Sunday, April 28, 2013

Fresh from Japan: Attack on Titan disturbs, intrigues

Image courtesy of Kodansha Comics USA

I’m not the biggest fan of zombie/cannibal stories. In fact, I actually have a phobia when it comes to zombies. But a recent anime out of Japan with overtones of that horror genre has captivated my interest nonetheless.

Attack On Titan (the literal translation of the Japanese title, Shingeki no Kyojin, should be closer to "Attack of the Titans"), based off the manga of the same name by Hajime Isayama, is currently airing in Japan and is quickly becoming one of the hottest series out now. 

There have been four episodes so far that have aired on, the online streaming repository for all things anime. It is amazing to me that with a few clicks (and, if you don’t want ads, a couple bucks per month to have your own personal all-anime equivalent of Netflix) you can have your fill of subtitled fresh-from-Japan goodness. I remember in the 90s when anime was starting to have a surge of popularity in the U.S. that the only access you had to even older anime series (forget the most current) was through fansubs ordered off eBay and other more obscure, dark recesses of the World Wide Web.

But here we are, getting to watch humans get eaten to our heart’s content, and I could not be happier. The premise is you have a medieval-esque town that has lived in peace for about 100 years inside three 164-foot walls (named Maria, Rose, and Sina) to protect them from the Titans - giants that are semi-human in appearance whose only goal in life seems to be consuming humans. Anything other than that, thus far, is off the menu.  The interesting part is that the majority of them seem to be fairly mild-mannered; and worst of all, it appears they don’t actually need to eat humans to survive, and appears to be a side effect of not having anything else worthwhile to do. (Social commentary, anyone?) What’s left of humanity, which resides in a country similar to Holland with rolling green hills, Tudor-style homes, and windmills, goes along generally contented behind their strongholds. It is clear the idyllic nature of the town is not all it appears to be, as there are several troops of brave souls that head out as “survey groups” to try to find out more about the Titans (thereby destroying the typical Western plot point of “it’s different and dangerous, therefore we should just kill it instead of learning anything") and sadly, end up just losing more people in their efforts.

                                                         Check out the killer opening!

                                     Here's a pretty epic piano cover of it as well. Great stuff. 

But the walls are keeping them back, so hey, why worry? Right? You can see what’s coming. All hell breaks loose when a different Titan appears and peeks his skinless face up over the outermost wall, Maria, to say hello before proceeding to knock the first stronghold down with relative ease. Our main character, Eren, and his sister Mikasa, have the unfortunate experience of watching their mother get eaten by one of the more timid-looking creatures.It's like Where the Wild Things Are gone terribly, terribly wrong. DEFINITELY NOT a series for the little ones.

So the townspeople (whoever’s left that is) suit up to try to do what they can to learn about and fight the Titans. Here’s what makes the series totally intriguing to me – I really want to know what the Titans ARE; they look downright disturbing and yet, I can't look away.  Some are appropriately scary monster-fierce-looking, their skinless forms reminding one of an Iron Man suit in the flesh. Others resemble schlubby humans with semi-amiable expressions (aside from giant, grinning jaws that is). Which brings me to the great art style - I enjoy that the characters (human and Titan alike) have distinctive individual looks, and don't fall prey to the problem of other anime series, where everyone looks basically the same aside from varying eye color and spiky hair styles. The people look realistic and the world they inhabit is as gritty as the plot.

Back to the Titans: Are they machines? Are they organic? Where are they from? Who knows, but I'm sticking around to watch because this is the first series in a long, long time that has so thoroughly hooked me right from the start.

Initial concept and execution so far:

Monday, April 8, 2013

In Memoriam: Roger Ebert's funeral held today

Image courtesy of Esquire magazine

 In honor of a fellow critic: the Chicago Tribune did a wonderful writeup this morning about the funeral of Roger Ebert, held this morning. I thought I'd share the link to that news article, as well as a feature I read in 2010 in Esquire magazine entitled  Roger Ebert: The Essential Man. This article really captures the man from all angles, and one of the best journal features I've read, period.

Finally, I also wanted to include a fitting tribute Geeks of New England, a podcast group I've been involved with over the last couple months, had done.

This blog may not exist if it weren't for Mr. Ebert. The best thing about being a writer? Your work gets to live on long after you do and thus, you are never really gone from this world.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Eye of the Tiger: Life of Pi an inspiration for the soul and the eyes

 Image courtesy of Fox 2000 Pictures

 I'll be honest - the main reason I went to see Life of Pi wasn't because it was a Best Picture contender, or that the director is the famed Ang Lee - it was for the tiger.

There's something about tigers - their strength and fire, and yet their uncanny ability to look like the bigger cousin of the harmless tabby sleeping on a windowsill. You know one could gobble you up in moments - or at least maim you for life - and yet, there's something soft and vulnerable beyond those eyes burning bright, in the forests of the night, as William Blake once wrote.

The opener doesn't quite take you where you think the movie will go. There's lots of cute animals, picturesque scenes of Pondicherry, India, fun jokes about how the main character, Pi, gets his nickname. Then - this is not a spoiler if you've seen the trailers at all - a monumental tragedy strikes, and Pi finds himself on a small boat on the ocean with a strange cast of characters, and soon, only him and a tiger named Richard Parker, left to fight the elements.

A strangely accurate breakdown of the film, courtesy of

The visuals are eye candy to feed the soul. I tend to see 3D as being gimmicky and usually not worth the extra $3 or sometimes $5 theatres tack onto the already expensive movie ticket, but Lee uses the effects to their utmost advantage, particularly during the shipwreck scene. It is a sweeping moment, when you are drawn in to the heart of the storm, utterly swept away from reality and you realize that the movie really and truly HAS you in its clutches. Of course, there are many beautiful movies where the plot is forgettable at best and deplorable at worst (I'm looking at you, Tree of Life.) The story purports to be one that "will make you believe in God." Of course WHICH god you decide to believe in, the movie cleverly sidesteps; but given how much crap Pi has to deal with, that message seems a bit skeptical. So what DOES director Ang Lee want us to take away from this story? And is the tiger real, or just the delusions of a boy suffering from sunstroke after six months adrift on an unforgiving sea?

During my time as a staff writer for Soundings, a nationwide boating magazine, I spoke to people who survived for days at sea after wrecks, so perhaps the movie had more personal weight for me than others. Most of the time, the one sentiment I heard over and over again was - "I'm just glad to be alive." I believe the Richard Parker is real in this film; I also believe that he represents the fire and strength in the human soul, the tenacity of our will to live. Pi says Richard Parker is what kept him alive.There is that tiger in all of us that somehow allows us to live another day, to seek another sunset, and to help us be brave enough to imagine a different reality for ourselves; that even when we have nothing; and so much is taken from us - there is still that tiger in our soul, that will to live, to see what's around the next horizon.

Perhaps if one cannot believe in god (or a god) by the end of this film, we moviegoers, jaded as we are at times, can find some will to believe in ourselves. Perhaps that's the first step towards the existence of a higher being. Life of Pi is a movie that moves me and will continue to do so  for a long time to come.