Mei-chan no Shitsuji

March 31, 2009

Butlers are big in Japan. After all, women need a fetish to match guys’ obsession with maids. Several properties have come out lately featuring butlers. Hayate no Gotoku, Kuroshitsuji… but none capitalizes on the butler rage more than Mei-chan no Shitsuji.

The premise is this: Shinonome Mei lives happily with her parents where they make a small but reasonable living running an udon shop. She spends a lot of time with her childhood friend Shibata Kento, whom she has nicknamed “Mameshiba” and who clearly has a crush on her. One fateful day, her parents are suddenly killed. Shortly after, a man named Rihito appears before her, claiming to be her butler! According to Rihito, Mei is actually the heir to the powerful Hongo family, and she must attend the prestigious St. Lucia Academy to become a proper lady worthy of the position. Further complicating things, it turns out Rihito is Kento’s older brother.

Mei is initially determined to continue running her family udon shop, but it’s soon destroyed. She’s also pressured by her grandfather, the current head of the family, by saying he won’t allow her mother to rest in the same grave as her father unless she becomes the Hongo family successor. So, Mei agrees to attend St. Lucia. When she arrives, she finds that the school requires each lady to have her own butler, responsible for her comfort and safety. The school is governed by a rigid system of rank, with Ombra being the bottom, then Luna, then Sole. Mei starts at Ombra, as all students do, but is constantly challenged and bullied by her snobbish classmates. Standing atop the hierarchy is Hongo Shiori, another potential successor to the Hongo family, and the current “Lucia-sama”, the top lady at the school. Shiori is outwardly benevolent and admired by all, but she’s secretly ruthless in pursuit of her goal. Mei is not alone, however, as Rihito is a top S-rank butler, and Kento even enrolls as a butler in training to stay close to her.

The plot is pretty typical shoujo fare. Tons of pretty guys doing… pretty things. Lots of flower imagery and wish fulfillment for girls wanting to be pampered. As the plot moves along, conflicts escalate from simple problems fitting in to life and death struggles as Shiori’s schemes become more and more dangerous. There’s also a forbidden love aspect since butlers and ladies are not allowed to be romantically involved. Despite that, there’s clearly something going on between at least half the couples, not the least of which is the romantic tension between Mei and Rihito so thick you could scrape it off the walls.

So, why the hell did I watch this? First and foremost, it has tokusatsu actors galore. Most prominently, Rihito is played by Mizushima Hiro, who was none other than titular character of Kamen Rider Kabuto. Rihito is not terribly different from Tendou Souji/Kabuto. Both are seen as nearly perfect, but harbor a bit of a complex regarding a particular young lady in their lives. Opposite him playing Kento is Sato Takeru, who was Nogami Ryotarou/Kamen Rider Den-O in his own eponymous series (directly following Kabuto too). Also playing smaller parts are the actors for Natsuki (Boukenger), Nago (Kamen Rider Kiva), Impactor Logia (Gransazer), and others.

In addition to the cast, the show was just somehow entertaining. Mizushima Hiro goes a long way toward accomplishing that, but it’s not just him. It’s a bit over the top, but not quite as obnoxiously so as Hanazakari no Kimitachi e was. It even has some decent fencing and hand to hand combat scenes peppered in. I would say give this a try if you’re curious, especially if you want to see some Kamen Rider actors outside those roles. It may put you off, but who knows… you may just like it.

Famicom Disk System

March 30, 2009

Back when I talked about the Famicom I mentioned it had an add on floppy disk drive as one of its most unique features. This was known as the Famicom Disk System (FDS). The drive was based on Mitsumi’s Quick Disk format. Nintendo added an imprinted Nintendo logo on each disk that matched an embossed plate in the drive. This was a rudimentary protection against piracy as it prevented standard Quick Disks from being used in the system.

Nintendo released the FDS in February 1986 in an attempt to address some shortcomings of the Famicom’s cartridge format. Principally, the FDS offered 128k (64k per side) of storage and the ability to save game data. This was important in a time when ROM space and battery backed saves were both expensive. The FDS drive itself could run on 6 C-sized batteries or its AC adaptor, and connected to the Famicom through a device called the RAM Adapter. The RAM Adapter was an oversized cartridge containing the FDS BIOS, a drive controller and 32k of RAM. Additionally, the RAM Adapter contained an FM Synthesis module that connected to the Famicom’s audio expansion pins, meaning FDS games could offer richer, bigger sounds than Famicom carts of the time.

Initially, the FDS was a big leap forward for console gaming. Its increased storage capacity and ability to save allowed complex games like The Legend of Zelda and Metroid to come about. FDS games were also generally cheaper than cartridge games. For example, Super Mario Bros. 2 (an FDS exclusive) was only 2,500 yen at launch. Additional distribution was available through a network of Disk Writer kiosks at department stores throughout Japan. These kiosks would allow a user to download a new game onto a blank or unwanted FDS disk for only a few hundred yen.

As revolutionary as it was, the FDS was not without problems. For one, it has all the same problems as any other floppy disk drive. It’s dependent on a rubber belt, which in the FDS has a tendency to melt and is of a very difficult to obtain size. Also, the disks themselves degrade over time like any floppy disk. Nintendo opted not to include a shutter on most FDS disks to keep costs down, so extra care must be taken not to let foreign material contact the disk surface.

Due to these and other issues, Nintendo decided not to release a version of the FDS for the American NES, though the bottom expansion port on the NES was designed for it. Zelda would not be released for the NES for over a year after the FDS launch, pending the introduction of the MMC1 mapper with its larger memory capacity and support for battery backed saves. Metroid would launch in the US around the same time, though its save system would be replaced by a cumbersome password. Both games lacked the additional sound channel provided by the FM synthesis module in the RAM Adapter.

In Japan, the FDS’s heyday would last only a few years. Cartridges soon reached a point where they could match the FDS’s capacity and battery backed saves were more practical. Cartridges had the advantage of being available to all Famicom owners, not just those who owned both the Famicom and FDS, so developers naturally gravitated back. Though the first two games in Konami’s Dracula (Castlevania) series were FDS exclusive, Akumajou Densetsu (Castlevania III) would debut in cart format. Nintendo itself released Super Mario Bros. 3 on cartridge to take advantage of the new MMC3 mapper. Square, despite being a big FDS developer with its Disk Original Group (DOG) released Final Fantasy on cartridge.

The FDS was manufactured through 2003, and supported by Nintendo Japan through 2004, and still retains a cult following. Gamers desire it for the enhancements (primarily the FM synth sounds and saving) that it offers over the NES or later Famicom cart versions of classic games. Many games would never be officially released in any other format. Overall, the FDS is worth it for discerning 8-bit gamers who want the complete experience of games like Zelda, Metroid and Castlevania. Just be prepared to deal with its quirks, and if you see any replacement belts for sale, buy them while you can.

A quick rundown of the games I have for it is as follows:

Akumajou Dracula — This would become the first Castlevania game upon its US release. The principle changes are being able to save after each boss and the enhanced FM synthesis based sounds. Also, in a rare case for games being adapted for the US, the Japanese version is actually easier. Enemies in later stages don’t do as much damage as in the US version.

Hikari Shinwa: Palutena no Kagami — Adapted for the US as Kid Icarus, again this game lost its save feature in the translation. In its place there was a cumbersome password. It did take advantage of the Famicom’s built in microphone on the second controller, as yelling into it would negotiate for lower prices in the item shop.

Kamen Rider Black: Taiketsu Shadow Moon — This is one of the worst games I have ever played. The graphics are good, the sound isn’t bad, and the intro cinematic is pretty cool. What kills it is the controls. They are impossible. Simple things like jumping and attacking are a constant struggle. Don’t bother unless you are a really, really big Kamen Rider fan. And a masochist.

Metroid — This classic game from the mind of GameBoy creator Yokoi Gunpei was meant as a showcase of the FDS’s capabilities, but wasn’t quite ready for launch. It has a number of very impressive FM synthesis powered sounds, from the opening music to the doors opening to the screams of certain enemies when shot. The ability to save is also much more convenient than the password system used in the US version. Metroid is one of the top reasons to invest in the FDS.

Nazo no Murasamejou — Nazo no Murasamejou could have been a much more significant game had it not been sandwiched between the juggernauts of Zelda and Metroid. It’s a very good overhead action game where you play a samurai tasked with defeating the demon-possessed daimyo of 4 castles, before taking on the source of the evil in the 5th. It’s also hard as hell and I can’t get past the second castle. ^^; For some unknown reason, it was never released on the NES.

Yume Koujou Doki Doki Panic — This game is most remembered for forming the basis of what we got in the US as Super Mario Bros. 2. The original version of the game does have some differences aside from graphics. First, rather than switching characters on the fly between stages, each character has their own progress. You must beat the game completely with each character to truly finish it. Also, there is no running with the B button, making some shortcuts inaccessible to some characters.


March 28, 2009

Since I finished up Gundam Wing, I figured I would take on the only 90’s mecha show more divisive among anime fans: Evangelion. I had only watched this one time, back when I first bought the DVDs. I thought it was OK, but did not get what the big deal was about. So, how does many years more experience with anime adjust my opinion?

When this show is just being a good old fashioned robo romp, it’s pretty good at it. The first half of the show contains some pretty cool sequences. Of course, things start with Unit 01 going berserk on the 3rd angel, which is great. I also like Unit 02 jumping ship to ship, the one where Asuka blocks the acid from that spider angel so Shinji and Rei could get down to the rifles and kill it, and the synchronized attack is pretty funny (and, I believe a reference to Double Rider Kick!). That’s all good stuff. Even the antics of the characters in their off time were amusing, with cocktease Asuka messing with Shinji and the perpetually drunk Misato.

Some aspects of the production are great. Sadamoto Yoshiyuki’s character designs are very nice, and I continued to like his work on the first .hack saga. The theme song is infamously catchy, and still sung wherever otaku sing karaoke. The voice cast is also superb, with the likes of Kotono Mitsuishi (Sailor Moon), Ogata Megumi (Sailor Uranus), Koyasu Takehito (Zechs Merquise) and Hayashibara Megumi (Ranma, Faye Valentine). I also noticed this recently: Kaworu was voiced by Ishida Akira who also played Gaara (Naruto), Athrun (Gundam Seed), and Fish Eye, the flamboyantly gay member of Sailormoon SuperS’s Amazon Trio o_O

Production, however, is where the show also falls apart. Gainax was famously short on cash when this show was made, and it is apparent. I have never seen so many cheap shortcuts taken in animation from a big name studio. Pan shots out the ass. The most notable one is probably the famous bathroom scene. Suzuhara and Aida have a whole conversation while the camera does nothing but pan over a static background of urinals. And that must be one humongous fuckin bathroom too to have that many in a row.

Eventually, we pass the critical point, episode 16. This is the first episode where the series just regresses into jibberish. Between the lack of money and Anno’s steadily declining mental state, the show just goes nuts here. It loses most of its narrative structure as they desperately attempt to introduce and wrap up critical plot threads, sometimes in the span of one episode. The animation also drops off even more, as even pans apparently become too expensive and they start using just static shots. Isn’t the point of animation that it moves? Big example of this is the shot of Eva Unit 01 clutching Kaworu in its fist. I swear, you would think your DVD player locked up. It just drags on frozen on this one frame with some music playing.

Of course, it all ends with the final two episodes, comprised of little more than stock footage, still shots, and… like… scribbles. It explains nothing about the plot at all. Instead, we get to psychoanalyze everyone in turn. That’s all well and good, but I’d rather it be done within a narrative since that’s what I tuned in for. Without external knowledge of what the Human Instrumentality Project was, these episodes are impossible to understand. And, frankly, that’s bullshit.

Eva had some great ideas, and some good foundations. However, in the end, the production was a disaster and they failed to deliver on it. Regardless of what the reasons were, regardless of what Anno was trying to say, the bottom line is they fucked up and the second half of the show is a complete mess. It may have been trying to communicate grandiose ideas, and be rich in symbolism, but they failed to hold it all together into a cohesive narrative. I can sit here and spew philosophy at you for 10 hours, but it doesn’t make me a great film maker.

Now, I should point out, even though I have some knowledge of what happens, I had not seen End of Eva when I wrote this, but I wanted to get my thoughts down on the TV series before I did. The TV series should be able to stand on its own, since that’s how it was originally developed. Unfortunately, it really can’t. Now, here are my brief thoughts on End of Eva which were written later:

The Rebirth part starts off pretty well. Stuff is happening, it’s very exciting. I thought I might have finally understood why people are so captivated by this show, even to this day. Then, I got to End and it basically reverted to the same BS as the TV series. “Let’s do nothing but show weird images and spew our half baked philosphy”. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. The only difference is that this time the weird imagery had a budget. I hate pretentious stuff like this. This is what happens when a creator buys into his own hype. It’s the same reason I hate the Matrix.

Look. Everybody. All you content creators out there. You can’t just put a stream of consciousness in front of people and call it art. Your job is to communicate. If you can’t distill that thought down into something that can be communicated and understood, you fail. You fail as an artist. The mere fact that people still, over a decade later, have to sit around and argue what this series means indicates it failed to communicate its message. Being obscure doesn’t make it brilliant.

Now, when are people going to stop asking me about this show the minute they find out I watch anime? Can I be done now?

Gundam Wing

March 26, 2009

Since it’s happened to come up several times lately in conversation in my life, I decided to rewatch Gundam Wing again. I haven’t watched it through in years. Probably not since I started heavily getting into the other Gundams. It’s in vogue now to bag on Wing, but how does it really hold up once you’ve seen the Gundam saga in its entirety?

Short answer: Not great, but it’s not the worst

Let’s start with what I do like about the show. First is the animation. It was very high quality for 1995. Lots of detail, very smooth. They made heavy use of the backlit effect, even when it was a trivial thing. Like, a small corner of a display screen in a cockpit would by in a shot, and they would go through the trouble of backlighting it. That is some dedication. The opening sequences are also really slick. What’s up with the “Rhythm Emotion” OP though? It was only in the last 10 episodes, and it was like… not quite finished until the last few. At first several of the gorgeous shots of the Gundams were replaced with lower quality or stock animation.

The music is also pretty good. Two Mix, of course is awesome. “Just Communication”, “Rhythm Emotion”, “White Reflection”, all good stuff. The BGM is also very memorable. I like “The Wings of a Boy Who Killed Adolescence”, “When the Dragon Swims, Everything Ends” and “The Curtain of the Next Chapter Rises Now”. Emo names not withstanding. I never really got into the character songs for this show though. They kinda… suck.

Now, onto what’s not so good. Characters. The G-Boys are about as deep as puddles. The only ones with personalities are Duo, Quatre and Zechs. Quatre’s personality is simply “annoying” (though he was kinda fun when he was batshit crazy), and Zechs’ was ripped off of Char. So, that leaves Duo who, while likable, still has nearly zero actual development. Then there’s… ugh… Relena Plotdevice… er… Darlian… er… Peacecraft… Obnoxiousbitch… whatever. I can’t say much that hasn’t already been said. I’ll just put it this way: I spent 49 episodes hoping the rhino would just sit on her. It never delivered. Fuck you, rhino. Fuck you.

It was only the secondary characters who were really interesting and/or likable. Lady Une, Noin, Dorothy (who would be hot if not for those two badgers on her face). Howard is awesome. We should all be that cool when we’re old to rock shades and a Hawaiian shirt. Even some of the secondary cast falls flat, though. Like, what were they trying to do with Treize? Are we supposed to love him? Hate him? I have no fucking idea. Neither do the other characters. Wu Fei kills him, then cries about it, then in EW he’s like “Treize is still alive, I need to rekill him or something”. I’m with you, Wu Fei. I don’t know what’s going on either.

Speaking of confused, how about the plot. Man, stuff just makes no sense. Even the very premise of the show has issues. If OZ a) Has been sitting on the Tallgeese all this time and b) knows what Gundanium is, then why can’t they make Gundams? What is so different about them? Then there’s the nonsensical decisions the characters make. Here’s a brilliant tactical maneuver. You need to get your asses into space to fight OZ. The only guy whose Gundam can actually operate in space dumps it in the goddamn ocean instead of taking it along. Why? Because if the G-Boys posed a threat in space, the whole next story arc can’t happen. Bullshit. That also brings me to my number one annoyance with Wing: not enough Gundams. The entire middle third of the show has almost no Gundams. Wing and Heavyarms are ditched on Earth, Sandrock is blown up, and Deathscythe and Shenlong are being rebuilt. So, we get little bits of Mercurius and Vayeate, Zechs doing a bit with the Tallgeese… it’s all just frustrating. I’m not tuning in for the deep, intricate character development obviously. I want to see some goddamn Gundams!

Speaking of forcing the plot, that’s Relena’s entire job. Every time the writers didn’t know how to move forward, they just pull out Relena to create the proper motivation. Relena Plotdevice. And as a coup de gras, what the holy hell happens to Zechs at the end? From like nowhere, he decides Earth = evil, peace = for sissies, let’s blow shit up. This was obviously a take on Char becoming the antagonist in CCA, but with Char it made sense. Char was moving forward the agenda of everyone moving to space that he was always a follower of. Zechs just randomly decides to kill everyone on Earth. Then goes back on it because… Heero cut Epyon’s arm off? Huh? I have no clue.

Endless Waltz has most of the same issues as the TV series. Makes no sense. Plot is forced. Not enough Gundams. The Gundams don’t even show up until the third episode. It’s not called “Mobile Suit Leo”, it’s “Gundam”. Where are the god damn Gundams?!. And here again, a character does something completely nonsensical just to make the plot work. What was Wu Fei’s problem? If he hadn’t been acting like a d-bag, they could have stopped the whole thing before it started. Argh.

EW doesn’t even do much to explain anything. Yeah, we know a little bit more of the background, but still not enough. Who trained Trowa? For that matter, how did Duo learn to pilot a Gundam? Was he the original pilot, or did he just steal it like Trowa did? Doesn’t Wu Fei’s fiance bear more than a passing mention? What’s the deal with the Gundam engineers? I know there’s a lot of extra material like manga that explains this stuff, but that’s bullshit. I shouldn’t need to read extra manga just to understand the backstory of the main characters. The main characters. It’s not like this stuff is getting into Noin’s past or something. The original Gundam has a lot of supplemental material that expands on its setting, but you don’t need it just to understand the show.

So, in the end, do I hate it? Well, it is entertaining, I can give it that much. In the overall spectrum of Gundam shows, I’d say ZZ is worst, followed by Seed Destiny, then maybe Wing. 0083 and V are down there around Wing too, but Wing is definitely better than ZZ and Seed Destiny. I guess I have it to thank for getting me into Gundam in the first place, but now I have much better ways to get my Gundam fix.