noble prosecutor who falls, is also miscast. He’s too good-guy to play a man with a twisted dark side that comes out under tragedy. His background and reasons for falling never make sense to me. I get the movie’s message that “anyone can fall”. I just don’t buy it here. The guy goes from noble and dedicated throughout most of the movie to random psycho in a matter of minutes.

His look as Two-Face the villain is laughable – where as Heath’s Joker in ordinary grease paint comes off as creepy and unsettling, Harvey’s Two-Face looks over the top and distracting. I mean, the giant eyeball and bones showing through were ridiculous. What, it wouldn’t have been enough for him to just be scarred? Some marks don’t need to be gore fests to cut deep into the psyche. That was the point of Harvey Dent in the original “Dark Knight”.

Basically, despite the hype that this is a “reinvention” of the franchise, it’s exactly like all the others before it. You have multiple villains clogging the screen (the Scarecrow from the last film even has a cameo). Multiple plots competing for dominance. And a Batman who never makes any sense as a character.

Batman only reacts to the villains. He never shows any brains, deductive reasoning, or foresight. He can drive a car or a motorcycle like greased lightning to get to the next death trap in time to watch himself fail, and he can beat up thugs and SWAT members when it has nothing to do with the plot, but he can’t show any sign of emotion when the circumstances call for it.

His love interest is murdered and the most grief we see is him sitting in a penthouse with a glass of (presumably) alcohol. His friend and supporter on the police force is (apparently) assassinated saving the mayor, and the most we see is him beating up some thugs to show how “angry” he is. The man who represented hope and was supposed to let Batman retire and live a normal life is maimed and brutalized for life, and Bruce Wayne spends about sixty seconds consoling the guy before leaving. Granted Batman is a psychopath, but if he doesn’t care about his contacts even as casualties in his maniacal war on crime, why should we?

The super high tech gadget that erases civil liberties so Batman can have a chance of finding the Joker fails to find the villain in time for his next plot (despite the fact that there must be literally dozens of careless crazy Joker operatives throughout town setting up the ferry trap, complete with hacked power systems and cargo holds full of explosives). Batman breaks the law and invades our privacy, and he still can’t find the bad guy. How sad is that?

At the end of the film, we have this cockamamie speech from Batman about how he must shed his “good guy” image and become the Dark Knight. I still can’t make heads or tails of the logic. Harvey Dent turned evil, but people must believe he was good, so Batman will take the blame for the man’s death, even though Harvey as Two-Face killed several people, and the Joker totally whupped Batman’s behind with a belt, and now Batman can be the hero people deserve, because he’s not a hero and Harvey is the real hero, and now the police must send the dogs after Batman, because he’s bad now and taking the blame he doesn’t deserve. Run Batman, run!

Please stop.

I don’t like doing it, but all my cats are neutered.  Doesn’t seem to have slowed Frankie down much, however.  She’s got that natural spark that makes you go, “Oh, that Frankie!”  Now it looks like she’s got an admirer.

There’s a local patrol cat that belongs to neighbors on one end of the cluster.  He’s a sleek, grey haired, very polite fellow K and I call Smokie.  A friendly cat to the max.

He comes and visits every couple of days, and Frankie can see him stride up the sidewalk to visit.  Her tail poofs out like a racoon’s, she rushes downstairs to look out the kitchen window, and gets excited.

Smokie trots up the stairs and waits patiently.  After a while of Frankie staring at him in full battle mode, he takes off to the catnip lady next door and heals himself some hit points.

Finally, we decided to come outside to meet this courtin’ cat and take his measure.  He meows politely and offers himself up for a pet, which we cannot refuse.  We talk to him and he remains dignified and calm throughout the whole affair.

Frankie watches from the screen door, her tail thrashing furiously.  We take her out to meet Smokie, and she hisses at him.  Not want!  We chastise her and take her back inside, then feed Smokie some of our high energy lynx food.  He devours it happily, waits staring at Frankie for a respectable period, then moves on.

Now K and I have the drill down.  When Smokie comes a-courtin’, and Frankie starts spazzing out, we open the door and greet our fine gentlemanly visitor.  He gets a free meal and a brief chance to talk and peer at Frankie with the screen door chaperone (we leave them in peace for a few minutes, to say what cats do to each other in a moment like this).

Frankie seems to enjoy her visits.  Last night, we let Smokie give her a nose kiss, and she didn’t hiss.  Maybe she likes Smokie after all!

Frankie’s first crush.

So here’s what we got:

Fruits Basket
Premise: Family of cursed shapeshifters adopts good-hearted orphan girl.

Notes: I didn’t know this was one of the most famous and popular of manga in the U.S., but I can see why. K and are totally hooked and can’t get enough. There’s this extended family of people (the Sohma family), most of them teens and young adults, and each is possessed by a vengeful spirit of the Chinese zodiac (there are twelve of them, one for each animal). When hugged by a member of the opposite sex, they change temporarily into a cute version of the animal they are possessed by. The head of the family is a malicious person who stands in as the ruler of the zodiac.

The main character, Tohru Honda, tries to manage her day-to-day school and work activities while handling the intrigues of the Sohma family. She also has two friends in school who watch over her since her parents died. Tohru’s only superpower is her relentless optimism and good will, matched against the dark secrets of self-loathing and abuse within the Sohma family. A lot of the book is conflict and self-discovery. Each character struggles to become a better person and face their past.

On the surface, the characters do a lot of ordinary daily life stuff. They have to get good grades, make work deadlines, or cook a dinner on short notice. There are factions within the Sohma family that shift and change depending on who is present and what dark secret is rearing it’s ugly head. The main character Tohru has to endure stressful challenges and handle adult responsibilities when she hasn’t even graduated high school yet! But the core of self-discovery never lets up, and never disappoints. Characters who come off as maladjusted jerks suddenly become sympathetic as you see their side of the story and they strive to get better.

Tohru’s own journey takes a long time, and she can be pretty annoying and simple-minded at times, yet there’s more to her than she knows and her character holds up despite the strain.

Verdict: I don’t want it to end.

Hot Gimmick
Premise: Girl living in a company apartment complex gets mixed up in a revenge plot between her childhood tormentor and a childhood friend.

Notes: Reading this, I’m reminded how vicious kids can be regardless of economic circumstances. This is a disturbing tale of a parental community struggling against itself over class lines, with the teenagers picking up the pieces and not always behaving decently.

What do you do when you’re in a family with damaged interpersonal dynamics and a shameful past? How do you cope when ulterior motives and a lack of parental guidance taint people your own age?

I found a lot of the subject matter in this book disturbing. I almost turned away, but then I saw how necessary and real it was. A teen reading this might find comfort and strength in seeing how a crummy neighborhood is just some people’s lot. You aren’t crazy, it’s the environment you’re growing up in.

But even in a neighborhood of dysfunction, you’re involved in a changing tale of growing up. There’s no doubt that Hatsumi, the main character, is involved in life. It’s refreshing to see a female character going through such turmoil and having a meaningful adventure.

Verdict: I’m involved now, and I’m with Hatsumi all the way.

Love Hina
Premise: Failed college applicant loser becomes owner of an all-girl’s dormitory.

Notes: I’ve heard it said that comedy is a man in trouble, and this manga fits the bill. You have Keitaro, the stereotypical loser (unattractive, bad at sports, not too bright, no special talent), trying desperately to get into the best college in the nation and failing. He refuses to try for a lesser college that might accept him. As a result his life is passing him by and his future is looking bleak. Of course, it follows that no sensible woman will have anything to do with him.

His family can’t stand the shame, so they kick him out and he goes to stay with his grandma. She owns a hot springs house converted into a small girl’s dorm. Keitaro’s aunt helps to run the place. There are five teenage girls of various ages, representing common archetypes (the brain, the martial artist, the crazy foreigner, the artist, and the shy innocent) also staying there. Grandma goes on a trip and leaves the house in Keitaro’s hands. He accepts the job so he’ll have a place to study. His next chance to enter his dream university is coming up.

Unfortunately, being a landlord means new responsibilities, and the five girls do everything in their power to get him to give up and leave (they see him as pervert and want grandma back). How will Keitaro cope with all these shenanigans and find time to study for another test he will likely fail like the two previous years?

At first, I dismissed this as just veiled voyeurism with a funny guy cover. But now I’m starting to root for the guy as he finds his way into a mature way of thinking. He refuses to give up his dream, and he isn’t afraid to ask for help. The interpersonal relationships are growing on me. You start to see how everyone needs each other, and how it’s okay to be yourself. Being a loser isn’t the end of the world. Life goes on.

Verdict: I’m hearing the Rocky music here.

Because I’m the Goddess
Premise: Misfit guy becomes sidekick of Goddess on a mission.

Notes: Reading this, I thought the setup was one mighty dumb idea. The revealing outfits of the Goddess Pandora looked like un-necessary cheesecake to me. I mean, you’ve got a wisecracking pet cat breaking the fourth wall. However, again I see there’s more to it than this.

Pandora has been sent to earth, accompanied by the talking cat, to retrieve several “gifts”. These “gifts” are negative qualities that have possessed women on earth and given them evil powers. They become giftmasters and enslave someone to do their bidding and cause trouble. Their slaves can turn into magic weapons capable of killing Pandora. She locates the “gifts” by identifying the slaves – they have a psychic collar and chain that leads back to the giftmaster.

Pandora runs into Aoi, a sourpuss guy, and discovers he is her sidekick. Pandora, being a Goddess, has magic powers. But when she uses her powers she turns into a normal girl. She can only regain her Goddess self by kissing Aoi. When in the presence of a giftmaster, she can kiss Aoi and turn him into a magical weapon. She can then break the chain between giftmaster and slave, and retireve the gift.

The complication is that Aoi doesn’t want to have anything to do with Pandora, but he’s stuck with her until she completes her mission.

This manga’s got a wacky side. The cat is the best part, with his funny one-liners and stoic attitude. Aoi is actually a decent person, but he clearly needs to work out some issues with people, something Pandora forces him to do by her mere presence. Aoi’s troubles as her sidekick make him more interesting, but I like that. It’s refreshing to see a sidekick be the focus of the struggle. You have the conflict between divine and mortal embodied in a super-powered relationship.

It’s hard to emphasize with Pandora, as she’s a force of nature and used to being venerated. Her own quest is harder to follow because the writer is holding back her big secret until the end. The manga only lasts three volumes before it concludes, which cuts back on her development. Just when Pandora starts to acquire a cast of characters besides Aoi and the cat, and seems to be relating more, the climax of the story comes.

But I like her quest. The idea that she is removing “negative qualities” from women on earth is cool. It’s only after she starts to see Aoi as a person who can get hurt, and relies on her friends, that she is able to push her quest to its conclusion.

Verdict: Needed to be longer. It’s hard to execute a complex, long-term “Goddess seeks human quality/Loner discovers his heart” story in so short a time.

Premise: Demons roam the earth and only the claymores can defeat them.

Notes: It’s a medieval world. Shapeshifting demons, called Yoma, are infiltrating and attacking the settlements of humanity. No human can detect or stand up to them. Claymores, women who have become half-demon and half-human hybrids, are the only hope. They have superhuman fighting abilities and demon-locating senses. All of them use huge two-handed swords called claymores, thus their nickname. They travel from place to place, locating and killing Yoma for a fee.

I decided to take a chance on an action-based manga here. I find that I go through such manga faster, as a lot of panels are filled with fighting maneuvers without dialogue. For me, that means the story has to be good enough to make the fight scenes worth examining. The tale of the hard line fighter with the humanizing sidekick is not a new one, but I found myself drawn in and liking what I saw.

The sidekick is a boy named Raki. The first story concerns the Yoma that infiltrates and murders his family, then begins attacking the village. A claymore named Clare is called in and she dispatches the Yoma. Raki’s village banishes him and he joins her until he can find a place he can live again. Together, they have adventures as Clare fulfils her duty.

The claymores all have to be put down eventually, as the demon inside them slowly takes over their mind. So new claymores are always coming in as the last batch burns out. Clare is believably both inhuman and human. She has nothing to look forward to. Yet she cares about Raki. Her past is not so different from his. Unfortunately, while Raki has hope, she knows where she will end up. Someone must fight the Yoma to the bitter end.

The guy in the story is another sidekick, and I like that. It can be an adventure even if you’re a secondary dude with no powers. He’s learning things and seeing sights no one else would. One gets the sense that Clare’s attachment to Raki (cold and pragmatic as it is) is allowing her to resist the demon inside her longer. I like how for once the doomed defender is a woman, and she is following a calling of her own volition. She’s effective as a heroine. The action is all about her. The strongest male fighters lose ground against the Yoma. Clare gets the job done using a combination of unexpected tactics and quick thinking.

Verdict: Thumbs up, all the way.

Overall, not bad at all for a first-time dive into the material. It makes me excited about comics again, in a way I haven’t been for ten years.

Back when I was studying in Japan, I thought it was mega-cool how comic books were a way of life in that country. Store shelves were often jammed with huge volumes. Each volume was filled with tons of different stories. It blew me away how you could literally create your own collection of favorites and get pure satisfaction from whatever your urge for story was.

For the last few years, I’ve noticed that the big chain bookstores have been carrying huge collections of manga volumes. That is, comic books collected into trade paperbacks of a size that’s easily transported in a purse or bookbag. The manga collections easily outstrip the graphic novel section in size and scope, both of mainstream Marvel/DC has-beens and independent trade paperbacks combined.

K and I decided to finally start getting involved, so we sat down and selected some titles. I kept getting the feeling that there’s “energy” here, and that what’s happening in comics is where the manga is. The other stuff is just the artifacts of an old road that’s rapidly aging itself into obsolesence.

Manga are usually rated by age, from 13-18, and/or by genre (comedy, fantasy, etc.). I would place a lot of what I saw in the bookstore as “teen” overall, with an attitude directed towards the teen mindset. But, I found these books to be amazingly addictive and engaging for the adult mindset, and that’s no mean feat.

There’s supposedly a line between the “teen” subset and the “mature” subset, but I didn’t find myself attracted to anything “mature”, as it reeked too much of the phony sex and violence of mainstream comics. If there’s a particular strength in these “teen” manga, it is the focus on relationships and conflict. These make for good stories, so even if you don’t get the Japanese cultural references or like the attention to cuteness, very often there’s a core that keeps you reading, and reading.

What gets me is that this is a new thing I haven’t seen in mainstream (and many independent) comics. You have a defined baseline outlook that unifies the entire “teen” manga setup, and you have a vast diversity of premises that means you can find satisfaction if you look. There’s a reward for getting involved I just don’t see in western comics.

And judging by the shelf space and the amount of young people crowding me out, there’s a huge demand here. Well, duh! Young people are reading comics who have never heard of Captain America or the X-men or Superman or Crumb’s Mister Natural, and have never known the tangled history behind mainstream comics.

That makes me happy. Go, young people! Instead of the same old young turks kicking old farts off the block to claim a share, this is a new subculture that doesn’t owe us comic dweebs a damn thing. It’s like back in the day, when I picked up a Richie Rich comic and nobody took it seriously, but it was my interest and I found my own world power in it. That special feeling has been born anew in another time and another place, and who knows what mighty powers these youngsters might be developing.

Would it even be powers? Maybe it’s a whole new kind of culture and civilization that delves into something the superheroes and neurotic loner stories of the past lost touch with. The oldsters can’t go back, but maybe they’ll be redeemed by the struggles of the next generation. Because right now, the comic wasteland suffers without the dream.

K and I watched the latest James Bond movie.  The movie could be best described as “stink, stank, stunk”.  Daniel Craig has got nothing going for him in this film except looks.  Yeargh, and the story was a lengthy hodge-podge of boring and nonsensical scenes.  This movie is further proof that Hollywood cannot make good movies except by accident.

I’ve read all the Ian Fleming books, and I have most of my favorite Bond films in my DVD collection.  Not all of them are good, nor are they necessarily paragons of morality or maturity.  The whole enterprise is nothing more than adolescent romanticism, so I don’t buy into Bond movies expecting realism.  I’ll watch Sandbaggers if I need a dose of hard-hitting espionage storylines.

James Bond is about boyhood fantasies.  Exotic travel, license to kill, short term love affairs handled with flair, the thrill of dangerous escapades, competent high stakes gambling, high tech gadgets, black and white morality, and stylish clothes.  This is the playboy’s life, lived without consequences, reflection, or restraint.

Enter the newest incarnation of Bond.  Apparently this movie wanted to push a more realistic version of the secret agent.  Gone is the fantasy element, now it’s all about being a thug.  Violence and destruction without purpose are ends in themselves.  Relationships of any kind are scenes for Bond to show his contempt for anyone but himself.

Gone is the witty reparte between Bond and Villain.  You won’t get scenes with titan actor Christopher Lee and distinguished actor Roger Moore:

Francisco Scaramanga: You get as much pleasure out of killing as I do, so why don’t you admit it?
James Bond: I admit killing you would be a pleasure.

Instead you get crummy stuff like this:

Le Chiffre: You changed your shirt, Mr Bond. I hope our little game isn’t causing you to perspire.
James Bond: A little. But I won’t consider myself to be in trouble until I start weeping blood.

Villain weird!  Bond smash!  Blah, blah, blah.

Perhaps that’s the biggest thing missing from the franchise now.  The charm and unflappable nerves of Bond are what make him interesting.  Daniel Craig isn’t given a decent line in the entire movie.  He’s played as a “blunt instrument”.  But that kind of mentality belongs to the nameless thugs Bond used to trounce in earlier films.

As for the “realism”, I have to laugh.  Putting a lot of cuts and bruises on Bond’s face, after he went through a series of acrobatic maneuvers that would break bones, does not make for “realism”.  A Bond with a lot of hit points and no style is not cool.  It’s lame.  There were scenes where I watched Daniel Craig jump down from heights the earlier, unrealistic Bonds NEVER leaped.  When Daniel Craig landed on solid concrete, I kept thinking “Oh!  That snapped both ankles into bone fragments.”

The basic plot of the original story of Casino Royale by Ian Flemming is pretty standard fare.  Bond goes to the casino of the title to beat the villain in a long-term card game for high stakes.  The idea is to make an example of the villain to his supporters and to deprive them of funding.  The villain is trying to raise money for an evil plot by bilking money from various high rollers who are participating in the game.  All of the intrigue takes place in the casino or the town it’s located in.  Unlike a lot of other Bond stories, this one is fairly static and is more about plots and counter-plots, with the action taking place at the gambling tale.

Of course, Hollywood thinks this kind of thing is boring, so the first hour and a half of the film revolves around a lot of sub-plots that lead to the casino action.  There’s chases and shootouts that don’t make any sense, and brief investigative scenes that a Spy-kid could figure out.  It’s all unaffecting fare, without any stakes.  By the time we get to the casino action I’m starting to squirm in my seat.  And I’m at home with a six-pack of cold draft cider and a slice of pizza!

The final confrontation comes and goes in a gambling display that is as crude as it is unbelievable.  Then the movie goes off on a tangent for another hour!  The end of the film comes just as Bond is about to kick some butt.  That’s what you get.  Two and a half hours of boredom for one minute of fun, then the movie ends.  It’s so lame I can’t believe it.

There’s always a “Bond Girl”.  Usually the female operatives are competent in some way, even if they are minimized in their role.  But the young woman in this film is so inexperienced I can’t believe she’s been sent on such a dangerous, important job.  She seems incapable of defending herself, and lacks any kind of interesting background that might explain her finding a place in a secret agency.

The gadgets blow.  None of them are actually cool or useful.  The whole “we’re always in touch with Bond using total surveilance” thing is stupid and undermines Bond’s independence and intelligence.

Come to think of it, the whole British Secret Service crew comes off as pretty incompetent and clueless, instead of the professional, dignified bunch they’ve been in the past.  Bond’s boss, “M”, is disrespected by Bond at every turn, when in the past “M” was both a harsh taskmaster and a strident supporter of Bond’s activities.  Bond listened to the guy, even if he didn’t always agree with his rules.  And he never, ever “put one over on the old man”.  “M” was sharp and no fool, established in the very first Bond film.  I just wish this “M” was comparable.  One wonders how or why she’s head of the double-0 branch at all.

Ugh, I give this movie the finger.

I take a look at my hall pass, and the lifeclock is a big fat black color.  For whatever reason, the boog-a-loos don’t come descending on my head.  They haven’t departed.  The house is still haunted with weird stuff.  The faucet in the kitchen is now leaking.  I have to get that taken care of.  The electrical guys haven’t been back to finish the work.  I guess I’m just learning to live with wacky toilet time, the creaks and groans at night, and the bugs that appear to plague me.

K and I used last weekend to organize and unpack from our emergency move a year and three months ago.  We got good work done, and cleared some space, which was a help.  I got some of my piles of papers back into line, and came across a poster from back in the day.

The poster came with an Alien doll I got back during the craze of the movie that came out in 1979.  It’s a drawing of scenes from the movie with a few artistic licenses thrown in.  That movie was all the rage with my classmates in 6th grade.  A group of folks from a rival class tried to put together a home movie based on their devotion to that science fiction classic.  Crumbs, if only they’d had YouTube back then.

I dug out my Alien baseball trading cards, a complete set except for number 61 – “the chest-burster”, and gazed at all the pictures.  The puzzles got me to thinking about back when movie trading cards were all the rage after Star Wars.  I have to organize these darn cards of mine someday – Blue, red, yellow, green and orange Star Wars cards to name a few.

I had to trade that one for card number 1.  Back then number 61 cards were a dime a dozen, so I figured I’d be able to get another one easy.  Unfortunately, the series stopped being sold on my next trip to the local seven-eleven (which is a hair salon now, go figure), and I’d somehow given away all my extras.

I meditate on the movie, and recollect memories from my young fascination with the film.  I decide to go to Best-Cry and buy the DVD for ten bucks, as I haven’t yet added it to my collection.  K and I have an evening where we watch the movie and have a blast.

I remember seeing Alien for the first time at a late show in D.C., at a theater that sadly, no longer exists (though you can see it in Exorcist III – the main character and his best friend go there for their yearly mourning ritual to watch It’s a Wonderful Life).  Alien scared the pants off the crowd several times.  It was awesome.

The DVD has several deleted scenes that I’ve never seen, and which are actually pretty good.  I feel like I’m seeing an old friend again, and discovering something new about them.  I rethink my old experiences in light of the new scenes and how I might have thought.

My copy of the novel comes off the shelf and I read it three times to get every nuance.  A line from the scene where the remaining crewmembers are talking to the decapitated head of Ash the android sticks out at me.  He asks them if they’ve tried to communicate with the alien.  It’s a dead end for the crewmembers, but I wonder if Ash, being an android with a gender-neutral point of view, isn’t speaking of something outside the crew’s immediate experience.  He was probably trying to mislead them, but he might have thrown them a crumb from the limits of his artificial brain process.

I get to obsessing over the film.  Then I start looking up Bigfoot movies that I suddenly remember watching on Channel 20 WDCA during that channel’s glory years.  There’s this movie where a bunch of college students uncover a mummified Bigfoot and it comes back to life to rampage.  I used a tape recorder to tape the sound when I was a kid, and I listened to it at night with my blankets over my head for years until I recorded over it.  I use the mighty power of the internets and find out it’s called Curse of Bigfoot, and it’s available on Amazon.

My investigations go deeper.  There’s a Bigfoot movie called Creature from Black Lake that I’ve never seen, but I think I might have and forgotten.  See, there’s this scary music hook that I can always remember and associate with Bigfoot.  But I don’t know where it’s from.  So I Netflix the movie and see if that leads to anything.  K shakes her head at my poor taste in B-movies, but I think Creature from Black Lake actually is a decent monster movie.  It does not produce the music I’m straining to remember, however.

I finally go to YouTube and find an old show called Monsters, Mysteries, or Myths, which was narrated by Rod Sterling of Twilight Zone fame.  It’s a TV show that tried to explore Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, and the Loch Ness Monster from a “somewhat” scientific viewpoint.  There’s a three to five second sound bite where the music that’s stuck in my head plays, and I recognize it.

It’s weird, because that one brief sound bite has stuck in my head since 1975, and only now do I reconnect with it and get into the vibe with a show that scared me so bad I couldn’t sleep for weeks.  The show was re-edited with a different narrator and shown again in the early 1980s as The Mysterious Monsters, which I think I saw and that probably dredged up scary memories.

What this adds up to is that old scary spooky feeling again.  I’m getting the shakes, and yet I can’t stop looking this stuff up and re-experiencing it.  In particular, the self-destruct part of the Alien keeps replaying in my head.  The last crewmember’s endgame and final confrontation with the monster, all while experiencing nearly unbearable panic and fear.

I wonder if my mirage is up to his old tricks again.  Come to think of it, my garden troubles might be his doing.  He does know weeds and soil like the back of his hand, and it would be a laugh-riot if my folks got a bumper crop while K and I got a crummy harvest.  I just discovered the parental units have planted corn and it is already almost ready.  The stalks were hidden by their tomato plants.  Argh!  The garden beat-down knows no depths.

In a certain sense, the movie Alien is about discovery, both of something new and different (even if it’s a horrific one in terms of what happens to the crew), and Ellen Ripley’s inner resources.  It’s a message, one that I observe and reflect upon.  I don’t get the sense that I’m supposed to do anything more than that.

I have a dream.  In it, I encounter the creature from the movie.  It jumps on me like a cricket, and we wrestle in a dark place for a long while.  In Alien, the creature is more than a match for any human because it has inhuman strength and snap-reflexes in addition to claws and slime-lubricated teeth.  But in the dream, we’re equally matched somehow.

The alien snaps it piston-like teeth into my cheek, and instead of eviscerating my face, I resist and slide out of its grasp.  Some sort of understanding passes between us, and all of a sudden I’m “one of its kind”.  We lay on our stomachs together, cheek-to-cheek, and listen to the darkness.