The Saga of Tanya the Evil

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What it’s about: A sociopathic Japanese HR executive is murdered by one of the people he callously fired. He is reborn as a girl in an alternate version of 20th Century Europe in which magic is used in concert with machines to fight wars. Memories of her past life intact, she channels her innate aggressiveness into distinguishing herself as an effective commander on the field.

Notes:

  • This is one example of an anime series that somehow works despite its odd, extremely circuitous premise, which essentially is just exposition to give us the story hook – that of having the protagonist be a cute but evil girl that somehow commands a squad of airborne death angels. Japanese anime/manga has a tendency to force-fit the cute girl that subverts expectations trope into all its intellectual properties, and this is just another manifestation of that tendency.
  • But putting aside all that, and the strange meta-plot involving Tanya’s face-off with Being X, the God that puts her in this predicament to begin with, Tanya is actually a very competently told story of an alternate World War I in which the Germanic Empire utilises superior military strategy and tactics to crush its neighbors and emerge victorious.
  • The worldbuilding, while simple in its analogousness to the European theater in WWI, is deep and effective in setting the stage for a conflict between factions that have both the benefit of mechanisation on the ground and magic aerial support in the air. The series is the brainchild of someone who clearly is a military buff and knows their basic history, drawing on famous battles of the past to fashion scenarios and stratagems that have the air of verisimilitude to them.
  • Anime theatrics and grandiloquence, while present, is kept to a tolerable level, and it is quite refreshing to see the series eschew the usual pandering audience exposition so endemic in anime, instead having their characters explain things to each other as if not actually trying to accommodate the attention spans of an invisible, layman audience. Tanya herself is a refreshing main character, ruthlessly practical to a fault and not at all constrained by the bounds of morality, an extremely lawful neutral-to-evil executor of the military will, but with a very human desire to just survive, and a competent commander to her men.
  • The series balances on the fine line when it comes to the question of where its sympathies lie. Tanya fights for an Empire that is clearly a stand-in for the Germans in WWI, and the series portrays them as ravenous imperialists operating under an absolute monarchy. The characters never question the rightness of Imperial supremacy and don’t blink an eye at the horrors of mechanised, total warfare – yet the characters come to realise that the Empire has bitten off more than it can chew – it can conquer, but it has no resources or gumption to govern a populace seething in resentment.
  • While I don’t think the series celebrates imperialism, it does put us in the odd headspace of rooting for those that serve the country at the whims of its political masters, who are imperialists through and through. But that’s just realistic of them to do so, given the social climate of the time, and really the only character who I feel deserves some moral reprobation of supporting imperialism (apart from the politicos themselves) is Tanya, whose memories of her past life give her a historical perspective and appreciation of the effects of imperialism that she nevertheless casts aside to serve.
  • There are some who criticise this anime for being sympathetic to fascism and Nazism, just because it tells the story from the side of the Germans. I don’t think that’s at all true – this is a stand in for the Kaiser’s, not Hitler’s Germany, and people who think otherwise need a crash course in the difference between the two. In World War I, no one really had the moral high ground.

Verdict: A surprisingly effective alt-history of World War I that is not overly saddled by its borderline ridiculous premise.

I give this: 4 out of 5 Elinium Orbs

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Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters

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What it’s about: Thousands of years after Godzilla forces humans off the planet to a desperate, wandering existence in space, humanity finally returns to a vastly altered Earth in a last-ditch effort to kill the monster and retake the Earth.

Notes:

  • This is a bombastic, frenetic, exposition-laced film that dispenses with subtlety and nuance to tell a no-holds-barred, adrenaline-pumped tale of humanity fighting Godzilla and its minions amidst an alien landscape.
  • Seriously, in a bid to just accelerate to the action, the film just pays lip service to a score of anime tropes and space opera plot contrivances in a flurry of development for its own sake. The angry young protagonist bent on revenge, his relationship with his budding and competent female companion, the humanoid alien allies that are pretty much elves and dwarves in space armor, the “return-to-earth plot device” that sparks the whole thing. It assumes an audience familiar with these tropes, and therefore speeds past all the setup as if to say, “ah, you already know all this”, and descends into the action.
  • But to its credit, the action sequences, of the puny human military forces facing off against the enormous bulk of Godzilla, are worth the watch. The CGI animation is fluid and the choreography is gripping. I was literally gripping the edge of my seat. The desperate circumstances of humanity lent the action true existential tension.
  • The production values, on the other hand, falter when it comes to art direction. The aliens, as I have said, are just differently-skinned humans and pretty much elf and dwarf analogues. The characters are all alike and at times indistinguishable, and the vehicles and military hardware have a sort of homogeneity to them, as if the textures were all just recycled. Also, there isn’t much in the way of verisimilitude when it comes to human computer interactions. Characters manipulate holographic displays to impressive precision with only a wave of their hands. The plot and premise comprise hand-wavium and technobabble.
  • The film does not end on an optimistic note, which is sad, but I suppose opens up the movie for its inevitable sequel hook – complete with an interesting post-credits scene that hints that humanity may not be as decimated as was previously imagined. But we’ll have to wait for that second movie.
  • Ultimately, it reminds me a little bit of Attack on Titan – a story of the last vestiges of humanity dying in droves to take down giants far larger and stronger than them, except that in Godzilla, the exposition is even thinner on the ground and the characters even less fully formed, which is saying something.

Verdict: Bombastic and shallow but nonetheless an exciting, tense watch that is best appreciated as a operatic tale of humanity’s relentless, desperate battle with forces of nature that threaten to overwhelm it – the bread and butter of any Godzilla movie worth its salt.

I give this film: 3 out of 5 EMP drills

Archer (Season #3)

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Archer’s Season 3 continues the cavalcade of Archer-style secret agent hijinks, meshed with getting-tiresome jokes about the characters that feels like it could get old real fast, but somehow, still stays faintly amusing.

It remains perhaps the sterling (ha – see what I did there) example of how to air racist, sexist and country-stereotype jokes without coming across as meaning them. Just make the purveyors of the jokes awful people and watch the audience laugh at the audacity of the joke rather than the joke itself.

It helps that the two most put-together characters in the show are a black woman and a gay former pastor, which means they’re the butt of many imprecations hurled at them by the ever-vulgar Archer, but they rise above it all as long-suffering straight men to the excesses around them.

There are some faint attempts at cross-episode continuity, character development and actual sincerity – I really thought the Katya thing could have gone somewhere after she was resurrected – but actually, these are mostly just extended setups for Archer to reach a high of decency before crashing back down into the cesspit of his own pathologically childish narcissism.

The last episode is a case in point – while escaping a space station on a spaceship, Archer swallows his pride and backs away from a mecha showdown with the evil cyborg antagonist Barry in a rare act of circumspection, but then, as the episode ends, he just has to mess up his good karma by seizing the joystick from Cyril just as they’re about to land their spaceship back on Earth, causing a crash. A good moment frittered away for a cheap laugh, and symptomatic of the general trend that keeps Archer from rising beyond mere comedic accessory to a series worth watching in its own right.

I give this show: 3 out of 5 full body latex suits

Runaway

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Runaway is a short story collection by Nobel Prizewinner Alice Munro. As short stories go, they are impeccably crafted narrative nodules, written in limpid but evocative prose. In terms of content, however, Munro’s overarching theme is always about the lives women lead, particular a certain kind of woman of near-contemporary Canada who doesn’t quite sit right within the social, gendered or economic strictures that society places around her.

Many of these stories are about their relationship with men – their husbands, fathers, male relatives, mysterious strangers with whom they have an odd connection. I think her stories would by and large fail such measures of female agency in storytelling like the Bechdel Test. Sometimes, a man is the solution to their troubles – in one story, Passion, a woman escapes a joyless relationship by allowing herself to go under the power of a passionate stranger. In another, Tricks, another woman lives her whole life as a spinster because of what amounted to a case of mistaken identity, in an almost Shakespearean comi-tragedy of errors.

In most of these stories, therefore, the women protagonists are striving to obtain their own agency and meaning, but somehow the confines of the story almost always depends on a male presence as a sort of narrative fixture or lubricant. The women cannot gain their absolution but through the necessary presence of a man to which she is, to some degree, under the power of. Munro, I suppose, is therefore not really to be described as feminist but rather a writer of fully-imagined, rich stories about women and their emotional relationships with the men in their lives.

There are a couple of stories that buck the trend. Silence touches upon another aspect of the female experience – mother-daughter relations, and how sometimes, keeping one’s distance is a necessary act of love. But that story is a kind of a coda to a three-parter about the presumptive mother’s life and her decision to marry and live with a rugged fisherman in the wilds, in her own pursuit of romantic apotheosis.

Then there is Trespasses, about a child’s strange relationship with a woman who seems to have a strange obsession with her, beyond the usual social confines of the doting aunt role.

But these are just two, in a medley of several. Runaway is, therefore, compulsively readable, rich in allusion and wry with irony, but ultimately, a little one-note in its range of thematic interests.

I give this: 4 out of 5 green dresses

BoJack Horseman (Season #2)

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In its second season, Bojack Horseman seems to have started to really perfect its formula of combining animal pun jokes and existential despair into one hilarious and sobering package.

Bojack is by far the most dysfunctional character on the show, but it seems that dysfunction has a kindred spirit in Diane, too. Both have made it in Hollywoo – Bojack is making a comeback in the new Secretariat film, while Diane is a successful – if eternally dissatisfied – writer with a big chip on her shoulder (and big character incompatibilities with her husband, the chippy and simple Mr Peanutbutter).

They’re both massively screwed-up people who express it in different ways – Bojack by being an unrelenting asshole to everyone around him, and Diane through withdrawal and shutting people out of her life to an almost pathological extent.

Bojack is capable of such awfulness, yet we keep coming back to him, like all his hangers-on and friends do, because he is far too complex and self-aware a character to be put into a box and sent off into social oblivion. He is the endlessly intriguing specimen of psychological dysfunction that we can’t tear our eyes from, and because the nature of his dysfunction is so well-interrogated in the show, we also empathise with why he is the way he is, even as we despair over the ways he rips his life apart when it so often tries to do better for him – Wanda, his career resurgence, his big house on the hill.

He even buys (and lives in) a boat (albeit without premeditation) in a not-too-subtle lampshade of the fact that he is probably suffering from the world’s biggest mid-life crisis, and acting out on it in the worst possible ways.

Bojack is about despairing over what you can’t ever have while ignoring or casting away the things that you do have around you. What striver for things beyond their current lot cannot relate?

On the flip-side, there are the awesomely surreal and hilarious B-plots that mostly involve Todd getting involved in some bizarre misadventure. After his turn as a hapless target for Bojack’s manipulative selfishness in the first season, he becomes the show’s most cheerful character. For an unemployed and same-clothes-wearing layabout, he sure knows how to keep himself happy.

I give this season: 4.5/5 boats

The Post

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Steven Spielberg is a filmmaker whose prolific oeuvre spans a multitude of genres, tones and styles, but whose films, in the eyes of the public, fall into a spectrum with tentpole summer blockbuster at one extreme and American-as-apple-pie melodrama on the other. In the middle are the films that may be his best – serious-minded dramas that meld political or social themes with Spielberg’s signature eye for dramatic tension.

The Post is just about right in the middle – a fantastic blend of the classic Spielbergian moral clarity with gripping-the-edge-of-your seat thrill, lent contemporary relevance by the subject matters’ eerie similarity to the current circus show of the Trump administration.

A densely-plotted historical drama swimming in the thick ashen cigarette fumes of the seventies, The Post tells the surprisingly harrowing story of how a team of newspaper editors and reporters from The Washington Post find and publish the contents of a classified government report – the Pentagon Papers – detailing the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson regimes’ systematic disavowal of the brutal realities of the Vietnam War. The effort is led by the brash editor of the newspaper, Ben Bradlee (a portly and cigarette-chomping Tom Hanks), and his team of hard-nosed reporters; his determination to run the story at all costs at first creates friction with the paper’s owner, newspaper heiress and socialite Katherine Graham (played with layered magnificence by Meryl Streep). While Ben at first pursues the story as an opportunity to make a splash in the newspaper scene, his ambitions subtly transmute into a desire to put out the truth to the American people about the unwinnability of the war; a desire that starts to incur possible recrimination and reprisal from the thuggish Nixon administration.

The film’s core ethos is about the need for a free press as a check on the excesses of government, a higher duty that surpasses the bounds even of friendship and self-interest. The story is interspersed with Graham’s own character journey from put-upon figurehead, endlessly patronised by her board members due to her gender, into someone who grows into her position by making and standing by her executive decisions, even at great personal risk. Streep’s nuanced portrayal captures the querulousness of her character contrasted against her shrewdly feminine social wiles, and her slow discovery of a fount of moral strength that enables her to establish her newfound authority over her company, and earn the admiring looks of countless women as she descends the steps of the Supreme Court, a female Jesus atop her very own Sea of Galilee. The film is equally about sticking it up to the Man as it is about standing up as a Woman.

Hank’s Bradlee doesn’t quite go through a similar transmutation – his doggish determination isn’t as replete with a clean moral arc – because, as his wife points out, he doesn’t quite have the skin in the game that Graham does – but at the end of the film he does learn a shade of compassion and regard for those put at risk by his free-press crusade.

But the film’s intellectual and emotional resonance is also in part extrinsic. It is made in quick response and in silent condemnation to a parallel set of circumstances that threaten to undermine First Amendment rights in America. The Post draws obvious parallels to the Trump administrations’ assault on free speech – but rather than via judicial injunctions, via a barrage of inflammatory tweets, a media infrastructure utterly captured by corporate and political interests, and an army of alt-right shitposters spreading their flames of ignorance and hatred on the digital plain. The ominous shots in The Post of a Nixon gesticulating while on the phone with his pet thugs are the analog facsimile of a redolent Trump thumbing out tweets from atop his gold-plated toilet – frantically trying to undermine the press, sow discord, and distract from the depredations of his kakistocratic administration.

The straits look even more dire now, as they must have in pre-Watergate times, amidst an unending foreign war, civil unrest, and the existential tensions of Cold War. But films such as these are surely what must be one of the higher aspirations of art – an indictment of dark times, and a lighthouse to point us to better shores.

I give this film: 4.5 boxes full of Pentagon Papers

The Stone Sky (Broken Earth #3)

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What it’s about: Essun and Nassun meet, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

Notes:

  • The Stone Sky is the concluding novel of the Broken Earth trilogy of geo-punk fantasy novels by NK Jemisin. As such things go, while I thought it was serviceable in closing off the trilogy conclusively, I did think that the way in which it unpacked the grand mysteries of the series fell a bit flat.
  • The third book basically attributes the Fifth Seasons to the arrogance and exploitativeness of an advanced civilisation, that harnessed the energies of a latent Earth to bring about a post-scarcity economy. In doing so, it relied on the exploitation of an entire subjugated race of people, who are turned into living but comatose conduits to channel the magical energies of the Earth. Recognising this injustice, a bunch of artificial humans decides to end it all, but inadvertently awakens an angry, insane evil Earth-consciousness, which throws everything out of whack and creates the conditions that led to the new, broken world.
  • The way that world was portrayed didn’t quite sit right with me – it was written with a simplicity that just didn’t cohere with the moral complexity of the rest of the series: a civilisation so outright callous that it sees nothing wrong with what it does, a convenient strawman villain to motivate the plot, and also a way for the author to shoehorn in more thematic expostulations about the evils of unchecked extractionism.
  • Then there’s also the magic system, which kind of breaks one of my personal rules of fantasy – if a magic system becomes too complex but doesn’t quite rely on intuitively understandable and coherent precepts, it should probably be dialed down a little for lucidity. The way magic and orogeny interlap in the series just gets more and more bloated each book, and sometimes, plot developments are driven by leaps of logic arising from the magic system that are hard to follow, and give the whole thing an air of contrivance – much akin to Trekkian technobabble.
  • Also, Nassun’s Olympic feats of magic mastery are a little bit too conveniently-done to place her in a position where mother and daughter can grapple with each other over the fate of the world. Nassun’s unique brand of nihilistic altruism (“let’s blow up the planet/turn everybody to stone so no one has to suffer ever again!”) is oh-so anime.

Verdict: Not as groundbreaking as the first in the series and weighed down by the building expectations of its denouement nature, The Stone Sky nevertheless does end the trilogy in a way that is broadly in line with the series’ overarching scope and scale.

I give this: 3.5 out of 5 core transports